Tag: Ishmael

Story 41: The Battling Sons of Rebekah

Genesis 25

Abraham lost his beloved wife Sarah.  She had given him Isaac, the son of God’s promise, and through Isaac, God would keep His covenant with Abraham to raise up a priestly nation to the world.  Abraham married again to a woman named Keturah.  She gave Abraham six sons.  Yet God made it clear that the honor of being the father of God’s priestly nation belonged to Isaac.  Abraham left everything he owned to him, including the land.  Abraham loved his sons through Keturah, so while he was still alive, he gave them many lavish gifts.  Then he sent them away to a land far off in the east.  Those sons had their own children, and their children had even more children, so that after many years, whole tribes of nations came from her children through Abraham.  God surely kept his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations!

Abraham lived to be a hundred and seventy-five years old.  The Bible says:

 

“Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age,

an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”

 

By that time, Abraham had lived in the promise land for a hundred years.  He had become a great leader of a powerful tribe.  At the news of his death, the whole region would have mourned the loss of this mighty, righteous prince.  His strength and honorable character had brought security and peace to the whole region, and his goodness was known by all.

Abraham’s honored sons, Isaac and Ishmael, took his body to the cave where Sarah had been buried.  So many years before, Abraham had bought it at great cost from the Hittites to bury his beloved wife.  Now his sons lay him down beside her, united at the death of their noble father.  And after Abraham’s death, God blessed Isaac.

Now, we know that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, had come from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar.  She was an Egyptian.  Her son was not the one that God meant to grow into a priestly nation.  Still, God is compassionate, and he promised Hagar that Ishmael would also be the father of a great nation.  Curiously, he also promised that Ishmael’s descendents would be warlike and hostile.

What God said came true as it always does.  Ishmael had many sons.  They had many children also, and from their children came twelve tribal nations.  Ishmael lived to be a hundred and thirty-seven years, and then he, too died.  The descendents of Ishmael moved to an area near the border of Egypt to settle down, far from the land of promise.  And just as God said, they were a hostile group who in all of history could not get along with any of their neighbors.  If this was the way of Abraham’s first born son, what would happen to the son of the Promise?  Would he grow up to be warlike, too?  Would he have the violent, deceptive nature of the enemies of God, or would he stand in the beauty of Eve’s repentant transformation?  Would Isaac learn to live in dependence on God like his father?

Rebekah and Isaac married when Isaac was forty years old.  Time went on as Isaac oversaw the vast wealth he had inherited from his father.  After twenty years of marraige, Rebekah still had no children.  But they were wise to the lessons that God had taught Abraham and Sarah.  They did not turn to Rebekah’s maidservants or anyone else to solve this terrible sadness.  Isaac went directly to the LORD and pleaded with him for his wife.  His first response was to turn to God.  In his perfect timing, the LORD answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant.  Can you imagine how happy they must have been after that long wait?

Just as with Abraham and Sarah, it must have been difficult and painful to wait so long, but in many ways, that made it far more special.  This pregnancy was something they had thought about and looked forward to, hoping and praying over long years.  All babies are a priceless gift from God, but because of their waiting, Isaac and Rebekah knew that this pregnancy was a very special answer to prayer.  God was going to honor his covenant promise to Abraham!

This was no ordinary pregnancy in more ways than one.  There were twins!  There were two babies inside Rebekah, and she really felt it.  They were always fighting each other!  Poor Rebekah, it must have been very uncomfortable to have a mini war going on right inside her belly!  “‘Why is this happening to me?’” she wondered.  She worried if all their moving and shaking was dangerous.  What if she lost them both?  What if all that fighting caused a miscarriage?  So just as Isaac had prayed to the LORD for his wife, Rebekah went to the LORD and cried out to understand what was going on.  Both Isaac and Rebekah had learned to take their lives to the LORD.  They were totally dependent on him.  And he was faithful to answer.

