Can’t Shortcut the Covenant

Posted: April 15, 2018 in Genesis, Uncategorized

Genesis 16-17, “Can’t Shortcut the Covenant”

People get into trouble with shortcuts. On roadtrips, we’ll take what we think is a shortcut and end up going through the wrong town. On trails, shortcuts can be dangerous, should signage not be clearly marked. On the lighter side of things, shortcuts can get us in trouble on our phones. Use the automated suggestion or auto-correction too often on your texts, and you can end up saying things you had no intention to say!

People often look for shortcuts for many things in life (careers, money, weight loss) with varying degrees of success. But they always fail when they attempt to shortcut God. There are no shortcuts with God and His promises. We are either reliant upon His grace, or we’re not – there is no in-between, and no shortcut around Jesus. We can’t manipulate His promises, nor add to what He provides. Yet that’s exactly what we so often attempt to do.

In that, we’re no different from our biblical heroes.

Abram had followed God’s call to leave the land of Ur (Babylon) to come to Canaan. That had taken a huge leap of faith, but he soon had a lapse of faith and went down to Egypt during a time of famine. Thankfully, God intervened and Abram returned to the land of promise & he trusted in the Lord’s provision. Time passed, and Abram was forced to rescue his nephew Lot as the result of Lot’s foolishness in getting caught up with Sodom (and becoming a POW). God made Abram victorious under impossible circumstances, and Abram celebrated by worshipping God alongside Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem) & priest of El Elyon (God Most High). Abram had demonstrated his loyalty unto the Lord, and soon refused a bribery attempt from the king of Sodom. Soon after, God appeared to Abram once again with His promise, and Abram believed God, with God accounting to him righteousness. It was at that point God cut His covenant with Abram, giving him a one-sided commitment of His promise, ensuring that every word He spoke would come to pass.

They were glorious days for Abram! But time passed, and faith waned. Like the rest of us, Abram had good times & bad times in his commitment to God. There’s no doubt he trusted the Lord, but he had a difficult time seeing how God’s promises would come true. His wife Sarai was no different. Promises had been made, but the two of them were getting older, and they couldn’t understand how promises would be kept. That’s when shortcuts began to be plotted, and that’s where things started to go wrong.

What they needed is what we need: to forsake reliance upon our flesh, and to trust solely in the grace and promise of God. There are no shortcuts around it!

Genesis 16

  • Sarai’s shortcut (16:1-6)

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the LORD has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai.

  1. The problem: Sarai was barren. The inability to bear children was a tremendous burden then, as it is today. Women are often viewed as somehow faulty or “broken,” which is bad enough – but for this particular woman, it was even worse. After all, the promise given by God to her husband was that he would become a great nation. Yet he was an old man, and she was not much younger. Sarai was already past the age of child-bearing. How could God’s word come to pass? The more months that went by, the more she fell into resentment and despair. She felt like she had to do something about her problem, so she came up with a plan.
    1. What was a problem for Sarai was actually an opportunity for God’s glory to shine. She saw it as a punishment; in reality, it was providential. It was in the most impossible of circumstances that God would cause His power to be known. (Not unlike with Jesus’ resurrection!) In our weaknesses, He is strong!
  2. The “solution”: surrogate motherhood. It was legal, but it was certainly not recommended. Culturally, what Sarai proposed was acceptable, but nowhere did God ever command such a thing. This was a human idea – one born of the flesh…and it would get them all into trouble.
    1. BTW: God’s plan for marriage is always one man + one woman, humbly submitted to God & to each other, for life. There are many Biblical characters who have multiple wives, none of which were ever commanded to take multiple wives by the Lord. Any time people deviate from God’s plan for marriage, their marriages invariably hit the rocks.
  3. Notice Hagar’s ethnicity: Egyptian. Where might Sarai have acquired this maidservant? During Abram’s fall into Egypt. [Genesis 12:10-20] Abram came up out of Egypt with much wealth (including male & female servants, Gen 12:16), but not all his wealth was beneficial. Some of it was a stumbling block!
  4. This was Sarai’s plan – what was Abram’s response, when she ran it past her husband? “And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai.” Abram followed in the footsteps of Adam…not a good example! Lack of leadership – lack of faith.

3 Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. 4 So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes.

  1. They had waited 10 years, though from what starting point, we don’t know. Perhaps it was 10 years after the return from Egypt – perhaps it was 10 years after Abram’s rescue of Lot. Either way, it was a long time. That was a long time to wait, but not long enough. (God’s promises are worth waiting for!)
  2. Hagar was a wife to Abram, but she was still a slave to Sarai. Not equal footing; not a good idea. Even if they had equal footing, it still would have been a bad idea because it was still an attempt at an end-run around God’s promise.
  3. Once Hagar conceived, there were immediate problems. She “despised” Sarai, most likely thinking that she was now to be the favored wife, since she was the one soon to bear Abram’s child. Already jealousy came into play, and it didn’t bode well for the future.

