24 February 2008

Abraham Should Have Said No

In Luther's Lectures on Galatians, he describes Sarah's giving of her maid Hagar to Abraham an act of faithfulness on her part, whereby she was looking for the fulfillment of God's promises. It is always my aim to humble myself before my fathers in Christ, and to be instructed by them, but I did have to question whether Luther was really correct in this assessment. It is a different way of considering things, to be sure. It reminds me of the way St. Peter speaks of "righteous Lot," who acted by faith even in the midst of great wickedness around him. When I was a little tike, all I ever heard about Lot was that he was selfish and greedy in taking the good land while Abraham was stuck with the leftovers. Thus, it is humbling and instructive to be taught by the Word of God to honor Lot as a man of faith and righteousness. Not only that, but in the course of all that transpired, God was working everything out for the best, finally for the salvation of many nations. So does He do for His Church today, irrespective of our good or bad decisions.

At any rate, back to Sarah. Someone else questioned this morning whether she was acting faithfully or faithlessly. By all appearances, giving Hagar to her husband was a bad idea, which led to various other difficulties down the road. Clearly, it was not the way that God fulfilled His promises to Abraham and to his Seed forever. In fact, St. Paul (in both Galatians and Romans) distinguishes between the sons of Abraham by Hagar and by Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, most deliberately and decisively. The one was conceived and born according to the flesh and under the Law; the other, according to the Word of God in the way of the Gospel.

In contemplating these events, I find it not so hard to envision, to some extent, what it must have been like for Abraham and Sarah. And considering that, I am also sympathetic. As the years continued to roll by, and Sarah's biological clock had long stopped ticking, and Abraham himself was "as good as dead," there surely must have been a restlessness and growing agitation in their hearts and in their home. We are told of times when Abraham seemed on the verge of despair, when he questioned whether a slave within his household would become his heir. And if there were such times when Abraham got a bit ornery and cynical with God (whom by faith he loved and trusted), no doubt there were times when he likewise became irritable and impatient toward his dear wife, Sarah. One can imagine the tension and frustration that likely intruded upon their marriage at times.

Perhaps the question surfaced in Abraham's mind and hovered in the air, verbalized or not, "Why does this woman not bear me a son?" It is the Lord who opens and closes the womb, but the hope and expectation of children can lay heavy upon the barren, as though it were a burden of the Law and a cause for condemnation. The very Word of God's promise and blessing can thus be perceived as though it were in fact a command and a curse. Our own culture has not helped these things with its pernicious lies of freedom and choice where the Lord has not given such prerogatives. Yet, even among the faithful patriarchs and matriarchs, there were doubts and fears and uncertainty, all of which stem from the perennial temptation to live under the Law instead of by faith in the Gospel.

One has to suppose that Sarah's own patience was sorely tested and tried, as well, being passed off as Abraham's sister instead of his wife: not once, but twice! Yet, as one of the faithful women of old, she obeyed Abraham and even called him her lord. In this she is set forth as an example of faith to godly Christian women in their own respective vocations. These are often hard crosses to bear.

The pressures that weighed upon Sarah, and the sense of guilt that may have weighed upon her because it seemed impossible that she would be able to deliver what the Lord had promised, led her to propose a possible solution. It seems inappropriate to me, to attempt any parsing of faithfulness and faithlessness in this action. Like all of us who are born again as the children of God, Sarah was both faithless and believing; simultaneously justified by the Gospel and accused by the Law, though ultimately hidden with Christ in God. She was not perfect in herself; yet she was accounted righteous, like Abraham her husband, by grace through faith in Christ. Hence there stands the testimony of the Scriptures: "By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who has promised." Her laughter, too, was both the incredulity of doubt and the joyful "Amen" of faith.

We do well to consider that Sarah did not know the vast majority of what has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus. The holy men and women of old proceeded in faith, in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, without receiving the fulfillment of the promises but pressing toward them and longing for them from afar. Even the Prophets who prophesied of the grace that has come to us in Christ, in which we now stand, sought to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating. For they were serving not themselves but us, and they were not to be perfected apart from us, upon whom the end of the ages has dawned.

If Sarah's offer of Hagar to Abraham was, in part, an act of faithless desperation, perhaps it was also an imperfect confession of her faith that God would indeed fulfill what He had spoken. I may be missing it this afternoon, but I do not see where the Lord explicitly stated to Abraham that the promised son would be born to him by Sarah until after the birth of Ishmael by Hagar (Genesis 16). So far as I can tell, that specificity came with the Covenant of Circumcision, when the Lord also renamed both Abram and Sarai to be Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17). Prior to that point, it was implicit in the fact that Sarai was Abram's wife. But even then, after God made it explicit, Abraham still cried out to Him, "Oh that Ishmael might live before You!"

What did Sarah have to go by? The promises were spoken to Abraham; they came to her by way of him. The husband is the head of his wife; as Adam was to Eve, and Christ to His Bride, the Church, so Abraham to Sarah. In submitting to him by faith, obeying him and calling him her lord, she trusted him to speak the Word of the Lord to her faithfully.

In offering Hagar to her husband, Sarah was seeking the times and the persons by which the promises of the Lord would be fulfiled, and she was entrusting herself, her future and her family to the man whom God had given her. Whatever unbelief may have divided her believing heart, she here surpasses Eve, who listened to the voice of the serpent. Sarah does not look to the devil, but to her own husband for the way of wisdom. Abraham, however, in this case, walks in the way of his father Adam. He listens to the voice of his wife, instead of honoring the Word of the Lord and catechizing Sarah in the faith.

Sarah offered the proposition, it is true. She wondered in hope whether this might be the way to go. "Perhaps," she said, "I will obtain children through Hagar." But Abraham could have said no. He should have said no. He ought to have confessed and testified, "You are my wife, whom the Lord has given to me, and so by you will He fulfill what He has promised." Instead, without a word, he climbs into bed with Hagar, in no wise different than Adam quietly took the forbidden fruit from his wife. Sarah is right, therefore, when she declares to Abrahm after the fact, when she was despised in Hagar's sight: "May the wrong done me be upon you. May the Lord judge between you and me." Only then does Abraham finally say anything in response, and once more he abrogates his headship to his wife: "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight." If Sarah is at fault in all of this, Abraham is more so.

For all of that, we are admonished to "look unto Abraham our father and to Sarah who gave birth to us in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him," so that Abraham with Sarah is the father of many nations, of all who believe and trust in his Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith, we follow their good example, while refraining from their sins. Wives ought to look to their husbands, trusting the Lord who has given them; and husbands are to love their wives, as Christ His Church, teaching them the Word of the Lord, especially the Gospel, and forgiving them for Jesus' sake. Of course, none of us do this perfectly. We are certainly no better, no more faithful, than Abraham and Sarah were. Yet, their righteousness and ours is perfect; for it is not by our own works or wisdom, but by foolish faith in Christ. In that, like blessed Sarah, we have much to laugh about.

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