Genesis 16 – Tribalism Done Away in the Gospel

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When Sarai couldn’t conceive, she asked Abram to receive her slave Hagar as his wife, to conceive on Sarai’s behalf. Hagar’s child would then belong to Sarai. In terms of our modern culture, this is an amazing story. Hagar’s whole person belonged to Sarai, even Hagar’s body, her womb and her child. The slave had no ownership of their own life. The Law of Moses latter greatly tempered this slave/ master relationship, which was often due to debt repayment and limited. In many ways it was better than the prisoner system we have today. But it all depends on whether people in society have a heart for humanity. That is widely lacking today.

Jacob’s wives similarly owned their slaves, who became concubines to Jacob, and their offspring belonged to the wives and became the fathers of the tribes of Israel. These were unjust systems, no doubt, which caused much suffering, which also caused people to call on the Lord and receive his compassion and help. But there is another side to this, known as the “bondservant,” referred to in the Law of Moses. If a master sets his slave free and that slave doesn’t want his freedom, but loves the master, then he can become a voluntary bondservant of the master. His ear is put against a pole and a nail is pierced through to show this new relationship.

Paul speaks of himself in this way, about his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. He loves Christ, who gave himself for Paul. He is a master who has only the wellbeing of Paul in his heart, fully faithful and worthy of trust. Paul was saying that after being given his full freedom by God, Paul chose in response to become Christ’s bondslave. There can be no better situation, than to deny yourself in the hands of a loving and righteous Father. This depicts the relationship Hagar was in, when we take no ownership over any part of our own lives, but all is given to the master. However, in Paul’s situation it was given voluntarily, and to a trustworthy person, not to a faulty human character like Sarai, or Abram. The way we cling to our personal rights in today’s cultures shows how far we are from God, and how much disruption this brings into our societies. Christ served his Father in this way, giving his all in a love relationship. This love is the only way to be free and fulfilled. It is offered to us as a gift, should we have the clarity of sight to see it. Being a bondservant to Christ makes us free: another paradox in God’s heavenly rule.

“Though he slays me, yet will I trust in him.” (Job)

“Curse God and die,” (Job’s wife)

Hagar’s child was named by God, Ishmael, which means God hears, or God will hear. The text says that God heard the afflictions of Hagar. Again, this shows God’s love for all people. At the end of Micah, it speaks of God bringing his children back from exile, naming Cush and other nations Israel were not driven to. The clear message of the Prophets was that God’s people were not the proud, not even the proud ones of Israel, but the blind and lame, from all nations. These are God’s chosen people. “If we say we see, then we are blind.”

This is Paul’s message through Romans 9-11 where he speaks of election. The ones God chooses are the oppressed, not the oppressor. He chose Sarai in her barrenness, Hagar in her exile, Jacob as the second born, Israel in slavery in Egypt. Repeatedly, he said to Israel, “I didn’t call you because you were better than others, but because of compassion.” The humble are the children of God, or as Jesus said, “the meek.”

Some would say God blessed Hagar for Abram’s sake and that is true also. God called Abram into a walk of faith were he left all and he trusted the Lord. This is what the Lord blesses. Some are blessed in this life and others in the life to come.

This text begins the story of the animosity between Israel and her neighbours that would characterise their history and much of the content of the Old Testament. Instead of taking sides in this conflict (a response that is still common today) we should see the gospel as God’s solution to this age-old human behaviour. Isaiah and the other Prophets were at pains to show that the gospel heals the division between Israel and the gentiles, where we see that God hasn’t called one above the other, but us both to heal each other in his grace. This is the theme in most of Paul’s writings also. To the extent that we see Paul as upholding ancient divisions we misinterpret him.

Today, I don’t care about Jerusalem as bricks and mortar, I care about Jerusalem as new people, as new relationships made from the cross, from serving each other.