The Life of Abraham, Part 7: The Ishmael Project
In the last lesson, Abram asked the LORD for a pledge of his promise of the land. The answer he had gotten seems discouraging, especially for one whose worldview does not extend past this life. For someone with a “Live your best life now” it was no promise at all. Abram would never have title to the land, and it would be more than 400 years before his descendants would. The promise of having children was there, but they would be in hard bondage for four generations. All Abram received as far as a promise for him personally was that he would live a long life and be buried. He had already lived a long life, so how much longer this meant was unknown. He would live ninety more years and would have clear title to a cemetery plot.
However, we also learned, the promise God offered Abram was in reality far greater than any piece of real estate on this earth. Even in its most fertile areas, Palestine is no match for the fertility of our Great Plains in America. Nor were the mountains lush like we see here in Tennessee. We will see this promise to Abram become clearer as we continue through the study and what it means for us.
The covenant that Abram was to make with the LORD was an impossible one, so the LORD offered Himself in Abram’s place as surety for the covenant. Abram did not have to walk through the trench filled with blood. One day, the Lord Jesus would walk through the blood, not of animals, but of himself.
Exposition of the Text
In chapter 16, we go back to the promise of the seed from the promise of the land. It mentions that Abram and Sarai had been ten years in the land of Canaan and yet they had no children. This seems like an awful long time to wait, and I am sure we would have been equally if not more anxious than they. Usually after ten years of infertility, and we must realize that Abram and Sarai had suffered through not having a child long before entering into Canaan, a couple today would seek means of fertility. Many expensive options such as hormone shots and in-vitrio fertilization are tried to get pregnant. If these fail, then things like donor eggs and sperm and even surrogate mothers are resorted to. None of these options were available to Sarai and Abram.
What Hagar suggested was the way it could be done in their time. Sarai had a menial servant, an Egyptian by the name of Hagar. As her mistress, Hagar had to subject herself to the will of Sarai her master. Sarai who felt along with Abram that surely the LORD had another arrangement for them to have a child. By this time, Sarai had probably had gone through menopause. But Hagar was young, and old men can still father children. She could order Hagar into Abraham’s bed with the intention of her conceiving a child who would belong to Sarai because Hagar belonged to her. So this was a kind of surrogate motherhood. This method causes plenty of trouble when used today, so we should not expect the results to be any better then..
She talks Abram into the plan and the deed is done. The eighty five year old Abram gets Hagar pregnant. So far, it looks like Sarai was right. Abram would get his promised seed from the LORD, and Sarai would be the child’s mother by right of ownership. But then, a revolting development happens. A woman’s status in society was lifted when she had a child. Hagar who had been a menial handmaiden to Sarai now had status that Sarai did not have. She forgot her place in society as a slave and got what we call here in South Tennessee, “uppity”. She no longer respected Sarai, and Sarai became quite jealous of Hagar. So Sarai comes storming to Abram with her complaint. She seems to blame Abram for the whole idea, even though the idea had originally come from her. She considered herself wronged by the arrangement and asked the LORD to judge between her and Abram.
Abram is now caught in the unenviable position of having to decide between his wife and his concubine who was pregnant. He tells Sarai that Hagar belongs to her and is her problem. So Sarai treats her maidservant Hagar so harshly that she runs away. A runaway slave woman was in a very precarious position. She could have been hunted down by Sarai and killed or severely punished. However, it seems that Sarai was only too glad to see her go. But who would take a pregnant slave woman in. She was facing ostracism from society and a life of either prostitution or starvation. However, the LORD intervened in her behalf at a well. It seems that a lot of important transactions in Old Testament history happens at wells. She was about to go into the wilderness when the LORD confronts her with “Where have you come from and where do you think you are going?” Hagar lets the LORD know of the treatment she has received.
The LORD gives Hagar a gracious promise. She is going to have a son and would be the mother of a great race of people. He told her to name the son Ishmael and that he would be a warrior. Here, a no-count runaway slave woman receives grace from none other than the LORD of the Universe. God takes notice of those of lowly estate. She had not asked to be put into this position. She had disobeyed in that she ran away from her mistress. She was told to go back and submit herself to Sarai. Hagar responded by naming the place “The well of the One who lives has seen and regarded me.”
Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael. Abram now has a son. Would this son be the promised heir? So far we see the progression of what we believe to be the heir of Abraham progress from Lot to Eliezer, to Ishmael, a natural born son. It seems that the promise had been fulfilled. Had not the LORD promised Hagar that she would be the mother of numerous descendants? Does that not sound like the promise God gave to Abram. Was Sarai now rejected as being the mother of the promised seed? We shall find out as the story of Abram unfolds.
Ishmael would grow up and become the patriarch of several Arab tribes. The Muslims today consider Ishmael to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
What do we learn here from this lesson? I think the first thing we learn is that we really cannot force God’s hand and make things happen in our own strength. When we do, the unexpected and often undesired happens. The result is being entangled in snares. But we also learn that God is gracious even in our disobedience. We may have to live with the consequences of our actions, but God does not forsake us.
God showed great mercy to Hagar when He confronted her. By confronting her, He asked her to rethink the situation. Rethinking one’s situation is the first step in repentance. The second step is to return to the right way, even though it is difficult. Hagar was returning to an abusive mistress and would have to trust the LORD’s promise for her safety. The Prodigal Son rethought his miserable situation and returned home without any hope than to be received as a household slave. We can ask God to forgive our trespasses and He will. But forgiveness is not escape for the consequences for our action. If we have wronged someone, we must willingly face the music. If we have broken the law, we must be willing to return and face whatever happens. Repentance is not necessarily the ticket to an easy life as it requires confession to God as well as to our neighbors.
In the Old Testament Law, this idea of repentance is tied together with restitution. If a man stole something and then felt remorse, he had to return the stolen item and pay double the value back as proof of repentance. It was more than a “Sorry old fellow for stealing your goods, forgive me.” Yet, all to often, this is the attitude people have. They repent towards God thinking this is all they have to do. But even John the Baptist warns us to produce fruit worthy of repentance. We must never take God and His forgiveness for granted.
Be it sufficient to say that God forgives us of our iniquity through Jesus Christ. We could never repay the debt we owe to God because what we owe is perfect obedience. Once we lose this, we cannot of ourselves bring it back. For this we need Christ’s free and gracious forgiveness. We must also realize what great price He has paid for our rebellion against God and be grateful. But God also expects us that within our power to make restitution for what we owe other people. It is a great witness for the Lord when we do. It might even lead them to Christ.
We also show our gratitude for being forgiven by forgiving others their debt against us. We who owed the unpayable debt to God which Jesus paid in our behalf need to reflect this in our forgiving others their debts to us. We don’t know how great the reception was for Hagar when she got home, but she managed to get by for a while. God must have softened Sarai’s heart a little bit, considering that she could have had Hagar put to death or at least severely punished.
Let us out of love for the Lord consider these lessons today and resolve to follow more perfectly in the Lord’s footsteps.