The LORD said to her:

 

“‘Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples from within you

will be separated;

One people will be stronger than the other,

and the older will serve the younger’”

Genesis 25:23

 

Well, that sounds strange.  What does it mean that two whole nations were really living in Rebekah’s womb?  Is that possible?  No, of course not.  But there were two baby boys in there, growing and fighting against each other.  One day, they would be born into the world.  They would grow to be strong men, and they would have families of their own.  God, who knows everything, knew the future of Rebekah’s sons.  He had designed the future!   The descendents of each of Rebekah’s sons would grow to become great nations.

Now, God knows everything.  He understands everything that had ever happened perfectly, and he knows everything that is ever going to happen. He could have explained many things to Rebekah about her sons, but he didn’t.  He simply told her that they would both grow to be powerful, but that the older son would end up serving the younger son.  That wasn’t a lot of information, but it was a very, very big deal.  And because God made a point of telling Rebekah directly, it was something she was supposed to honor.

In the ancient days of Isaac and Rebekah, the firstborn son was given many responsibilities.  It was the oldest son that took the place of the father in the family when he died, and it was the oldest that inherited the most.  He would also take on the role of watching over the rest of the family.  It was his job to protect the family honor and help each member in their time of need.  The oldest son’s mother, his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews could all call on him and expect his care and concern throughout their lives.  It was a great burden and a great privilege.

The younger sons were supposed to honor their older brother and respect his commands.  This held together the systems of order and loyalty in the early family clans of human civilization, and it was often true in the family of God as well.  But God told Rebekah that it would not be the same for her sons.  The older son would serve the younger.  That was a radical idea, but God is totally sovereign and in control.  He chooses among the children on earth who he will use for his purposes.  Long before Rebekah ever held her sons in her arms, she knew that her second child would be the one who God used to raise up his holy nation.

When the boys were born, the first child came out and everyone was shocked.  All they could talk about was how red and hairy he was.  He was so hairy that it looked like he was wearing animal fur!  They decided to name him Esau.

Rebekah didn’t have a lot of time after Esau  came.  The other son was following quickly behind.  In fact, the hand of the second son was gripping Esau’s foot as he came out!  So they decided to name him Jacob, because it means “heel.”

As the boys grew up, Rebekah and Isaac learned how very different each son was from the other.  Esau liked to go out to the wilderness and hunt.  Jacob liked to spend time among the tents where the family lived.  He was quiet.  Isaac enjoyed the meat that Esau brought him.  He enjoyed his big, burly son the best.  But Rebekah loved Jacob more, and she carried in her heart the promise of God.  In the future, the older would serve the younger.

One day, Jacob was among the tents cooking stew.  Esau had been out in the open country, probably on a hunt.  It is hard work, and when he came home he was so hungry that he had begun to feel weak.  He smelled Jacob’s stew and that only made it worse!  “‘Quick’” he said to Jacob, “‘Let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’”

Jacob knew he had a chance to use this to get something he wanted.  He had been thinking about this for a long time.  He also knew how hungry Esau was when he came in from a hunt.  He said to his brother, “‘First, sell me your birthright.’”  Wow.  Esau was the firstborn son, and that birthright belonged to him.  It was a very precious, valuable thing.  It was a high honor.

In those days, the first son would inherit twice what all the other sons would receive when their father died.   For every two goats that Esau was supposed to inherit, Jacob would only get one goat.  But if Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, that meant that Jacob would be the one who received more.  Their father Isaac had received all of Abraham’s many animals and servants.  They were a very rich, princely family.  Jacob was asking Esau to trade hundreds of animals and great wealth in gold and silver for a bowl of soup.   But you know what?  Esau made the trade.

“‘Look, I am about to die’” he said.  “‘What good is a birthright to me?’”

Jacob wanted to make sure that he would really receive all the extra inheritance, so before he let Esau eat, he made him take an oath.  “‘Swear to me first.’”  Esau swore an oath to Jacob, promising the birthright to him.

Finally, Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil soup.  Esau gobbled up the food.  When he left, his stomach was full, but his birthright was lost to his conniving brother.

