December 2016 -January 2017
Beyond the Walls
INTERSECT: Reflections on Hagar and Ishmael, Part Two
In the October-November edition of Intersect, we explored the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. We were reminded of the consequences of sinful actions, and its effects on subsequent generations. In Abraham’s case, his sin with Hagar affected the entire course of human history. Thankfully, God remains faithful in spite of our sin.
God’s Grace Offers Sustenance Amidst the Consequences of Sin
These circumstances illustrate well the words of Scripture in Romans 5:20, “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” Grace abounded indeed. In spite of Abraham’s lack of faith, and in spite of his decision to follow ungodly counsel, the divinely promised heir was born. They named his him Isaac (which means he laughs) because everyone who would hear of Sarah having a child in old age would laugh. What was impossible for man was possible with God.
In the midst of celebrating Isaac’s birth, however, we mustn’t forget the tragedy of Hagar’s situation. In fact, the Bible does not allow us to forget it. Before long, Sarah saw Ishmael deriding his brother. Such behavior might be expected in any sibling rivalry, but we need to remember, at least from Ishmael’s perspective, his place as heir had been supplanted.
As tensions grew, Sarah had enough. She had already sent Hagar away once (Genesis 16:6), and she was ready to do so again. Sarah charged Abraham: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely, with Isaac” (Gen 21:10). Scripture tells us Abraham was distressed by her request. Ishmael was his own flesh and blood. How could he expel his own son from the security of his own home into the harsh elements to fend for himself?
But the Lord instructed Abraham to let the lad and his mother go, and so they departed. Abraham sent them away with limited provisions that soon ran out. The scene of Hagar and her son on the edge of death is almost too unbearable to read, especially for those with sons and daughters of their own. She placed the boy under a tree, sat down some distance away, and cried out, “Let me not see the death of the boy” (Genesis 21:16). Once again, we find a stark reminder that our sins can bring unbearable pain on others.
“God heard the voice of the lad” (Genesis 21:17)—these are words of great comfort to the hurting soul. God’s tender mercies were extended to young Ishmael and his mother that day. God helped them, and furthermore He promised He would make Ishmael the head of a great nation (Genesis 21:18).
Why Is This Story Important for Us Today?
This passage of Scripture seems to pull us in two different directions. The mystery of God’s providence is certainly at work here. On one hand, Abraham and Sarah disbelieved the promises of God and made a sinful decision, which adversely affected their loved ones. On the other hand, God worked to fulfill his promises to Abraham, while at the same time caring for the used and abused maidservant of Sarah, along with her dying son.
Why is this story important for us today? First, it reminds us of the need to wait patiently for the Lord. As the psalmist instructs us, “Wait on the LORD; be of good courage, and He will strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14). When we fail to wait on the Lord, the consequences can be dire. We need to think not only of ourselves, but also of others, and how our sin affects them.
Further, these two characters were made in the image and likeness of God. They had intrinsic value to Him and were in need of His grace. The story of Isaac and Ishmael becomes a story of wars, pain, suffering, and hatred. As Paul later reminded the Galatians, these two sons are symbolic of two ways of life—one leading to bondage and the other to freedom (Galatians 4:21-31). We know Isaac was the child of promise, through whom redemption would come for the world. Furthermore, the redemption of God’s glorious gospel coming through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and culminating in Jesus Christ is good news for the nations, even the descendants of Ishmael.
We are all too familiar with the constant media coverage of Islamic terrorism in our world. We continue to witness the fallout from this painful story, sometimes on a weekly basis. We can rest assured that the Great Judge sees all injustices carried out in this sin-cursed world and will right all wrongs when Jesus returns a second time.
At the same time, we need to remember God’s tender mercies toward Hagar and Ishmael revealed in this compelling narrative. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for their descendants too. Consider the tender compassion he showed this mother and her dying son. Pray that the hope of God’s glorious gospel would reach the nations, even the sons and daughters of Ishmael.
About the Writer: Dr. Matthew McAffee is vice provost and program coordinator of Theological Studies at Welch College. He earned a B.A. degree
from Welch College, a M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from University of Chicago.