5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The LORD judge between you and me.” 6 So Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.” And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.

  1. Sarai became unfairly angry. She lacked any sense of personal responsibility. This was her plan, and her treatment of Hagar as nothing more than a servant. Even then, she blames Abram for Hagar’s attitude. Everyone is to blame except herself. (Usually the first sign of a problem!)
  2. That said, Abram did bear quite a bit of blame. He lacked leadership at the first, and lacked leadership in this as well. Neither did he try to protect his first wife from her plan, nor did he protect his second wife from ungodly attack. Abram had a God-given responsibility as the head of his household, and he totally dropped the ball.
  3. Sarai took out her anger on Hagar, humbling her by how she “dealt harshly with her.” The same word could be used in one’s own humility with God, or when someone is humbled in warfare by a conquering enemy. With Sarai & Hagar, it was the latter.
    1. This was the mother of the Hebrew race! She should have known better. This is what happens when we handle problems in our flesh & selfishness. We go from bad to worse.
  4. Just as God intervened with Abram when he had his lapse of faith in Egypt, so does God intervene with Sarai when she had her lapse of faith with her Egyptian. 
  • God’s solution (16:7-16)

7 Now the Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur.

  1. 1st mention of the “Angel of the Lord.” Although it’s not always the case, usually the Angel of the Lord seems to be an appearance of the pre-incarnate Jesus. As God the Son & the Logos/Word of God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity has always existed – He simply hasn’t always had an incarnate body. That did not come until He was conceived within Mary. Yet the Son did appear several times throughout the Old Testament, for He is the image of the invisible God. Virtually any time God is physically seen by the Old Testament saints, it is an appearance of God the Son. Sometimes that appearance took place in the form of an angel, by which He would appear as a man, but with heavenly glory and authority. Here, we find this Angel speaking the very words of God in the first-person, making it very likely this is Jesus Himself.
    1. Where is Jesus in the Old Testament? Everywhere! On what page is the gospel proclaimed? From the very first, onward!
  2. To say that the Angel “found” Hagar does not mean that He lost her. Rather, it means that He intentionally searched her out. This is grace! After all, this is not a woman included in the covenant promises (apart from being a part of Abram’s house) – this is not a woman deserving of anything from the Lord God. Yet God gave grace anyway! He searched her out, and spoke to her in her time of need.
    1. Do we deserve anything from Jesus? Not in the slightest. But He searches us out, offers us grace, and brings us into a covenant we never earned.
  3. Where was Hagar headed? Back to Egypt. Scholars aren’t exactly certain about the location of “Shur,” but it seems evident it was on the road to Egypt. If she couldn’t find safety in Abram’s house, then she would go back to the only other home she knew. The sad part is that at least in Abram’s house, she had the opportunity to know the Lord (even if she never worshipped Him); in Egypt that opportunity would be lost.

8 And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”

  1. God’s question to Hagar is reminiscent of God’s questions to Adam & Eve. “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) It’s not that He lacks information; He wants Hagar to offer it. He wanted Hagar to open up to Him, confessing to Him her own need for His grace and intervention. (Have you ever felt God prodding you for a response? Perhaps even tonight!)
  2. Hagar answers honestly, but incompletely. It’s true that she fled Sarai, but that wasn’t exactly the whole story. First, she never answers the question of her destination, but (more importantly) she never mentions the reason for her flight. Sarai’s harshness might have been the reason for Hagar’s leaving, but Hagar seems to have understood that she bore some of the blame as well.
    1. If we’re going to deal with sin, we need to confess it for what it is. We need to call it by name, instead of tip-toeing around it, sanitizing it. “I’m fleeing my mistress” sounds a lot better than “I was insubordinate and disrespectful to my mistress, and I didn’t want to bear my punishment.” Likewise, “I’m lonely” sounds better than “I’m having an affair” or “I’m looking at pornography.” We come up with half-excuses, hiding our full sin. The problem is the only person we’re fooling is ourselves. God knows the truth; we may as well admit it to Him!
    2. And when we do, we find forgiveness & cleansing. (1 Jn 1:9)
  3. Hagar wasn’t as open as she needed to be, but God still reached out in grace.

9 The Angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.” 10 Then the Angel of the LORD said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.”

