God can work through other professed Christians who are not of the same faith community to accomplish His purposes.
There is no more pivotal or foundational figure among the world’s monotheists than Abraham. All three major monotheistic religions assert their ancestral linkage to him. “Despite countless revolutions in the history of ideas, Abraham remains a defining figure for half the world’s believers.”1 The Hebrew Bible focuses on Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob who become known as the Children of Israel. The Christian faith sprang from Judaism with the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, and the fulfillment of God’s promise made to Abraham that through his progeny all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The Muslim faith sprang from the sands of Arabia with the claim that Muhammad was the last and greatest prophet called by the one, true God of Abraham to restore the radical monotheism ostensibly corrupted and lost through the centuries.
Some critics allege that monotheism itself, particularly the legacy of Abraham’s descendants, has caused the world great conflagration. It is asserted that significant carnage and destruction could have been avoided if only monotheism had not arisen in the first place. Regina Schwartz argues that the identity constructed on the basis of covenant, land, and kinship, which draws a distinction between insiders and outsiders through the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, gives monotheism a certain predisposition to violence that otherwise would not be present.2
Two narratives (Genesis 16 and 17) involve the firstborn son of Abraham, Ishmael, in light of the covenant promises made to Abraham. Although the Book of Genesis identifies Abraham’s second-born, Isaac, as the covenant child and heir to the fullness of the promises, Genesis records that some of the covenant blessings would also apply to Ishmael. Through the narratives of Genesis 16 and 17, the description of the Lord’s interaction with Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, indicates a sympathy for one who was an outsider in her own household. The Lord’s benevolence toward Hagar speaks to the character of the divine in the Book of Genesis as one who is not inherently hostile toward the outsider. This kindness gives an example that followers of Jesus can emulate as heirs to the Abrahamic covenant today (Rom. 4:12; 9:7, 8; Gal. 3:7, 29).
Hagar and Ishael
The focus in the Book of Genesis on Abraham as the one chosen by God for His special purposes carries a sense of irony in the Lord’s interactions with him. When Abraham is first introduced in Genesis 11:26, until Genesis 17, when God changes his name, he is known as “Abram,” which can be translated “a great father.”3 Despite the name, Abraham and Sarah had no children. They lived in this condition for years, in a culture that considered barrenness to be a curse from the gods. It is in this context that they desperately sought some kind of resolution. Abraham and Sarah’s childlessness led them to look to Hagar as a possible source of a solution.
Hagar as second wife. Genesis 16:1 presents the barrenness of the household as a prologue to the story that follows: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children” (NIV).4 In ancient times, this circumstance was a cause of significant disgrace. In instances of infertility, the woman was seen as the one at fault, and thus was considered responsible for the deity’s displeasure. Sarah bore this shame and desperately sought a way to remove the burden from herself and her household. In addition, Mesopotamian legal codes dictated that inheritance belonging to a woman would pass on to her offspring, but not necessarily any of the other offspring her husband might have with other women. Philip Drey suggests that Sarah’s concern regarding an heir was not connected to the Lord’s covenant with Abraham—that instead, she was seeking to ensure an heir for the dowry she brought to the marriage, rather than have it be lost altogether.5 Sarah’s actions do not appear connected to a belief in the covenant promises, and her concern regarding the inheritance is at the forefront of her subsequent attitude toward Ishmael (Gen. 21:10).
Genesis 16:1 continues by identifying Sarah’s servant as a part of the household, “She had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar.” Abraham had previously traveled to Egypt and had lived there for a period of time during a famine in the area of Canaan (12:10). Pharaoh had shown Abraham favor because of Sarah’s beauty and her presence in his harem, rewarding Abraham with livestock and male and female servants (vs. 16). Hagar may very well have been one of those female servants. Because of the circumstances surrounding the events in Egypt, Hagar would have been a reminder for Sarah of that troubling episode between herself and Abraham in which Sarah had been humiliated in a manner similar to a slave.
