This topic shouldn’t be controversial. Ishmael is a son of Abraham, part of a very select group of people named or renamed directly by God, including Abraham himself, Sarah, John the Baptist and Jesus.God demonstrates His concern for him by making sure that he knew his father and by intervening to save his very life.
Somehow, though, it seems that controversy haunts the character of Ishmael. The father of the Arabs, just as Isaac is the father of the Jews, there’s a big tendency to read the modern Arab-Israeli conflict back onto the Genesis account. It seems that even with the Jews and the Arabs in the bodies of their ancestors, that we can’t help taking sides – loving the one and hating the other.
I don’t believe the Bible asks us to reject or hate either of them. It does our brothers and sisters in the Lord who are Arabs no service to hate their ancestor. It pushes Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, further from knowing the Lord Jesus. And it’s not really fair to the Bible account. It ought to be not just possible but normal to love Israel without rejecting Arabs. But it seems we can’t even manage to love Isaac without rejecting Ishmael.
Ishmael’s story begins in Genesis 16 with the story of his mother Hagar. Sarai’s Egyptian maidservant, perhaps acquired during their sojourn in Egypt when Abram lied about her status as his wife so that she was taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Ripped from her home in Egypt, she was now the servant (or high-status personal slave) of the wife of an elderly nomad chieftain rather than of one of the wives of the god-king Pharaoh as she had thought. It can’t have been the easiest transition, but such was the life of a slave in those days.
As our story opens, Abram has won his great military victory over Kedorlaomer and the Mesopotamian kings allied with him to rescue his nephew Lot. He’s been blessed by Melchizedek in the name of God Most High, and now in chapter 15 been promised a son “from his own body” to be his heir instead of his servant Eliezer (“My God is a Strong Helper”) of Damascus.
This is important because Abram and Sarai have not been able to have children.
In the patriarchal culture of the day, if a man and woman couldn’t have children it was automatically assumed to be the woman’s fault. It’s not biologically accurate (statistically, most of the time the problem lies with the male) nor is it fair, but that was what was the common knowledge of the time. At the same time, bearing children to be heirs was considered the primary responsibility of a wife.
Abram was the recipient of Divine promises that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him, that he would have a great name, and that he and his descendents would inherit the land of Canaan. His heir would inherit not only his physical possessions, but also these promises. And he had no son to be heir.
In the chapter before Ishmael’s story starts, then, God had told Abram that his servant Eliezer of Damascus would not be his heir, but that one from his own body would be his heir. At this time, Sarai wasn’t mentioned.
Sarai’s actions in giving Hagar to Abram as a junior wife are completely reasonable in the context of the Biblical account and the culture of the day. Producing the heir was her responsibility. She was barren. God had made covenant promises to Abram that must on no account fail because of her.
It’s difficult to paint this as a lack of faith. What’s surprising is that Abram had not taken a second wife before this time. Sarai was evidently a very special lady if he waited, as seems to be the case, for her say-so.
Polygamous marriages were not and are not God’s good original design, but they are something God seems to work with when he has to. In the culture of the day in which a single woman was a target for exploitation of every kind and denied basic rights, multiple marriages may have been a lesser evil than the alternative.
At any rate, Hagar suddenly gains an overnight increase in status.
There’s an awful lot of guff spouted about Hagar in some quarters. Some say that she was a pagan. The Bible gives no indication of this, and with what we know of Sarai’s character as recorded in the Scriptures – that she was a godly woman and example of faith – it seems unlikely that she would have picked one of her servants who was a pagan to be Abram’s wife. Indeed, it’s not that likely that she would have remained in Abram’s household long after their unceremonious exit from Egypt and the evident granting of persona non grata status to Abram unless she was a believer.
Some people paint her as a temptress. This is equally unlikely given that the Bible says it was at Sarai‘s initiative that she was given to Abram.
Some people even say that she wasn’t really Abram’s wife. The Bible doesn’t support this; the clear implication of Genesis 16:2 is that she was a full wife, and the cultural context makes anything else unlikely.
No, she was a real wife, probably a worshipper of God, and in all probability a good servant rather than a scheming temptress.
