Genesis 16: Through the Whole Bible
Genesis 16 (Link) is one of the darker portions of the narrative. Part of working Through the Whole Bible, though, requires looking at all of it. It speaks of the tragic abuse of power and control by people who ought to have known better. How we deal with this is a significant reflection on ourselves and how we implement the ethics based on Scripture.
Coming to the text, we find Abram and Sarai waiting on the promise of God to be fulfilled. As they wait, they make a decision. That decision is one that the culture around them, by the available data, was fully approving of: Sarai hands her servant Hagar over to Abram to use her womb. That is what's happening here.
This violates several things that are right: the sanctity of humanity for starters. Hagar, whatever employment she may have, is a human being. The fundamental right of a human being to not be used as a breed animal is ignored here. Likewise, the right to self-determination is violated. it is one thing to have to work employment that is unpleasant or even demeaning, but no one should be forced to surrender their bodies to another.
The second thing lost is the sanctity of marriage. Whether or not your marriage is functioning on all cylinders is irrelevant to the decision to add another individual into the mix. Whatever needs you may have, there are certain needs that belong only between a man and woman in marriage. Those are either met in marriage or their lack is survived through the power of God.
What do we do with this ourselves?
#1. The obvious parts should be, well, obvious. We do not own slaves. We do not treat people as slaves. We honor our marriage vows.
#2. The first extension on principle is this: we do not attempt to assist the execution of the plan of God by violating what is right and wrong. This includes whether or not we think it's necessary or whether our assistance runs alongside of the prevailing morality of the day. It does not matter if an earthly entity gives permission: right is right. Wrong remains wrong.
#3. The second, longer question is this one: What do we do with Abram?
Really. He's the father of the faith. Christianity depends upon him as one of our earthly pillars. We look to him as an example and an inspiration.
Yet he does this. He violates a great deal of what we know to be right and true.
We have, then, some options about how to react. We can defend Abram vigorously and deny that he did anything wrong. That's often our response when our heroes are threatened. Duck and cover.
We have a tendency to do that. Sometimes it's by digging in deep to defend a great hero of our viewpoints. We quickly overlook the faults of Spurgeon or Augustine or Graham because of our immense respect for them without acknowledging that they have been wrong before.
We do this, also, with whole movements. It's very easy to try and pass off the faults and failings of prior years of the Christian faith. It was this group, not our group, or that group, but it wasn't us.
Or we could acknowledge, instead, that the truth of God is greater than any human example of those who tried to follow it. That Jesus Himself is the only one to have done so perfectly and properly, and that no man, nor assembled group of people, has ever lived up to Him.
Our history is a checkered one: the faith has left us George Mueller's care for orphans and a line of theologians that excused slavery. We have those who stood for truth and freedom that then did not hold to those principles in later years: a young Luther who breaks the tyranny of one religion lapses into an old Luther that spouts anti-Semitism and dislikes Baptist. Calvin reaches out to the King of France to defend the Protestants but then seeks state enforcement of religious matters in Switzerland.
Farther back, we see the shift from the persecuted minority to the state-centered religion of the next few centuries. Not everything that was done was right, though it was often done in the name of the faith.
So what do we do now? We have to know and strive to live the truth. That Abram failed is just further evidence of our need for grace. Evidence that even the great ones need the power of God to obey and the love of God to forgive.
Denying that only feeds the critics of our faith. Seeking perfect heroes only weakens the struggling: if there have been perfect examples, then how much worse is that others struggle?
Abram in Genesis 16 is not an example of who we ought to be. He's an example of who we are. Weak and frail but not abandoned by God.
Let's remember that.