  1. The Angel commanded Hagar’s repentance and humility. The Hebrew word for “return” is the same one often translated “repent.” Hagar needed to repent of her attitude and her actions – she needed to turn around and go back to where she belonged. She needed to humble herself, and submit to the authority over her, even if her authority (Sarai) was unfairly angry with her. Even so, Sarai still wasn’t the highest authority – it wasn’t the final place of repentance for Hagar. Ultimately, she was to turn around and trust the plan of God. By trusting where God had placed her, she would be trusting the sovereign plans of Almighty God.
    1. Repentance & humility…that’s always God’s solution regarding sin, and it’s perfect!
    2. What better place is there than to place ourselves in the care of God? We can trust His plan for us, His provision for us, and His grace towards us. Even when we cannot immediately see something God, we can turn our eyes toward God & trust Him.
  2. The Angel also affirmed that God’s plan for Hagar was good. He had a very specific plan in mind for her and her seed/descendants. She would not bear the seed of the covenant, but she would bear a race that would be multiplied by God.

11 And the Angel of the LORD said to her: “Behold, you are with child, And you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, Because the LORD has heard your affliction. 12 He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”

  1. Why “Ishmael”? “Because the LORD has heard” her. YHWH was well aware of her “affliction” and suffering. She may not have been included in the covenant blessing, but God still knew her and heard her, being the Sovereign Creator He is. Ishmael = יִשְׁמָעֵאל; the root word being שָׁמַע (as in the “Shema,” = “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) + אֵל (God). God heard her, and God acted.
    1. God hears us, because God is merciful! He reaches out to us before we ever reach out to Him.
  2. God also gave some promises about Ishmael’s future. – Wild like a donkey. (NET) “The prophecy is not an insult. The wild donkey lived a solitary existence in the desert away from society. Ishmael would be free-roaming, strong, and like a bedouin; he would enjoy the freedom his mother sought.” His descendants would carry on that legacy, but taking it to a worse extent. Ishmael is the father of Arabic nomads, and thus one of the patriarchs of the Islamic religion.

13 Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

  1. Her son was named after the God who hears; she worshipped God as the “God-Who-Sees.” God did indeed see her, just as He sees every man, woman, and child in the world.
  2. Interestingly, there’s no indication that Hagar knew God by faith, in the same way Abram did. She does not call upon God’s covenant name, but rather appeals to the generic God of the universe. She had a direct revelation of God, but it does not seem she had any lasting faith in God.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

  1. Hagar was obedient to the Lord, and returned home to Abram and Sarai, and Abram was obedient in naming the child according to the Lord’s command. Every time he called out that name, Abram would be reminded that God heard. God heard Hagar in her suffering (the suffering which Abram had allowed), and God heard Abram in his own times of doubt. There was conviction & comfort in the name of his firstborn!

Genesis 17

  • Speaking the covenant (17:1-8)

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. 2 And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”

  1. Chapter 16 left off with Abram being 86 years old; chapter 17 opens with him being 99. 13 more years have passed before another word from the Lord comes.
  2. El Shaddai. Precise translation of “Shaddai” is unknown – current theories lend towards a destroyer or a mountain, either being symbolic of incredible power and strength. LXX normally translated it as “all-powerful” (παντοκράτωρ, though untranslated here), and Vulgate as “omnipotent,” (omnipotēns).
    1. This is our God! He is the Almighty One – He is the God with the power to build, to sustain, and even to destroy. He has destroyed the twin enemies of death and sin, and His power is without equal! He is El Shaddai, our Jesus!
  3. In light of the Almighty God, how was Abram to walk? (I.e., how was he to habitually live?) As “blameless,” like Noah (Gen 6:9). Faultless, whole, innocent, perfect. Obviously not possible without the power of the Holy Spirit & the grace of God, but that’s the point. Abram was to live his life completely dependent upon the Lord (something which was lacking in the previous chapter!). When/if he did, then he would be blameless – he would be walking in the righteousness and holiness of God.
    1. This is still the response of God’s people to God’s character. The Bible (OT and NT) tells us to be holy, as God is holy. (Lev 19:2, 1 Pt 1:15-16)
  4. What follows God’s relationship with Abram? God’s covenant with Abram. Remember, the covenant had already been made & sealed in chapter 15, with God’s glory passing through the cut/divided animals. Here, God says that He “will make” it, not meaning that it had not already been made, but that it had not yet been fulfilled. The time was at hand.
  5. The other idea is that God would make this covenant. It wasn’t Abram’s hand or Sarai’s hand that would bring these things to pass; it was God Himself.
  6. When God did so, the blessing would be tremendous! When He said that He would “multiply [Abram] exceedingly,” the Hebrew is repeated for emphasis. It might be translated, “and will multiply you exceedingly exceedingly.” God’s covenant blessing would be beyond Abram’s comprehension.

3 Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: 4 “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.

