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Why would a wife ever urge her husband to have an affair with another woman who was living and serving in their home? Is this action approved by the Bible and suggested as normative for us--at least under certain kinds of conditions? Is this the biblical basis for some kind of open marriage?
What Sarai did was in accord with the practice and culture of the day. This can be seen from numerous clay tablets that come from this period of time. Thus, for example, the Code of Hammurabi, the Nuzi Tablets, the Alalakh Tablets and the Mari Tablets (all derived from approximately the larger Near Eastern area and a period of two to three centuries around the time of the patriarchs) provide for exactly the very eventuality listed here in this text. A barren wife could be credited with children that her maidservant bore to the wife's husband. A similar instance arose in Genesis 30:3, 9 concerning Rachel, and in part in Ruth 4:11. Sarai's motivation for so acting is clearly stated: "Perhaps I can build a family through her." The idea was that a family could be built with children from a concubine similar to the way a building was built with blocks.
But did it accord with the morality and ethics given by God? Abram was wrong to go along with his wife's proposal, for now it appeared that he thought he could help God to fulfill the divine promise given to him about a "seed" by indulging in polygamy. This seems to be an ancient variant on the saying "God helps those who help themselves!"
At the creation of the first couple, God had stated a strong case for monogamous relationships as being the norm for marriage. The first departure from this standard came with Lamech in Genesis 4:19, when he took two wives. But the exceptions to this rule of one wife for each man are not so numerous as first impressions may seem. Apart from the kings of Judah and Israel (wherein other considerations were also operating, such as the possibility of using the foreign wife as a hostage in order to assure compliance with treaties), there are hardly more than a dozen and a half examples of polygamous marriages in the entire Old Testament.
In the meantime, the model of the monogamous marriage was held forth throughout the Old Testament as the norm. For example, Proverbs 5:15-23 taught the same truth by means of the allegory of drinking water from one's own well (a delicate but clear figure of speech for the coital act within a monogamous marriage). Moreover, a whole book of the Old Testament was dedicated to celebrating the joys and desirability of reserving oneself for only one other person of a different sex, even if the one trying to interrupt that commitment was a wealthy king like Solomon--the book of Song of Songs.
While the Bible does not stop to moralize on Abram's cohabitation with Hagar, it nevertheless expects each reader to realize that what was taking place was contrary to the will and morality that God approved.