 

Story 35: Hagar’s Tears

Genesis 21:8-21

Years of joy went by for Abraham and Sarah.  Isaac learned to crawl and toddle around on his little feet.  When he was two or three, they weaned him from his mother.  To celebrate, Abraham threw a great feast.

At the banquet, Sarah watched on as Ishmael made fun of her beloved son with contempt.  This was no innocent play.  Sarah could hear malice in Ishmael’s voice, and she was overcome with fear.   It seemed to reveal his desire to dominate and demean her boy…he was a real threat to her child.

This was not just about the normal conflicts that arise between brothers.  This was about the status of these boys and their future.  Ismael was showing contempt for the true heir of Abraham.

She was filled with anger.  How dare he treat her child this way?   The same disrespect that Hagar had shown Sarah was now showing up in her son.

Did Sarah consider the pain of Hagar…to be the unwed mother of Abraham’s first born?  Did the vulnerability of Ishmael occur to her…now that this new son had come along?  Did she see what this situation…a situation of her own making…was doing to others who had so little power?

Sarah went to Abraham and said, “‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’”

Sarah wasn’t merely asking for Hagar and her son to be sent away.  In order to do so, they would have to relinquish their service.   As long as they stayed with Abraham’s household, the boy would have the right to claim inheritance from his father.   Abraham had raised Ishmael and made it clear that this was his son.  But if Hagar and Ishmael were freed, they would never be able to claim Abraham’s wealth against Isaac. Sarah was asking Abraham to grant them their freedom, but it was for her own selfish gain.

Rather than trust the Lord to bring about his promise…to raise up her son as the heir to God’s covenant with Abraham…Sarah panicked and acted out of fear and spite.

Imagine the despair of Abraham.  He loved his first born son.  They had spent thirteen years living among the their tents together.  How could he thrust them out into the desert alone?  Years ago Abraham and Sarah lacked the faith to believe that God would provide a child through Sarah.  Now Hagar and Ishmael would have to go through a terrible trial for their mistake.  Abraham took his deep grief to the LORD.

God came to his faithful servant as he agonized into the night.  He said, “‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant.  Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’”

These words reveal something interesting about the thoughts of God.  When God called Abraham, the call was not on Abraham alone.  The call was on his wife as well.  As husband and wife, they were one.  Sarah was an important part of God’s plan, and no other woman could stand in her place.  It was her child that would become the nation of God’s great promise to the world.  Her role as mother had tremendous value in the eyes of God…she was as irreplaceable as Abraham to God’s plan.  God told Abraham to honor her words in spite of the fact that they were marked by her brokenness and sin.

Then God spoke to Abraham about Ishmael and Hagar, “‘I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’”

Wow.  That was a tremendous promise!  The Lord reigns in power over all, and he cared for Hagar, too.  He had made a promise to Abraham about his descendents, and it would be true for both his sons.  Ishmael’s descendents would grow into a mighty nation just as surely as Isaac’s would.  Abraham could trust that God would watch over and protect Hagar and Ishmael just as he had watched over Abraham for twenty five years.  They had a great hope that was grounded in the character of God…a great future lay before them.

Abraham listened to his LORD and trusted him to keep his promise.  He obeyed immediately.  Early the very next morning, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael out of their tents.  He loaded Hagar’s shoulders with food and water and sent them on their way.  Imagine the tearing on Abraham’s heart as he watched the two, small figures walking off into the vast wilderness.  A woman alone with her teenage son in a wild land of tribal nations who often lived in unspeakable sin.  Imagine his faith as he prayed for them and trusted them in the hands of God.  Imagine Ishmael’s confusion as his loving father sent him away with such sadness.  Why did he have to go?  Imagine Hagar’s fear as she stepped out onto the lonely sands.

She had nothing, but she brought with her the responsibility of a child.  Had she asked for this?

