The birth of Isaac was a time of great joy. But the birth of Isaac also would have important implications. I would suppose that Hagar and Ishmael rejoiced in the birth as well, at least outwardly. But is would not be long before their standing in Abraham’s household will be challenged.
Exposition of the Text
It took a couple of years for the conflict to break out. But Isaac had reached an important milestone in his life. He was no longer dependent upon his mother’s milk. He had made the first step of a long journey unto adulthood. So Abraham prepared a great feast for all his household to rejoice. At this time Ishmael was about fifteen and would have been considered as an adult in that society or very nearly so. There was no great rejoicing recorded for Ishmael for his having achieved an important milestone in his life.
At the feast, it is said that Ishmael was either joking with the young lad or more likely mocking him. Sibling rivalries seem to be the rule and not the exception in human society. We also know that older children have trouble adjusting to not being the only child any longer. They tend to feel neglected as more attention has to be focused upon a totally dependent child. All of this would ring true enough for Ishmael, but there was even a deeper rift felt by the boy. He was the son of a slave woman. Even though he was the older son, Isaac was the one who had higher legal status in the family. The son of a slave woman was still a slave, no matter who his father was. Ishmael may have felt this deeply. The prophecy given to Hagar was that the boy was going to struggle with everyone. His hand would be against them and theirs against his.
There could be another way to look at this in that Ishmael may only have been playing with Isaac. In that case, it was a problem with Sarah and not Ishmael. The NET Bible text indicates the possibility that Sarah took the slave boy’s playing with Isaac as making Ishmael a child of equal or even superior status which threatened her son inheriting fully the estate and the promise. The context makes either of these a possibility, so one should be careful not to jump to conclusions as who was blameworthy. The important detail is that the conflict over who would be Abraham’s heir had come to the surface, and it had to be resolved.
Sarah seems to have been a woman of some temper, especially when her interests were crossed. She stormed to Abraham and demanded that the slave woman and her son be banished from Abraham’s household. She did not care how precarious it made their situation in society. Where would they go and how they might make a living was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered is that all rivals to her son’s inheritance be removed.
Abraham naturally hotly resisted the idea. After all, even though Ishmael was not Sarah’s son, he was Abraham’s son. Abraham was concerned for his welfare. He may have had an idea that the banishment of Ishmael was a death sentence, and it very nearly was. A rift was developing between Abraham and Sarah over this which threatened the unity of the household.
God spoke to Abraham and told him to listen to his wife’s demands. Why is says God rather than the covenant name Yahweh seems puzzling. I would have expected to see LORD here and not God. Nevertheless, God told Abraham that He would take responsibility for the young man’s care and his mother by implication. He was not the covenant heir, but Isaac. He did promise to make a great nation of Ishmael simply because he was Abraham’s child. Isaac was to be sole heir to the promise.
So Abraham obeyed God’s voice and prepared to send Ishmael away. He provided food and water for them, as much as they could carry and dismissed them into the care of the LORD, his superior covenant partner. What we see here from a strictly human perspective seems cruel and heartless. But Abraham had learned from experience that it was better to trust the LORD than in his own devices. If God says he will take care of them, he will.
It is interesting that at this point that the narrator take the point of view of Hagar and not Ishmael. The only indication that Ishmael ever spoke was in his cry in the desert. It says that Hagar had no clue where she was going. After all, she did not have any place to go. She wandered aimlessly just like the children of Israel would and in much the same area. They got thirsty and hungry and were at the point of death. Hagar had to distance herself from Ishmael out of grief as he was dying. She did what she could. She got him out of the sun and into what little shade she could find. The food and drink Hagar and Ishmael had taken on their bizarre Exodus was spent. It was up to God to provide for them in the wilderness just as he would have to provide manna and water for the wandering Israelites.
Again it says an angel of God and not the angel of Yahweh called to Hagar. Is this an indication of a different status? Was He but God to Ishmael and not the covenant LORD of Isaac? Again, this is a possibility, but God seems to act in a very personal way with Hagar. God asks what seems to be the obvious. The angel sent by God asks what the matter was and shows that he fully knows the answer by saying that God had heard the boy’s cry and had sent an angel to help. The angel showed her where a well was and provided life giving water to Ishmael. I would assume that food was provided as well.
The text goes on to say that God was with Ishmael who grew up in the wilderness. He became an archer and married an Egyptian wife which his mother found. There is probably something significant about his wife coming from Egypt whereas Isaac’s would come from what is known as Syria from among Abraham’s kinfolk.
