Chapter 16 introduces us to the episode in the life of Abram, which has an allegorical significance, as the Apostle Paul shows in Galatians 4. Hagar was a bondwoman; she came from Egypt, type of the world; her son was born "after the flesh;" her name is said to mean "Wandering." Law and the flesh and the world and bondage are closely connected all through Scripture, and here first we have them all brought together.
In Genesis 12 we saw Abram's lapse in going down into Egypt, and though both he and Sarai came out safely, owing to God's intervention, it appears that they brought something of Egypt out with them in the shape of this handmaid of Sarai, who became a snare before long, and a source of trouble that has persisted over thousands of years. The hostility between Ishmael and Isaac is visible in their descendants today. In the same way many a trouble in our lives as Christians may be traced to some lapse into worldliness of which we have been guilty.
The standards that prevailed in patriarchal times as to matrimonial relationships were much below those established in the light of Christianity. In those days no law had been given, and when it was given through Moses it did not express the perfect thought of God as the Lord Himself said in Matthew 19: 8. This accounts for the action in this matter of both Sarai and Abram. What they did was done without any sense of wrong. The promise of a seed had been given to Abram: Sarai was barren, and this was just an attempt to secure its fulfilment after the flesh. We have to learn that everything achieved after the flesh ends in failure and trouble.
The trouble started before Ishmael was born, as soon as the bondwoman effectively took the place of the freewoman. The bondwoman then despised the freewoman, just as later the child of the former persecuted the child of the latter. The immediate result was that the freewoman asserted her place and dealt hardly with the other so that she fled.
At this point the Angel of the Lord intervened. According to the customs of that time Hagar had evidently had no option in the matter, and God is a God of pity, and of judgment. Even if she had been impertinent to her mistress, she was not to be left in the wilderness in her need; only, returning she was to be subject and submit to her mistress. Viewing her personally, apart from her typical significance, she was as much sinned against as sinning, and by God's intervention the scales of justice were evenly held.
And not only this but the future of the coming son was foretold: his name was given, his character indicated. His name means, "God hears." Hagar spoke of God as "Thou God seest me," or "Thou art the God who reveals Himself" (New Trans.) The well by which the angel appeared to her became known as "The well of the Living who was seen." Thus even poor Hagar derived blessing from this trying episode, though the son, when born, became a trial to Abram himself, as well as to Sarai and the future Isaac.
The name of the son, Ishmael, was to commemorate the fact that God heard the affliction of Hagar. It had reference to her rather than to him. He was to be a "wild man," the word really means a "wild-ass." In the light of Galatians 4, this is significant, since "he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh." Now Romans 8: 7 tells us that the mind of the flesh "is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Man after the flesh has lawlessness stamped upon him, and he is aptly typified by a wild ass.
Here too we see in figure what accounts for the state of the world today. Man in the flesh is not only lawless in regard to God but antagonistic in regard to his fellows. The one characteristic springs out of the other. There could be no peace where Ishmael was. And to make matters worse there was to be no shutting him out or getting rid of him; for the decree was, "he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren." Hagar typified the covenant of the law, given at Sinai. Now that did not abolish the man after the flesh. It only laid restraint upon him, "which gendereth to bondage." The restraint was immediately broken and the "wild ass" character more fully revealed.
This Hagar episode took place when Abram was 86 years old, and we hear nothing further as to him for thirteen more years. When 99 years old another great revelation reached him and a further covenant was established, as we find in Genesis 17. Here for the first time do we get "Almighty God" (El-Shaddai). Abram was to know Him according to this name—the God who can raise the dead, and to whom nothing is impossible—as is made clear in Exodus 6: 3. Abram knew the name, Jehovah, for we have the record of his using it, but what that great name signified did not come to light until the time of the Exodus and the subsequent giving of the law, for it was relevant to that. God Almighty was the name relevant to the unconditional covenant made with Abram. That covenant altogether depended upon God, and His almightiness ensured its ultimate fulfilment.