In circumstances like that of Abraham and Sarah, it was an accepted practice in the Ancient Near East for a barren couple to find a surrogate woman to bear a child. There were provisions made in marriage contracts for just this eventuality: “Marriage contracts of the ancient world . . . anticipated the possibility of barrenness and at times specifically dictated a course of action. Solutions ranged from serial monogamy (divorcing the barren wife to take another, presumably fertile, one), to polygyny (taking a second wife of equal status), to polycoity (the addition of handmaids or concubines for the purpose of producing an heir), to adoption. The third option is the one pursued here; this attempted remedy is consistent with contemporary practice as a strategy for heirship. This option was often more attractive because if the wife were divorced, there would be an economic impact on the family (she took her marriage fund/dowry with her). Concubines bring no dowry, only their fertility to the family.”6
“It is therefore plausible that Sarai is simply invoking the terms of her marriage contract.”7 This invocation would change Hagar’s place within the household, for Hagar would no longer be merely a slave but would be elevated to at least a concubine. In verse 3, Hagar is referred to as Abraham’s wife. In the Ancient Near East, “in the event a wife gives her female slave to her husband as a secondary wife, any property rights the primary wife continues to enjoy over her slave are trumped by her subordinate relationship to her husband.”8
Hagar’s change in status within the family structure is reflected in the terminology used by Abraham and Sarah to describe Hagar. In Genesis 16:1, the narrator refers to Hagar as an “Egyptian maidservant”). In 16:2, Sarah herself refers to Hagar as her maidservant. But in 16:3, the narrator states “Sarai . . . took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.” The description changes from “maidservant” to “wife.” This conflict in status within the family is evident in the narrative, as when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child, she despises her mistress (vss. 4, 5). Hagar’s respect for the authority of her mistress is now diminished in light of the new status she has achieved. Hagar’s actions harmonize with the contemporary custom that, according to the Lipit-Ishtar Code, her child would have the possibility of receiving at least a portion of Abraham’s estate, as well as have the legal rights to Sarah’s dowry.
Sarah reacts to Hagar’s disdain by blaming Abraham for the predicament and treating Hagar harshly (Gen. 16:5, 6). In verse 5, she says to Abram, “‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me.’” Despite Sarah’s initiating the plan, when subsequent events do not conform to her expectations, she castigates Abraham. Abraham responds in verse 6, “‘Your servant is in your hands. . . . Do with her whatever you think best.’” Sarah may have hoped that Abraham would emancipate Hagar, in accordance with the Lipit-Ishtar Code: “If a man married a wife (and) she bore him children and those children are living, and a slave also bore children for her master (but) the father granted freedom to the slave and her children, the children of the slave shall not divide the estate with the children of their (former) master.”9
The key to this law’s application is that even though Hagar belonged to Sarah, the law stipulated that the father would have to emancipate the slave. Abraham refuses to intervene and grants to Sarah the authority to decide Hagar’s fate, this proposed solution would not resolve the problem.
Sarah’s only apparent choice, from her own perspective, was to make the circumstances so uncomfortable for Hagar that she would leave of her own volition. Though the Bible does not record the nature of Sarah’s oppression, the code of Ur-Nammu offers a possibility when it records, “If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her (or him), her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt.”10
Hagar concluded that her only option in the face of her mistress’ treatment was to return home. Genesis 16:6 records, “Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” In a time and place in which any individual would be unlikely to survive apart from the family encampment, a woman who could be considered a fugitive slave was particularly vulnerable.
Genesis 16:7 identifies the place at which the angel of the Lord encounters her is “near a spring in the desert . . . beside the road to Shur.” From the region where Abraham and his family would have been camped in Mamre, Shur was about 60 miles to the south on the way to Egypt. In her desperation, her only apparent choice was to attempt to return home. Egypt would have afforded her the protections of familiar surroundings and possible reunification with her family.
