By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
A Child of Defiance
Shakespeare asked the question,
- “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet,” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.47-48)
and I think he’s got a point: the name we are given and known as does not need to define us unless we let it. Some names are appropriate, some are not, but is it the name that we give someone that deems whether it is worthy, or is it the testimony associated to the name?
In Genesis, Abram and his wife Sarai had followed God from their home into the wilderness. They followed Him because He had promised them great things, and they believed these promises would come true. However, as time passed and the couple grew older, they shifted their focus away from the apparent empty promises of this deity they worshipped and tried to find a solution.
Abram needed an heir. Sarai could not give him one, so she did the next best thing: she gave her husband a servant named Hagar and told him to have a child through her. In the perfect plan that Sarai envisioned, Abram would get Hagar pregnant, she would have a son, Sarai would claim the son as her own, and Abram would have his heir. Everyone wins.
Given the time and culture that they were living in, I don’t condemn Sarai and Hagar for finding their self-worth only in their reproductive abilities, but it sure made a mess of everything. Sarai began to abuse Hagar – with Abram’s permission! – because Hagar resented her barren mistress who had failed to fulfill her one purpose in life.
Hagar, whose name means “to flee,” ran away from home and headed for the wilderness. It was there that God found her:
- And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” 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 against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
When Hagar returned to Abram, she gave birth, and Abram accepted the child as his son and named him “Ishmael.” The years continued to pass, and Sarai was still barren, but God still maintained that he would give her a son.
A Child of Laughter
Genesis 17 outlines the covenant between God and Abram that is sealed with circumcision. In this covenant, God also establishes the identities of four people: Himself, Abram, Sarai, and their unborn son.
- When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and 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.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “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…
As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
…“Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, 19
God establishes himself as God Almighty, the God of Abraham and all of his descendants. Abram, the “high father,” becomes Abraham, “the father of many,” while Sarai, the “contentious” one, becomes Sarah, the princess and lady. Their unknown and unborn son has the most hopeful name of all: Isaac, “he laughs.”
It is the news of a son through Sarah that Abraham cannot believe, and he dares to laugh before God at such an idea, asking for God to instead take his existing son Ishmael and fulfill the covenant through him.
To this, God says,
- “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”
Immediately after this, Abraham goes and obeys God. He and all the men in his household – including Ishmael – are circumcised, identifying themselves as God’s people.
Fulfillment of the Name
- Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “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.”
Isaac was a child meant to bring laughter, but the defiant child Ishmael mocked him instead. Sarah is so angered by this that she cannot even call Hagar and Ishmael by their names when she orders her husband to cast them away.
The Lord Who Provides
Hagar and Ishmael leave and head into the wilderness. Hagar becomes so depressed that when their supplies run out, she abandons Ishmael to die alone. As the child cries, God hears him and goes to Hagar, demanding her to rise and save her child. He helps her find water, and together Hagar and Ishmael live in the wilderness.
Back at Abraham’s home, Isaac is growing up, and Abraham is incredibly thankful for him. Then God tells Abraham that he must sacrifice Isaac on an altar to Him.
Abraham takes Isaac out into the wilderness, but he doesn’t abandon him like Hagar had with Ishmael. Hagar couldn’t watch her son die, but Abraham stays with him until the very end when it is Abraham himself who prepares Isaac to be sacrificed.
Before Isaac can be killed, God stops Abraham and says,
- “Do not lay a hand on the boy… Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham believed and told Isaac as they made their journey that God would provide for them a sacrifice. Hebrews 11 states that
- “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (v. 19).
Both Hagar and Abraham had to deal with the harsh reality that their sons – their purpose on earth – could be taken away from them. But where Hagar responded with despair and abandonment, Abraham responded with faith and acceptance. God heard Ishmael’s pleas for help and saved him, providing for him and his mother to survive in the wilderness, but for Abraham God provided a substitute and the ability to return home. To Hagar, God was a great god but just a god among many. To Abraham, God was the only God.
When Abraham dies in Genesis 25, Isaac and Ishmael bury him together. The Bible records the children of Ishmael, resulting in 12 sons and 12 tribes, just as God promised. In that respect, the descendants of Ishmael mirror those of Isaac; however, verse 18 states that the sons of Ishmael
- “lived in hostility toward all their brothers.”
I think there are two important things to take away from here:
1) That the actions of our parents will affect us, and we’re going to have to learn how to deal with it. These consequences could manifest in many different ways – from physical to emotional to spiritual issues – and we might be judged before we can speak up in our defense.
2) That we can become more than our name, or how our society views us.
Sarah was a woman whose very name showed that her personality was hot-headed, controversial, and argumentative. God saw something in her, though, that warranted a change. She still had issues – they didn’t completely go away – but she was able to rise above them.
Ishmael and his mother Hagar had many opportunities to rely on God, and had Ishmael wanted to, I believe God would have accepted him as Abraham accepted him. He still had a destiny and a purpose on the earth, and although it might not have been a part of the covenant between Abraham and God, it was still uniquely crafted for him. Ishmael also still received his destiny, but he chose to only live up to his name and not surpass it.
God cared for both that wanted son and the unwanted one. He prepared for both, as He did for the other sons of Abraham. Each was accepted, but it was Ishmael’s reaction to his circumstances that brought about his removal from Abraham’s home.