It’s been a decade, but Abram and Sarai still have no child. In their culture, this was a source of great shame: without an heir, their name would die out. They had no future, so God must have been displeased with them. That’s how they (and others in their time) interpreted their childlessness. When someone had a child, God had given them a child; when someone could not have a child, God had thwarted them. Either way, it was understood as an act of God. That’s how Sarai described her situation: “YHWH has kept me from having children” (16:2).
What are we to make of Sarai’s statement?
Is the Bible telling us that everything that happens—good and bad—is all caused by YHWH? Is it saying that nothing happens unless YHWH does it? Or is it telling us that this is how Sarai (like others of her time) understood the world? In other words, is the Bible presenting Sarai’s belief normative for us? The way you answer that question significantly impacts how you interpret Scripture.
Think carefully! The Bible does contain statements that are wrong. Twice in the Psalms you find the statement, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1; 53: 1). Both times, the words come from the heart of the fool. In other words, we’re expected to understand that the statement is wrong. In the same way, many statements in the Book of Job are wrong. Job’s friends make assertions about his situation, and much of what they say is wrong. That’s the point the Book of Job is making.
We face the same problem in interpreting narrative passages. Sometimes it’s easy to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. When Elijah stands up to King Ahab in 1 Kings 18, we all understand that Elijah’s statements are right and Ahab’s are wrong. Other times, it’s less obvious. There may be some indirect clues in the structure of the narrative or in the way the story is told. Sometimes we have to wait until later in the story before the narrator gives further hints. For example, the actions of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 36 are open to question, but we don’t get Jacob’s evaluation of them until Genesis 49:5-7.
If we ask the question, “Why does the narrator tell us about Sarai’s belief in Genesis 16:2?” the answer is that Sarai offered her slave girl to be a surrogate mother because she believed YHWH had prevented her having a child. The narrator doesn’t overtly say that this was the wrong thing to do, but it’s a fair conclusion to draw. YHWH has promised Abram and Sarai a child, but Sarai believes YHWH is instead blocking them from having a child. Sarai’s belief (or at least the action she takes as a result of her belief) is what causes the problem.
On this basis, I suggest that Sarai’s belief is not presented as something we should believe. Although Sarai believed that YHWH controlled every detail of their lives, the Bible is not presenting her belief as normative for us.
Our beliefs are always tainted by our culture, our worldview, our perception of reality. As God deals with people in Scripture, they (like us) have beliefs that are distorted by their culture, their worldview, their perception of reality. Frequently in the OT, we see the Hebrew belief (like Sarai’s) that whatever happened was an act of God. It’s a mindset that Jesus faced and at times pushed back against. They thought that suffering was an act of God, i.e. they must have been worse than others and suffering God’s displeasure. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus used three current events to explain that this was the wrong way to understand how God exercises his kingship over the world (Luke 13:1-5).
As we read the Old Testament, we regularly find people expressing the same Hebrew mindset as Sarai—that every detail of life is an act of God. That does not mean that God is endorsing their cultural beliefs.
Just as importantly, the way we understand Scripture in our time is dramatically affected by the beliefs of our own time and culture that shape the way we think. If we need to recognize and evaluate the cultural beliefs that Abram and Sarai and the Jewish people brought to the message God spoke, we must also recognize and evaluate our own assumptions.
If we don’t do that, we will have little understanding of the thing that Jesus thought was central to the whole story—kingdom of God.
What others are saying
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 1–2:
In narrative it is often unclear whether the writer is making an ethical comment at all: he may be describing an action because it happened, or because it was a link in a chain of events, which led to something significant. Furthermore, in those cases where narratives appear more than descriptive and seem to be offering ethical advice, it is often very difficult to be sure where the writer and his ‘implied reader’ stand ethically. We have difficulty determining their moral standpoint, so we often cannot be sure whether deeds recounted are meant to serve as examples to imitate or mistakes to avoid.
Sheridan Voysey, Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013) Chapter 1 (electronic edition):
I pull out my journal and write:
God, this is cruel—leaving us in this wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years—tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land, and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering it. …
Anyway, what kind of God keeps us chasing him for ten years—doing special diets and fostering courses, waiting on adoption lists and suffering multiple IVF rounds, doing everything we can to honor you through it all, even limiting our options to protect life, praying daily and waiting patiently for you to grant us what so many receive easily—only to disqualify us from the prize at the end because we’re too weak to “believe” for it?
Is that the kind of God you are?
Read Genesis 16.