After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight.” Gen. 16:3-4
It is worth noting is that scripture never states it was God’s idea, or plan, for Abram to sleep with Hagar. Often people who are ignorant of the content of the bible mention passages such as this, or mention the multiple wives and concubines of some prominent biblical figures such as David and Solomon. We have every reason to believe these instances are true; and yet this does not diminish God in any way – it exalts God if nothing else; it shows that God is both loving and forgiving, and still willing to work with, and bless, imperfect men who did not take His best advice on marriage.
The bible is largely recorded history of actual people, and their interactions with God. Men sin, men make mistakes, and as such, it is recorded plainly. What is not recorded is any sort of condoning of this practice by God. In fact, by example through Adam and Eve, and reinforced by Jesus the Messiah, it seems God’s best intention for man involves one woman for one man, for life, in marriage. I am referring to when Jesus was questioned about divorce in Matthew 19 by some Pharisees. Jesus’ response to the question of divorce revealed God’s heart on the marital bond as Jesus quoted directly from Genesis:
“Male and Female he created them” – Gen. 1:27
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Gen. 2:24
Jesus then finalizes His statement with “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matt. 19:6)
In this instance with Hagar, it is more plausible that Abram and Sarai are following a culturally acceptable practice in the event the woman is barren, so children can come by some imperfect means rather than none. Abram is a man and therefore is not perfect, though he, and us, are specifically called to be perfect in Genesis 17:1. It is interesting to note that in this time, it would have been permissible under the local court system for Abram to divorce Sarai (or the court to force the dissolution*) because of her barrenness prolonging for 10 years – which is how long they had been in Canaan (Gen. 16:3). Though Abram could divorce Sarai, he did not.
It would seem quite obvious in hindsight that the better choice for Abram would have been to hold on to the promise of God concerning his descendants with the understanding it would come from his first wife. Unfortunately this is not what Abram does – he sleeps with Hagar in hopes to attain a son. It was written in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.” And so it appears that once Hagar became Abram’s wife, even if God disapproved, it was still God’s will that he uphold the marital bond – even with a second wife – rather than divorce.
And so we see the heart of God on marriage: He does not advocate multiple wives, yet if that situation exists, the importance of the bond of marriage prevails over the sin of adultery in some mysterious way. Malachi 2:16 states “”For I hate divorce” declares the LORD God of Israel.”
(* The relevant law is based on Yev. 64a and Tosefta Yev. 8:4)