Dave Johnson, a San Jose police officer, relates the following dreaded call of a family disturbance in his book, ‘The Light Behind the Star.’
I could see a couple standing in the front yard of the home. A woman was crying and yelling at the man, who was standing with his hands in the pockets of his greasy overalls. I could see homemade tattoos on his arm – usually a sign of having been in prison.
Walking toward the two, I heard the woman demanding that he fix whatever he had done to the car so she could leave. He responded only with a contemptuous laugh.
She turned to me and asked if I would make him fix the car. The other officer came forward, and we separated the couple to find a solution to the problem. I began talking to the man, who told me his wife was having an affair and was leaving him. I asked if they had gone for counseling, and he said he wasn’t interested. He said he was interested only in getting back his ‘things,’ which he said she had hidden from him.
I asked the wife about his things and she said she wouldn’t give them to him until she got one of the VCR’s. She said she wanted only one of the three VCR’s they owned.
The other officer walked over to the wife’s car and looked under the hood to see if he could fix the trouble. The husband walked over, took the coil wire out of his pocket, and handed it to the officer. He then told his wife that she could have a VCR if he could have his things. She finally agreed and went into the house. (I found out later that his ‘things’ were narcotics he was dealing in.)
As the wife entered the house, I noticed two little girls standing in the doorway, watching the drama unfold. They were about eight and ten years old. Both wore dresses and each clung to a Cabbage Patch doll. At their feet were two small suitcases. My eyes couldn’t leave their faces as they watched the two people they loved tear at each other.
The woman emerged with the VCR in her arms and went to the car where she put it in on the crowded back seat. She turned and told the husband where he could find his things. They agreed to divide their other possessions equally.
Then, as I watched in disbelief, the husband pointed to the two little girls and said, ‘Well, which one do you want?’ With no apparent emotion, the mother chose the older one. The girls looked at each other, then the older daughter walked out and climbed into the car. The smaller girl, still clutching her Cabbage Patch doll in one hand and her suitcase in the other, watched in bewilderment as her sister and mother drove off. I saw tears streaming down her face. The only ‘comfort’ she received was an order from her father to go into the house, as he turned to go talk with some friends.
There I stood…the unwilling witness to the death of a family.[i]
The issue is not will we ever experience times of conflict, but rather how we will respond to them. There is a naive sense of what harmony and ultimately what biblical unity is all about. We tend to go from two extremes, where conflict becomes a way of life, or to a state of denial when issues arise.
As I was reflecting on a passage of Scripture regarding a story of a domestic dispute, it made me realize that not all outcomes are easy, but God can help us navigate through the troubled waters of family conflict. Even in moments of discomfort, God is at work in a very real way if we care to see Him. Even when outcomes are not what we anticipated or desired, we discover that God is present and can help us embrace His promises while providing a way to move forward.
There are three movements in the story that I want us to notice that will eventually lead our hearts to a place of reassurance and genuine hope, regardless of how difficult our situation or circumstance may be. We need to remind ourselves that ‘God will never leave us or forsake us’, though others might. When it comes to marital conflict we can feel overwhelmed and uncertain. How can God work in what seems like an impossible situation? Or why does God allow relationships to disintegrate? When the Scriptures teach that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God, it may not mean that it works out the way we want it to or think it should. God does not overrule human freedom to make choices, even when it causes pain in our lives.
In real life, we don’t always ‘live happily ever after,’ at least not in this life. For God’s children, we grow from life’s most challenging moments and ultimately find our footing again.
The good we discover is that God is working in the lives of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, which is to conform us into His image. In other words, the good that God is working is to make us like Jesus.
Right from the beginning of human experience, we find all the sinful attitudes and actions exploding on the scene within the first four chapters of the Bible. Once sin entered into the human family, we immediately see a withdrawal from God, blaming others for our sin, being envious of those who seem to have things going their way, and even the attitude that led to the first murder. Then we come to our spiritual father in the faith, Abraham. In one of the great patriarchs of the Bible, we discover the struggles that he faced regarding his family life. In Genesis 21:1-21, we find the explosive moment between Sarah and Hagar’s relationship that ends in the ejection of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s household.
