Abram’s stay in Egypt (Gen 12:10-2010Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.11It came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman;12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.13Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you.”14It came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.15Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.16Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels.17But the LORD struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.18Then Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?19Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.”20Pharaoh commanded [his] men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him.) brought him quite a lot: a lot of shame, a lot of goods, and also Hagar. Here it appears that his stay in Egypt will have a terrible and long aftermath. A believer can be recovered from a stay in the world, but his stay can have long-term consequences. Ishmael was born of Hagar and his descendants will be Israel’s most bitter enemies – and they are to this day.
There are more lessons in this history. God had promised Abram numerous offspring. That seems to fail, because Sarai can’t have children. Sarai acknowledges that her infertility is from the LORD, because He prevented her from bearing children. However, she can no longer bear this test and comes up with an idea to have children by another way, by her own way. She proposes that Abram go into Hagar. Maybe there will come from Hagar an heir from whom her offspring will be built.
Abram listens. He is as guilty here as Sarai is, or in fact even more guilty. He too succumbed to the temptation to do something himself, because it takes so long for God to keep His promise. And the intention succeeds. But this is not the way God fulfills His promise.
Lack of patience and confidence that God will truly fulfill His promises has led many to premature, self-perpetuating action, the consequences of which sometimes have to be borne throughout the rest of their lives. In Genesis it becomes increasingly clear that every human being and every people who owes their existence to the election of God must live in faith. Human efforts will not help.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul extensively teaches that Hagar and Sarai represent two principles (Gal 4:21-3121Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman.23But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.24This is allegorically speaking, for these [women] are two covenants: one [proceeding] from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar.25Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.26But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.27For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more numerous are the children of the desolate Than of the one who has a husband.”28And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.29But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him [who was born] according to the Spirit, so it is now also.30But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”31So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.). Hagar is the law and Sarai is the grace. God wants to give Abram and Sarai the heir by grace. But man by nature is not inclined to live by grace. Making a personal contribution, an effort to earn what God promises, fits much more his nature. That is why Hagar proposes the law.
The law is given to tell man what he must do to get life: “Do this and you shall live” (Lev 18:55So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.). However, every human being fails in keeping the law and thus comes under the curse of the law. By keeping the law, by one’s own power, the promise of God is not obtainable. God’s promises are only for those who live by grace. That is the lesson Abram is taught and we have to learn through him.
At first it seems that their method is successful. People can go very far. Just look at Paul, who can say that he is blameless as to the righteousness which is in the law (Phil 3:66as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.). But he is a persecutor of the church. The law calls upon the flesh, but nothing that is pleasing to God can come forth from it. Abram has to learn that and we have to learn that.
If someone succeeds in building up his own righteousness, he always will look down on others who have no high opinion of themselves and only want to live by grace. Thus Hagar becomes arrogant and looks despicable down on Sarai (cf. Lk 18:1111The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.).
When Sarai presents things again as they are to God– Hagar is a slave after all – Hagar flees.