Ishmael was the son of Sarah’s slave, Hagar.
We meet Hagar in Genesis 16. After long years of not being able to have a baby, Sarah decides to try to have a child by proxy. Apparently this was the practice of the day. Hagar was Sarah’s choice for the proxy.
We do not know where Sarah got Hagar, nor how long she had her. We do know that Abraham traveled to Egypt to avoid a drought a few years before this. When he was in Egypt, he and Sarah lied about their relationship saying that Sarah was his sister. As a result of the lie, Pharaoh took Sarah to be his wife. God intervened and stopped Pharaoh. Because of Sarah, Pharaoh gave Abraham many gifts including male and female servants. My guess would be that Hagar was one of these servants. We do know that Hagar was Egyptian.
When Abraham was 85 years old Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham in order to produce a child. Genesis 16:4 tells us, “When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt.”[i] (NLT) Hagar felt that Sarah was beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Sarah could not get pregnant so this was, according to the logic of the day, obvious evidence that Sarah was cursed. All this is implied in the Hebrew word translated “contempt.”
Sarah was not about to put up with this; so, she humbled Hagar. She treated Hagar so harshly that Hagar finally ran away.
On the way to Egypt we find Hagar sitting by a spring of water.
7The angel of the LORD found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. 8The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied.
9The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” 10Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.”
11And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the LORD has heard your cry of distress. 12This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” (NLT)
Hagar cried out to the Lord in distress and he heard her.
Hagar was in distress. The cry of distress expressed the misery of Hagar's circumstances. Life treated Hagar bad. She was a slave. She was used to produce a male heir for her mistress. Slavery and polygamy represent two huge issues of social injustice.
God’s answer to Hagar’s distress is: “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.”
We jump ahead 16 years and find Hagar still living in her mistress’s household. Her son Ishmael was Abraham’s only son until just 3 years ago. We join the family as they celebrate Abraham’s son Isaac. On the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham threw a big party. “But Sarah saw Ishmael—the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar—making fun of her son, Isaac.” (Genesis 21:9, NLT)
The Hebrew word used for “making fun” is an intensive form of the word “Isaac,” which means “laugh.” Galatians 4:29 gives more information on this when it says that Ishmael “persecuted” Isaac. Isaac was 3. Ishmael was 16. This apparently was no laughing matter.
What was life like in Hagar’s tent? We do not know, but could Ishmael’s attitude have been influenced by Hagar’s? Hagar treated Sarah with contempt. 16 years later Ishmael treated Isaac with contempt.
Hagar again ends up in the wilderness a second time. This time she is not heading to Egypt, she is wandering aimlessly. She has been kicked out along with her young son. Ishmael wears out before his mother. It seems he is close to death; so, his mother lays him down and goes off a distance because she cannot bear to watch him die.
I will go ahead and ask a question that I do not like. How much of Hagar’s suffering did she bring upon herself? I do not like the question because slavery is wrong and polygamy is wrong. Suffering and abuse are inherent in these two systems. I do not want to imply that the victim of an evil system is somehow responsible for the evils of that system.
However, I was convicted by the realization that Hagar thought she was better than Sarah because she could have a baby and Sarah could not. Having been wronged by slavery and polygamy, the revenge for Hagar was sweet. Whenever she walked in front of Sarah her protruding belly would remind Sarah that Hagar was blessed where Sarah was cursed. The Bible tells us that she despised Sarah because of this.
Compare Hagar’s response to the New Testament. Jesus taught us: “I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44, NLT)
The Bible does not endorse slavery, but it does recognize it as a fact. In the same way the Bible does not endorse divorce, but it does recognize it as a fact. Jesus taught us that divorce was not God’s intention, but allowed only because of the hardness of men’s heart.
The passage is Matthew 19:3-8:
3Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ 5And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ 6Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
7“Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked.
8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. (NLT)
Slavery is treated the same way. Slavery exists because of the hardness of men’s hearts. The Bible provides concessions to our hard hearts, but it was not what God originally intended. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians he said: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord.” (Colossians 3:22, NLT)
The book of Philemon is a letter written by Paul as he was sending the slave Onesimus back to his owner, Philemon. The law protected the slave owner’s rights. It was a legal institution in that day.
