Hagar and Ishmael

May 11, 2008



Genesis 21:8-21

(8) And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

(9) But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.

(10) So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac."

(11) And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.

(12) But God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

(13) And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring."

(14) So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

(15) When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes.

(16) Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, "Let me not look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

(17) And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.

(18) Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation."

(19) Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

(20) And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow.

(21) He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.


Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat … Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.” Those are the words of Mother Teresa. They resonate with today’s text, which tells the story of a mother, alone, with her dying son in the desert.

The only family this mother and son have ever known has cast them out. The most tragic conflicts take place in families. The Bible tells of several such conflicts. Perhaps the best-known is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). David's family disintegrated after his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-20; 1 Kgs 1-2).

Unfortunately Abraham' family did no better. God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, that he would have multitudes of descendants. Sarah, Abraham's wife, was unable to bear children. Her sterility led Sarah to conclude that the fulfillment of the promise would not come through her. She took the initiative in finding a solution. Following a custom of the day, Sarah presented Hagar, her slave, to Abraham as his second wife (Gn 16:3). Abraham went along with Sarah's plan and eventually had a son by Hagar, named Ishmael.

The stories about Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 and 21 make them prominent figures in Abraham's family. Genesis gives them almost as much attention as Sarah and Isaac. Unfortunately, these stories have not always received the attention they deserve—perhaps because their principal characters are women. Abraham is strangely passive in these narratives, and Ishmael and Isaac are just children. The dominant figures here are Sarah and Hagar.

When Hagar became pregnant, she claimed a new, higher status in Abraham's household—something Sarah resented. Sarah complained to Abraham, blaming him, which makes no sense, because this is all Sarah’s idea. Abraham refused to accept any responsibility in the matter and left the resolution of the dispute to Sarah. Again Sarah acted decisively. She banished her pregnant servant. This is in Genesis 16. Fleeing to her native Egypt, Hagar spoke with a "messenger" from God, who urged her to return to Abraham's household.

Hagar took the advice of the messenger and returned to Abraham and Sarah as a household slave. As the messenger promised, Hagar gave birth to a son whom Abraham named Ishmael.

Genesis takes up the story of Hagar again after 14 years have passed. Evidently Hagar was able to accept her slave status, because she knew Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, and heir. But that all changed when Sarah surprisingly conceived in her old age. She gave Abraham his second son, Isaac. Isaac’s birth introduced a new complication in Abraham's household. Now that she had a son, Sarah was determined to exclude Ishmael from any share in his father's wealth. According to their custom, Ishmael, as the eldest son, was due a double portion of the inheritance and leadership of the family group. Sarah was determined to circumvent that custom. She wanted Isaac to have it all.

Sarah waited for the right time to make her move. She chose to force the issue at the celebration of Isaac's weaning that took place on his third birthday. This was an important celebration. Infant mortality rates were high 4000 years ago. The majority of children did not survive to their third birthday. Isaac did, and this worth celebrating. Abraham was probably in feeling good that day; however, his mood changed abruptly when Sarah insisted that he choose between his two sons.

We are told that Abraham loved Ishmael. Nevertheless, he went along with Sarah. We think Abraham was a good man. Nevertheless, this good man went along with banishing his son and his son’s mother, knowing that banishment most likely meant death. This reminds us of that saying by Edmund Burke that “In order for evil to succeed it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Every time something really evil happens in human affairs, we ask how could that have happened? How could people let that happen? Well here is the answer. They went along. That is the easy thing to do. It is hard to take a stand for truth when everyone else is going the other way and saying that is all right. But that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus stood for truth even though it led to the cross, and that is what he calls us to do.

Let’s think about Abraham’s motive here. His primary concern has been answered. The survival of Isaac to age three made it more likely that he would live to maturity. Abraham could therefore be confident that he would have an heir. He no longer needed Ishmael, who was, after all, the son of a slave. So Abraham let Sarah do whatever she wanted with Hagar and Ishmael. He does not care anymore.

Everyone in this narrative acts from purely selfish motives. Sarah wants her son to have all the inheritance. Hagar wants Ishmael to inherit to free her from slavery. And Abraham wants an heir.

