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Last held on the 17th of November 2002 at Hattem

Are we taking children, or receiving them? Young couples sometimes say it without any hesitation: we will wait a few more years with children. We now both earn well in full-time jobs, and it would be a pity if that were no longer possible. First, the mortgage on the house must be less heavy. We should possess luxury household appliances. First, we'll take this, and that, and then we'll take a baby. It betrays a materialistic attitude to life. It ignores the fact that it's still the Lord who as Creator gives fertility and new life. Just ask the couples, who unwillingly remained childless. How heavily does it hurt them when others talk about expanding the family as if it were the same as buying new furniture. They realize in the deepest of their sorrowful soul that you cannot take children yourself, but they are a blessing from the Lord. Of course, human responsibility also increased with medical skills. A child has never fallen from heaven bypassing his father and mother, but not at all these days. In a today's marriage, we cannot pretend that we're still living in the time of Abraham and Sarah. Children should be wanted and not be a matter of bad luck or a monthly lottery ticket. But that human responsibility does not detract from the work of God. We still don't take children, but we receive them. Children are still an inheritance, a gift from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a gracious reward, says psalm 127. It's still the Lord who opens or closes the womb, to put it in words from the Bible.

So Sarah is right in saying, "See now, the Lord has not allowed me to give birth." As Abraham also rightly spoke to God in the previous chapter: Behold, you have not given me any offspring.

It's a question for all of us, but especially for newlyweds: do we also know that we're dependent on the Lord in the matter of the procreation of children? Do we realize that we're dealing with sacred things, with the greatest secrets and treasures of life? Are we talking about these things together, but also in prayer with God? Do we want to act in these matters in a responsible and Christian way? Are we preparing for parenthood with faith?

And one more question: do we deal with childless couples with wisdom and love? How often are they hurt with tactless comments: "Can't you take over that board job from me? You don't have any ties at home."

And so Abraham and Sarah have the sorrow that no children are coming. That’s even worse for them because childlessness was a shame in the Eastern world of that time and people looked down on childless persons with disdain.

But regarding Abraham and Sarah, there’s something else that makes it more difficult. The Lord had promised them a child, even promised, that their offspring would one day be as numerous as the stars in the sky. How is that possible now? Their faith is challenged. Especially their tenacity in the trust, their patience. How long they’ve been waiting in vain? They've been in the promised land of Canaan for ten years now, but God will not give the promised child. It’s so lifelike. We can sense those two very well. Especially when we also wait so long in vain for help or deliverance from the Lord. You’ve been ill for years. You still hope for healing. But there’s no improvement. Your child has not come home for years after an argument. You hope for the miracle of reconciliation, but it’s taking so long. You’ve been hoping to meet the right partner for so long, with whom you dare to live life, but until now you’ve been disappointed, even cheated. You’re always waiting in vain. You would lose faith. Maybe you too are waiting for something that you would experience as a real gift from God. The fulfilment of that would be a reason to doubt never more God’s existence and love, but it’s not happening. Let it be our comfort that Abraham, the faithful’s father, and his wife also went through such a faith test. Nothing strange happens to us. It belongs apparently to the brokenness of this sinful, earthly life. And it’s the way how the Lord deals with us, especially with his children. It can be God’s means of keeping us close to Him, depending on Him, longing for Him, crying out to Him: How long, Lord? Would we be so busy with the Lord if we had nothing more to wish? It can also be God’s means to show that it’s only His miracle, to glorify and worship Him when He helps ultimately. And that it’s not our achievement that seduces us to to be proud and to think we can live without the Lord.

Yet this waiting also has dangers. Not only are we in danger of losing our faith in God’s promises. In the previous chapter we read, that Abraham began to doubt and the Lord had to confirm His promises with signs. But we also are tempted to lend the Lord a little a hand. We read it in this chapter. Sarah gives her slave-girl Hagar to Abraham. We think it’s strange and sinful because we only know the monogamous marriage, that of one man with one woman, and we’ve abolished slavery. But given the customs of that time, it was not so strange and blameworthy. Every well-to-do man had slave-girls, of whom he had full disposal, but he had to stay away from the slave who had brought his wife into the marriage. She remained the full possession of the woman alone. However, when Sarah makes her house slave Abraham available, she gives something of herself, in a way. That’s why the child that may be born is also hers. It was a more common way of adoption at that time. It then was called that the slave gave birth upon her mistress’s knees.

But what normal use is, even use by law, does not have to be good in the eyes of the Lord. For in the meantime, Abraham and Sarah are manipulating the institution of the marriage and the family, as can be found in the biblical creation stories. They stretch it in the direction they want. And it's also happening at this time. There's enough in our society that's now considered almost normal but is still wrong. It's not according to the creation rules. People live together, have a lat relationship or a homosexual relationship. It even must be called a marriage according to current Dutch law. Two women in a homosexual relationship have a child, conceived with an unknown or known man's seed. Two men in such a relationship have a child of a surrogate mother. It must mean a family. Strange marriages and families stretched toward the vision of modern society.

