James Gray - Concise Bible Commentary
Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.Genesis 16:1-16
THE TOKEN OF THE COVENANT
Our lessons are grouping themselves around the great facts of Scripture as we proceed, and while we are omitting nothing essential, emphasis is laid on the strategic points. In this lesson the point is the token of the covenant God made with Abram, but there are other thoughts leading up to and giving occasion for it.
SARAI AND HAGAR (Genesis 16:1-6)
The incident we now approach is not creditable to Abram or his wife, but there is an explanation of it. At least ten years had elapsed since God promised a seed to Abram (compare Genesis 12:12 with Genesis 16:16), and yet the promise had not been realized. Abram had been a monogamist until now, but concubinage was the custom, and the idea impressed Sarai that the delay in the promise might mean a fulfillment of it in another way. Might it be that they should help God to fulfill it? A wise teacher has said that human expediency to give effect to divine promises continues still one of the most dangerous reefs on which the lives of God’s people are wrecked. The result might have been foreseen so far as Hagar’s treatment of Sarai is concerned (Genesis 16:4), but the latter’s unfairness towards her husband does nothing to redeem her previous improper conduct. Abram’s action (Genesis 16:6) will be differently judged by different people, but seems consistent with the original purpose to accept of Hagar not as on equality of wifehood with Sarai, or even as his concubine, but as a supplementary concubine of his wife.
THE ANGEL OF THE LORD (Genesis 16:7-14)
It is not an angel of the Lord here brought before us, but The Angel, an expression always referring to the second Person of the Trinity. He assumes the divine prerogative at (Genesis 16:10, and is identified as God at (Genesis 16:13. It is no objection to say that it is only Hagar who thus identifies Him, not only because she must have had evidence of His identity, but because the inspired record in no way contradicts her. While the Angel is Jehovah, it is remarkable that in the name Angel, which means “messenger” or “one sent,” there is implied a distinction in the Godhead. There must be one who sends if there is one sent, and since the Father is never sent but always sends, the conclusion is that “The Angel of the LORD” must be God the Son.
Identify on the map “the way to Shur” (Genesis 16:7) and observe that Hagar was departing in the direction of her own land. Ishmael means “God heareth.” Why was he to be thus called (Genesis 16:11)? What character and experience are prophesied of him (see RV)? Where was he to dwell? “In the presence of his brethren” seems to mean “over against” or “to the east of” his brethren.
THE COVENANT RENEWED (Genesis 17:1-8)
Abram’s disobedience or unbelief as illustrated in the matter of Hagar kept him out of fellowship with God for fourteen years or more. (Compare the first verse of this chapter with the last of the preceding one.) What takes place after so long a time? With what new name does God choose to introduce Himself?
The Hebrew here is El Shaddai. El means might or power, and Shaddai means a shedder forth of bounty. The name depicts God as the all-bountiful One and comes as His revelation of Himself to Abram just when the latter needed to learn that the strength of God is made perfect in human weakness. Abram sought to obtain by his own energy what God only could give him, and having learned his lesson and being ready to give himself to God, God is ready to give Himself to Abram and make him fruitful. He puts something into Abram which at once changes him from Abram to Abraham something of His own nature.
But what is required of Abram, however, before this (Genesis 17:1)? He must be perfect, not in the sense of sinlessness, impossible to mortal, but in that of doing the whole will of God as it is known to him. And on that condition what promise is renewed (Genesis 17:2)? It is not as though the covenant of chapter 15 had been abrogated, for “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29), but that now the first step is to be taken in its fulfillment. What new attitude, physically considered, is now assumed by Abram in his intercourse with God (Genesis 17:3)? What new name is given him, and its meaning (Genesis 17:5)? How does the promise of Genesis 17:5 read in the Revised Version?
Compare the promise as more fully outlined in Genesis 17:6-8 for features additional to those previously revealed. What does God say He will make of him? And what shall come out of him? Have either of these things been said before? What did God say He would establish, and with whom, and for how long? What is new here? A father of many nations indeed has God made Abraham, if we consider his offspring not only in the line of Isaac, but of Ishmael, to say nothing of the children born to him by Keturah, subsequently to come before us.
These nations include the Jews, Arabians, Turks, Egyptians, Afghans, Moroccans, Algerians, and we know not how may more. But we are not to understand the covenant as established with all of these but only with the Jews of Israel, as descendants of Isaac. Isaac is the seed of Abraham in mind here, and of course his antitype, Jesus Christ, is the seed ultimately in mind. Keeping this latter point in view, therefore, the seed includes more than Israel after the flesh, since it takes in all who believe on Jesus Christ, whether Jews or Gentiles (Galatians 3:29). Peculiar privileges belong to each, but their origin is the same.
THE COVENANT TOKEN (Genesis 17:9-14)
It is in dispute whether circumcision was original with Abraham and his descendants, or had been a custom in other nations, though of course for other reasons in their case. Nevertheless, the rainbow was chosen to be the sign of the covenant with Noah though it may have existed before, so the prior existence of circumcision does not render it less fit to be the sign of the covenant with Abraham, or less significant. It was the fit symbol of that removal of the old man and that renewal of nature which qualified Abraham to be the parent of the holy seed. To what extent was it to be carried out among the males? What was the penalty for its omission (Genesis 17:14)? This cutting off of the people from the covenant did not mean physical death, but exclusion from all their blessings and salvation, an even more serious judgment, since in the end it denoted the endless destruction and total ruin of the man who despised God’s covenant. To despise or reject the sign was to despise and reject the covenant itself (see Genesis 17:5, last clause). A serious thought for the professing Christian who neglects to observe both parts of the obligation in Romans 10:9-10.
THE PROMISE CONCERNING SARAH (Genesis 17:15-27)
How is the name of Sarai changed at this point (Genesis 17:15)? God had never promised she should be a mother, and Ishmael, now thirteen years old, had doubtless been recognized through the whole encampment as his father’s heir. But now what distinct promise does God give concerning her (Genesis 17:16)? How is it received by Abraham (Genesis 17:17)? This laughter of Abraham was the exultation of joy and not the smile of unbelief. In this connection note that Isaac means “laughter,” and also that it is with him, and not Ishmael, that the covenant is to be established everlastingly.
Are you not pleased that Abraham should have thought of Ishmael as he did (Genesis 17:18)? Ishmael as an Arab of the desert, with his descendants, does not make much of a future among the nations of the earth until we consider him as the ancestor of Mohammed. It is estimated the he holds one hundred and fifty million of the inhabitants of the world subject to his spiritual sway, which indicates that Ishmael still lifts his head aloft among the great founders of empires, and in the moral sphere greater than them all.
1. How do God’s people sometimes wreck their lives, as illustrated in this lesson?
2. How does this lesson afford another foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity?
3. Give the meaning of the name Almighty God.
4. Name some of the nations proceeding from Abraham.
5. Who does “the seed” of Abraham include?
6. How does this lesson impress us with the importance of confessing Christ?
7. Where in this lesson have we a kind of parallel to Luke 24:41?
8. What distinguished descendant of Ishmael can you name?