February 15, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Stephen J. Nichols

Posted On February 21, 2018

Stephen Nichols
“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
—Genesis 16

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow.


Okay, let’s begin to count the difficulties in this text. It’s a train wreck, this text. Let’s start listing all the cars that are piled up. First, there’s adultery. Now it’s maybe argued that this is a cultural practice but let’s call it what it is; this is adultery. So the first piece of this mess is of this text of Genesis 16 is adultery. Secondly, we have bitter conflict. Almost like a ricocheting bullet through this text. Hardly anyone escapes from this passage without experiencing or contributing to bitter and intense conflict. If we go to Sarah, on her part there’s, initially, mistrust in God. If we were to go back to read Genesis 12-15, what would we find? Again and again is repeated, “A great nation is going to come from you Abram.” And, here we find Sarah very impatient; she was tired of waiting and we see mistrust. And then, what do we see? Manipulation on her part. And so, rather than trusting in God, she manipulates the situation to accomplish what she thinks needs to be accomplished. And then, what do we see? We see her turning on Hagar. Then we see deception. She’s the one who held Hagar in contempt but what does she say? She accuses Hagar of viewing her with contempt. And then to top off the list, she’s cruel. She’s harsh, she’s mean in her treatment of Hagar. She’s mistrusting, she’s manipulative, she’s deceptive, and she’s cruel.

How about Abraham, how does he do? Well, at the very best, we could say, he lacks leadership in this situation. Now, he too may just simply resort to cultural practices. I believe, if we trust the note in the Reformation Study Bible, that it was in the code of Hammurabi that it was up to the owner of the servant to do with the servant as the servant wanted to do. And so, if the wife had a servant that was her maid servant, then the husband would leave it to the wife to determine what course of action the wife would take with her maid servant. So, when he says to her in verse 6, “Well, she’s your servant, do with her what you want,” he’s just simply following a cultural practice. At best, it’s a lack of leadership. At worst, it’s a total abdication of his role. So, he doesn’t necessarily come out the best, he does not do anything to head off this collision course with Sarah and Hagar.

And then there’s Hagar. In verse 6, she flees—she shouldn’t. She becomes a fugitive, a runaway slave. It is not within her prerogative to flee. In fact, we know this because as we dip down into verse 9, the angel of the Lord says to her, “Return and submit.” So, she’s having submission issues when we find her in verse 6. And, if we were to move outside of this story and jump ahead to a few chapters, we would find that this collision course continues and once again she flees. And this time when she flees and Abraham sends her away, now Ishmael is a young child and he is at significant risk. But, here she is, a pregnant woman, and what does she do? She goes on the way to Shur. Now, no one goes to Shur. Shur is a wilderness, a desert. It’s southwest of Israel, northeast of Egypt, and it’s a buffer land. Egypt built a wall, a fortress, on the one side of Shur to protect itself. And, she wasn’t going to Shur, she was on the way to Shur,; it was the ancient Egyptian highway. It went right from the Nile Delta and traveled through this wilderness area, and hugged the Mediterranean coast as it went on up into the reaches of Assyria. From there travelers would go on into what would become Babylon. She was going back home. She was an Egyptian and she’d had enough of this ill treatment. She was a fugitive and she was going back home.

And then, there’s this child, Ishmael. This great line from American literature— three words, “Call me Ishmael.” What power Melville picked up in that line. You know this is going to be a great novel, if someone can write those three words right out of the gate. Who is this Ishmael? He’s a wild donkey of a man. He’s always out to get someone and someone’s always out to get him. Prepositions are very important here; he doesn’t dwell along side of his kinsmen, he doesn’t even dwell near his kinsmen, he doesn’t even dwell away from his kinsmen. He dwells over and against his kinsmen.

This chapter is an absolute train wreck of a chapter. In fact, honestly, I think it’s chapters like this that give us credence to believe in inerrancy and the authority of the text. Why would we, in our right minds, put out texts that make our founders look like this? This is Father Abraham. I’d hide this incident, I wouldn’t put it out there for the whole world to see. But, into all of this, we might even want to say, despite all of this, let’s see what God does. Let’s see how the God of Abraham shows up.

