Have you ever felt as if you weren’t really seen? When was the last time you felt ignored, overlooked, and forgotten — lost in the crowd? Have you ever felt as if you weren’t really being heard — as if your voice didn’t seem to matter?
Research has shown that when we are perpetually ignored and overlooked, our health suffers — our emotional health and even our physical health. That’s because we have an innate longing to be seen, to be heard, to be known.
As we continue our Genesis study, we come to Genesis 16 and the story of two women who share in this struggle: the struggle to be seen and heard.
The first of these two women is Sarah, Abraham’s wife. As we discussed last week, God promised to bless Abraham with descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. And month after month, year after year, Abraham and Sarah live with that promise. But month after month, year after year, their circumstances remain the same. They remain without a child. By the time we reach Genesis 16, Abraham is 85 years old and his wife Sarah was 75. And the possibility of having a child seems to grow more remote with each passing day.
We need to acknowledge that we are treading into some delicate territory here. Over the years, I have listened to many people who share in Sarah’s heartache. It is their deepest desire to have a child of their own and yet, for whatever reason, it just hasn’t happened. For some of our sisters and brothers, this is their most painful and most personal prayer. The last thing I want to do is add to that pain. But I do believe that God speaks a word to us today through Sarah’s story, painful though it might be. I believe Sarah’s story is a testimony to a God who meets us in our pain, who chooses to stand with us in our pain.
Abraham and Sarah remain without a child, so Sarah comes up with a plan.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said.Genesis 16:1-2
In the ancient world, barrenness was the greatest source of shame for a woman. For example, Mesopotamian marriage contracts from this time period contained clauses obligating a wife in these circumstances to provide her husband with a surrogate so that he might have a family. We can only imagine the social pressure Sarah felt to provide children for Abraham.
It’s not difficult to imagine Sarah pleading with God. “Lord, have you forgotten about us? Did you forget your promise to me? You asked us to leave home, to follow you to this land you were going to give us — and we did just as you said. And you promised to bless us with a child, with descendants as numerous as the stars. When are you going to keep your end of the bargain?” It’s not hard to imagine the ways that Sarah feels overlooked and ignored, even by God. Sarah is a woman who doesn’t feel seen; she doesn’t feel heard.
After ten years of waiting on God to deliver on His promise, Sarah decides that she’s tired of waiting. Sarah doesn’t feel as if she’s being heard, so she decides to make her voice heard, even if that means altering the plans of Almighty God.
This, of course, is a mistake. Sarah’s failure here is a failure to trust. Personally, I understand why she did what she did — I have that same tendency to want to take matters into my hands as well. But this mistake has repercussions for Abraham and his descendants for years to come.
Sarah follows the custom of the day rather than trusting in God to keep His promises. She decides to “help” God along by offering her maidservant to Abraham. Of course, God needs no help in keeping His promises. He needs no loophole in order to remain faithful to His word. But Sarah pulls Abraham aside and tells him her plan: he is to take Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden, as his wife and produce a child with her.
V2, Abram agreed to what Sarai said. Literally, it reads, “he obeyed Sarai’s voice.” This is the same phrase found in Genesis 3:17 when God says Adam obeyed the voice of Eve rather than trusting in God. And here we see Abraham’s mistake. Sarah is not the only one at fault here. Abraham is a willing accomplice in Sarah’s plan. He, too, is guilty of “helping” God keep His promise.
To listen to any voice other than the voice of God is a failure of faith.