God’s Acts of Providence (17)

Pieter_Pietersz._Lastman_001The Chief End of Man (16)

Hagar Banished

Genesis 21:8-21

218And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So 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.”

In the span of one verse we move from the sublime joy of witnessing God’s faithfulness to the shattering bitterness of human faithlessness.  The only reason that Ishmael (strangely, he is never referred to by name in this story) exists is because of Sarah’s faithless intervention to see that Abraham would have an heir through the surrogacy of Hagar.  Now that God has indeed kept His word and miraculously delivered Isaac, Sarah must deal with the fact of another son.

The precipitating offense is filtered through Sarah’s subjective judgment – surely open to question given the stormy history between these two women.  Even giving her doubt’s benefit, the response has the hard bite of brutality.  Note the dehumanizing way in which Hagar and Ishmael are referred, and, the carelessness concerning their fate.

11And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. 13And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

Are we to understand this passage to mean that Sarah is acting as an agent of God’s will?  Is it possible that behind the brutality of the form there lies an intent that serves the greatest good?

Clearly Sarah is no conscious vessel of God’s will.  Her motives appear to be both nakedly self-serving and cruelly uncaring of her neighbor.  But this may be one of those most rare of events in which we are allowed to see all relevant sides of a history-making event.

We’ve discussed poor Sarah’s side (may we prayerfully consider what our life-stories would look like were they open for all generations to view from now until Christ returns in His Glory).  In Abraham we find a man torn between complex, conflicting commitments and likely, loves.  Can a man not but love his wives and the sons that they bore him?  Does this passage not but give powerful testimony to the moral primacy of monogamous marriage?

And what of God?  Here we find the LORD God descending to comfort Abraham.  In spite of the cruel spite that drenches Sarah’s demand, Abraham can honor her in confidence that Hagar and Ishmael will be protected.  So, God’s Mind enters our bitter, conflict torn, confused world and, one by one, sorts out the tangled strands.

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 Beer-sheba. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept.

Abraham has been given the promise that they will survive and prosper, but he does not pass this on to Hagar.  Why?  We could write if off as an oversight.  Or, perhaps, the aged Abraham has learned that there are some things that must be learned by the actual experience of God’s providence.

It’s striking that Hagar appears to have no plan.  She simply wanders aimlessly until their provisions run out.

Another curious aspect of this story is the passive, juvenile language used to describe Ishmael.  Were someone to read it in isolation they might reasonably conclude that he was less than five years old.  In point of fact Ishmael would have been around 16 years old.

17And God heard the voice of the lad; 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 lad where he is. 18Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink.

God now redeems His promise to Abraham.  They have passed through their dark night of despair and into the morning of God’s redemption.  For them redemption means cool water on their parched throats and the promise of imperfect but still practical immortality through their descendants.

For we readers of this majestic story in Holy Scripture the compass of redemption stretches seamlessly across thousands of years of time, countless millions of human souls, up into the Holy will of a loving Father, the Holy breath of a Spirit that gives life and all meeting at the depths of unknowable suffering by a Holy Son who willingly gave His all so that we might be eternally redeemed.

20 And God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Now there is the beginning of the Ishmaelites, a people with connections to both Egypt and the Promised Land.  They will intersect with Isaac’s descendents in an unexpected manner, playing the role of bearers of his family’s savior.


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