  1. “Abram” = exalted father. “Abraham” = father of nations/multitudes.
  2. Why the name change? It is due to God’s work and God’s blessing. 

6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.

  1. Abraham would have an everlasting nation.

8 Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

  1. Abraham would have an everlasting possession of land.
  2. Don’t miss the very end of the covenant promises: “and I will be their God.” This is the defining aspect of the Abrahamic covenant: faith in the true God. … This is how Gentile-born Christians can be included: Galatians 3:7–9, “(7) Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. (8) And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” (9) So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”
  • Sign of the covenant (17:9-14)

9 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.

  1. Response to the covenant: obedience.
  2. Why circumcision? It was a cutting away (removal) of flesh, symbolizing the removal of fleshly sin from a person’s life – cutting away that which would separate them from God.
  3. Note that circumcision doesn’t form the covenant relationship between God & Abraham; it is a “sign” of the covenant between them. Abraham was not saved by obedience & cutting; he was saved by God’s grace due to faith.

12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

  1. Who was to be circumcised? All males in every Hebrew household. If they were included in the covenant blessings of God given to the Hebrew nation (which was everyone within the borders & tribes), then they were to take part in the covenant sign.
  2. FYI: Why eight days old? Because according to some reports, that’s when an infant develops the ability to naturally clot blood due to a natural increase in Vitamin K in its system.

14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

  1. No circumcision, no covenant. They were to cut their flesh, or be cut off from God.
  • Son of the covenant (17:15-22)

15 Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”

  1. “Sarai” and “Sarah” both mean princess, but there was still to be a change in Sarah’s identity. Why? God’s grace and intervention.
  2. Interestingly, Sarah only ever had one child her entire life. Yet from that one child came whole nations. From that one child came the King of kings. One child born to an old woman truly changed the world!

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

  1. Abraham “laughed.” Was he being disrespectful, or unfaithful? Later, there is an incident with Sarah that implies she might have experienced a bit of that, but nothing is said her of Abraham. Here, Abraham laughed simply because it was funny. A child born to a 100 year old man & a 90 year old woman? The world had never heard of such a thing. When we think about it, it’s pretty humorous!
  2. What makes it funny is its impossibility from the standpoint of man. But that’s what makes it such a great witness of God, because with God, all things are possible!

18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” 19 Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” 22 Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

  1. Probably unsure what to fully believe about the promise of son not-yet-given, Abraham intercedes for the son he currently has (though seemingly yet unacknowledged as his heir). God refuses him, and for good reason: there is only one son of the covenant. It wouldn’t be the son born from the plans of men; it would be the son given by the power of God.
  2. Even so, Ishmael was still to be blessed. In many ways, God’s blessing upon him would mirror God’s blessing upon Isaac: 12 tribes/princes, and an exceedingly fruitful nation. God would give mercy & grace – but it would never change the fact of His covenant passing to Isaac. (“Isaac” = laughter, an ironic reminder from God of Abraham’s & Sarah’s response to the promise.)
  3. God makes one other promise: a timeframe. By this point, Abraham had waited nearly 25 years for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a descendant. Now they were barely 12 months away. There was still a bit of time to wait, but not long. The time was at hand!
  4. What was Abraham’s response to all of this? Obedience! 
  • Show of the covenant (17:23-27)

23 So Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very same day Abraham was circumcised, and his son Ishmael; 27 and all the men of his house, born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

  1. There was no delay in Abraham’s obedience. He did what was necessary to circumcise his entire household that very day.
  2. As an emphasis for how long Abraham waited, his age is stated once more. The day he was circumcised, he was 99, and his oldest son (though illegitimate) was 13. We circumcise babies within minutes (or sometimes days) of their birth…they never remember the act. No doubt Abraham & all the rest did!
    1. We’re never too old or too young to commit ourselves to following the Lord.
  3. Question: Ishmael was circumcised, but he wasn’t in the covenant, apart from experiencing the blessing of being around Abraham. There’s little to no indication that Ishmael ever had faith or passed on the knowledge of God to his descendants. What good did his circumcision do? He was circumcised in his flesh, but not in his heart. Ishmael’s act was only ritual, not accompanied by faith. Without faith, it was virtually useless. Romans 2:28–29, “(28) For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; (29) but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”


Abraham and Sarah had attempted a shortcut to God’s promises, but there was none. There is faith, or there is nothing. God would truly be abundant with His blessings, but they had to trust – they had to walk by faith. Works of the flesh did nothing but get them (and their descendants) into trouble. The flesh needed to be cut away, so they would walk in the spirit by faith, being humbly submitted to God.

Don’t rely upon shortcuts – don’t rely upon works of the flesh. Cut yourself off from those things, and rely solely upon the grace and promises of God!


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