Hagar and the Angel of the Lord. Genesis 16:7 is the first time that the words translated as “angel of the Lord” appears in the biblical canon. Multiple times throughout the Hebrew Bible, this phrase is used interchangeably with references to the Lord Himself (Gen. 18:1–16; Exodus 3; Judges 6:11–16). This would indicate that at a minimum, the Bible writers understood “angel of the Lord” to refer to the deity in some way. Rad pointed out that it has Christological qualities, and is “a form in which Yahweh appears. He is God himself in human form.”11 The Lord is not an angel, but at times He appears as a messenger to facilitate communication with human beings. Several commentators take the position that the “angel of the Lord” was the preincarnate Christ appearing to human beings before taking upon Himself human flesh at the incarnation.12
The first time that the angel of the Lord appears in the Hebrew canon is to Hagar. The angel of the Lord will play significant roles later in the Hebrew Bible in appearing to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), to Gideon (Judges 6:11), to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:3), and to David before judgment falls on Israel (2 Sam. 24:16). The angel of the Lord saw fit to meet with an Egyptian female slave fleeing the persecution that she suffered at the hands of the Lord’s chosen covenant family. This is one of the reasons that Trevor Dennis states that Hagar is “more highly honoured in some respects than almost any other figure in the Bible.”13
In Genesis 16:8, the angel of the Lord identifies Hagar by name, and queries her regarding her journey. Hagar describes her circumstances to the angel but omits the answer to the question regarding her intended destination. Doukhan suggests this omission is because Hagar’s flight primarily has a spiritual motivation beyond a mere a response to Sarah’s persecution.14 This conclusion assumes that Hagar would intend to hide her destination out of a spiritual motivation, and she would have reached the conclusion to hide it because she knew she was talking with the angel of the Lord. The passage is not clear about when Hagar realized with whom she was speaking.
The conversation continues with the angel of the Lord issuing an unusual command. In verse 9, the angel of the Lord tells Hagar, “‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” This directive can lead the reader to conclude that part of the Lord’s plan involves Hagar and her child deriving some benefit from being in Abraham’s camp and presence. The word translated “to submit” is the same word with a different meaning as in verse 6, “to oppress.” Hagar is commanded to submit to the one who chose to oppress her. The angel knows that there are future implications that affect the wellbeing of Hagar and the child, and the Lord recognizes the child as being a partial heir to the promises made to Abraham (Gen. 17:20; 21:13, 18).
Though the narrative continues in verse 10, this article will return to the content of verse 10 in the context of the covenant promises. Proceeding to verse 11, the angel of the Lord continues by announcing to Hagar, “‘You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.’” Hagar already knew she was pregnant; the new information is the gender of the child. There are also only four instances in Scripture in which a mother is promised a son by God Himself: Hagar, Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:2–7), the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa. 7:14), and Mary (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31). The name of the child, “Ishmael,” speaks to the character of the Lord. An outsider, Hagar, who had been oppressed by Sarah and was now fleeing for safety was the one to whom the Lord was listening. The child would bear the name that highlighted his mother’s plea, and the name itself had been given by the Lord. This is the first time in the Hebrew Bible that the Lord tells parents what to name a child before he is born, a distinction that includes five other Bible characters: Isaac (Gen. 17:9), Solomon (1 Chron. 22:9), and Josiah (1 Kings 13:2), and in the New Testament, John the Baptist (Luke 1:13) and Jesus (vs. 31). Only Hagar and Mary experience an announcement from God directed to a mother that identifies both the gender and the name of the child, and Hagar is first.15
The only person in the Bible to coin a name for the Lord is Hagar in this theophanic encounter. Verse 13 states: “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.’” Though the patriarchs named places where they encountered God (Gen. 22:14; 28:16–19; 32:31; 35:15), and Hagar does the same in verse 14, she is the only human to give a name to the Lord Himself.