God shows up in this text. Hagar is on the way to the wilderness. She’s pregnant. We don’t know how far along she is in the pregnancy, but she’s pregnant. And, we assume that she’s on her own entirely. And she is in a precarious position in a desert, alone, and she finds this spring on the way to Shur and she stops at it. And, coming to her is the angel of the Lord. Now, this could be a theophany or this could be a Christophany, or this could simply be an angel. Either way, this angel of the Lord figure is going to directly speak to her either as God or from God. Let’s not gloss over that. This is an Egyptian servant. This is upending cultural practices. She is a nobody. She is an absolute nobody on the social scale. This is scandalous.

And through this angel of the Lord figure, God is going to speak to her directly. Now, this angel of the Lord rebukes her. The message from God is to rebuke her, return, submit. But then, there is a blessing that comes. The blessing is that from your offspring there will be a multitude. Remember, and go back to the beginning of Genesis 16:1, baroness is a horrible thing in the Old Testament. As a famine in the land is a horrible thing, so baroness as a woman is a horrible thing. Children, offspring, meant your very existence in life. Remember Naomi, without sons and without grandsons, she is nothing; she’s empty, she calls herself.

So, this promise of offspring is a huge blessing culturally, in verse 10. This promise of a great multitude is a huge blessing in this ancient near-Eastern culture. But, we go on to learn that there’s going to be conflict coming from this offspring. There’s going to be enmity between this offspring and offspring we don’t know about yet, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac.

But, two things happen here that are very important. One is that we get this editorial that the Lord has listened to your affliction. That God hears and by hearing He takes notice. Egyptian slave women were not to be heard, they were not to be taken notice of. And then, not only does this angel of the Lord listen, but this angel of the Lord sees. And, isn’t this a beautiful thing; Hagar becomes a theologian in verse 13. And, there’s all sorts of things happening in this text as well, just as Egyptian slaves are not noticed, Egyptian slaves do not name things. It’s not in their prerogative to name places and she names this well that’s going to play a role as the narrative continues to unfold. It’s remarkable. And, what an astute name she gives to it— The Place Where God Sees. Because, as she says in verse 13, “You are a God of seeing.” Hagar gives us a divine name. Hagar becomes a theologian and gives us a divine name. This divine name that only occurs once in the pages of the Bible, “El Roi.” Now, when I was growing up we had to clarify. E, L, space, R, O, I, because, Elroy was the name of the dog on the Jetsons. Okay, so, this is not that! This is the God who sees. And, to say that God sees doesn’t really tell us something that we don’t already know. So, when we say God sees, what are we saying? We’re saying that He does something about what He sees. We know God sees. So, when we’re saying God sees, what we’re really saying is, God takes care of us. And, by us here, I mean an Egyptian slave who was a runaway. It’s not simply the God of Abraham that we praise, it’s the God of Hagar that we praise.

So, this is God who sees, this God who cares, this God who is intimately involved. Even notice the way the angel of the Lord interacts with Hagar, “Where did you come from and where have you gone?” And, the answer to both of those questions are already known. This is exactly, this is precisely how God has been interacting with human beings from the very first pages of Genesis— “Adam, where are you?” And, God knows exactly where He is and Adam, “What have you done?” And, God knows exactly what he has done. And so, what is the point of the rhetorical questions but not to stress how intimately God is involved in the lives of human beings. And, everything in this text is ordinary. A spring along a road is ordinary. It’s odd to us how Hagar becomes the bearer of Abraham’s child, but culturally, there is nothing extraordinary about this. This was a very typical cultural practice. This chapter is rife with ordinariness. And, it’s right into the midst of the ordinariness, between an ordinary slave next to an ordinary spring, that we have this revelation of who God is. This shouldn’t surprise us. Didn’t it happen over in Genesis 15:17? Here we are, in this wonderful text, reading this covenant between God and Abraham, and Abraham is off in his deep sleep and here’s God going between the animals, and what does verse 17 say? That when the sun had gone down and it was dark, “Behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.”

