I've been studying Genesis 15-16 and I am wondering, why was it wrong for Abram to have a child through Hagar?

After all, it was a common practice in those times that if a woman were barren, she could have a child via a surrogate mother and it would be considered her child. It was a completely normal cultural practice so it wouldn't have been unheard of for Sarai to suggest it and Abram to agree to it.

I was looking over God's promises to Abram and all God says is that he would have a promised heir from his own body and that his descendants would be numerous. Nowhere does it specifically state that it had to be through Sarai physically (not via a surrogate). So why do we view the Hagar/Ishmael deal as a big blunder in Abram's life? Why wasn't God more specific?

Why couldn't the heir have been Ishmael?

3 Answers 3


According to a literal interpretation of the text:

It depends on what you mean by wrong. Looking at the narrative totally and literally, Abraham could not have known that the promised nation would come through Sarah's offspring, since God did not tell him that until after the birth of Ishmael. In Genesis 12, God promises Abram three (main) things:

  1. I will show you a land, Canaan, which I will give to your descendants.
  2. I will make you a nation
  3. I will bless you.

God continues to make these promises clearer as the narrative continues. In Genesis 13, God elucidates

  1. I will give the land, Canaan, to you and your descendants forever.
  2. I will make your descendants number greater than the sands of the Earth you can count.

Note that these aren't strictly new promises. God is revealing his plan to Abram as he is carrying it out. God has not revealed to Abram how these things will come about, but only "I will do this." Up to this point, Abram has no children, he is getting older, and so is his wife. Genesis 15 reveals that as far as Abram knew, a servant of his would inherit his estate, since he had no son. It's not until this point, many years after he originally revealed himself to Abram, that God actually promises a son to Abram. He says:

Genesis 15:4-6 This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

So, God further specifies his promises to Abram. Only now does he begin to reveal to Abram how his plan will come to pass:

  1. I will make for you an heir of your own body.
  2. I will make your descendants number greater than the stars you can count.
  3. Your descendants will sojourn in a foreign land for 400 years, where they will be oppressed and enslaved.
  4. They will come out of oppression with many possessions.
  5. You will die at an old age, at peace.
  6. This will happen from this place in the fourth generation.

Abram had received promises from God before, but notice that it's on this day that God makes a covenant with Abram. A covenant is different than a promise, as a covenant is an agreement of a legal nature that holds both sides of the agreement to certain terms. The terms of the covenant have not yet been revealed, or at least the terms of the covenant at that point are not described as to go beyond the ritualistic practice of the animal sacrifice described in the passage.

Now, Sarai's barrenness and Hagar her maidservant only just now come full view into the narrative in Genesis 16. Abram has been living in Canaan for ten years at this point. He's eighty-six years old- sixteen years older than his father was when he and his brothers were born. God has not yet told him when his heir would be born. God has not yet told him by whom his heir would be born. As far as we can know, the terms up to this point of the covenant God made with Abram did not include Sarai. Given the practice described in the question, Abram was just trying to accomplish something according to the promise of God that he had no power to do himself. Only God could make Abram into a nation, Abraham's vanity was to think he could do it himself. In the same way, only God can bring us into that nation, our vanity is to think we can do it ourselves.

A resounding truth pops out of the text in regard to your question, and it can be observed in almost every other biblical narrative: God often withholds specific instruction. He obscures and hides the totality of his plan, always leaving room for men to act righteously or unrighteously. Had Abram acted righteously, with perfect patience, we would be discussing his only son, Isaac. But graciously and thankfully for Abram, it is belief that God counts as righteousness, and not perfect right action. Indeed, God ignores Abram's unrighteous impatience when he says (in Gen 22:2), "Take your only son up to the mountain..."

We see fully the blunder of Abram's impatience because we can count its consequences- we have the benefit of bearing whiteness to The Heir According to the Promise, Jesus, who is the Messiah. Because we have seen him and known him, we know that the heir could not have been of Ishmael because he was not- it was by Isaac that Abraham's seed, who is Messiah, was born according to Sarah's freedom and the miraculous power of God, and not as a result of Hagar's bondage and the impatience of flesh. Abram did not know this, as God did not reveal it to him until after Ishmael's birth, in Genesis 17.

  • 1
    It seems possible that God told Abram something to the effect that the promise would be fulfilled through Sarai that isn't written in the text. The fact that God says this is at least a suggestion that Abram should have understood God's words to mean it. God does not have trouble making himself understood.
    – mojo
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 12:24
  • Thanks for your answer. All in all, I was having trouble with understanding why Abram's choice to have Ishmael was seen as the worst blunder in history (or at least that's how preachers make it out to be), when he wasn't told that a promised son HAD to be from Sarah.
    – noblerare
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 17:01
  • @mojo That's a good point, but from a literalist perspective, the answer assumes that it's not the case. If Abram had known that the promised son would come through Sarai, it seems unlikely that he would lay with Hagar to appease her, but instead say, "God has promised me an heir by you, not your servant." I do not think Abram was being disobedient. Re your last sentence, God does not have trouble making himself understood to the extent he wants to be understood. He often chooses to obscure knowledge. He chooses people who trust him despite this lack of knowledge.m
    – Andrew
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:25
  • 1
    It seems at least plausible to think that Abraham could have second-guessed his own understanding of what God told him because of the extended time that had already elapsed since God made the promise (11 years or more). I don't think this is contrary to a literalist perspective, unless that perspective requires the text to be exhaustive in its details.
    – mojo
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:43

In fact, Abraham had other children besides Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 25:1), but Romans 9:7-9 says,

and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." (8) This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (9) For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son."

Verse 7 in Romans 9 above is a quotation of what the Lord said in Genesis 21:12, while verse 9 is quoted from Genesis 18:10, 14.

So, yes, the Lord did promise that He would establish His covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah bore to Abraham (Genesis 17:21).

It is true that all these were made explicit only after Abram took Hagar as his wife, that is, after the events recorded in Genesis 16. Indeed, it is possible that Abram could have thought that the promised offspring could be through a wife other than Sarai. However, his dialogue with the Lord in Genesis 15 suggests that up to that point he had expected the promised offspring to come from Sarai.

  • Both of these passages from Genesis take place after Ishmael is born. I read the question to pertain to what God told Abram before Sarai gave him Hagar.
    – mojo
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 12:27

Simple. Look at the miracle it was for Sarah to have a child. If you read Romans 9, Paul outlines the importance of Sarah having a child at 90. After all, Abraham, around 137+ years old, was able to father more children after Sarah's death when he married Keturah (Genesis 25). So the miraculous was more miraculous that a woman, 90 years old, past menopause, and barren her whole life, would get pregnant and produce a healthy child. Both Abraham and Sarah knew this would come through their union (Genesis 16:5 "May the Lord judge between you and me"), but Sarah grew impatient and chose to use a surrogate. However, a child born of a woman of childbearing age (Hagar) was not so miraculous. Isaac was. So, God displayed His power and His existence by allowing an old (though still beautiful), barren, long-past-menstruating woman to give birth--which was His plan all along. The birth of Isaac displayed to the world for all time that, indeed, God Most High for whom "nothing is impossible" exists. And this Supreme God Most High would reveal Himself and His plan for humankind through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the word of their testimony and His reality.


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