Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. (Genesis 16:1-4 NIV)
The Bible is a God-inspired collection of writings produced by a series of human authors over a long period. These authors were a product of a culture that is, in many ways, foreign to us today. And in few places is that cultural difference more evident than in this passage?
God had called Abraham to leave his home and family and travel to a foreign land. And God promised him that he would have descendants beyond count. But by this time, it had been ten years since he had entered Canaan. And still no children. And they were getting old.
So Sarah proposed a solution. She gave her handmaid to Abraham as a concubine with the hope that she could have children that Sarah could claim as her own. So Abraham slept with Hagar, and the result was Ishmael and a long-lasting family conflict.
Recognize the Cultural Context
It is easy to look at this account today and condemn what Abraham and Sarah did. But what Sarah did is exactly what Rachel and then Leah did when they gave their handmaids to Jacob to produce children for them. And it was a common practice in the culture in which they lived.
While we are tempted to pass judgment on what they did, it is important to note that the Scripture does not. Nor is there any indication in the Scripture that they violated any command God had given them. They were simply a product of their culture, looking for a way to see God’s promise to them come true.
Rather than being a lesson in morality and failure, this account provides some background into the conflict that would develop between many who claim descent from Abraham, even to this day.
And it serves as an example of the danger of applying our cultural standards to the historical accounts in the Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. If we really want to understand what the Scripture is saying to us, we need to be able to pull the content of its message out of the cultural context it is wrapped in. That takes more time and effort. But it is worth it.