Why does Abram have sex with someone other than Sarai his wife? Why do they have a slave in the first place? And why does Sarai blame God for her childlessness?
What are we to make of a passage like this?
Genesis 16:1–3 (NIV)
1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 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. 3 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.
A huge chasm separates their worldview from ours. The cultural divide is always there, but we become aware of it in a passage like this.
When someone has an affair, it’s a gross violation of trust, a betrayal of the promises to be true to your chosen partner for life. But that’s not what’s happening here. The issue in this passage is not promiscuity: it’s polygamy. Abram is not having sex with someone other than his wife: he’s taking a second(ary) wife—“to be his wife” (16:3).
The creator’s intention for marriage was one man and one woman for life (2:24). Polygamy was a result of human rebellion against the sovereign, grasping all they could get (4:19). By the time of Abram and Sarai, polygamy was widespread. Hagar was not his only concubine (25:6).
In fact, a wife who could not give her husband a child was expected to find a surrogate mother. In some of the surrounding nations, this could be mandated by law. In her culture, Sarai was morally obligated to do what she did. The remarkable thing is that they waited ten years before turning to surrogacy (16:3).
Jacob (their grandson) had two wives. When Leah temporarily stopped bearing children, she asked her slave Zilpah to bear children for her. When Rachel couldn’t have children, she expected her slave Bilhah to give her children (Genesis 30). That’s how there came to be twelve tribes of Israel: with two wives and two secondary wives, Jacob had a dozen sons (and probably a similar number of daughters).
The same applies to slavery. While we find it repugnant, every wealthy person in their world had slaves. Abram and Sarai had a number of slaves (12:16). Some translations substitute the word “servant” to avoid offending our sensitivities, but the Hebrew word šip̄·ḥāh indicates a slave-girl.
In a different time and culture, and with further Scriptural revelation, we look back with horror at their polygamous relationships and use of slaves. We wonder how they could be so blind. Both these issues cause them grief as we read further. But before we throw stones, should we examine ourselves for cultural blindness?
Like them, we absorb the attitudes and worldview of our society, and we don’t even know we’re missing what God wants. Visiting other places with different values can help us see our cultural blindness. A good book can transport you to a different time and a different place. Entering the Bible’s ancient world and seeing through middle-eastern eyes helps us break out of our cultural mould.
For example, our culture is hyper-individualistic. From childhood, I’m told that I can be whatever I want to be, so my goal in life is to realize my potential, to be the best me I can be. You probably read that sentence without blinking an eye, but go back and count the number of first-person singular pronouns—I, me, my. Did you find all seven? My culture tells me that life is all about me. Then we wonder why we live in relational poverty!
We even run the danger of treating God as some kind of personal accessory to help me get through my life. The point of this blog is to reframe us so we see God as the sovereign over everything. Our cultural blindness robs us of the Bible’s central story—the story of his kingship, and our role as his kingdom. You find your life when you give it to that goal.
Despite their cultural blindness, Abram and Sarai have given their lives for the good news—God restoring his reign.
What others are saying
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 7:
It was a serious matter for a man to be childless in the ancient world, for it left him without an heir. But it was even more calamitous for a woman: to have a great brood of children was the mark of success as a wife; to have none was ignominious failure. So throughout the ancient East polygamy was resorted to as a means of obviating childlessness. …
This practice of surrogate motherhood is attested throughout the ancient Orient from the third to the first millennium B.C., from Babylon to Egypt.
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 445–446:
In the context of the ancient world, this was not only appropriate but at times contractually dictated. Marriage contracts from the town of Nuzi in the middle of the second millennium B.C. stipulate that if the wife turns out to be barren, she should provide the husband with a surrogate child-bearer. The pertinent section reads:
If Gilimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife. But if Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lullu country (a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring. [Harvard Semitic Studies 5:67]
David A. Zimmerman, Deliver Us from Me-Ville (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008), Chapter 1 (electronic edition):
A side effect of the self-esteem movement has been this type of pandemic of self-importance—a general state of superbia [i.e. self-absorption].
Jesus, Mark 8:35:
Whoever wants to save their life will lost it, but whoever loses their life for me—for the good news—will save it.
Read Genesis 16.