THE FIRST MOVEMENT IN NAVIGATING THROUGH THE TROUBLE WATERS OF FAMILY LIFE IS THE HEIGHTENED CONFLICT THAT DEMANDED RESOLUTION
Polygamy has its own devastating consequences. Having more than one living spouse can be challenging. God’s original intention and design cannot be improved upon, where one man and one woman are in a lifetime union, with no other past spouses and families. Unfortunately, that is not everyone’s experience as I shared last week. Death, desertion, infidelity, abuse and selfishness leave wreckage in families. We see that many ancient and even modern cultures practice polygamy; that is, having more than one wife and family. Though we still practice monogamy, divorce often creates blended families with unique challenges. Often there is the challenge of limited resources of finances, time with children, and the battle for the affection of parents. This is not a unique problem to our time and culture. Even in the ancient biblical world, we discover these kinds of challenges, including the emotional upheaval. How did God help Abraham and his family walk through family conflict? What things did their sinful natures create in the way of complexity and how was it resolved?
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.
Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.
Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.
When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.
Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.
But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.[ii]
Sarah was jealous and concerned about the welfare of her son, Isaac. Her conflict with a rival was about to cause great pain and tension in that family dynamic. It would lead Abraham to despair. What was he to do? We find some similarities today when people get divorced and remarried. There are tensions with the children over the interests shown from their parent. Blended families present new challenges. I not suggesting that people cannot address them but I think it is important to realize that there will be some problems and conflicts unique to that situation. We read of Abraham’s conflicted state. “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son (Genesis 21:11).”
Abraham was torn in this particular situation. The tensions had been building between Sarah and Hagar. We know that because earlier Sarah mistreated Hagar and Hagar fled.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.
He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant she began to despise her mistress.
Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.
‘Your slave is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think is best.’ Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.[iii]
A. Ancient infertility practices.
In Hammurabi’s Code a provision was made for a married woman who was barren to give a female slave to her husband to perpetuate his linage.
It would appear that Sarai’s options are limited. Either she may choose to remain barren for the remainder of her life, or until Yahweh changes her circumstances. Or, assuming that her condition is a permanent one, she may present Hagar to Abram who will bear children on her behalf. …But given the emphasis on the indispensability of (male) progeny to perpetuate the family line, I am inclined to think that Sarai’s action was obligatory, and that no ignominy was attached to such a procedure.[iv]
Gordon Wenham relates that though her actions were culturally acceptable, it does not mean that the narrator agrees with Sarai’s solution to their problem.
Given the social mores of the ancient Near East, Sarai’s suggestion was a perfectly proper and respectable course of action. It is therefore understandable when some commentators like Westermann suppose that the author of Genesis approved of her action. Yet a close reading of the text suggests that von Rad and Zimmerli are right to hold that the narrator regards their action as a great mistake. There is first the general consideration that Sarai’s proposal seems to be the normal human response to the problem of childlessness in the ancient world, whereas the promise of a real heir in 15:4 suggests something abnormal would happen. Second, the way in which Sarai takes the initiative to solve a problem instead of waiting for the LORD’s intervention smacks of Abram’s approach in 12:10-20, where in a difficult situation he called Sarai his sister. Third, close attention to the wording of vv. 2-3 suggests the narrator’s disapproval, for he clearly alludes to Gen. 3. ‘Abram obeyed his wife.’ The fact that the phrase ‘obey,’ literally ‘listen to the voice,’ occurs only here and in Gen. 3:17 would be suggestive on its own. …That this is more than a chance allusion to the fall seems to be confirmed by v 3, where further echoes of that narrative are found.[v]
Even the wording that ‘Sarai took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife (16:3)’ is similar to Eve giving the forbidden fruit to her husband Adam to partake of.
What is he saying? That by listening to Sarai’s solution, Abram was disobeying what God had earlier promised, that he would have a son (Gen. 15). The conflict between Sarai and Hagar escalated to the point where when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she despised her mistress. In anger, Sarai confronts Abram about the problem. Gordon Wenham relates Abram’s response.