If we define love as a desire to act for the benefit of another person, if that is love, then the only love Abraham’s family shows is love of self.

Sarah is the evil genius. She wants Ishmael out of the way, and she takes decisive action to achieve that result. She does not care what happens to Hagar or Ishmael as long as they are gone. But Abraham is no better. He goes along.

Now Hagar, as I mentioned is an Egyptian and a slave. She is not really part of Abraham’s family clan. That made it easier to kick her out. She and her son are outsiders. No one cares if these two outsiders are sent off into the Negev desert, where their water supply will soon run out and they will face death under the blazing sun.

But even though these human beings in Genesis 21 are not acting very well, God has still been there, and God is with Hagar and Ishmael.

It is the tendency of most people as they read through the book of Genesis to focus upon Isaac as the heir of the covenant God made with Abraham, but Genesis emphasizes that God is concerned about both of Abraham's sons. God did not ignore the one who was cast out. God does not forget about Ishmael and his mother.

What did Hagar want? She wanted to be free. There is nothing wrong with that. She was in a bad situation. She was a slave. Given the opportunity she tried to get out of that situation. Ishmael is her ticket out. Now, Hagar was not very smart or diplomatic or crafty in her dealings with Sarah. It was obvious to all concerned that she thought she could replace Sarah, but Sarah is not going to stand for that..

But ultimately, everything works out--in spite of Sarah, in spite of Abraham, in spite of Hagar. Hagar is ambitious. Sarah is afraid. Abraham is passive. Thank God, God is there to work everything out anyway. And everybody eventually got what they wanted. Hagar got her freedom. Abraham got his heir. Sarah’s son Isaac becomes the heir of the covenant. Hagar’s son Ishmael becomes a great nation. Traditionally, he is held to be the father of the Arabs. In spite of people acting badly, God worked in that situation to bring about the best possible solution.

If there is an innocent in the story it is probably Ishmael. And here we have to have a little note on translations. The translation of Genesis 21:9 is controversial. The KJV reads: “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking.” And the implication is that somehow Ishmael was mocking Isaac and that infuriated Sarah. But most modern English translation render the verse in other ways. The ESV indicates that Ishmael was laughing with Isaac. The NAB, RSV, JB have it as “playing”—that is, Ishmael and Isaac were simply playing together and Sarah did not like that.

The point is Genesis does not indicate that there was any animosity between Ishmael and Isaac, and Genesis notes that Ishmael is blessed by God. Some seventy years later, when Abraham died, the two brothers peacefully came together to bury their father (Gn 25:9).

But this is Mother’s Day so let us conclude today with some thoughts about Hagar. Hagar stands for all women exploited, abused, rejected. She is the alien without rights, the woman who faces her pregnancy alone, the wife divorced for the sake of another woman, the homeless woman, the welfare mother, the woman who lives for others, works for others, serves others and then finds herself abandoned.

Walking the desert with her son on her shoulder, Hagar is the one we see when we watch news reports of refugee mothers fleeing war-torn countries while clutching their frightened children. We see her when we pass by single mothers trying to eke out a living in the inner city, or when we hear the story of a young and pregnant runaway lost and alone. Hagar represents all those women who have had to raise their children in a world that, regardless of its prosperity, still does not know how to care for the widow, the orphan, or the outcast.

But while we turn our heads, turn the page, or change the channel to distract ourselves with some other entertainment, the writer of Genesis wants us to know clearly that God never forgets a mother’s love.

Hagar wandered the desert with her son, no doubt rationing the water that was left and giving most if not all of it to her son (v. 15). When it was all gone, she laid him under a bush, hoping for just a little shade, a little comfort before he died of thirst. She separated herself “a good way off” from the boy because she could not bear to watch him die.

If Scripture tells us anything, though, it’s that God always, always hears the cries of the outcast. “God heard the voice of the boy” says the writer of Genesis, and God’s messenger speaks to Hagar. “Do not be afraid … come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (vv. 17-18). God then puts a well of water in the middle of a desert and puts hope for abundance in the midst of desperate circumstances. God kept his promises to Hagar and Ishmael. God will keep his promises to you. Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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