Abram, Sarai, and Surrogate Motherhood
The celebrated case of "Baby M." has recently focused public attention on the reality and problems of surrogate motherhood in modern society. In that particular instance, a married woman with children agreed to be artificially inseminated so that she would bear a baby for a childless couple. However, when the due date arrived the hired mother did not want to give up her newborn infant as the contract had stipulated. It took the courts to resolve the matter (in favour of the father, i.e. the childless couple).
Such phenomena were unthinkable when traditional views of marriage, consistent with a Christian outlook, prevailed and they remind us that we are in a post-Christian era and are entering what is essentially an age of modern paganism. Yet here, too, the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9 are applicable: "there is nothing new under the sun." Surrogate motherhood was also known in the days of the patriarchs, as the actions of Abram with respect to Hagar show (Genesis 16:1-4; cf. also Genesis 30:1-13). It may be instructive to consider this situation briefly.
Abram and Sarai's Dilemma and Action
The LORD had promised Abram that he would become a great nation (Genesis 12:2). His offspring would be like the dust of the earth,
so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.Genesis 13:16
However, as time passed doubts rose in Abram's heart whether he and Sarai would ever receive a child and he saw no way out but that Eliezer his servant would be heir. This would have been in accordance with the customs of those days by which a childless man could adopt his most trusted servant or slave so that he would receive the inheritance. But God assured him:
This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir. And He brought him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.' Then He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' And he believed the LORD and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:4-6). So Abram went in faith.
But the life of faith did not go without struggle and stumbling. Abram and Sarai became 85 and 75 years old respectively.
It had been ten years since they had left Haran and God had promised them offspring (cf. Genesis 12:4; 16:3). Still the LORD had not given them a child. Now God had clearly indicated that Eliezer was not to be the heir so that avenue was cut off. There was, however, another route open for childless couples at that time who desired offspring; namely, the custom of surrogate motherhood, whereby a female slave was to be given by the childless wife to her husband to provide offspring. For example, a second-millennium adoption and marriage contract in part reads:
if Kelim-ninu (the bride) does not bear children, Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman of the land of Lullu (where slaves were obtained) as wife for Shennima (the bridegroom). (See J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 220.) Certain sections (144-147) of the famous eighteenth century B.C. law code of Hammurabi reflect similar and related customs (Ibid., 172).
It was this route that Sarai followed and so hoped to receive the child of promise.
Sarai said to Abram, 'Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.Genesis 16:2
Abram complied. As a child of his times he was familiar with this custom. The slave's name was Hagar and she conceived. What happened here is what happened elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In principle it is also identical to surrogate parenting as practiced today. A significant difference is that not a stranger, but a member of Abram's household was involved.
As can be expected when the marriage relationship is violated and maternal feelings are aroused in a third party, miseries developed (cf. also Genesis 30:1-13). In the case before us, Hagar began to despise Sarai, who in turn humiliated her slave so that she ran away. In effect she chose death rather than continued servitude, for as a pregnant woman she fled into the wilderness (cf. Genesis 16:7).
The LORD'S Response
In mercy God worked for the restoration of the original relationships and clearly indicated that Abram was not to receive the promised seed by a surrogate mother in the person of Hagar. He had to live by faith in God's promise of seed.
The angel of the LORD told Hagar to return to her mistress and to submit to Sarai (Genesis 16:9). He also said,
I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude.Genesis16:10
These words are important for they indicate that the child that had been conceived is to be considered Hagar's ("your descendants") and not Abram and Sarai's in the first place. Thus Hagar's identity as surrogate mother for Sarai is denied.
Yet, the relationship with Abram is not overlooked. The child was also Abram's and through this child Hagar will share in Abram's blessing. She too will have an innumerable offspring, but it will have its own identity (Genesis 16:12; cf. also Gen. 17:20, 21; Genesis 21:13). Abram apparently was not aware of all this and assumed that Ishmael was the promised seed (cf. Genesis 17:18).
Ishmael was born because Sarai and Abram wanted to realize the promises of God in their own way, according to the human wisdom of the day. This was the way of the flesh. Apparently because of the early stage in the history of revelation and the times in which they lived, the LORD tolerated and did not specifically condemn this disruption of the marriage bond (cf. Exodus 21:4). Indeed, He even used this custom in his own sovereign way (cf. also Genesis 30:1-13). It was not until fifteen years after the Hagar affair, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90,both as good as dead (cf. Hebrews 11:11, 12; Romans 4:18-21), that God fulfilled His promise and gave new life so that Sarah conceived and bore Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). He was born by the power of the Spirit (Galatians 4:29) in faith (Hebrews 11:11,12). So Abraham became father, the father of all believers. We who are also children of Abraham by the same life-giving Spirit may likewise live by faith in this the last age. That also means that we will regard current surrogate parenting as a regression to the customs of heathendom, to the ways of the former "times of ignorance" (Acts 17:30). Although God tolerated much then, today our and our civilization's responsibilities weigh much heavier, since we have received His full revelation and we know full well how our Lord hates any weakening of the marriage bond (cf. also Matthews 19:4ff.).