The relationship between Sarah and Hagar in Genesis is a complicated one where we see conflict, family dysfunction and most importantly the grace of God. In Genesis 16 we read that Hagar was a slave or maid servant to Sarah. At that point Sarah would have been in the Promised Land for 10 years and the family God promised had yet to come to fruition.
We can surmise from the narrative in Genesis 16 that Sarah in some way believed that God failed to fulfil His promise to her and Abraham and takes matters into her own hands. And so she gives Abraham Hagar to foster the promised family as a surrogate mom. But after Hagar bears a son, the text tells us that Hagar began to “look with contempt on Sarah.” (vs. 4)
Sarah’s response—she blames Abraham for sleeping with Hagar and begins to “deal harshly with Hagar and so Hagar flees from Sarah.” (vs. 6) But God intervenes and we read that “the angel of the Lord” tells her to “return to your mistress and submit to her.”
This angel of the Lord, which also could be a Christophany or an OT appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ, also tells her that through her son a great nation would also be born and Hagar testifies about God, “You are a God of seeing…truly her I have seen Him who looks after me.” (vs. 13) This is an incredible passage where we see God’s grace extended to Hagar, despite her rebellion against Sarah and Sarah’s harsh treatment of her.
Fast forward almost 15 years and we come to Genesis 21 where Sarah finally gives birth to the promised son, Isaac. After about 2 years when Isaac is being weaned, Abraham and Sarah hold a great feast to celebrate God’s faithfulness with the birth of Isaac. But in Genesis 21:9 we read that Hagar’s son Ismael, who would have been about 16 at the time, was “laughing” or scoffing at Isaac and the celebration. Why?
There are several possible reasons that we can glean from Genesis 16 and Genesis 21. First, Ishmael would have grown up in a household where there probably was ongoing animosity or conflict between Sarah and Hagar. In Genesis 16 Hagar shows contempt for Sarah and Sarah deals harshly with her. In that same chapter Hagar flees but God tells her to return and submit. In Genesis 21 Hagar’s son is scoffing and ultimately Sarah forces both of them to leave the household into the desert.
Secondly, Ishmael may have had the expectation that he was to receive the entire inheritance from Abraham. We know this to be true since Abraham in Genesis 15:3 complains to God about His delay to give Abraham and Sarah their son, “Lord, You have given me no offspring and a member of my household will be my heir.” So Isaac’s birth would have certainly been a threat to Ishmael, since it would have drastically changed his future.
Yet in all of this conflict and dysfunction, we see God’s grace. We see it in Genesis 16 in God’s appearance to Hagar when Ishmael is born with a promise to make him a great nation. We see it in Genesis 21 when God fulfills His promise to Sarah and Isaac is born. We see it also after Ishmael and Hagar are sent into the wilderness and God appears a second time to her and tells her, “Fear not, God has heard the voice of the boy where he is… I will make him a great nation and God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water… And God was with the boy.” (Genesis 21:17-20)
What is the big lesson here? While there are many, here is the one big take away, God works in the middle of our messy lives, especially our dysfunctional families. We see God’s promises fulfilled and get a wonderful picture of His love and faithfulness to both Sarah and Hagar despite the conflict and ongoing animosity.
When the church of Philippi had an ongoing conflict between Euodia and Syntyche, list to how the Apostle Paul exhorted both them and the church, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice… the Lord is at hand. So don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests know to God and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:4-7)