The Befuddlement of Unbelief
In Genesis 16, Sarah offers Abraham her servant girl Hagar to bear him a son instead of her.
"Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go into my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her. And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went into Hagar, and she conceived." Genesis 16:1-4a
God had first promised to make Abraham "a great nation" (Genesis 12:1). He then promised to give specific land to him and his offspring forever, adding that he would "make your offspring as the dust of the earth so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted." (Genesis 13:14-17). Then in chapter 15:1 and following, when God again promises to bless Abraham, His promise that Abraham's reward would be very great (clearly referring back to the previous promises regarding his offspring) prompts Abraham to question how these promises can come true since God has given him no children.
God doubles down. His response is clear, clarifying and irrefutable. Abraham's suggestion that his chief servant would be his heir (as was the cultural norm in such a situation) is shot down. "This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir. And he brought him outside and said, Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be. And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness."
God's promise gets harder to believe and Abraham begins to doubt. "Maybe when God said I would father a nation it would be through the "heir" of my servant Eliezer?" But God responds to Abraham's doubt with greater clarity: it will be "your very own son". Abraham responds with faith. Saving faith.
The Plain Words of God
We must, however, take note of something very significant here. God's original words to Abraham were pretty clear. Abraham understood the promise that he would become the father of a great nation to be fulfilled with him having at least one child with his wife. Why would he think otherwise? There was no need to interpret God's words in any other way. It was only when Abraham's circumstances changed (or, perhaps more accurately, didn't change), it was only when doubt crept in, that Abraham felt the need to wonder if he had misunderstood God, to wonder if he should perhaps interpret God's clear words differently.
God's response was a reaffirmation of his original promise with greater clarity to avoid wriggle room. He meant what He said. The right response to their difficult situation was not to doubt God's words, but to trust His character.
The cutting of the Abrahamic covenant follows immediately afterwards - God unconditionally promises His faithfulness and again the promise of the offspring is reiterated.
This then leads us back to where we started: Hagar. More time has passed. Abraham and, more pressingly, Sarah are both older. The promise now seems impossible. They are too old to have a child. God didn't mean the heir would be Eliezer - it had to be Abraham's own son. But He didn't mention Sarah. Maybe, if they acted quickly, Abraham could still father a child, but he needed another, younger woman.
So Sarah offers Hagar as a solution. In its own warped way, this in itself was an act of faith. They still believed in God and they still believed that he would deliver on His promise. But their faith was insufficient. God's words could be trusted and yet, at the same time, they had to be adapted. "Look at Sarah! He couldn't have meant through her. She's too old!" Again, the words were no less clear now than when they were spoken. All that had changed were their ages.
A Compromised Faith
Now, to be clear, Abraham was a man of faith. When God speaks and says "Go!", Abraham goes, not even knowing where he is going to end up. Amazing faith! Yet God tells him to leave behind his extended family, and yet Lot is brought along - a compromise that will bear rotten fruit multiple times over an extended period. He was a man of incredible faith, but he was also a man of imperfect faith.
Abraham's journey is a journey of faith. He has faith in God, and that faith saves him. But his faith is imperfect, and God takes Abraham on this testing journey to expose his compromise and mature his faith.
The Promise of Isaac
Then in Genesis 17, after more time has passed, Abraham is now 99 years old. It is 13 years after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. In Abraham's mind, that teenager is the child God promised - the fulfilment of the prophecies. And then God, seemingly silent for the intervening years, shows up again and Abraham falls on his face before Him.
God tells Abraham that the promise of the offspring will come to pass and He gives more covenant details and requirements. Abram, as he has been called to this point, will be called Abraham: father of many nations. None of this is problematic to Abraham's faith and understanding of God's promise.
But then God reveals a name changed for his wife too. Sarai, as she has been called up to now, will be called Sarah: she will be the mother of this promised nation. That promised son is not Ishmael - you got it wrong. You should never have second-guessed God. Once again, God has removed all the wriggle room. He meant what He said. He didn't require a reinterpretation.
