Sarai and Hagar's Conflict / Abram and Circumcision

This lesson looks at the very source of the Jewish/Arab conflict as well as the distinguishing mark given to Abraham and all his male descendants... circumcision.
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We spoke of Abram as the great "type" for the Christian. After his victory over the northern kings and meeting with Melchizedek, Abram asks God for a son and a sign of His promises, something he had not done before.

The Bible says that God reiterates the promise of a son and future generations as well as a specific description of the land promise. In a key passage we are told that Abram believed these promises and because he believed God, God gave or imputed to Abram a moral righteousness.

I made some important points about how fundamental this passage is for us as Christians:

  1. It teaches us that the reason we are saved is because we are right with God and holy.
  2. It teaches us that the reason we are right with God and holy is because we believe that He will give this to us through faith in Jesus Christ because we cannot accomplish it through perfectionism.
  3. It teaches us that this faith is a lifelong relationship.
    Some things can be expressed in a verse "Thou shall not steal". Others require a longer time to demonstrate. The idea that salvation is based on faith can be said in one verse. The explanation that faith is not just intellectual assent but a lifelong relationship takes a little longer to explain.
    The story of Abram takes another eight chapters to tell and most of it explains this lifelong relationship of faith that Abram had with God. There were highs and lows, sinfulness and great acts of courage but through it all Abram never stopped believing that God would ultimately give him what He promised. That is what saving faith is like.

Now we see Abram and Sarai live out that faith relationship with God and how it transformed them into godly people.

Sarai's Solution

1Now Sarai, Abram's wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. 2So Sarai said to Abram, "Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3After Abram hadlived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram's wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. 4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight.
- Genesis 16:1-4

Sarai's faith now begins to weaken and seeing that the future is supposed to hold a great number of generations from her, she begins to see her own barrenness as a shame and burden.

She decides to take action. Originally, to solve a problem, Abram was willing to share his wife with another man. Now it is Sarai's turn, in order to solve this problem she was willing to share her husband with another woman.

Hagar was a slave, probably taken when they lived in Egypt. According to the custom of the time, she was the property of Sarai and any children she had, with anyone, belonged to Sarai. It was also part of the customs of the time to reproduce children, as many as possible, through this type of action so they did not see this as adultery.

In doing this, however, they fell short of God's will in two ways:

First, even though it was custom and they felt no guilt about doing this, they were violating God's basic command that in marriage the partners were to be "one flesh" only. There was no deceit or seduction here, there was no prior lust as is characteristic in adulterous situations but they nevertheless violated the principle that in marriage the two become one and they are not to add any other.

I believe this is the principle that is violated today when people mix the sperm or eggs of people other than their marriage partners in order to produce children for couples who otherwise cannot naturally conceive. There is no lust, no deception, not even any intercourse, but by taking the egg or sperm of someone outside the marriage we violate the "one flesh" principle of the Bible. This is what Abram and Sarai did, and they lived to regret it because the following verses show the natural human tendencies that follow when we violate God's basic guidelines for marriage and family.

The second way she violated God's will was in taking charge of fulfilling God's promise. She saw no natural way for the promise to be fulfilled and so she devised a scheme to accomplish God's purpose. It was "the ends justify the means" type of thinking. However, the unrighteousness of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. When God makes a promise He has both natural and supernatural ways of fulfilling it and Sarai did not understand this – but she would in time.

For example, God promises to provide for our needs and He does this through natural means. He promises to resurrect our bodies, this He does through supernatural means.

Sarai demonstrated that our short term solutions do not always take into consideration God's power or God's plan for the long term.

Hagar's Promise

5And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me." 6But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight." So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

The situation becomes intolerable because of the change in Hagar (she carries the master's child) and Sarai's loss of face (her barrenness is made more evident, more shameful). Abram washes his hands of the matter since it was not his idea in the first place. He should not have gone along with it but it was at Sarai's insistence. The girl is badly treated and runs away, probably trying to return to her home in Egypt.

7Now the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8He said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, where have you come from and where are you going?" And she said, "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai." 9Then the angel of the Lord said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority."

She is found not too far away in the desert (too long a trip for a girl alone and pregnant). The angel tells her to return to her mistress and change her attitude (not to be proud but to submit to her).

10Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, "I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count." 11The angel of the Lord said to her further,
"Behold, you are with child,
And you will bear a son;
And you shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
12"He will be a wild donkey of a man,
His hand will be against everyone,
And everyone's hand will be against him;
And he will live to the east of all his brothers."