In any case, she becomes the mother of the heir. And this is where she gets into trouble, because as soon as she knows that she is pregnant, she begins to despise Sarai.
Incidentally, the Bible’s categorising of Sarai as Hagar’s “mistress” needs to be read in the context of Sarah’s calling of Abraham her “master”. Not a slave relationship, but an accurate rendering of the terminology of the time and Hagar’s status as junior wife.
Hagar has the blessing of being mother of the heir. Sarai is still barren, and feeling cursed by God at the best of times.
Rather than looking for who to blame for this incident, maybe we should use this passage to examine our treatment of those to whom God has apparently denied a blessing He has given us. As married people, it’s easy to sideline or dismiss singles. Without even meaning to, we act insensitively in a way that communicates a thoughtless disregard of them. They sometimes feel despised.
As fathers and mothers, it’s easy to get so focused on how much God has blessed us with our children, and what a blessing children are, that we unconsciously disparage those who aren’t able to have children but who desperately want to.
Apparently Hagar falls into this trap quite thoroughly. And showing exactly why multiple marriages are so thorny and problematic at times, Sarai can’t stand it and drives her away by mistreating her. This isn’t right either. It’s just as easy to get angry at someone else that has a blessing you desperately want, and it’s not any more righteous.
What’s interesting is God’s reaction to all of this.
Rather than breathing a sigh of relief, a sort of Divine “thank goodness that fiasco is out of the way!”, He runs after Hagar.
Hagar is pregnant, out in the wilderness and probably completely alone. Easy prey for any bandit, robber or simply wild animal. God runs after her and, in a gesture quite reminiscent of Adam and Eve, asks her where she’s going.
Hagar, unlike Adam, answers directly and honestly, and she seems to know Who she’s talking to. If we need an indication that she’s among the righteous, this is a pretty good one; she knows enough not to try and obfuscate before the Almighty.
God not only brings her back to safety and the fellowship of the faithful, but He names her child and blesses him as a “wild donkey of a man”, a survivor who would live even though his hand was against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.
A strange kind of a blessing, but no more so than some of the blessings of Jacob and Moses upon the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Calling someone a donkey is rather less than flattering in our system of animal associations. It means they are both foolish and stubborn; the worst kind of deliberately stupid person imaginable. But that’s not the only association for donkeys. In Central Asia, the wild donkey is a symbol of health and vitality, the fastest animal they know directly and one of the strongest. Other cultures see the wild donkey as associated with indomitability and untameable nature. In American terms, you might call him a mustang – a wild horse of a man. That’s more the association here.
Ishmael is one of only eight people in the Bible that were named or renamed by God. The full list is as follows: Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Solomon, John the Baptist and Jesus. His name more or less means “God Hears”, and it serves as a prophetic answer to Hagar that God had indeed heard her. He had seen her situation, both before she ran away and after.
God’s hearing is a vital part of who He is, connected intimately with His moving to respond. Together with Hagar’s exclamation that “You are the God who sees me!” it’s perhaps evidence of a changed life on Hagar’s part. Did she stop despising Sarah? We’re told that God said to return and “submit” to her (and given that idea’s prominence in Islam, it’s a fascinating choice of word). Did Sarai learn her lesson? We’re not told of any further mistreatment, but we aren’t told she stopped either.
It’s difficult to reconcile the Bible’s testimony about Sarah (that she was a good and righteous woman) with the idea that she carried on being deliberately cruel to Hagar, though. And the naming of Ishmael as “God Hears”, with all of its Biblical associations of “God Acts On What He Hears”, kind of suggests that maybe things got a little better for Hagar after that.
After all, she was the mother of the heir, and for all they knew at that point, the mother of the child promised by God.
The effect for Ishmael is that firstly he gets to be born, and born in relative safety in Abram’s household rather than out in the wild or as the captured slave of some roving bandit. He gets to know his father and both of his mothers, and be brought up in a household of faith. He’s circumcised alongside Abram a few chapters later. The Bible doesn’t spell it out, but it’s extremely likely he was a believer. It would be difficult to become a pagan in Abram’s household.
In part two, I want to deal more with Ishmael directly, but his mother’s story is an important part of his, and needs to be told.