Why, in Genesis 16, did Sarai not turn to God as her husband Abram had? Why did she continue to rely on the physical signs and traits of her mortal existence to judge God's faithfulness? Where did Sarai's faith lie in relation to that of her husbands? Was God not waiting on Sarai to mature in her faithfulness towards him?
Sarai had been called by God to be the matriarch of God's family. Other cultures that existed at this time in history had "family" structure of varying natures. Different cultures create different rules based on what they want their society to focus on and pay tribute to. It was God's intention to create a family structure that not only forged an eternal bond between man and woman, but also taught the importance of teaching divine deference to their descendants.
In order for this to happen, Sarai's faith needed to be as strong as the newly emerged butterfly. For she would need to not only fly above current conceptions of family and create new ideals and a new structure of hope, but she would also need to teach her only son Isaac how to rely on his inward compass, his spiritual power. She would need to be able to pass on to him a heritage of faith that would serve her progeny and help them endure 400 years of affliction in a strange land. (15:13)
I think what caught my attention most when I read and reread this chapter was how Sarai did not declaim her faith in God. Rather she says, "the Lord hath restrained me from bearing." (16:1) For me this implies two things.
1. She is respectful of her husbands devotion to the "most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth" (14:22), and does not want him to believe she would blaspheme the promises God made to him. She could have said, "I am barren. I am past the time of women, give up on me. I am lost." but she chose her words carefully. Sarai is aware of the sacredness of Abram's promise. She speaks respectfully for the feelings of her husband and in reverence of his God.
Sarai wants to please her husband. She must have hurt beyond belief when the last of her menstrual cycles faded away. Now near eighty years of age, she reasoned that God's promise to her husband must have not included her. So, wanting to ensure her husband's line she gives him her Egyptian handmaid.
It was about here in my reading that I had an "ah ha" moment. I realized that Abram, wealthy, powerful, and respected Abram, could have had any woman to carry on his line. Was this not a patriarchal society where lines relied solely upon the male? Plural marriage was not uncommon at this time and it should be noted that Sarai gives her permission. Abram's respect for his marriage, his wife, and his linage all come into play when Hagar's role is considered. Sarai wants for Hagar to wed Abram so that God's promise to him could be fulfilled, and so that even in her old age, she herself might "obtain children." (16:2)
This story of this families faith is more about Sarai than one would first imagine. Abram was given the promise, but it was reliant upon Sarai's maturity of faith. It was reliant upon their mutual respect and faith not only in one another but in their God. How was God going to build a foundation for family upon the faith of only one partner. He needed for Sarai's faith to be equal with Abram's. He needed for them to be a team: no fault-finding, no regrets, no misunderstandings, no misgivings.
Why is it important that Sarai bear Abram's line? Why not Hagar? or Keturah? (25:1)
God is a respecter of family. Abram's family was with Sarai. Sarai, like mother Eve, had an important role to fulfill. Abram knew it. God knew it. But did Sarai know it? For this purpose she was given the experience of Hagar.
But who can blame Sarai for wondering, for questioning her own place in Abram's promise? She was old, past her bearing years. And why was it that Hagar mocked Sarai so? Earlier in Genesis 11:30 when we are told "Sarah was barren; she had no child" we are not made aware if the problem lies in Sarai's womb or in Abram's seed? When Hagar conceives it clearly shows that the inability for Abram and Sarai to conceive lies squarely with Sarai.
The Lord is waiting on Sarai. Abram is waiting on Sarai. Consider how differently the story might have turned out if Sarai, at a young age, had born fruit? What would have made this fruit different? What would have made their story special? The fact that Sarai not only had to wait beyond her "time of life"(18:14), had to learn to wait upon the Lord, had to learn the perspective of her husband's faith, and had to understand the value of her worth not as "a fair woman to look upon" but rather as a spiritual matriarch, helps us understand the struggle of her faith.
Sarai's story makes me wonder how I, when faced with an unfulfilled promise of the Lord, respond? I want to cast blame on everyone else but myself. How long had the couple considered their options? How strong and sure Abram's love for Sarai must have been for him to cling only to her, and to only consider another woman at Sarai's request.
After Hagar has conceived and Hagar finds refuge in the promise of the Angel, "I will multiply they seed exceedingly," can we see Sarai's role in the formation of God's 'promise' of family. Hagar's child Ismael (also Abram's seed) will be a "wild man" or nomadic in nature. Later after Sarah's passing, Abraham will marry Keturah and bear many other children.
But with Sarai and Abram does God establishes his covenant and promise of eternal family. And with Sarai's and Abram's faith in one another and the promises of their God, does the Lord build a faith-based society that establishes a pattern of religious ritual, law, obedience, civility, and peace and reverence for all of mankind to consider.
Sarai's faith does learn to wait. It may not always find rational explanation, but that is the beauty of faith. Like the emerging butterfly, it knows not why it must struggle so, but once the struggle is over and the wind is under wing, it finds great joy in its new height. Sarai's and Abram's experiences have carried them to new life perspectives. We too can find the strength that faith brings when we learn to wait on the Lord and allow him, like the cocooned butterfly, to restrain us. In this way we can taste the sweetness that only the beauty of the Lord's love for us will bring.