And Abraham and Sarah are not only going to mess with God's institutions, but also with his promises. In the first place, they bring down those great promises, they settle for a little less, and reasoning can go a long way. The child has been promised to Abraham, but not yet clear to Sara. Why can't another be the mother? And according to adoption law, it will belong to Sarah even if a slave is the natural mother. And secondly, they turn God's deeds into human work. They try to make it happen themselves.

How blind they are. They think they're doing it right, but they're messing it up. They think they're giving the Lord a helping hand, but they're sabotaging Him. They think they can solve a problem, but the problems are only getting worse. With all their human activities, well-intentioned and accompanied by an admirable subtlety and self-sacrifice, they still get deeper into the doldrums. Because their faith has disappeared. Of course, we must not wait passive and idle for God's redemption, his peace, his freedom. Of course, we must use the human path, but the path He has shown us in His commandments, and not beside. Nor is it intended to degrade and impoverish God's rich promises to what's humanly feasible, by realizing them ourselves as humans.

For example, this is possible through the politicization of the gospel. The church sometimes is inclined to it. God's salvation then becomes a political goal, which we try to achieve by political means. One can impoverish God's unique peace into a world without war, which one tries to accomplish with an ideological policy of pacifism. One can impoverish God's liberation into the working class's liberation from the capitalist bosses, which one tries to achieve with a communist revolution. One can limit God's righteousness to human rights. Or one can limit the Kingdom of Heaven to an earthly kingdom of prosperity and well-being that one tries to achieve with all kinds of means.

They're still quite beautiful ideals. And people often sacrifice themselves for it in an admirable way. And yet they are on the wrong track. Just as Abraham and Sarah were also on the wrong track. Just as the Lord Jesus understood that He would be on the wrong track, if He were going to establish an earthly kingdom of peace and for that purpose had Himself proclaimed king by the masses, who only came after Him because of the loaves (John 6:26).

But let's not forget to look at ourselves. Are we not easily satisfied with what is achievable on this earth? If you earn well, are healthy, have a nice family, what more could you want? And don't we try to achieve that with our own performance? How difficult it is, yes, impossible for us to believe in God. To believe in nothing less than what the Lord has promised in miracles of eternal salvation. And to believe that He will do it. And not us. Because human work always gets stuck. As beautiful as our actions may seem, our sinners' ugly nature will sooner or later surface again.

Hagar sacrifices herself by carrying a child for her mistress and then surrendering it to her. But she turns out to be only human. She proudly rises above her mistress, despises her, no longer knows her place as a slave, because she's fertile. And Sara denies herself by giving Hagar as the second wife to Abraham so that his love is no longer fully focused on her alone. She proposes this adoption plan herself. But yet she turns out to be only human. Because when happens what she intended, she becomes jealous and cannot bear Hagar's teasing. Self-denial and generosity are wonderful things, but usually don't last long. They soon give way to pride and jealousy. We cannot walk on top of our toes so long morally and spiritually. With the whole feet on the ground, we quickly turn out to be ordinary and childish sinners who make each other's lives miserable. We can deny ourselves for a while, but sooner or later we forget it, in pride about what we have and someone else misses, in jealousy about what we miss and someone else has. When we look at Hagar, what about our pride, smugness, boasting about whatever we ended up receiving? For everything is a gift, including our capacities and what we've achieved with it. All is in vain if the Lord does not bless it. The danger is so great that we don't use God's blessings for his honour and the good of the neighbour, but for our own honour and power and to keep our neighbour below us. When we look at Sara, what about our jealousy? Can we tolerate it when someone else surpasses us? When, for instance, he is healthier than we are? When he is richer and climbs higher up the social ladder than I do? Or does the little devil of envy wake up in us? Pent-up jealousy has often led to the dumbest and most heinous acts. Cain is an example of this.

And all of this takes place in the family of Abraham. In the family we interact daily, live close to each other. That's why the family is primarily the testing station of human relationships. Outside of it, we can pretend to be different from what we are, but not inside. Sometimes you are amazed at the differences. A father, who is friendly and accommodating towards his colleagues, turns out to be a gruff grumbler at home. A boy who seems to behave so neatly is a harassing crosspatch at home. How do we treat each other as husband and wife, parents and children, children among each other? Yes also as brother and sister? Do we often argue because we're afraid of lacking much, of being disadvantaged? Can we share something or not? It's bad when similar mismatches grow as those between Hagar and Sarah, a messed-up atmosphere with humiliations, teasing, tricks, jealousy and hatred. Families have completely broken down. For the good family life, we all, young and old, need to be converted. The Lord Jesus must give us a new heart, full of love. Do we ask Him for it, individually and with each other?

That's how things get wrong in Abraham's family, and we have the feeling that he himself is also to blame for it. By playing a weak role and not using his authority as a family head. For it's Sarah who complains to him and demands that Abraham do justice in this situation. She hereby calls upon the name of God as supreme Judge. There's a book in the Netherlands entitled: The Fathers Are No More. We live in a fatherless culture, according to the writer. The fathers' authority as heads of a household has been eroded. And the writer lists the consequences. Not all equally good. Invoking the Bible, husbands and fathers are not allowed to play the boss and persist in their own way, which unfortunately happens. But neither should they forsake their God-given duties as heads of the family. They have to ensure the right relationships in their families and not until it's already too late. We get the feeling that Abraham is too late and too weak in his measures. How do we function as husbands and fathers in our families? Or do we hardly function with the excuse that we already have enough worries on our minds in our work?