Do you know, everything about that is ordinary? The sun always goes down, darkness always comes. This is just day becomes night. A smoking pot— we don’t usually walk around with smoking pots unless we’re Anglicans and we like incense. And, a flaming torch, we don’t usually do that; we just have a little button on the bottom of our phone that sheds light. They seem extraordinary to us, but culturally these are ordinary objects. But how these ordinary objects transform and become the very divine presence! And, they’re majestic and they’re awe inspiring. We have this image of the smoking pot and the flaming torch, and we begin to get an insight into who God is. Here we have a very ordinary young lady in a very ordinary setting in a very ordinary circumstance, odd to us, and it’s in that precise moment that God reveals Himself to her as the God who cares. And, this happens again and again and again in the pages of Genesis.

But, why do we sing, “The God of Abraham praise?” Why do the biblical authors say, “the God of Jacob?” Why if not to remind us of these concrete moments in time where God reveals who He is and how He takes care of His people. And, let’s not forget who Jacob was. And, let’s not forget what Jacob was capable of; he was a scoundrel from the beginning. He’s a character right out of a Steinbeck novel who’s trying to mess everything up. And, let’s not forget about who Isaac was and all of his shortcomings. And yet, it’s the “God of Isaac.” And, Abraham is full of flaws and it’s, “The God of Abraham.” Now, this is not to say that we use any of these patriarchs as a model for our behavior. Genesis 16 is not a didactic text. It does not end with, “and go and do likewise.” They’re wrong, they’re in sin, and this sinfulness of these patriarchs is going to ricochet through their lives and cause destruction. And, we haven’t even begun to see the train wreck in Genesis 16 between Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac. We haven’t even begun to see the train wreck that is caused by the sin that is in this chapter.

But, how is this not the graciousness of God that not despite of, but in the midst of our sinning and our rebellious ways, He shows up and He cares for us, He reveals Himself to us, and He reminds us that we are His and that He is our God? This is the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac. This is the God of Hagar. This God who sees.

And so now, there is a well. It’s identified for us in Genesis 14 as a well between Kadesh and Bered, and it’s named Beer La Hai Roi. It’s there to remind us that God is a God who sees. I had you sing, “God of Abraham Praise.” Would you look at that with me? No. 34 in your hymnal. I started to tell you the story of this hymn. Thomas Olivers, from what we can understand, lost his parents at the age of 4. He was very poor and he was apprenticed somewhere probably around the age of 10-12 for what would be a lifetime of, basically, servitude, and not even blue collar work; low collar work for the rest of his life. And, right about that time, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers started going precisely to this demographic by the tens of thousands and they preached to them the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Thomas Olivers was converted listening to the preaching of George Whitefield. He went on to join up with Wesley and become a Methodist circuit preacher, and he also spent significant time in the city of London. And one night, he was attending a service at a Jewish synagogue because he loved music. And, he had heard this singer Myer Lyon at Covent Garden in the theatre. And, he heard that he is also a Cantor at a synagogue. And, he’s, you know, a wise man. “Do I shell out another few shillings to go hear him sing at the theatre or do I just go to the synagogue and get in for free and hear him sing there?” And he walked into the synagogue and he heard just the most amazing tune, the tune that we just sang. Afterwards, he arranged to meet Myer Lyon and they struck up a friendship and the two of them collaborated on this hymn. Now, we have six verses in our hymnal; there’s actually twelve. But, the first four were only written together. And, they’re very Old Testament, aren’t they? You don’t really get out of the Old Testament in the first four verses. This really is very much the God of Abraham that we are talking about.

But, in between, and some of the ones that are cut out and that you don’t have, we move away from the God of Abraham and we move to the God Man. And so, we have a little taste of that in what has been preserved for us in the Trinity Hymnal in the sixth stanza:

“The whole triumphant host, give thanks to God on high. Hail Father, Son, and Holy Ghost they ever cry! Hail Abraham’s God, this triune God, who’s also mine.”

See, the beauty of the story is not that God simply heard the sorrow of a woman at a spring. The beauty of the story is not only that He saw a woman at a spring, or that He even took care of this woman at a spring and paved the way for her to return back to her mistress. The beauty of the Christian story is that the God Man stood face to face with a woman at a well and He said to her, “Drink from me and you will have rivers of life, water abundant.”

It’s not just that God hears and sees, is it? It’s that the God Man took on flesh and He didn’t see us from a distance, but He met us face to face and He gives us eternal life.

Transcripts are lightly edited.