Abram tried to mollify his wife, by reaffirming her authority over her maid. Whether he was justified in simply reasserting the status quo ante is more dubious for Hagar as she was now his wife and the mother of his child and therefore worthy of his protection.[vi]
It did not negate Sarai’s anger and the conflict escalated until Hagar fled for safety into the wilderness. It is interesting that the word used there for ‘fleeing’ is the same word when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt from slavery.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT IN NAVIGATING THROUGH THE TROUBLE WATERS OF FAMILY LIFE IS THE ACTUAL DECISION MADE THROUGH DIFFICULTY
Most people do not want to make difficult decisions. We either let circumstance dictate what determines our path, or we will only do something when it hurts enough that we have to. Some people become trapped in conflicted situation. Abram (Abraham) is seen abdicating his role. He was in personal turmoil. His house was not in order. Hurt and anger were simmering into a cauldron ready to explode. Sarah came to Abraham demanding that he cast out Hagar, her handmaiden and the child that came of Hagar’s union with Abraham. This was not the first time that this issue had come to a head. It was an awful situation to be in. Domestic disharmony can make life almost unbearable and intolerable. Solomon understood what domestic disharmony could be like when he penned the following proverbs.
Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.[vii]
He framed it a little differently later in the same chapter.
Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.[viii]
Before we think that the Scriptures is one-sided in this evaluation, these proverbs could just as easily state that it would be better to live in a desert than with an angry and abusive husband.
What was Abraham to do? He had two women and his children quarreling. What could he do? He felt a moral responsibility for his son, Ishmael. Have you ever been caught in a moral dilemma? Have you ever wondered what to do in the midst of conflict? The first thing is to bring these things to God in prayer and allow God to speak a word of wisdom into the situation.
A. God spoke into the situation.
But God said to him, ‘do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.[ix]
God told Abraham to listen to the counsel of his wife, Sarah. Some of you ladies are probably nudging your husbands. There are times when husbands need to listen to their wives, but there are times when we must obey God and ignore the counsel when we think it conflicts with God’s word. When what is asked, God does not support, we need to speak to the issue. It would have been wise for Adam not to have listened to Eve in the garden. Abraham would have been far wiser not to have listened to his wife Sarai regarding taking Hagar in the first place. What I notice about both of those situations is that these decisions flew in the face of God’s counsel. This suggests that we need to know God’s will in the major decisions. Here, God gives to Abraham some comforting assurances. God promises that Ishmael will be fine.
I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’[x]
What can we learn from this intervention by God? As children of God, we can be assured that we too will be blessed by God for the sake of God’s son, Jesus, and what He provided for us at Calvary. We can also be assured that our obedience brings blessings into our homes.
B. The challenge of obedience.
Doing what God wants is not always the easy thing to do. In the next verse we discover why Abraham was such a man of faith. Obedience is the demonstration of faith. Once Abraham knew what God wanted him to do, regardless of how difficult it was, he moved on it, immediately.
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.[xi]
Abraham made sure that they were provided for. Once we know what God wants us to do, we ought to do it right away. The longer we procrastinate in doing the right thing, the more time we give to the enemy to talk us out of it. Many times doing the right thing is not the easy thing. But it is the thing that God want us to do.
Dealing with difficult relational issues are challenging because we cannot control how others will respond. There have been times in my life where I have had to go and make amends for something I did. Sometimes the most difficult times to apology or ask forgiveness is when the other person has also been in the wrong. We may be afraid that by going, they may feel justified; that they were right, but that is not the issue. Regardless of what they say or do, when we are wrong we need to ask forgiveness for our wrong. We cannot control their response, nor should we. How many would think that if God suggests a course of action that it ought to turn out like a fairy tale and everybody wins, and they all lived happily ever after? It did bring domestic harmony into Abraham’s relationship with Sarah, but it also triggered a crisis in the life of Hagar and Ishmael. There are always consequences to sinful choices in life, and people suffer as a result. However, we will see that God does bring about a blessing, even in the lives of Hagar and Ismael.
THE THIRD MOVEMENT OF NAVIGATING THROUGH THE TROUBLE WATERS OF FAMILY LIFE IS THE RESULTS OF OBEDIENCE
What were the outcomes for the various members of this extended household? Abraham, Sarah and Isaac moved forward, even though Abraham felt a loss. Abraham’s generosity to Hagar and Ishmael only provided sustenance in the desert for a limited time. Eventually the supplies ran out. As bad as that was, the real crisis was Hagar’s perspective of the situation. Obviously it was painful and difficult to be rejected. Life was now a struggle as she was now a single mother raising a young teen age son. Ishmael was thirteen years old at this juncture, a critical age for his development.
