Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not given birth to any children, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. – Genesis 16:1 (NET)
What comes next is always held up as a grave mistake by Abraham (still Abram at the time, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll just use Abraham). It is said that this is where, obviously, he was not trusting God. It is said that this rash and selfish decision by Abraham is the cause of so many problems through the centuries. We should all be familiar with such claims. Also, what we generally find associated with this is the presentation of Abraham being “in the flesh,” as a typical man. So what is it that comes next? Reading on, we find: “So Sarai said to Abram, ‘Since the Lord has prevented me from having children, have sexual relations with my servant. Perhaps I can have a family by her’. Abram did what Sarai told him” (16:2).
When this occurs, Abraham is approximately eighty-five years old, while his wife is approximately seventy-five years old. It’s easy to look at this scenario and think that Abraham listened to his wife, thought about it for a few seconds, and then quickly made his way to the tent of Hagar, who was probably young and beautiful. We can imagine Abraham, having heard these words, taking a look at Sarah---seventy-five year old Sarah---and then looking at Hagar---young Hagar---and coming to none too difficult of a decision. What is the picture painted of Sarah here? She’s old. She probably has gray hair. The years have taken their toll. She’s not much to look at any longer. So old Abraham did what any normal man would do when given the green light, so to speak. He took advantage of the situation.
On the surface and at first glance, this makes sense. It’s fairly natural for us to think this way. Yes, Sarah had been beautiful, but that day had to have been long gone. Abraham was thinking only of the opportunity being presented to him, without thinking of the repercussions. However, this understanding is far too simplistic. In chapter twelve of Genesis, which is the same chapter in which we find the first announcement of God’s covenant with Abraham, we find that “There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay for a while because the famine was severe. As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘Look, I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but will keep you alive. So tell them you are my sister so that it may go well for me because of you and my will be spared on account of you’.” (12:10-13) Sarah is here described as being so beautiful that men will kill over her. Indeed, Abraham was proved to have spoken well, as “the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. So Abram’s wife was taken into the household of Pharaoh, and he did treat Abram well on account of her” (12:14b-16a).
Now, you might say that this happened many years before, when Sarah was still young, which would prompt you to ask what this has to do with the old Sarah that we find in the sixteenth chapter. Well, what do we find when we move forward to the twentieth chapter of Genesis? There, we find the story of Abraham and Abimelech. Abraham had journeyed “to the Negev region and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he lived as a temporary resident in Gerar, Abraham said about his wife Sarah (note that this is following their name changes), ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent for Sarah and took her” (20:1b-2). This sounds remarkably similar to what we found in Genesis twelve, as Abimelech has the same response to Sarah that was had by Pharaoh. On the way to Egypt, why did Abraham (then Abram) tell Sarah (then Sarai) to say that she was his sister? It was because of her beauty. Here in Gerar, he tells her to do the same thing. Why? Most likely, it was because of her beauty---such beauty that men would kill for her. Is that really the case? Why not? The king wanted Sarah and took her as one of his wives, so she must have had something going for her in the looks department, and this is fifteen years after the “Hagar incident,” which means that Sarah is now ninety years old. Yes, the king wanted ninety-year-old Sarah to be his wife.
So perhaps the analysis of the situation in the sixteenth chapter, which has Abraham quickly heeding his wife’s advice to take her young and obviously more attractive servant, and Abraham doing so as a matter of “out with the old and in with the new” is a little bit faulty and short-sighted. Because Sarah is obviously still quite beautiful, as we have determined through our analysis of the Abimelech situation, this way of understanding the story of Abraham and Hagar fails to take into account the full presentation of Scripture.
Is it possible that Abraham was merely acting according to his understanding of the promises that God had made to him? Is it possible that Sarah was doing the same? Abraham had been told, by God, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (12:2a). He had been told that “a son who comes from your own body will be your heir” (15:4b). Following that, “The Lord took him outside and said, ‘Gaze into the sky and count the stars---if you are able to count them!’ Then He said to him, ‘So will your descendants be’.” (15:5) It is not until the seventeenth chapter, when God tells Abraham that “I will bless her and will give you a son through her” (17:6a), that God’s promise to Abraham is even linked to Sarah in any way; and what’s more, following this star-gazing, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith as proof of genuine loyalty” (15:6). This loyalty is never questioned.
So to answer the question, yes, it is both possible and probable that when Sarah comes to Abraham---fully aware of her age and her post-menopausal status, as well as God’s promise to her husband---and suggests that he attempt to have children through her servant, that he is acting upon the fact that he “believed the Lord” and His promise. This is understandable, as the promise was that his heir, his son, would come from his own body; nor do we find Abraham being reproved by God for this act. Yes, it can be said that, in this situation between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, that Abraham acted in faith, with Ishmael blessed in the process, because God would say of him “I will also make the son of the slave wife into a great nation, for he is your descendant too” (21:13).