Although the context of this chapter seems archaic, it provides so many lessons for us today!
First, we see how tempting it is to try to orchestrate what only God can accomplish. Our human pride strives to be in control and chafes at the notion that God is ultimately sovereign. In Abram and Sarai’s case, they believed they could “help” God provide their family, by using Sarai’s maidservant as a surrogate. The rest of the story, of course, is the strife and hardship their efforts to “help” cost.
Another lesson is found in the dynamics between Sarai and Hagar. The bitterness and abuse that occurs when we force our will on someone else always comes back to harm us as well. It’s easy to read this and make one of two errors:
The first error is to assume that the Bible is endorsing slavery. Nothing in this passage, or any other in the Bible, endorses or supports slavery regardless of how it may be twisted. It does, however, acknowledge the existence of slavery in our fallen world and demand humane treatment and provision for those under such authority.
The second error is to assume that such conditions were limited to ancient history, to Rome, or to the early American experience. Over 40 million men, women, and especially children are held as slaves today around the world. Over 60,000 are held in the United States, excluding those who are incarcerated in for-profit prisons. Although Mauritania, the last country to officially outlaw slavery, did so in 2007, it fails to enforce this law and as much as 20% of its population is enslaved.
Another key lesson from this chapter comes from Hagar’s experience with God. This exchange illustrates God’s love and compassion for all of His people, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. He is, indeed, the “God who sees me.”
Finally, God’s blessing on Ishmael illustrates His power to turn the messes we make into something good. Romans 8:28 tells us that “He works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, that we might be conformed to the image of His Son.” That doesn’t mean everything that happens is good, or everything we do is within His will, but it does mean no matter how badly we mess things up, He is able to still create good from our mess.