She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone she put the boy under one of the bushes.
Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.[xii]
A number of things strike me about this part of the passage and this is the part that really gripped me. All Hagar could see was the distress she was in. She could only see the pain and difficulties that the conflict had brought into her life. We need to remember that she had not chosen any of this: she was a slave. First given to be, in one sense, a surrogate to bear a child for Sarah, and now tossed aside. She may have sat down, angry and bitter toward Sarah, and even Abraham. She probably thought, ‘If he only had some guts, he would have stood up to Sarah.’ Generally, this is how most people in the natural handle the effects of conflict. They blame other people for the situation they are in. In her case as a slave, she had little power over her life and there was no recourse for her.
It is interesting how often in our lives all we can see are the overwhelming problems. When that becomes our focus, we are then blinded to God’s promises and provisions for our lives. I’m confident that Abraham had shared with Hagar the word that God had spoken to him regarding his son, Ishmael – that Ishmael would be a nation. This would suggest not only survival, but a future, and ultimately God’s blessing on their lives.
Hagar could only see death. She could not bear to witness his death so she removed herself away from him. The promise was probably taunting her. ‘Yeah! Right, Abe! Kick us out with all kinds of fancy words, but we are on the verge of dying.’ Yet God heard the tears of young Ishmael under the bush, and God spoke the word He has promised to Abraham directly to Hagar. It is usually in crisis that we call out to God, and we can be assured that God hears our cry.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”[xiii]
Notice what prompted her despair. Fear! Fear is really an absence of faith. Too often we give into our fears. We lose sight of God’s promises and blessings for our lives. We lose sight of God’s provisions for us. They are there, but our fears, anger, and pain blurs our perspective until all we see is “death”. We lose sight of the life principle.
What does God challenge Hagar to do? To get up! To lift someone else up! To take someone else by the hand. What a marvelous principle! The times I’m most in need, the times that I’ve lost perspective and see only death, that’s the time I need to be a blessing in someone else’s life. We need to focus on someone else and take our eyes off ourselves. Now notice what happened.
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she when and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.[xiv]
Our problems, pain, and perspective blinds us to the truth! They blind us to reality. God opened her eyes and she saw the provision of God in the midst of her pain and sorrow. God is there in our lives. He is there in our conflicts. He is there in our rejections and sorrows. He is there in our difficulties. He is there in our needs. There is a well of life in the place of death! What was the end result? Exactly what God had told Abraham. Exactly what he had told Hagar.
God would be a father to the boy. What an amazing statement. God promised to be with the boy.
God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.[xv]
You cannot be a nation without first starting with a wife and family. God did exactly what He had promised!
Where are you at today? A place of conflict? A place where a difficult decision needs to be made? A place of rejection? A place of destitution? We need to hear from God. We need to find out what He wants us to do, even though it may be painful and difficult. Maybe you are wondering about God’s promises and provision? Maybe you have lost sight of God. Your problems seem to be a greater reality to you at this time than the goodness of God. I want you to hear the voice of God today. I pray that He opens your eyes. There is a well of salvation, a well of blessing, a well of deliverance for you. Get up from your weeping, and begin to bless those around you with what you do have, and God will provide for your needs. When we call out to God, He hears our cry!
[i] Dave Johnson, ‘The Light Behind the Star,’ (Sisters, OR: Questar Publishers, 1989), 13-15 as quoted in Dennis Rainey, Staying Close: Stopping the Natural Drift Toward Isolation in Marriage, (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1989), 3-4.
[ii] Genesis 21:1-10, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] Genesis 16:1-6.
[iv] Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 445.
[v] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2000), 7.
[vi] Ibid, 8.
[vii] Proverbs 21:9.
[viii] Proverbs 21:19.
[ix] Genesis 21:12.
[x] Genesis 21:13.
[xi] Genesis 21:14.
[xii] Genesis 21:14c-16.
[xiii] Genesis 21:17-18.
[xiv] Genesis 3:19.
[xv] Genesis 21:20-21.