The Lord has given Hagar a unique interaction on several accounts. The first appearance of the angel of the Lord in the Bible is to Hagar; the first time that the Lord identifies a boy to his mother before birth and names him is to Hagar; and the first and only time that a human being gives God a name is Hagar’s name given to the Lord. In addition to these unique aspects of the encounter, God also assures Hagar that He will apply the promise previously made to Abraham, to her son. In verse 10, the Lord says, “‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’” This promise echoes those made to Abraham regarding his descendants in Genesis 13:16: “‘I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth’” and Genesis 15:5: “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” With this promise, Hagar is the “only woman in the Bible to whom God gives such a promise of multiplication of seed.”16 Because the promise was made to Abraham, the child Hagar is carrying will be Abraham’s firstborn son, Hagar has been directed to return to Abraham’s household, Ishmael will subsequently participate in the sign of the covenant and be circumcised (Gen. 17:23), and the multiplication of descendants was a central component of the Lord’s promises to Abraham. One could conclude that this promise is God’s acknowledgement of the partial fulfillment of the covenant promise through Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael.
The distinction separating the previous covenant promises from the promises made to Ishmael is the difference in the land. Though the Lord had previously promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, the land promise to Ishmael recognizes that there will be further children born to Abraham, and Ishmael will not inherit the land of Canaan. Genesis 16:12 states, “‘he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren’” (NKJV). The promise was a description of tension—a reminder that Ishmael’s descendants would not receive the land of Canaan, but that the Lord would indeed preserve them in the same area as Abraham’s later descendants.
The Promises of the Abrahamic Covenant
To understand the place Ishmael had in relation to the Abrahamic covenant and the way in which a portion of the promises would apply to him, it is necessary to examine the promises of the Abrahamic covenant in the Book of Genesis. Three encounters between the Lord and Abraham are described in Genesis prior to Ishmael’s birth (Gen. 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–18; 15:1–6).
Genesis 12:1–3, 7. The first encounter the Bible records between the Lord and Abraham is the first iteration of the Abrahamic covenant. The Lord promises to Abraham to lead him from his father’s house. In Genesis 12:1, the Lord assures Abraham that He will lead Abraham “‘to the land I will show you.’” At this point, the Lord did not identify what land it would be; He simply left the matter to Abraham’s trust in God to fulfill the pledge. It is following this invitation that God makes several promises.
The first promise that the Lord makes is found in verse 2: “‘I will make you into a great nation.’” This is the blessing of many descendants, a promise that in ancient times represented the future of the care of the parents in their old age and generational inheritance. The second promise that the Lord makes follows in verse 2: “‘I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.’” The Lord’s affirmation of His intent to bless Abraham is central to the very covenant that He is making with Abraham. Some variation of the word translated “to bless” appears five times in verses 2 and 3 indicating that it is central to the intention of this covenant. The covenant will have far-reaching consequences for Abraham’s direct descendants and the whole world. The Lord’s intent was both to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants and to make Abraham himself a blessing. Doukhan notes that this is a duty incumbent upon Abraham’s descendants to take up their responsibility to be a blessing and to share the message of the blessings of the Lord with the nations.17
The Lord continues the explication of His call to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 by noting, “‘I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’” God asserts that He will treat those interacting with Abraham and his descendants in a sowing and reaping framework. Those who bless Abraham, and his descendants, will themselves be blessed. The blessing received by other families—nations—is contingent on their interaction with Abraham’s progeny.
In Genesis 12:7, the Lord clarifies the previously undefined land to which Abraham was traveling. Upon Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, the Lord states, “‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” Notably, the promise is made to Abraham’s seed, or descendants, not to Abraham himself. This detail anticipates that Abraham and his descendants will continue their nomadic lifestyle and not settle in the land until after the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, and the wilderness wanderings. There would yet be several centuries before the land promise would begin to be fulfilled.
Genesis 13:14–18. After having traveled together for a period of time, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, parted ways with him and settled in the area near Sodom, while Abraham settled in Canaan (Gen. 13:12). In contrast to the Lord’s previous conversation with him, which took place in Haran (12:4), Abraham was now residing in the land of promise. After the Lord drew Abraham’s attention to the four cardinal directions of the expanse of the territory, the Lord added the promise, “‘All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever’” (vs. 15). The Lord had previously promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. The same promise is emphasized here. The promise is reiterated in verse 17.