The closing words of verse 1 show the responsibility that rested on Abram in the light of the revelation. His ways were to be regulated by his knowledge of God. His perfection lay in his complete conformity to the revelation that had been given. In Matthew 5: 48 we find the word, "perfect," used in just the same sense, only there according to the revelation of God to the disciples as their Father who is in heaven. Today we should be perfect according to a revelation of God which is even higher than that.
This revelation, "I am the Almighty God," was followed in verses 2-8, by a covenant of promise, in which no less than seven times God states what He will do.
"I will," is the characteristic phrase; beginning, "I will make My covenant," and ending, "I will be their God." The little word "if" is only conspicuous by its absence, for it was a covenant without condition on Abram's part. He had sought to obtain a seed by natural means through Hagar, but God intended to multiply him abundantly, making him a father of many nations, and securing to his seed the land of promise, being in a special sense their God.
In confirmation of this covenant God changed Abram's name to Abraham, meaning, "Father of a multitude," and from this point onwards the new name is used though as yet the promise involved in the name had received no fulfilment. Thus God pledged Himself to bring it to pass in His own way.
Though the fulfilment of this covenant depended upon God and not upon Abraham, there was a sign given in connection with it, and Abraham was to keep the covenant in the sense of observing the sign. Of this verses 9-14 speak. The sign was circumcision, and it was to be observed by Abraham and his descendants and all his household; the latter term including all born in his house and bondslaves, obtained by purchase. The casual type of servant, who was only hired, was evidently excluded. Here for the first time in Scripture we find a household recognized, as identified with him who is the head of it. They are those over whom the head has authority, so that he can command them, as we see in verse 19 of the next chapter.
As far as Abraham was concerned circumcision was just a rite to be observed, since there is nothing to show that he was instructed in its spiritual significance. Twice in Deuteronomy does Moses mention the circumcising of the heart in contrast with that accomplished in the flesh, but it looks as if its full significance did not come to light until "the circumcision of Christ" (Col. 2: 11) became an accomplished fact. Abraham and his descendants had the rite, for it was the sign of the covenant of promise—just as the Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant of law—but the meaning of it is reserved for us Christians, who, if Gentiles, do not observe the outward rite at all.
According to that verse in Colossians the true circumcision is that done without hands in Christians "in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of the Christ" (New Trans.) As the next verse shows, the allusion here is to His death. He, the Messiah, was cut off as predicted (Ps. 102: 24; Dan. 9: 26). He was actually severed from His life down here in flesh and blood, in order that He might take up life again in resurrection. As identified with Him, we put the sentence of death on the old fleshly life that once we lived, and thus put off the body of the flesh. Thus the significance of the rite was the putting of the death sentence on the flesh and all its works. God's unconditional covenant of promise is not to be made good on a fleshly basis. If the flesh was spared, the covenant was broken, as verse 14 indicates.
In connection with this, God also changed the name of Sarai to Sarah, which means, Princess. She too was to be blessed and become the mother of a son, though she was now nearly ninety years of age. Abraham's response to this surprising announcement was remarkable. He fell upon his face and laughed, raising in his heart the question as to his own great age, and Sarah's also. At first sight we might be inclined to regard both the laughter and the language as indicating a spirit of scepticism, but in the light of Romans 4: 18-20, we must regard it rather as expressive of joyful wonder. Verse 18 of our chapter points to the same conclusion. He recognized that the supernatural birth of the one who was to be the heir of promise involved the supplanting of him born after the flesh. Hence his request that Ishmael might yet live before God.
In response to this the promise of a son is confirmed and his name is given by God. Now Isaac means Laughter. This further confirms what we have just stated, for Abraham's laughter would hardly have been thus commemorated by God if it had signified doubt and not faith. The covenant of promise was to run in the line of Isaac, yet God answered the request as to Ishmael and promised to bless him in natural things, making him a great nation under twelve princes. The fulfilment of this is recorded in Genesis 25: 12-16.