The story of Ishmael ends here, He makes a cameo appearance at the burial of Abraham and Genesis later records that he had twelve sons which was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Hagar. He became great in this world from humble beginnings which fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham.
This story would of course resonate with the wanderings of the Children of Israel. They too were provided for in a miraculous way. What is different is the special relationship they were offered. They were protected by the LORD and not just an angel of God. What they had been promised was greater than that of Ishmael. But nevertheless, when they worshiped the golden calf, the LORD threatened to disinherit them or even destroy them and make a great nation out of Moses. Moses intercedes for them the same way Abraham had for Sodom. When the LORD agreed to send an angel rather than Himself to guide them into the Promised Land, Moses again objected. And the LORD listened to the voice of Moses. Their special covenant relationship was preserved by God’s grace, at least for the season.
Paul uses this passage in a stunning allegory in the Book of Galatians. There a group of Jewish “believers?” had troubles the Gentiles in the church by saying that they had to come to Jesus through circumcision and the covenant of Sinai in order to have either full or even membership at all in the church. This was causing a great deal of disunity within the church and threatened to fracture the family of God as much as the problem of Ishmael’s status had threatened Abraham’s household. Would these Gentiles be reduced to second-class slave status in the church? Would they become like the Gibeonites in the Book of Joshua who were allowed to live and not die but were reduced to menial slaves. Paul, like Sarah had a temper too. But Paul now puts a strange twist on the story. When he says throw out the bondwoman and her son, he is referring to those who tried to force Judaism upon the Gentiles.
Paul talks about the two sons of Abraham representing two covenants. He then compares the Sinai covenant to Ishmael the son of the slave woman who is in bondage with her children. The fact that Ishmael had twelve sons could have been exploited but wasn’t picked up by Paul. The second son Isaac who was free born and represents the Christian covenant which is based upon the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Why should a free man become a slave to a covenant made by shedding their own blood and they could not keep? There are curses imputed upon a covenant partner who is faithless. And as far as all flesh, Jew, Gentile, moral or immoral as people reckon morality, no one is able to keep the covenant of Sinai and would come under the curse of death.
A few weeks ago we looked at the two covenants of Abraham. The first was based upon faith which was reckoned to Abraham. This was a covenant of grace. Then in chapter 17, we are introduced to the second covenant cut into human flesh. This covenant is that of Sinai. Then in the last times the New Covenant came in its fullness in Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Covenant of Genesis 17 and of Sinai perfectly and bore the penalty for us having broken them as if he had done it. He took the curse for us. This is the true freedom.
The covenant structures make for an interesting pattern called a chiasm. A chiasm is an A-B-B’-A’ arrangement. The chiastic pattern for A is the Genesis 15 covenant of grace through faith. B is the chapter 17 covenant of works marked by circumcision. The Sinai covenant when improperly applied as it was in Judaism is also if works and is B’. Finally the Covenant of Grace through faith in Jesus Christ corresponds to A’ There is an idea of descent followed by ascent. God’s work being by grace through faith and ends in grace and faith. Abraham was justified by faith even as we are justified by faith. Abraham only saw the promise in type, but we see it in its fullness.
I just want to end this on a note that the Sinai Covenant itself was not a covenant of works. It begins with an indicative that the Children of Israel were already a redeemed people and that entirely of grace. The Tem Commandments do not begin with “Thou shalt not” but rather I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. It was the fact that this covenant was misused to make salvation and redemption dependent upon man’s obedience. So as Paul notes, the Law is good and holy of itself and is based upon grace. It is our corruption of what God made for good that made it an occasion for curse and death. The Sinai covenant as the Genesis 17 covenant was meant to be kept perfectly by Abraham’s promised seed, and that seed it Jesus Christ.
So when we see commands for Christian conduct in the New Testament, we must understand that there is an indicative which precedes the call to the holy life of obedience. And like Judaism, we tend to fall into the traps of legalism. We act as if the Book of Ephesians began with chapter 4 and not with the indicative of telling of God’s great eternal plan for our salvation which is totally based upon grace through faith. We must be careful not to misuse the Bible as it ere a rulebook. Instead, we respond in love to a God who has redeemed us and wants our sanctification for our good. To fall into legalism is bondage and misery. And despite the claims that it keeps us from falling into sin, legalism actually is antinomian. Let us never forget the basis of our standing with God.