The Lord also repeats the promise regarding Abraham’s descendants while adding an analogy to the dust of the earth. The Lord states, “‘I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted’” (vs. 16). The same word translated “the earth” is used in both the promise of the territory, and the source of the dust. This wordplay emphasizes that the people are tied to the land. Abraham’s descendants would both multiply exponentially and dwell in the land promised to him.
Genesis 15:1–6, 18. Several events transpire: Lot is taken captive, and Abraham goes out to rescue him (14:1–16). Abraham has an encounter with the mysterious Melchizedek, and Abraham still does not have an heir. As Abraham’s anxiety continues to grow regarding his progeny, he makes a desperate statement to the Lord, “‘What can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’” In ancient times, there was a consideration that when a couple was unable to have children, a slave could be considered a de facto heir or even be adopted. It appears that Eliezer could fulfill this ancient allowance—and Abraham’s desperation is evident.
In verse 4, the Lord clarifies that the promised descendants would be Abraham’s biological children. “‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’” Up to this point in the narrative, the Lord had not explicitly clarified the means through which the many descendants would come, and this left room for doubt in Abraham’s mind. It is important to note that even at this stage, the Lord has not explicitly identified Sarah as the one through whom the promise will be fulfilled. It is this impatience with regard to the Lord’s timing and Abraham’s willingness to find culturally acceptable alternatives to the traditional process of inheritance that Abraham will demonstrate again in Genesis 16 with regard to Hagar.
After clarifying that the heir will be Abraham’s own flesh and blood, the Lord incorporates another analogy to explain the large number of Abraham’s descendants. Verse 5 states, “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” The analogy of the stars, like that of the dust, incorporates a natural phenomenon considered impossible to be counted.
The main components of the promises made to Abraham regarding the future of his descendants were to make him a great nation, to bless all families of the earth through him, to give him land, and to multiply his descendants as the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. All of these promises were made before Abraham had any biological child of his own, and God had only specified that the heir would be his direct descendant. It is at the age of 85 that Abraham expresses his willingness to consider alternate approaches to fulfilling God’s promises.
Isaac and Ishmael
Repetition of covenant promises. Genesis 16:16 closes the chapter by stating, “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael,” and the following chapter opens with the statement, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him.” According to the time accounts given, 13 years pass between the close of Genesis 16 and the beginning of Genesis 17 (17:24, 27). The Lord has remained silent during the intervening time, but He has new announcements to make.
The Lord echoes the promise that Abraham will have an abundance of descendants. He states in Genesis 17:2, “‘I . . . will greatly increase your numbers.’” The Lord continues in verses 5 and 6 by stating, “‘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.’” Some have attempted to resolve why the Lord would repeat the promises surrounding the covenant in Genesis 15 by distinguishing the emphasis in previous iterations on the land and the emphasis here on the descendants. In this passage, however, the promise regarding the land of Canaan is also repeated in Genesis 17:8.
Isaac, the child of the covenant. What is new in Genesis 17 is that Sarah is now designated as the one through whom a child will be born who will be the heir of the covenant. In Genesis 17:16 the Lord says of 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.’” Jacques Doukhan points out that this passage elevates Sarah to the same place with regard to the covenant recognition as Abraham.18 Though the promises had previously been specifically made to Abraham in Genesis 17:5 and 6, the same wording applies to Sarah’s descendant, making it clear that the Lord intends to make Sarah’s descendant the full heir of the covenant.
Abraham had been living under the assumption for the 13 intervening years that Ishmael had been the fulfillment of the promises. This is made clear in Genesis 17:18, in which he says to God, “‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’” In an age in which infant mortality was high, Abraham’s inclination was to depend on a child who was at least 12 years old rather than on another child who would face all of the risks of birth and early childhood. God reassures Abraham that He has not forgotten Ishmael and will keep the promises that He has made with regard to Ishmael’s descendants. In 17:20, God references the meaning of Ishmael’s name when He says, “‘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.’” God again introduces the terminology of blessing, fruitfulness, and multiplication that had just been used to describe the promise fulfillment through Sarah’s son. In addition, Isaac’s descendant Jacob would also have a nation the 12 tribes of Israel (49:1–27).
