When reading the Bible, it's always a good idea to keep in mind the context of the culture and society in which these people lived. In the Middle Eastern culture of about 2000 B.C., childlessness was considered to be just about the worst thing to happen to a married couple, especially the wife (who usually measured her worth and value by how many children she bore). To have a child (preferably many children) to carry one’s name was estimated to be a greater treasure than all the gold, silver, and material wealth one could accumulate.
Also, it must be noted that Sarai’s proposal wouldn't be as outlandish to ancient readers as it would to us; in fact, she was only suggesting a solution common to that time period. Yes, in her mind it'd be better for her husband to sleep with another woman and produce a child than for her to remain childless.
However, this is a great example of how God’s word and values must stand in judgment of our culture, not the other way around. When Jesus was asked about the propriety of divorce, he directed his listeners right back to the first two chapters of Genesis as our ideal to follow: one man united with one woman for a lifetime. Abram obviously was aware of this original pattern, and as the spiritual leader of the home, when his wife forwarded this idea his next words should've been, “Honey, I love you so much and I understand how hard this is for you, but we're doing things God’s way, not our way.”
Of course, it’s a common male fantasy to have more than one woman in one’s bed, but you certainly don’t find any sanction for it here. It's true that many of the biblical heroes had multiple wives, and you don’t often find the Lord specifically condemning it during the Old Testament time. It's also true, however, that in every instance where polygamy is recorded (not some, not most, but every single time), you have strife in the home. Sticking to God’s original plan for the home is not just moral, it’s wise.
Sadly enough, there are no real heroes in this story, but the closest thing we’ve got to one is Hagar, a female slave who was probably bought while Abram and his family stayed in Egypt. Apparently she had some concept of God, but she would be considered a Gentile, outside of God’s promises and covenant. It's particularly sad when the behavior of the Lord's people doesn’t compare favorably with “Gentiles.” But in this instance, the Lord (who always has a soft spot for underdogs) intervened and showed how he could redeem even the worst of situations. The message here is not that he condones bad choices, but when we turn to him in repentance he can redeem them and turn them into blessings.
Father God, I thank you for an unerring guide to get me past all the mistakes of my culture. Help me to judge my culture by your word, not the other way around. Help me to stick to your plan for the home, because I’m certainly not going to come up with something better.
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