Hagar wandered out into the desert of Beersheba on her way back to Egypt, the land of her birth.  Along the way, she got lost.  She spent days moving in the wrong directions, not knowing how to find her way home.  She had been given plenty of food and water for the trip, but as the time stretched on, they began to run out.

How thirsty they became, and how her son suffered.  The days were long and the nights were cold, and there was no help.  Her son became weaker and weaker.   They weren’t able to go on.  Finally she set him under a bush. She walked away and sat down.  She was far enough away to so that she would not have to watch him die, but near enough to protect him and come to his body once he was gone.  Her heart tore in two with grief and despair.  Her body shook with the sobs of her overwhelming loss and sorrow.  And Ishmael lay there, near death, crying out to the God of his father.

God heard Ishmael’s cries.  The angel of the Lord came from Heaven.  The Lord heard, and he came.  He came to Hagar in the wilderness and spoke tenderly to her; “‘What is the matter, Hagar?  Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’  Then the LORD opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  So she went and filled the skin with water and gave it to her boy to drink” (Genesis 21:17-19).

This wasn’t the first time the angel of the Lord had come to Hagar.  She had run away once before when Sarah’s treatment had grown so cruel she could no longer bear it.  She called out to the Lord, then, too.  After he came, she declared him to be “the One who sees me…” Utterly alone in the desert, a rejected servant sitting by a stream of water, she was seen by the God of the universe.

Now he had come again, and revealed a well of water that she could not find on her own.

The arrogance of Ishmael and the fearful selfishness of Sarah had caused this dark time for him and his mother, but his cry to God brought their salvation.  Once again, God came gently down to Hagar with great promises.

The LORD watched over Ishmael as he grew.  And God kept his promise to Abraham.  Hagar raised him in the desert and he learned to become a skilled archer.  And eventually, she found him a wife from the land of Egypt.

 

Story 29: The Son of God’s Choosing

Genesis 17

The human race had plunged itself into a terrible situation.  God created humanity to live in perfect harmony with Himself.  We were to live in a perfect Garden Temple called Eden, which means “pleasure.”  But the first humans, the ancestors of us all, rebelled against the one limitation God had given them.  They sided with God’s enemy, and in so doing, subjected the whole race to his bondage.  Yet even as they rejected God’s way, He had a plan to draw them back, a design for human history that would provide a ransom for the souls of humanity.  Abram and Sarai were at the center of God’s plan.  He chose them to be the ones through whom He would bless the nations of the world.  Their offspring would be His holy priesthood, and somehow, they would bring salvation.

Yet there was a problem.  Abram and Sarai had no children.  Sarai was barren.  After many years of waiting on the Lord’s plan, they grew impatient, and sought to have a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant.  They lost faith in God’s plan and took matters into their own hands, violating the sacred covenant of marriage in the process.  Abram and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.

Thirteen years passed after Ishmael was born.  Many things must have happened in their lives over those years.  Still Abram and Sarai were without a child.  What ache did Sarai live with as she watched her maidservant raise a son before her eyes.

By the time of this story, Abram was ninety-nine years old.  The LORD appeared to him again.  He said:

“‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’”

When Abram heard this, he fell down with his face to the ground before the LORD.  God continued to speak:

“‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.  No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.   I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.  The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; I will be their God.’”

Genesis 17:4-8

Abram was given a new name.  It was a mark that the promises the LORD had given His servant before were growing.  God was filling in the details and showing Abraham just how great and awesome His promises truly were.  This covenant would bring whole nations and kings…it would be everlasting!

Then God gave Abraham a sign that would be the symbol of His covenant.  Abraham and every man who descended from him was to be circumcised.  Circumcision is a quick but painful operation.  A small piece of extra skin is cut off of a male’s private parts.  Every male in Abraham’s family or his servant’s family was to have this operation done as a sign that they belonged to the LORD.  They were part of His covenant blessing.  Most of them would have it done when they were infants, when they were eight days old.  They would hardly know what was happening to them.

