Genesis 15-17: Promises, promises

Welcome back to Genesis! This will be part five of the Genesis series, for the first four, click here. This post will cover the events in chapters fifteen thru seventeen.

A summary: Abram has a vision where he discusses the viability of God’s earlier promise to make his descendants as numerous as sand since he and his wife are very old and have no children. God assures him that it will happen and foretells a bit of what’s to come. Then Sarai worries that maybe she just isn’t the mother of this progeny and gives him her handmaiden to have children with. The handmaiden becomes pregnant and starts getting a bit uppity and then Abram gives Sarai permission to put her back in her place, causing the woman to flee. Then an angel makes promises to the pregnant handmaiden and tells her to go back, which she does. Thirteen years go by and God returns to remind Abram that he was promised an heir and this time specifies that it will be by Sarai. He also changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah so that their names reflect their futures. He insists all the men get circumcised.

Chapters fifteen and sixteen

When looking at it now, it’s easy to say that Sarai had no faith in God’s promises and that she was a terrible person for being so mean to poor little Hagar the handmaiden. I’ve heard her painted as a bit of a bad guy, which I find grossly unfair. Let us take a minute to remember that Abram himself had doubts about his ability to produce progeny from the grave if he was killed for his wife back in Egypt. This doubt might have been a bit contageous. Also, the promises were made to Abram, not Sarai. I love my husband, and if God was making him promises that were scientifically impossible for me to keep, I might wonder if I’m supposed to be a part of them too. God doesn’t tell Abram that Sarai is going to be the mother of his line until after the Hagar incident, so what is she supposed to think? Was she supposed to keep him from fulfilling his destiny just because her body wouldn’t cooperate? Furthermore, it can be difficult to empathize with the mindset of a barren woman in that time, but it shouldn’t be too hard. This is something our bodies are just supposed to know how to do, right? It’s easy to make that assumption when sitting in biology class, but ask a woman how she feels about not being pregnant yet when she’s been off the pill on purpose for only three months and you might see some crazy leak out. If it’s been a year, the chances are better. Sarai has been barren all her life, and we’ll see later that she’s well over what is now recognized as the menopausal age.

So she insists that Abram take her handmaiden “as a wife.” “As” is a much more loaded word than people give it credit for being. This could be a literal second wife, or similar to a wife. While she could simply be an additional wife, than why wouldn’t her status have been elevated to match Sarai’s? Okay, maybe not match since Sarai came first. How about elevating her status above a servant? That she isn’t an actual wife is further substantiated in that the “angel of the Lord” in 16:7 addresses her as “servant of Sarai”. Wouldn’t she be “wife of Abram”? Perhaps she is an actual wife, but I’m not sure if that makes the situation better or worse. The important thing to note here is that they are all just people.  We have a tendency to want to paint our heroes and religious figures as perfect or better than the rest of us. They are just people. They are flawed, some more than others.
Because they are regular, flawed people, they don’t react to these situations in the way that we may wish they had. It would have been much easier on Sarai and probably Abram had he not impregnated Hagar at all. It probably would have been better for Hagar too, except that she wouldn’t have had her son. That’s the tricky thing about kids, no matter how much trouble their birth may result in (which is not the same as cause because it isn’t their fault they were born), they’re still worth having. I’ve heard it from many divorced parents that the kid is worth it. Perhaps for Hagar, maybe even for Abram, but not for Sarai who was probably annoyed by him from the start. I can’t imagine hearing that your spouse is getting those kinds of promises from God and then missing out on it. It should be an easy conclusion to find that it probably caused resentment all over the place.
Part of the problem too is that Hagar is just as flawed and normal as Sarai. When she gets pregnant, her actions upset Sarai, who is the actual mistress of the household. Or maybe her very presence upset Sarai and there were no actions that wouldn’t upset her. Either one is possible, not because they’re bad people but because they’re real people in a time that can be a bit hard for us to relate to.
Abram does what his wife asked him to do and then when it backfires on her, she yells at him for it. Some might say that it’s so typical for a woman, but turn that finger back around on yourself too! I’ve known plenty of guys who do the same thing to their wives. I don’t know how that got set up as a wife thing and not a marriage thing. Abram just tells her to handle it herself. Again, being flawed, she maybe doesn’t handle it in the best way possible because Hagar flees. Then a really interesting thing happens.
God makes a promise to a woman. The last time He talked to a woman was back in chapter three when he was cursing Eve. Now we have Hagar, pregnant, scared, running away. While God doesn’t show up Himself, like with the men we’ve seen so far, an angels shows up and makes promises on His behalf to Hagar. “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” This may be after asking her what was wrong and telling her to go back, but the promise is made and it’s the first time there is a promise to a woman. It’s a significant moment that doesn’t get nearly enough notice.
After, the angel tells her about her son. That’s what it sounds like to me, that the angel is just preparing her for the problems to come. The angel describes the general demeanor of her son along with the root of the problems he will have. If we were watching this unfold on a soap opera, it would all be pretty obvious that he’s going to have issues to deal with that he didn’t create, can’t escape, and will shape his view of the world. He will suffer because of the arrangement that brought him, but he won’t take it lying down. The mistress of the household is already making the mother miserable, why would she be much nicer to the boy? There will be resentment no matter what. The master of the household is his father and there will likely be internal turmoil there that will show in their interactions. It’s going to be a hard life and he’ll never be able to reliably know if someone other than his mother is about to be nice to him or not.

