Ishmael was about 13 years old when God came to visit Abram and things would not be the same again for him. Immediately, Abram became Abraham and Sari became Sarah and soon Sarah bore Abraham a son, just as God had promised and foretold. About two years later, at the birth of Isaac, Ishmael was about 15 years old. At the birth of his step-brother, Ishmael immediately became a nobody. From being the first-born and the apple of his father’s eye, he lost his name and he lost his identity and became just an Egyptian bondwoman’s son, a nameless nobody. There was more than enmity between Sarah and Hagar as Sarah “said to Abraham, Cast out this slave woman and her son. For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). Abraham was understandably ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and called on God for advice. God replied and “said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the boy and because of your slave woman. In all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice. For in Isaac your Seed shall be called. And also, I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman, because he is your seed” (v12-13). God told Abraham to follow Sarah’s advice and exile Ishmael, and Abraham did as instructed. God had kept His promise to Abraham about Ishmael’s blessing, but not in the way Abraham expected, no doubt.
“Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder. And he gave her the boy, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba” (v14). That was the last time Ishmael was to see Abraham alive, or Abraham, Ishmael.
As Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba they eventually ran out of water. Ishmael was dying and Hagar, unable to watch the death of her son, left him under a bush and walked off, a ‘bowshot’ distance from him, where she could no longer see or hear him. She knelt and wept and cried for her son. Then “God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar out of the heavens, and said to her, What ails you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Rise up, lift up the boy and hold him up with your hand, for I will make him a great nation” (v17). Hagar returned to Ishmael “and God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave drink to the boy” (v17). The well had been there all the time, but God had blinded them both to its location until the timing was correct.
What is interesting here is that God answered Ishmael’s cries, not those of his mother. To understand this, we need to recall what Ishmael’s name (as we read in the previous post), ישׁמעאל (yishmâ‛ê’l) means “God will hear.” And God did hear and yet again God confirmed Ishmael’s destiny in God’s will. “And God was with the boy, and he grew, and lived in the wilderness, and became an archer. And he lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him out of the land of Egypt” (v21-22). At this point, any understanding or interest in Ishmael by Christians, tends to stop. But the Bible has more to say about Ishmael, which we need to know.
The last time Ishmael saw his father alive was when Abraham gave him bread and water and evicted him to the desert. This was also the last time Ishmael and Isaac met, until the funeral Abraham (v25:9).
Ishmael was abandoned by his father and sent out into the wilderness, basically to die. He was then abandoned by his mother, who left him under a bush and walked away, as she could not watch him die. Finally, though God has kept His promise to Ishmael and reaffirmed it twice more, God now abandoned Ishmael also. We are all very familiar with the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac in the desert at the bidding of the Lord. Let us look at it again in light of the story of Ishmael.
Genesis 22 opens with God testing Abraham, telling him v2 “Take now your son, your only one, Isaac, whom you love. And go into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will name to you” (emphasis added). Here is God telling Abraham to take Isaac, your only son. To all intents and purposes, Ishmael had ceased to exist. He was abandoned by his mother, his father and his God. Indeed, the last time Ishmael was mentioned in the story before Abraham’s funeral is in v17:26 where “in the same day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised.” When Abraham died, so too did Ishmael’s hopes and prayers for a reconciliation with his father. He could now no longer hope to be loved or accepted by his father or his father family, ever again; and he now no longer had any possibility of restoring his identity. This is the core cry of his children, the descendants of Ishmael; as they long at their deepest level, for an identity, as they long for a father, as they long for a God to love them.
While a son can claim his inheritance through birthright, through his DNA, the son of a bonds-woman can only claim his inheritance through work. Work defines him. The descendants of Ishmael are defined by work. Ishmael, having no father, had no identity, ergo; Ishmael’s descendent have no identity. Identity is about who you are, not what you are.
For the children of Ishmael, the situation is about to get worse.
Isaac grew and was married, but his wife Rebekah was barren. So Isaac prayed and God heard him and she conceived, but her sons struggled insider her. “And Jehovah said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two kinds of people shall be separated from your bowels. And the one people shall be stronger than the other people, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Twins were born, Esau first, then Jacob. “And the boys grew. And Esau was a man knowing hunting, and Jacob was a simple man, living in tents” (v27). Then Esau famously sold his birthright for some “red soup” (v30-34) and was eventually also cheated out of his blessing by Jacob and his mother (v27:1-30). Though Esau was the first-born and the father’s favourite, he received nothing in inheritance. When her returned and found he was cheated he asked his Isaac for a blessing but he only answered “Your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above. And by your sword you shall live, and shall serve your brother. And it shall be when you shall have the dominion, you shall break his yoke from off your neck” (v27:39-40). Then “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him. And Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand. Then I will kill my brother Jacob” (v41). And as God promised, Jacob succeeded and became Israel, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Even today, the descendants of Esau hate Jacob, who became Israel and the Jewish nation. The struggle which began in the womb of Rebekah, still lives on today. How does this relate to Ishmael and his descendants Genesis 28:9 tells us: “then Esau went to Ishmael, and took Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to the wives which he had for his wife.” Thus the descendants of Ishmael and Esau became one and the spirit of Esau lives on in them. Though Esau had other wives, it was through his marriage to Mahalath he is linked to Ishmael and that union exists today, as the hatred of Israel which was on the heart of Esau, still permeates the descendants of Ishmael. Both Ishmael and Esau were archers: Ishmael to survive, Esau to hunt for prey and victory. Ishmael was always at war while Esau lived by the sword.