Confidence After We Fail
Don’t take matters into your own hands. (16:1–5)
This is “strike two” for Abram and Sarai as they again try to fulfill God’s promise of an heir. The first attempt was with the servant Eliezer (15:2). Now they try another common cultural process for selecting an heir — using a slave (Gen. 30).
The passage stands as a reminder of how flawed people are, even those through whom God chose to bless the world. Scholars debate why Abram and Sarai chose this solution: Did they lack faith in God to fulfill His promise? Did they underestimate God’s unlimited power? Did Sarai fear that Abram might divorce her as allowed by the customs of the time?
Whatever the reason, they did not trust God to carry out His plans without their help.
This imperfect human solution led to pride in the lives of both Hagar and Sarai, leading to broken relationships between Abram, Sarai and Hagar. Imperfect solutions lead to imperfect results.
The Lord intervenes to spare Hagar and her unborn son, but the damage caused by taking God’s plans into their own hands is done.
Do what God expects of you. (17:1–3)
The story jumps ahead 13 years without any account of what must have been a tense and chaotic household with the presence of Hagar and Ishmael. Abram has lived in Canaan for 23 years and is now 99. One can only guess what he thinks of God’s promise, especially if this is God’s first update in the intervening years.
God renews the covenant with Abram that He first presented 24 years ago in Haran (12:1–3). Then, God asked Abram to leave his home and extended family. Now, God calls Abram to live a life of obedience and holiness before Him. The word translated “blameless” is closer to “perfect,” but not perfect in the sense of God’s perfection. God calls Abram to be “whole” or all God has called him to be.
Unlike previous attempts to fulfill God’s promise himself, Abraham responds appropriately, bowing facedown in submission to God’s request. There is no need to supply any further description of Abraham’s obedience.
God seeks a covenant relationship with us. (4–9)
Changing Abram’s name to Abraham foreshadows God fulfilling His promise, but must have been problematic at the time. His new name means “father of many nations.” Imagine Abraham, the father of only one child who is not even his heir, introducing himself as the father of many. Yet, in complete trust in God’s promise, Abram directed his household to use the new name.
One of the issues of biblical interpretation is determining whether a promise applies to all believers, to all of God’s people at the time or to one individual or group. At first, it may seem clear that God’s covenant is exclusive to Abram. The Christian Standard Bible interprets vv. 4–6 with God addressing Abram directly, either by name or a personal pronoun, nine times.
While God’s covenant is always personal, without a doubt the covenant with Abraham falls into the category of a promise to all believers. God calls this a permanent covenant that applies to Abraham’s “future offspring throughout all generations,” mentioning them four times.
The Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:21–31 demonstrates how God’s promise to be a personal, covenantal God applies to followers of Jesus.
By Daryl Watts
Watts is a church consultant in Fresno, California.