The closing paragraph of the chapter shows how the faith of Abraham promptly expressed itself in works. He accepted the outward sign of circumcision for himself and for his house. No time was lost: the thing was accomplished "in the self-same day." The operation itself was not a pleasant one, running contrary to natural feelings, and in each the flesh would have cried out to be spared. How suitably therefore does it typify that death to the flesh, of which the New Testament speaks, only there it is not the material body of man that is in question but the fallen nature characterizing that body, with its appetites and lusts.
This prompt response of faith on Abraham's part invited another manifestation of the Lord to him, with which Genesis 18 opens. It evidently took place very soon after the other. It was unusual in character, differing from any preceding appearance inasmuch as "three men" approached, and it was "in the heat of the day," just when no one would pay a visit in the ordinary way. Abraham's hospitality rose to the occasion, and angels were entertained unawares, as Hebrews 13: 2 puts it—indeed more than this for one of the three was a manifestation of Jehovah Himself. The picture presented of patriarchal simplicity is striking and beautiful, and the heavenly Visitors partook of the refreshment provided.
Sarah was now to be tested, and the announcement of the birth of a son to her was made in her hearing. Her response also was a laugh, but one which she thought was hidden from others, and which evidently did have in it an element of unbelief, so that she tried to deny it. It was known to the Lord however. Sarah's unbelieving question only drew from Him the great question, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Nothing was too hard, for He had just recently revealed Himself to her husband as "the Almighty God," though she had not grasped it so far. Jeremiah grasped it in his day (Jer. 32: 17) and presently Sarah did so, or we should not have the statement: "Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed (Heb. 11: 11).
But the heavenly Visitors had come, not only to confirm the wavering faith of Sarah, but with other purposes in view. They set their faces toward Sodom and Abraham went with them for some distance, and this gave occasion to that incident in which we see Abraham as the friend of God. A mere servant does not know what his Lord does, as the Lord indicated in John 15: 15, whereas a friend has access to things kept secret from others.
Hence Abraham is not to have hid from him that which the Lord was about to do in the judgment of the cities of the plain; and that not only because of the privilege conferred upon him, but because of his moral character and worth. He was privileged not only to become a great nation but also to be the progenitor of the Messiah in whom all the nations would be blessed. His character was such that the Lord could say: "I know him," and that he would maintain what was right, not only personally but also in his family and household. So later on the prophet, speaking on God's behalf, could say, "Abraham My friend." (Isa. 41: 8).
Thus it was that when two of the three had proceeded on their way to Sodom, Abraham was permitted to speak to the Third, even to the Lord Himself, and even to reason with Him. Of all the cases recorded in the Old Testament where men were brought face to face with God this instance stands alone, we think, in the intimacy and liberty enjoyed, coupled with absence of fear. Abraham, secure in his own standing before the Lord, took the place of an intercessor.
He reasoned before the Lord in the assurance that the Judge of all the earth would do right, and in his pleadings he doubtless had in view Lot and his family. In the next chapter we read of Lot's sons-in-law, so probably he reckoned that together with his wife, unmarried daughters, married daughters and their husbands, as many as ten could be found in Sodom who could be accounted righteous. Hence, starting at fifty, and descending to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, he stopped satisfied at ten. The next chapter shows that even ten were not to be found.
Though Abraham knew such liberty in the Lord's presence we find him, like all others who really have to do with God, deeply sensible of his own sin and nothingness. We hear Job saying: "Behold, I am vile;" Isaiah saying: "I am undone;" Peter saying: "I am a sinful man, O Lord;" Paul saying: "I am chief" of sinners. Abraham says, I "am but dust and ashes," and, as far as the Scripture record goes, he heads the list, the first to condemn himself in the presence of God.
And he who thus condemned himself is the man called the friend of God. In both these respects are we following in his train?