Abraham breaks off the relationship with Hagar. He returns her to Sarah. The relationships become the same as before: behold, your maid is in your power. Do with her what's right in your eyes. But Abraham must do justice not only to Sara but also to Hagar. He particularly is responsible for her now that she's expecting a child from him. But we don't notice that. He returns her completely under Sara's power as if nothing had happened and hands her over to Sarah's arbitrariness. And she gives her jealousy and hurt pride all the space by putting Hagar down hard, giving her the humblest slave jobs and punishing her if anything is wrong. Hagar cannot bear that. She also has her pride. She had enjoyed her honourable position as the second wife, and now she's more humiliated than before.

She flees. She's probably trying to return to her country of origin, Egypt. For the angel of the Lord found her at a water source in the desert, on the road to Shur. And Shur was situated on the border between Israel and Egypt. In our minds, we see her sitting there. She's tired of the trip. Sad about everything that has passed. Troubled by the tensions. Without company. Without protection. No bright condition. Especially not if you carry a child in your lap. That gives you extra care and vulnerability. Yet she has not been left to her fate because the angel of the Lord finds her.

That's how it can happen to us too. Suddenly, outside your fault or because of your fault, the old familiar life is behind you. Suddenly you've needs and worries, fear and sadness. Suddenly you seem lonely and lost. It's as if you've lost all ground under your feet. Suddenly the past has been cut off, and you see no future. You experience a low point in your life, as Hagar at the well in the desert. But it's precisely in such circumstances the Lord knows where to find us, like the angel of the Lord found Hagar. It's precisely at such moments that the Lord arranges His encounters with lost people. He comes saving near to them. Won't we forget that? And the angel of the Lord found her. And then we may safely think of Him who par excellence is the angel, the messenger of the Lord: Jesus Christ. Wonderful to be found on the run. By Him. Fleeing from people. From stuck situations. From humiliations and miseries. Not knowing that you're perhaps fleeing to even more miseries. And then you're stopped and addressed by the God of love and faithfulness in Jesus Christ, who never loses you out of sight. He calls you by name and turns out to know you through and through, even though He insistently asks about your past and future plans. Like He did to Hagar.

'Hagar, Sarah's maid, from where do you come and where are you going?' These are the most important questions in our life, especially when the Lord God asks them: from where? Where to? Where do you come from, and to where is the journey? What's your past, and what future do you think you have ahead of you? They're embarrassing and exploratory questions. For it's a past fraught with sin and guilt, from which we may flee, but which will haunt us forever if we don't come to terms with it through forgiveness. And it's a dark, hopeless future, going to death and eternal loss if the Lord Jesus does not save us. But fortunately, we can find forgiveness and salvation with Him who asks these questions. He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to graciously blot out the past, to throw our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), and to give us a hopeful future beyond the dark wall of death.

Thus Hagar is found by the angel of the Lord. And she honestly confesses: I am on the run from my mistress Sara. After all, we can nothing hide from the Lord. We only can confess everything honestly and from the depths of our soul. And she doesn't even dare to express her plans for the future.

Hagar en de engel
Hagar and the Angel
Carel Fabritius (Middenbeemster 1622 – 1654 Delft)
date: ca. 1645
medium: oil on canvas

The angel sends her back to her God-given place. Fleeing from it proudly and rebelliously is not the right way, although the cross that one carries is heavy. We cannot and should not escape every cross in life. It may be God's destiny for us to bear it, and He will help us do that and not deny us His blessings.

Hagar also receives comforting promises. She will have a son. Ishmael. This name means: the Lord hears. For the Lord has heard her affliction. Her progeny will be numerous. It will be a people, as proud and untameable as the wild ass, a people of wayward Arab Bedouins. They'll have the other nations against them, especially the brother nation Israel. It would go too far to elaborate on this prophecy of the angel. But it's a prophecy that is still in the process of fulfilling in the Middle East today. For us, it's mainly about the name that she gives to the Lord: 'God who sees' and about the name of the well, where that meeting takes place: Lachai Roï: 'source of the Living who sees me'. For, she said, have I here also looked at Him who looks at me? She herself sees nothing and nobody around her. She thinks she's completely lonely. Her sorrow only makes her think of herself. She does not look after the God of Abraham and Sarah, whom she got to know, but He does look at her. It makes her feel ashamed and happy.

We too have a living God who sees, a God who looks to us, even when we don't look to Him, when we have lost sight of Him, through sorrow and setbacks, perhaps even self-pity. We have a God who looks upon us with tender, compassionate eyes, with eyes of mercy and love. A God who looks at us fugitive and hunted sinners with the eyes of Jesus Christ. Isn't that great? Ishmael - the Lord hears. Lachaï Roï - the Lord sees. The Lord hears and sees us too. Really. Amen.

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