I enjoy reading Fredrick Douglas’s writings. His wrote two autobiographies, the first being written before the civil war was titled, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” One of the things that Douglas points out is that anytime there is absolute power given to one human being over another abuses are bound to happen.
I would go as far as to say that when we think we are better than another, abuse is going to happen. The gospel says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Consider others as more important than yourself.” Abuses of position happen in government, business, Churches and families. Whenever one person lords it over another and forgets the Lord’s command to love your neighbor as yourself, abuses are likely to happen.
What though are we to do when we suffer unjustly? 1 Peter 3:13-17 addresses this issue when it talks to us about our attitude:
13Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. 15Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. 16But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. 17Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong! (NLT)
Hagar was not suffering for doing good. She also was not fighting against slavery and oppression. In her attitude she showed that she thought she was better than Sarah. This attitude set her against Sarah and Sarah against her. She was suffering in part because of a bad attitude.
Later on Ishmael adopted the same sort of attitude. Even before he was born God said of Ishmael: “12This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” (Genesis 16:12, NLT)
Ishmael raised his fist against everyone and as a result everyone was also against him. He lived out the results of the attitude he adopted. His descendants learned the attitude and became a nation living in open hostility with its neighbors.
There is a theme that runs through this story that is important for us as believers.
When Hagar had given up and sat down to wait for the end, God heard the boy crying, and spoke from heaven to encourage her. There was a spring of water nearby. God opened her eyes so that she could see it.
Previously, when Hagar had run away, God heard her cry of distress and answered her. He spoke to her directly and promised to make Ishmael into a great nation.
The important point in all of this is the name God gives Ishmael. The name means God hears.
I believe that Ishmael and Hagar ended up living in the desert isolated from their relatives because they did not get this message. God hears. The two times they called on the Lord He answered, directly.
The attitude they displayed showed they were focused on things other than God. Hagar and then Ishmael tried to fight their way out without calling on the Lord. When they did call on Him, He answered. The first time it was, “Go back and submit.” The second time God gave water and saved their lives.
1 Peter 4:19 says, “So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you.” (NLT)
The two keys in this passage are to keep doing what is right and to trust our lives to God. If we believe God hears us when we call, we can do this without hesitation.
Onesimus did. Converted under Paul’s ministry, he went submissively back to Philemon, trusting God for the outcome. He was doing what was right in the sight of men because this was what the law required. He was doing right in the sight of God because he was entrusting himself to God. Philemon later set Onesimus free and, according to tradition, Onesimus became the bishop of the church at Colossae.
I want to make something clear. I am not saying we should not stand up for what is right. We are to defend and protect those who are weaker than we are. Caring for the orphan and widow is given in the book of James as representing true religion. Paul, himself, appealed to what at the time was the Supreme Court when his case was not getting a proper hearing. Paul, however, did not pretend to be better than those that imprisoned him. He did not curse or treat them as any less than himself. He prayed for them, told them about Christ and ultimately many lives were saved.
If you are being abused by a family member, you can in all humility put up boundaries and even seek protection from the law. More importantly you can call on the name of the Lord and receive strength and courage to do what is necessary to protect yourself.
Our attitude shapes everything we do. It is one of the most important things about us. Our attitude needs to be informed by the message: God hears. God knows. God cares.
The best way to inform our attitude was demonstrated by Paul when he was wrongly beaten and imprisoned. He worshiped. He sang praises. He did this not because of how he felt, but in spite of how he felt. We can have attitudes based on the weather, the stock market, our neighbor’s cat, the flat tire or the latest drama in our lives. Or we can have attitudes based on the fact that God hears us when we call. God cares.
The only two times that Hagar and Ishmael are recorded as calling on the Lord, He answered. How often do we really humble ourselves and call on the Lord? How often do we let our bad attitude speak before we call on the Lord?
[i] Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.