It was a high honor, marked out in their very flesh, that they were to remember at all times!  Each descendant of Abraham had to chose to follow after God with the same faith as Abraham.  Whoever did not keep the sign of the covenant by being circumcised would be cut off from the people.  It was a breaking of the covenant itself.

Then God told Abraham that He was changing Sarai’s name.  It would now be Sarah.  God promised that He would bless her, and she would give birth to a son.  This son would become the head of twelve tribes, or clans, and from them whole nations would come.  Her role as the mother of the coming nation of God was high and honored.  The Lord had watched her go through every trial of faith with her husband.  She had carried the shame of her barren state as she waited on the Lord for His promises.  She, too, had remained faithful.

But when Abraham heard this, he threw himself onto the ground and started laughing.  Sarah was ninety years old!  Abraham was almost a hundred!  How could this be?  When it came to childbearing, their bodies were as good as dead!  It was impossible.  So Abraham reminded the Lord about Ishmael.  Perhaps God should use him.

Abraham did not yet fully understand that his Lord was the one who could call things into being that were not (see Romans 4).  Abraham was limiting his imagination to the things that a human could do.  God has no such limitations.  If God made the stars and the earth from nothing, surely He could raise up a nation out of nothing!  Surely He could make a child, even from the bodies of an aging couple!  God was able to bring life from the death of old age.

The fact that it seemed impossible was part of God’s plan.  Everyone would know that this was a miracle.  It was clearly something only God could do.  All of the surrounding tribes and villages, all of the towns where Abraham had visited and even saved in war, would know that something different was happening in the lives of God’s covenant family.  This was a power and a provision there that would shake their understanding of the world.  When the LORD began His holy nation through this child, the whole region would be gossiping and wondering how it happened.  It was a testimony and an opportunity to follow the God of Abraham.

God knew how impossible it was for Abraham to have a child and said, “‘Nevertheless.’”  Then He told Abraham that a son would be born to Abraham and Sarah the very next year. Abraham accepted the unique plans of his LORD and stepped out in immediate obedience. That very day, he circumcised himself and Ishmael and all the servants of the house.

Story 28: The Grief of Faithlessness: The Plight of Hagar and Ishmael

Genesis 16-17

Abram and Sarai had taken some major risks in obedience to God.  They had left their own land and all of their comforts to become Bedouins, journeying to the land of Canaan, trusting that God would one day give it to their descendants so that they could bless the world.  They had hung all of their hopes on His promises.  Eleven years later, Abram and Sarai still had no child.  In the eyes of everyone around her, Sarai’s barrenness was seen as a great weakness and failure.  She was costing Abram a family.  She was disgraced.

Sarai began to grow impatient for a son for her husband.  If the LORD was not going to bless her own body with a child, perhaps He would bless someone else.  So she made a plan.  They were not the plans of God, and they were not built on faith.

Sarai went to Abram with her idea.  Sarai had a servant named Hagar who tended to all of Sarai’s personal needs.  Perhaps if she gave Hagar to her husband, her servant would give birth to a son!  In the time of Abram and Sarai, this was common.  When a wife could not have children, another woman, usually a slave or a servant, would be brought to the husband.  The child from their union would then become the adopted child of the husband and wife.

Abram agreed to do what his wife suggested.  Apparently, Hagar agreed to take part as well.  It was a way of helping Sarai out of her disgrace.  So Abram and Hagar came together, and Hagar became pregnant.  A child was on the way.  It would seem that everything was going just as Abraham and Sarah had planned.  The only problem was that there were things they did not anticipate when they stepped outside of God’s plan.

Now that Hagar was with child, her attitude toward Sarai changed.  The disgraced wife of Abram had given him no child, but now she was providing one for him!  She began to carry the pride of her pregnancy around like a crown.  The most painful loss of Sarai’s life was now being thrown in her face every day…and by her own maid.   Hagar treated Sarai with contempt in her own home.  She treated Sarai as if she had replaced her as Abram’s wife and head of Abram’s household.

