Genesis 16 came up at Morning Prayer today. It is the famous story of Sarai and Abram (before the name change) trying to take things into their own hands. God's promise in Genesis 12 (I will make of you a great nation) has been under constant assault in the narrative. Abram and Sarai go to Egypt where the 75 year and his wife (she was ten years younger) encounter Pharaoh whose 'desire' for the beautiful Sarai leads him to ask Abram for her. Abram is afraid so he tells Pharaoh "yes" saying Sarai is his sister (technically she is a close relative and the term 'sister' was applied to woman relatives; also in ancient Hurrian culture a wife could be "adopted" as a sister and raised to the higher status of the level of sister. [this would be one of those historical CONTEXT things that we would never know without commentaries] When Paraoh takes her as a wife all manner of good things happen to Abram but sever plagues strike Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh summons Abram and asks, "How could you have done this to me?" He sends the enriched Abram on his way.
God continues to promise Abram progeny. The birth of Ishmael appears to be the means. Sarai says to Abram that God has kept her barren, so she offers her slave girl (Hagar from Egypt). Abram does what his wife asks and impregnates the young woman. The result is the slave views the wife "lightly" (heavy and light are related to respect. The glory of God is a heaviness--it is substantial) and Sarai turns on Abram and blames him. The humanity of the text provides a poignant reminder that people ask for something then get mad when they get it. It happens all the time, and sometimes the more energetically we ask the more wretched we feel when we get it. Abram turns the slave girl over to his wife, who maltreats the girl. Interestingly, the term used is the same term used to describe Pharaoh abusing the Israelites in Egypt. Like Hagar, Israel flees, and like Hagar, they flee into the wilderness. There can be little doubt that the stories of Abraham are echoing (typologically) the Exodus story. Perhaps one is to see a causal relationship?
Hagar appears to be headed home to Egypt when the Lord's angel visits her and asks her where she is gong. He promises her descendents will be too many to count and that she should return to endure her mistress' mistreatment. In our age, where we pride ourselves on not putting up with abuse, it is hard to reckon how this makes sense. And in our age where children are considered a burden and large families are frowned upon the promise of a multitude of descendents may be unappealing. To me it is interesting theologically because we have an Egyptian woman receiving a promise with features in common with Abraham. I am no universalist, but I do think the Bible frequently leaves hints that God is at work, and He is at work far more broadly then some of us are inclined to think.
It is good to remember that what we want is not always what we want (like Sarai)
It is good to remember that when we do what people ask us to do it may make them mad (like Abraham)
It is good to remember that God has a plan and sometimes it requires that we suffer (like Hagar)
It is good to remember that the stories of God are interwoven and connected and we need to open our eyes to see His hand at work in the myriad subtle ways He works among us.