Though Abraham’s concern has been for Ishmael, God’s focus is shifting toward the anticipated child of Sarah. In Genesis 17:19 and 21, God announces that Sarah will have a son, the boy’s name will be Isaac, and Isaac will be the child of the covenant that God has been working all along to establish with Abraham. In this passage, the divergence between God’s disposition regarding the sons of Abraham becomes abundantly clear. Even though Ishmael is the firstborn son, Isaac will be the one through whom God’s promises will be fulfilled— specifically, the land promise and the blessing to all nations, the coming Messiah. Ishmael is to be the recipient of a portion of the covenant blessings promised to Abraham because he is in a son of Abraham.
As Abraham carries out God’s instructions to circumcise all of the males in his house (17:9–14), Ishmael is circumcised along with the servants and children of the servants (vss. 23–27). Because circumcision was a rite practiced in Egypt and Canaan at the time of Abraham, but not in Mesopotamia or Assyria, John Walton suggests that Abraham may have considered this sign of circumcision to have been a means of including Ishmael within the community that God was setting up.19 God had made promises regarding Ishmael’s descendants, and now Ishmael was a participant in the sign of the covenant as God had instructed Abraham to practice it.
Hagar and Ishmael in the Rest of Genesis
Genesis 21:8–21. God has provided a clarification—that Isaac is to be the child of promise, but Isaac must grow up to take that place in the household. In the ancient Near East, there was a party for a child who reached the age at which it could be weaned, typically at the age of three. Once children were weaned, they had a better chance of survival, and thus the context of the feast indicates that Abraham’s reliance on Ishmael to be the heir who would carry on the family line is greatly reduced.
Sarah recognizes the change in circumstances within the household in an incident that is recorded in Genesis 21:9, “Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking.” Whatever it was that Sarah saw caused a visceral response; in her estimation, Hagar had to leave. Regardless of the nature of the action, Sarah was concerned that Ishmael may take the inheritance away from her now-viable son, Isaac, when she said in verse 10 “‘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.’”
The issue of Ishmael’s rights of inheritance are made explicit in this passage. Sarah does not consider Ishmael to be her legal son despite the original impetus that appeared in Genesis 16:2. This again raises the issue that has previously been considered in theory. In the Mesopotamian legal codes, the child of a slave could claim a portion of the inheritance unless the father was the one who emancipated the slave mother and thus made the inheritance claim void.
Abraham’s reluctance to dismiss Hagar and Ishmael demonstrates the care and concern that he had for his firstborn son. He had already appealed to God to recognize Ishmael as the one who would be recognized as his legitimate heir and the one who would fulfill the covenant (17:18). God had said that the child of the covenant would be Isaac (vs. 19), and in the narrative in Genesis 21:12 and 13, He again repeated the plan to work out His purposes through Isaac.
God specifically states in Genesis 21:13 that the reason that Ishmael will become a great nation was “‘because he is your offspring.’” God has been promising since before Ishmael was born that He will make of Abraham’s descendants a great nation. This promise is part of the covenant established with Abraham. In this passage, God is recognizing that even though Ishmael will not be the child whom He elects to carry out the fullness of the covenant with Abraham, there will still be a portion of the promise that will be fulfilled through Ishmael because he is the seed of Abraham.
Despite his reluctance, Abraham complies with Sarah’s demand and God’s command and sends Hagar and Ishmael away into the wilderness. Abraham’s concern is for his son’s wellbeing, so he sends them with as many provisions as he can and possibly a blessing. He gives them “food and a skin of water” (21:14), but in the desert conditions of the wilderness of Beersheba, the provisions are insufficient to sustain life for any significant length of time.
When Hagar and Ishmael’s provisions run out, Hagar is concerned that they will not survive. Genesis 21:15 records that “she put the boy under one of the bushes,” which can carry the meaning of “exposure” or “casting dead bodies.”20 Hagar is convinced that Ishmael will die and says in verse 16, “‘I cannot watch the boy die.’” It is in this desperate situation that the meaning of Ishmael’s name again comes to the forefront of the narrative. God hears the cries of a desperate single mother and her ailing son of Abraham.