Sarai’s attempt to solve the problem  of her barrenness in her own power was unraveling into a nightmare.   She went to Abram and said, “‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.  I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me.  May the LORD judge between you and me.’”

Even though Hagar was Sarai’s special maidservant, Sarai turned to her husband and handed Hagar over to him.  Sarai yielded the situation to Abram, honoring his position of authority and giving him the responsibility to make it right.  It was his role to put an end to this destruction.   It was his job to create the right order in their home.  He had to protect their marriage and Sarai’s position as his wife.  Then she appealed to God as her protector.  He was watching over Abram and would hold him responsible to his role as Sarai’s husband.  All of this took great faith, for Sarai had to let go of her own control and trust others to end her pain.  What if they failed?

Abram said to his wife, “‘Your servant is in your hands.  Do with her whatever you think is best.’”  Instead of handling a situation where his wife was clearly in over her head, Abram excused himself from the mess and let the burden fall on Sarai.

The way Sarai responded is the darkest mark on her character in the story of her life.  Sarai turned the tables and began to mistreat her servant.  Now it was Hagar’s turn to be miserable. Who knows the harsh words or beatings Sarai gave.  Who knows what abuse Abram allowed.  The tensions that come up in a home when the most tender things are at stake can tear apart the integrity of the finest heart.  Whatever the sins of Sarai and Abram, they were harsh enough that Hagar would rather risk death in the desert than live with the torments of her mistress.  She fled away from the home of Abram and Sarai out into the wilderness.

God was watching as all of these sad events unfolded.  How differently these women could have treated each other.  The angel of the LORD came to Hagar as she sat near a stream in the desert.  This is the first time in the Bible that someone was visited by an angel.  When they came to earth, it is because they were sent on a mission from God.  They come as His holy messengers.  What an honor to receive such special attention from the Divine King!

It is remarkable that in the Bible, God’s first message from an angel was to this weeping servant woman.  What does it teach us about the character God?  In all of ancient literature, with all of the other religions and idol worship that was going on, thiswas the only time a divine being spoke to a woman by name. She had great worth in his eyes.  See how gently he came:

 

He said, “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?’”

“‘I am running away from my mistress Sarah,’ she answered.

“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’  The angel added, ‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’

The angel of the LORD also said to her:

 

‘You are now with child and you will have a son.

You shall name him Ishmael,

for the LORD has heard of your misery.

He will be a wild donkey of a man;

His hand will be against everyone

and everyone’s hand will be against him,

and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.’”

 

Who was this God?   He had come to speak to a lowly servant woman, an outcast, someone that nobody in her culture or world would have any time for?  Who was this LORD that saw her crying in the desert?  Hagar wondered at his tender care.  She said: “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”  And she was right.  Though she was a woman and had no great importance in the eyes of the world, she could trust the God of the universe to look on her with love.

The angel of the LORD explained to Hagar that this son would truly be blessed.  He would be as a wild donkey, so passionate for freedom that he would not easily share life with others.  He would also be the father of nations.  Yet he was not the son of God’s covenant promise with Abram.  That could only come through his sacred marriage with Sarai.

Hagar obeyed God and returned to Abram and Sari.  She gave birth to a son.  Abram was eighty six years old.  Hagar must have told Abram what the angel said, for Abram named him Ishmael.  His name meant, “God hears.”  I wonder if Abram and Sarai felt convicted by the LORD when they realized that God listened to the cries of Hagar as much as He listened their own?

Sarai was the true wife of Abram.  They were one flesh.  When God called Abram, Sarai’s life was wrapped in that calling.  It was through their marriage and their union alone that God would bring about His great and precious promises.  But that required radical faith, a faith that had to increase with time.  Sarah was seventy five years old when Ishmael was born.  As they waited on the LORD and watched their bodies age, their trust in God had to intensify.  They had to believe in Him for the impossible.  Would this man and woman of God bear through the final stages of their testing?  Would they take hold of the faith that God meant for them to have?

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