The angel tells her who and what will become of the child she is carrying.

ISHMAEL means "God hears" suggesting that she was praying to God for help, that in her time with Abram she learned of and believed in the true God.

She is told that her son will be a "wild ass of a man" one who would be in perpetual conflict with others. The long history of Arab peoples who are the descendants of Ishmael testifies to this fact that they have been in conflict with each other and the Jews from then until now and beyond.

She is also promised that her son and descendants would be many great nations.

13Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, "You are a God who sees"; for she said, "Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?" 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

She called God "EL ROI" the God who sees as a tribute to her faith. She called the well "the well of the Living One who sees."

15So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

There is no mention of her return, only that she bears a son and that Abram names him Ishmael which demonstrates that Abram and Sarai believed her account of her meeting with the angel and accepted her back into their home.

The Covenant Renewed – 17:1-8

Thirteen years pass by in silence and then when Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him once again and renews His covenant. This time there are a few changes:

  • He calls Himself El Shaddai which means Almighty God suggesting that after a long period of silence God is ready to put into force His promises.
  • He admonishes Abram to be careful to walk in fellowship with Him (not to fall into disbelief and disobedience).
  • He changes his name to Abraham (meaning Father of a multitude).
  • He also extends all of the former promises to Abram's descendants. The protection, land, nation, etc. will be not only for Abram but for all the people who will come from him after.

The Covenant Confirmed – vs. 9-14

9God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. 13A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."

In these verses God gives circumcision (to cut around) as a sign that would identify those who were included in the covenant with him. We know that circumcision has certain health benefits but this was only a minor consideration in the giving of this practice as a way of showing that a person was in the covenant relationship with God. Circumcision represented many things:

  1. The promises of God were made to the "seed" of Abram and so the physical organ that carried that seed from generation to generation would be permanently marked as a reminder of this.
  2. The cutting around (what the word circumcision means and what it is, the cutting around of the foreskin on the penis) represented a complete enclosure of God's will.
  3. It was a sign of faith:
    • Faith on the part of the mother and father who would have it done to their male children in obedience to God.
    • Faith on the part of the wife who could joyfully submit and enter a partnership with a man who was part of the covenant with God. In marriage, she would be witness of the covenant.
    • Faith on the part of the man who would continually be reminded by his own body that he belonged to God and he was not to use his body for sinful pleasure.
  4. Circumcision was a sign of sanctification

The cutting away of the flesh represented the separation of that person from the sinful, fleshly world and entry into a particular – separate and sanctified group.

To refuse circumcision for oneself or one's family was to refuse all of these things and literally be cut off from the promises of God.

Name Change – vs. 15-27

In the last section of this chapter three significant things occur:

  1. Name change – Sarai becomes Sarah which means princess.
  2. God promises Abraham that Sarah herself will bear a son (this is the first mention) and that he shall be called Isaac (laughter) because that is what Abraham did from joy when he was told. Since she will be the mother of many nations her name is changed to "princess".
  3. Abraham circumcises himself, his son and all his household. He even prays for Ishmael, since another takes his place, that God not forget him and God promises to make a great nation from him.

Now God is poised to fulfill one of His promises made to Abraham, his own child with Sarah.


1. God's way is always the right way

It is tempting to change or eliminate God's Word in various areas in order to accommodate new trends or pressures, but doing it God's way is always the right way.
It may not be measured as successful or relevant by this world's standard but God's purpose and methods are judged only by God, not by man.

2. Circumcision is a "type" for baptism

Circumcision served to prepare us for the role of baptism in our lives:

  • It was a response of faith to God.
  • It served as a sign to identify believers.
  • It was necessary to be part of the promise.
…and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;
- Colossians 2:11

What Abraham did to his household with his hands, Christ does to us in the waters of baptism.

  • He removes the flesh of our sins.
  • He brings us into the promises.
  • He gives us the Holy Spirit as the inward seal, represented by baptism as the outward seal of our salvation.

3. Wait for God

It took years between the promise and the completion but Abraham waited for God and continued to believe. You know he waited because he was happy to see Him and ready to obey when He finally came. Do not count the minutes or the days, count on the sureness of His promises and the time will not matter.

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss what was evidently missing from Sarai's solution to God's delay in providing an heir to Abraham and how this relates to our life.
  2. How did Sarai's actions fall short of God's will? How does this relate to us?
  3. Describe Hagar's faith as compared to Sarai's. What can we learn from this?
  4. What was at the core of God giving Abram a new name?
  5. What is represented by requiring Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised?
  6. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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