God responds to Hagar’s call and “the angel of God” speaks to her in her condition. This angel who addresses Hagar is the same being who spoke with her in Genesis 16:7. Again, as in the previous encounter, a well is the place of God’s encounter and provision. The well provides water to fill the skin that Hagar is carrying and again enables God’s promise to be carried forward in the person of Ishmael. The angel reassures Hagar, “‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count’” (vs. 10).
While the focus of Genesis 16 was on Hagar as the expectant mother of Abraham’s child and God’s special encounter with her despite Sarah’s mistreatment, the focus in Genesis 21 is on God’s election of Isaac, His remembrance of Ishmael, and the promises made to Hagar and Abraham. God was going to accomplish His purposes in the midst of the difficult circumstances brought about by the decisions made by Abraham and Sarah regarding the fate of Hagar and Ishmael.
Ishmael in the rest of Genesis. The portrayal of Ishmael in the rest of the Book of Genesis is a sympathetic one. In Genesis 25:9, Ishmael is portrayed as being present with his brother Isaac to bury their father Abraham. This account is followed in verses 12 to 18 with the genealogy of Ishmael’s descendants, specifically the 12 sons, who are described as “princes.” Following Ishmael’s death described in verse 17, the next time that Ishmael is mentioned is in Genesis 28:9, where Esau is said to have married his cousin Mahalath, Ishmael’s daughter.
The last time that Ishmael is mentioned in the book of Genesis is in the story in Genesis 37:25 to 28, when Joseph’s brothers sell him to Ishmaelites traveling by caravan to Egypt accompanied by other family members, the Midianites. Though the interaction does not make reference to any recognition on the part of either party that they share a common ancestor, the Ishmaelites unintentionally and unknowingly participate in providing an alternative for Joseph’s brothers that replaces their plot to kill him (vs. 20). They become the means by which God accomplishes His purposes to take Joseph to Egypt to prepare for the subsequent events in which Joseph will become the tool that God uses during the coming famine.
Application and Conclusion
According to Carol Bakhos, the story of Hagar and Ishmael was used by rabbinic writers from the tannaitic period (A.D. 10–220) to the early Middle Ages as a characterization of the “other.”21 The portrayals prior to the emergence of Islam in the seventh century were mixed, but following the arrival of Islam the portrayals of Ishmael, as he was associated by a number of writers with Islam, became generally negative. This indicates that the portrayals were often significantly motivated by the perceived contemporary application of the stories rather than more exegetical approaches to the study.
Some have characterized monotheistic faiths as being inherently hostile toward those who are not part of the same faith, even to the extent of finding a religious justification for violence against the “other.” It is in this context that one such scholar poses the question, “How foreign is the Ishmaelite, the half-brother of Isaac and son of Abraham?” She characterizes the Ishmaelites as “foreigners” in relation to Israel.22 Though Ishmael and his descendants were not those recognized as the full heirs to the covenant promises, the narrative in Genesis portrays Hagar and Ishmael not as estranged from God’s beneficence but rather in need of God’s concern and care. The same God who had chosen Isaac to be the covenant child is portrayed as going to extraordinary lengths to reassure, protect, care for, and provide for Hagar and Ishmael.
If the God of the Hebrews were in fact hostile toward those who are outsiders or foreigners, the argument might hold up. It is, however, in the household of the founder of monotheism that the one who is a quintessential outsider is given beneficent treatment by God Himself. Hagar is not marginalized or excluded by God; instead, she experiences significant events that either are unique to her or occur to her for the first time in the biblical narrative. To review, the first time that “the angel of the Lord” appears in the biblical canon is to Hagar. The first child that God names is Ishmael. The first time that God announces the birth of a boy is to Hagar. The first woman to receive a birth announcement directly from God is Hagar, and she is the only woman to receive the promise of the multiplication of her seed. The only human being to coin a name for God is Hagar. And, the only woman to be the recipient of two theophanies is Hagar.
