The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Rethinking Ishmael

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In Christian circles, the birth of Ishmael is often referred to as the result of a big mess up on the part of Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael is the child that was never supposed to be born. He’s the major whoops, the big blemish on Abraham’s record of obedience. And yet is that how Yahweh saw him? Where does God ever say that Abraham was wrong to sleep with Hagar? He doesn’t. Not only does God not express any anger over the Ishmael event, He actually promises great blessings for Ishmael. Even more surprising, God never so much as hints that Abraham and Sarah are in trouble with Him for cooking up the Hagar plan. In fact, God intentionally withheld some critical information from Abraham to ensure that Ishmael would be born. Clearly it was God’s desire from the beginning that Abraham sleep with Hagar. If we have a correct understanding of God’s sovereignty, this should be obvious to us, for God tells us that nothing happens in His own Creation apart from His approval and help. But God also holds us accountable for the times when our souls willfully defy Him—the times when we intentionally disobey Him and try to force our own carnal agenda to happen. This is often what we accuse Abraham and Sarah of doing when we talk about Ishmael. And yet this isn’t at all what they did. There was nothing immoral or disobedient about the Hagar plan. Let’s find out why.  

Abraham lived long before the days of God’s Covenant with Israel. In his culture, it was totally acceptable for a man to have multiple wives and for a man to sleep with his wife’s slaves, thus gaining heirs for himself and continuing his family line. In Abraham’s culture, slaves were considered the property of their owners. A woman received full credit for the children her “property” produced. When we think of the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve men that those tribes are named after were all sons of Jacob, who was Abraham’s grandson. Four of Jacob’s sons (Gad, Asher, Dan & Naphtali) were birthed by the slaves of Jacob’s two wives. These men weren’t considered less Jacob’s sons than their eight brothers. In these times, it was commonplace for men to sleep with female slaves, and the children of those slaves were credited to their female masters. Children were highly prized. The attitude was “the more the merrier” and women took pride in being associated with high numbers of children, even if some cheating was involved.

Now in Genesis 15, Abraham is old and he has no kids at all yet. This is a major bummer and he’s feeling really down about it. In the absence of kids, the tradition was to make the manager of your household your heir. In Abraham’s case, that manager was a man named Eliezer. Abraham is all depressed about having no real kids to leave his stuff to when God says to him:

“Your servant Eliezer will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” (Gen. 15:4)

Notice that God doesn’t specifically say Sarah will be the mother of this son that Abraham is going to have. God then went on to block Sarah from bearing children. Rightly recognizing God’s hand at work, Sarah makes the completely logical and valid assumption that God didn’t mean she would be the biological mother of the child. God hasn’t specified who the mother will be yet, so Sarah says to Abraham:

“Look, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Gen. 16:2)

You’ll notice that God doesn’t leap into the tent at this time and say, “Wait, Abraham, not Hagar! She’s not the one I meant!” And after Abraham has done the deed, God doesn’t accuse anyone of doing wrong. Instead, Hagar gets pregnant. Well, clearly God opens and closes the womb, and clearly He is blessing this little venture, so obviously this is what He had in mind all along, right? This is a very reasonable assumption for Abraham and Sarah to make and it’s not like Yahweh pipes up with any clarification.

Now Hagar knows that her mistress is hyper-sensitive about her infertility and it’s big stuff that she’s just slept with the master. Sarah and Hagar start having nasty fights with each other which are probably fueled by Sarah’s jealous insecurities and Hagar’s flaunting of her own fertility. There is mutual abuse happening, and these people are living in tents, so it’s not like they could have it out in a back room without everyone and their mother eavesdropping. Nasty fights between Sarah and Hagar makes for major tension for Abraham. Sarah then puts the onus on Abraham by blaming him for all the nasty treatment Hagar is giving her:

You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” (Gen. 16:5)

This language freaks Abraham out–he doesn’t want to get in trouble with God. In these times people believed verbal curses had supernatural power, so when Sarah verbally transfers some kind of guilt onto Abraham’s head, he’s very upset. He tries to fix the problem by giving Sarah free rein to deal with the situation however she wants.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave is in your hands.  Do with her whatever you think best.” So Sarai treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar fled from Sarai’s presence. (Gen. 16:6)

Yahweh intervenes by personally meeting Hagar in the desert. He speaks kindly to her, He doesn’t act mad. He promises to bless her.

“I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” (Gen. 16:10)

We’re then told that Egyptian Hagar comes up with her own name for God: “The God Who Sees”. This is a big moment for her, and it was probably a key turning point in her own spiritual journey. How cool is it that God so personally comforts a frightened slave girl in the desert? Sure, Hagar was probably being a pill with Sarah, but who among us can claim to be free of all immaturity? The point is that God used this event to reach out to Hagar in a very personal way. How inspiring.

A little while later, Ishmael is born and God still doesn’t make any complaints. In the next chapter, He comes and reconfirms His covenant with Abraham. He never reams Abraham out for the Ishmael moment. Instead, He suddenly clarifies that Sarah will bear the promised child. This is the first time God has clarified who the birth mother will be.

In Chapter 18, God shows up in human form to Abraham and again confirms that Sarah will be the mother. Everyone scoffs. God makes it happen anyway. Now Abraham has two sons, both of whom would have been viewed as Sarah’s sons, but Sarah is making an unusually big deal about the fact that Hagar is the technical birth mother of Ishmael. Ishmael is the firstborn, so he should be the heir. Sarah is nervous that her special Isaac is going to be cheated out of his share when she and Abraham are long gone. It is very unusual to have the second boy be the main heir, so her fears are valid. Sarah and Hagar go at it again in Chapter 21. It’s more strife for Abraham, who loves both of his sons and his wife. Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael to be driven into the wilderness with no supplies. Clearly murder is on her mind. Abraham doesn’t like this plan at all. God gives Abraham special clearance to give Sarah her way. He also assures Abraham that He will take care of Ishmael.

“Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Gen. 21:12-13)

So you see, God never gets on Abraham’s case for sleeping with Hagar. On the contrary, He’s very supportive about Ishmael and makes him a bunch of special promises. God wanted Ishmael to be born. Abraham was very sincere in his devotion to God and would have listened if God had told him not to sleep with Hagar. But God didn’t say anything of the kind. When God prophesies about something He’s going to do in our future, He never tells us the whole story.  In Abraham’s case, Ishmael was one of the details that God intentionally left out.  Ishmael wasn’t a mistake. God did not tell Abraham to send Ishmael away because He was offended by the boy. Instead, He was helping Abraham have peace in his home and making things simpler for Isaac down the line by geographically separating the two brothers.

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