Once the boy is born, we get the age of the father. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael, his son with Hagar, was born. We established with the flood that a year at the time was at least similar, so I think we can understand why Sarai and Abram were a little worried. How much longer was he expecting to be able to produce children?

Chapter seventeen
The episode with the women is followed by God demanding a token of Abram’s commitment and changing their names. It’s easy to think that this happened soon after if you aren’t paying attention to the details. Abram was 86 when Ishmael was born. He’s 99 years old at the beginning of chapter 17. THIRTEEN YEARS go by. Sarai may resent Hagar and Ishmael, but I’m sure she feels like she did the right thing by her husband. I’m sure there was some comfort in that he had one heir that was his own kid.
This conversation is where God demands circumcision. The debate over circumcision has come a long way and caught my attention last year. The problem is the way it is similar to female genital mutilation in this respect. If there’s no medical reason for it, than saying God told me to do it shouldn’t be a good excuse for men but not for women. As I understand it, the problem isn’t stopping it for women, but condoning it for men while trying to stop it for women. Another problem is that many parents in the US just agree to it at the hospital without giving it any thought, even the non-religious. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it is just what you do when you have a boy. For more on that argument, go here.

Abraham circumcises every male in his household, which we know includes at least 319 (we’ve added Ishmael), that day. The time lapse is even reemphasized in the note that Ishmael is thirteen years old the day Abraham circumcised him.
After the circumcision part of the conversation is over, they discuss Sarai who has just become Sarah. This is the first time that God tells Abraham that the original promise way back before the war was meant for his child with Sarah. It might have helped for that little nugget to come out earlier, but only for Sarah’s peace of mind. Remember that Hagar has a promise from God now too and that she is the first woman to attain one and that God never speaks to Sarah. Had Sarah had more trust in a God that never spoke to her or directed promises to her before this, we wouldn’t have the multitude that came from Hagar or the great nation that come from Ishmael, so overall good is up for debate. We now have the assurance that Abraham will have a son with his first wife, but she’s old and we find they both laugh at first. She was barren during her “child-bearing” years, and now that she’s menopausal, she’s going to have kids? Right.
Their doubt upsets God. Again, the doubt. Abraham insists that it must be done through Ishmael and God rebukes them that nothing is impossible for him. But he also agrees to bless Ishmael. The interesting thing about it is that He kind of repeats the promise that was already given to Hagar but directs it at Ishmael, but with some extra detail. Has Hagar not told Abraham of the promise that was made to her when she fled? Does Abraham doubt it’s validity since it wasn’t made to him personally? There is no way to tell.

These chapters set the scene for more to come, and that will be in part seven. Come back for part six, which is about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So there are my feelings and impressions on the Chs 15-17 of Genesis. Have you read them? What do you think?

Chapter links go to the ESV translations at but I’m reading from the ESV Global Study Bible, which is available for free on the Kindle Reading App.

*amended for formatting purposes

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