God is portrayed in the story of Hagar as one who “listens to the distressed, listens to the poor, listens to the oppressed, listens to the cries of the unwanted and despised, and listens to the cries of people marginalized in history.”23 This is a far cry from a deity who demands violence toward the “other.” Instead, the God of the Bible is depicted as seeking the wellbeing of those outside the covenant by means of those who are His covenant people. God is portrayed in the Bible as having resorted at times to involving those who lived in the area inhabited by the descendants of Ishmael as a part of His plans (Gen. 37:27, 28; 45:4–8; Ex. 2:15; 18:5–27).
Multiple scholars have reached the conclusion that the Bible records that the inhabitants of the lands to the east of Israel, the land of the Ishmaelites, were used by God to provide sustenance and preparation for those whom He had chosen. Besides the previously mentioned story of Joseph’s purchase by the Ishmaelite and Midianite traders, Moses when threatened with death by the Pharaoh fled to the Arabian land of the Midianites (Ex. 2:15). The people of Israel wandered through Arabia in spiritual preparation before they entered the land of Canaan. The Arabian Magi are the first Gentiles to worship the newly born Christ child, and they bring Him gifts reflecting the riches of Arabia. In each instance, it is Gentiles who are instruments in God’s hands to serve those who were His chosen people.
Christians have often read the story of Hagar and Ishmael through the lens of the portrayal of the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4:21 to 31. As Maalouf points out, these verses must be understood in the context of the entire argument of the book of Galatians, which makes the argument that there were believers who were joining the church through faith, and there were those who were clinging to the law. In this context, it was Gentiles who were joining by faith, typologically represented by Isaac; there were also Jews who were clinging to the law in the hopes that their own works would save them, typologically represented by Ishmael. The passage reverses the spiritual application from the natural one to make a point regarding the means of salvation and is not referring to the ethnic origins of those to whom the message is being applied.
The Book of Galatians makes a different point in the previous chapter, arguing that the true children of Abraham following the coming of Christ are those who exercise faith in Him (3:26–29). Thus, the true covenant descendants of Abraham are those who have been baptized into Christ (vs. 27), and their ethnic origin is irrelevant (vs. 28). With a spiritualizing of the nature of the covenant descendants of Abraham for Christians, the same considerations applicable to the portrayal in the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of the “other” are applicable to the Christian view of the “other.” The Christian claim is that they worship the God of Abraham portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. When these two concepts are overlapped, the story of Hagar and Ishmael speaks to the need for Christian believers to have a benevolent view toward those who are outside of the covenant community. Even though God has defined the true followers of Abraham as specifically those who exercise faith in Christ, those who are either not part of a particular branch of the Christian faith that one holds, or even those who do not profess faith in Jesus can be instruments through which God may work out His purposes and can be recipients of God’s favor as he would so choose.
This becomes particularly applicable in matters of spirituality in which other faiths claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor. Though it falls beyond the scope of this article to explore the nature of the Bible’s description of the relation God has in contemporary times with the Jews, it is important to consider the implications of the Christian understanding of God’s covenant in light of the typological application of the covenant promises to the Gentiles who profess faith in Jesus. Religious Jews trace the origins of their faith to Abraham, and Muslims claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor as well. Thus, Christians must be open to the possibility of God working through other professed Christians who are not of the same faith community to accomplish His purposes. All professed believers in Jesus, to remain faithful to the biblical narrative, must consider God’s beneficence toward Hagar and Ishmael, and practice an equivalent beneficence today toward those who are the “other.”
The Christian message is one of evangelism and discipleship guided by the teaching that appears in Matthew 28:18 to 20. In a time and place where a tribalism is forming that threatens to sweep many professing Christians into the tensions that characterize interactions among peoples of various groups, God’s interaction with Hagar and Ishmael stands as a stark reminder of the ideals to which the Bible calls believers.
Daniel Royo is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.A., and serves as a Pastor in the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
NOTES AND REFERENCES