What happens when you realize that you can do something the boss can’t, or when someone who works for you suddenly surpasses your ability or status? The result is often instant conflict or role reversal. We see a good example of this in the passage we heard from Genesis 21:8-21.
First, a little background. In ancient culture, status for women came through marriage, but higher status came through childbearing. While Hagar started out with a lower status than her mistress, the roles between both of them were reversed when Hagar got pregnant. In Genesis 16, Hagar started looking down on Sarah, and in turn Sarah became abusive to Hagar, so Hagar ran away. God found her and told her to go home and put up with the abuse. God promised Hagar that her offspring would be so numerous that no one can count them, and she should call her son Ishmael, which means, “God hears.”
Isaac’s birth led to a change in Ishmael’s status. Ishmael was the centre of attention until Isaac was born. Ishmael, who was a teenager when Isaac was born, had to know that this birth was nothing but a miracle of God’s grace. Nevertheless, when Isaac became the centre of attention, Ishmael began to scoff at him, and perhaps even his parents. With his loss of status came a change in attitude. He was bitter. Sarah couldn’t stand his new attitude so she told Abraham to dismiss Ishmael and Hagar.
If this is only an example of how polygamy generates rivalries between wives and also between their children, or if it is only about a teenage boy needing to learn to love and respect his little brother, then why didn’t God tell Abraham to sit down with Hagar and Sarah and soothe their building anger, and then have a fatherly chat with Ishmael to help him begin to learn how to cope with the jealousy? Why does God side with Sarah in this situation and agree that Hagar and Ishmael must be driven from the household?
To answer this question, we have to realize that God is primarily writing a story about how to have loving, unified families. He’s writing a redemptive story that is centered in grace alone and totally dependent on his miraculous gift. Ishmael’s birth was the human way to provide Abraham with the son who would carry on the line that would eventually produce Jesus. This was the opposite of what God had planned. He sided with Sarah because only Isaac could be the son who received the heart of God’s blessing on Abraham. Ishmael was the natural child, the child of works, and God will tolerate no compromise when it comes to depending on His grace alone.
Sarah made the mistake of telling Abraham to mate with Hagar, hoping that the promised heir would be the result. When Ishmael started laughing at Isaac, she had no one to blame but herself. The anger simmered inside of her and caused her to order Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into exile.
Sarah called Abraham “lord,” but the Bible also tells us that God told Abraham to listen to Sarah in this situation. The word “lord” as used with man does not mean that such a person knows everything, otherwise, he would not have to listen to anyone. In this case, the Bible shows that Sarah knew best and Abraham was to listen to her advice. Can we take advice from other people? Can we give advice without acting like dictators?
God supported Sarah’s demand. Isaac was to be the seed that would lead to the birth and growth of God’s chosen people. Sarah’s demand was both very displeasing to Abraham and distressing because he loved Ishmael. To banish a surrogate mother went against cultural norms as well. Ultimately, this was such a personal and painful decision for Abraham that the Lord had to tell him to listen to Sarah. Obeying God can be heart-wrenching, but it must be done. In the end, both sons were greatly blessed.
Isolation from our families can cause people to feel worthless. Isolation from humans does not mean isolation from God. He is always with us. He guides us to new communities to surround us with love and support.
This wasn’t the first time that Hagar was exiled to the desert. The first time is mentioned in Genesis 16, and I referred to it earlier in this message. In that case an angel came and told Hagar that God heard her plea for help. He also told Hagar that her son would have authority over his kinsmen. Hagar was moved by this encounter, but when she and Ishmael were exiled later, she forgot that God had provided for her before. She assumed the worst, and she and Ishmael cried out to God. God provided for them and watched over them. Is it our habit to look back and remember what God has done for us in our lives?
Sometimes God brings believers to a difficult place in the wilderness to discipline them so they can realize their need for Him. In the desert, people can see themselves as they really are. There they learn that He hears and will never leave or forsake His children.
God heard Hagar’s cries of despair in the wilderness, and He provided for her and Ishmael. Abraham mourning for his loss, Hagar mourning for her impending death, and Ishmael crying out in anguish combine to present a picture of our world. The world knows so much about the time to mourn, but it often lacks the resources to meet tragedy when it comes. The chief resource that we need is God. If we believe in Him, He will provide for our needs. That is the mission of Christians and the church today-to meet the needs of the people as God would.
Like Hagar, we will learn more from our valley experiences than our mountaintops. She found hope in God when she believed that all hope was lost. Similarly, we often find hope in God when we believe that all hope is lost. Many of us have to go through life’s tragedies before we can find hope in God.
God will fulfill His promises, no matter how difficult our problems are. Even when we don’t know how God will act, we must trust that He watches over us. When we make mistakes, or when we face life’s trials, God can help. His Word is a great source of comfort. He can calm our fears and worries.
Who are we in this story? Are we Sarah and Abraham, fearful of what it might mean to take God’s covenantal love seriously, wanting to push out those that threaten our places of comfort and security? Are we Hagar and Ishmael, the ones excluded, the ones pushed out into the wilderness with little to nothing to help us find our way? Could we be either one at different times or in different circumstances?
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible: New Kings James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; p.31)
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Part of Wordsearch 12 Bible software package.
- Briscoe, D.S. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 1: Genesis (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1987; pp. 178-180)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- Macarthur, J.F. Jr.: The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2006)
- Lucado, M.: The Lucado Life Lessons Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson; 2010)
- “Déjà Vu.” Retrieved from Christianity.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Dave Wyrtzen, “Ishmael and Isaac.” Retrieved from email@example.com
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- Nissa Peterson, “Genesis 21:8-21.” Retrieved from email@example.com.
- “I See You.” Retrieved from www.theologicalstew,com/abraham-3-i-see-you.html
- “Desert Scribbling, June 22, 2008.” Retrieved from https://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertsribblings/2008/06/june-22-2008.html