Abraham laughs. Sarah is 90 - menopause is entirely out of sight in her rearview mirror. This is simply impossible. And so in verse 18, Abraham points God back to Ishmael. It was one thing to reinterpret God's words years later in His absence, but now he is doing so in His presence! He is trying to teach God how to interpret His own promises! Again God doubles down. No, it is Sarah who will have the promised child, he will be called Isaac, and he'll be born next year.
In chapter 18 God appears again. This time He confronts Sarah with the promise and she, like her husband, laughs. This is not possible! So God reminds her that nothing is too hard for Him. Again God says that Isaac will be born in a year and again, a shorter term promise accompanies the longer term one - in this chapter as well as being told of the birth of Isaac we are told of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I do not know when Sarah finally believed God. Was it when she felt the baby kick for the first time? Morning sickness? Surely it wasn't a missed period - she hadn't had one for decades! I suspect the moment she and Abraham knew, the moment they truly believed, was when they saw the smoke rise from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:27-28). God destroyed those prosperous and powerful cities as He had said He would. Will He really do this other thing He promised too?
"Did God Really Say...?"
The promise God gave was easy to understand and, initially, it was easy to believe. But it became harder as time went by and what He had promised seem increasingly unlikely. Abraham started to doubt. And his doubt led him to reinterpret God's words. It was as if the serpent was whispering the words he had said to Eve in the Eden: "Did God actually say...?" (Genesis 3:1)
There is so much that can be said in light of all this, but I want to limit myself to two things.
Firstly, so much is said about different theological perspectives and interpretations. Much of such discussions is valuable and much isn't. Often what we attribute to merely another way of looking at something or what we consider to be a valid way of interpreting the text is nothing more than a lack of faith. Just as when Abraham saw the clearly stated words of God, he thought the plain reading of them to be impossible to come to fruition, and thus interpreted them in a way that was more palatable and believable.
I know it is an unpopular view in many circles today, and it opens a whole can of worms, but when we read the unfulfilled promises of God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through various interpretational shenanigans we invalidate those promises, then it says something about our faith. Regardless of what justification we might give, if God's stated words have to be interpreted, explained or generally reimagined in a way different from their plain, obvious meaning, we should have alarm bells ringing.
And, aside from the issue of God's promises to Israel, we give academic credibility to far too many theological issues that are nothing more than a lack of faith. Again and again, the church of Christ historically has cast aside the teaching of God's Word with a cry of "did God really say?" - that Satanic echo has been the rallying cry of many a shipwrecked faith. Inerrancy is questioned, then abandoned and that leads to doctrine after doctrine falling like a line of dominoes until the gospel itself becomes undermined.
Unbelief befuddles what is otherwise clear. God speaks, we believe, that is faith. But if God speaks and our response is ”Did God really say?”, that is unbelief.
Trusting God in the Darkness
Secondly, it is easy to believe when we can see the route to fulfilment. When Abraham was a younger man the promise that he would father a great nation was easier to believe. As he got older it became harder and harder to believe - his faith was found insufficient, so he reinterpreted God's words.
The problem was focusing on what had changed (his circumstances) rather than what had not (God). The solution was to focus on the attributes of God - His power, His sovereignty, His goodness, His faithfulness - which never change.
Churches can tend to focus on relevance and application to the detriment of truly knowing God, but it’s counterproductive. Here at our Church in Burbank, California we are trying to instill within our hearts and minds, that God is both sovereign and good, so that when storms - vicious, destructive, seemingly never ending storms - billow in we can stand and say, day after day, "He is sovereign. He is good. He is faithful. He can be trusted." Because He is.
But like Abraham, my journey has been long and humbling. I hope and pray my faith in Him is now strong; I hope if called to ascend the mountain and "sacrifice Isaac", so to speak, I, like him, am finally found faithful. And I hope and pray that in reading this your faith has become stronger and perhaps that humbling journey towards a mature faith has become a bit less brutal and a little shorter.