The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a complicated one. Usually in biblical stories we know who the good guy and who the bad guy is. We can draw clear lines between what is sin and what isn’t sin. We have no such opportunity with this story however. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is about faith and a lack of faith. It is about sin and it is about blessings from God in spite of sin. For these reasons we can’t easily say everything that is right and wrong and determine how to best live our lives accordingly. On the other hand this story is very true to life because we often face situations that don’t appear to be as clear cut as we would like them to be.
Our story beings in Genesis 16.
1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.
We should note here that things operated a bit differently than they do today. This is not adultery but we should also note that Abraham took Hagar as his wife, or rather a second wife. He and Hagar are still united in marriage even though that marriage is now polygamous.
We see multiple wives throughout the Old Testament but we shouldn’t be led to believe that this was necessarily the norm. There are no rules given for multiple wives but God doesn’t expressly forbid it either. It appears that multiples wives is not ideal however and in no place do we see that it is part of God’s plan. Instead, God works in spite of this.
In almost every instance – all that I can recall off the top of my head – multiple wives adds stress and difficulty to a marriage. We will see it with Abraham. We will see it with Jacob. And David and Solomon’s lives are certainly complicated because of multiple wives.
Now for those who are wondering why multiple wives appears to be accepted but multiple husbands is not, there are two good reasons. First of all, as I mentioned already, this is not ideal and tolerated is probably a better word to use than accepted. But beyond that, there is a physical reason and a spiritual reason why multiple husbands are tolerated.
It has been supposed by some people that men were in short supply and thus multiple wives were necessary. Although this hasn’t been proven as fact it stands to reason that some of this is true. Men married at an older age than women and thus some never even lived long enough to marry. Men died at a younger age. This is still true today but would have been more true at this time due to harsh conditions and the fact that men would have been responsible for physical labor while women tended to the house and family. And of course men were the ones who went to war and this would have left fewer men than women to marry.
The more valid reason is spiritual and it is actually pretty simple. When a man has more than one wife, when a woman has a child everyone knows who the mother and father are. If a woman had multiple husbands, when she had a child there would be no way to tell who the father was. The family is sacred and God wants children to grow up knowing both their mother and father. This is one of the great tragedies of our day that women give birth having no clue who the father is and that children have fathers or even sometimes mothers who abandon them.
Back to our passage however, Hagar is legally Abram’s wife but she is essentially acting as a surrogate mother. The child to be born would be Abram’s flesh and blood and Sarai had legal rights to the child as she could adopt him.
4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said 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. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
6 “Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
What takes place next is human nature but that doesn’t excuse the sinfulness of it. When Hagar becomes pregnant she begins to despise Sarai. This could have something to do with being forced into marriage and having to have a child. More likely however, it is the thought that she is expected to willingly give up her child to Sarai.
Sarai accuses Abram of wrongdoing but I can see no sin in what he has done unless it is a lack of faith in not waiting for God’s timing. Sarai is the one who proposed having a child through Hagar and Abram simply carried out her wishes.
No matter what the circumstances otherwise, Sarai has no right to mistreat Hagar. Abram most likely knew what was taking place and he should have put a stop to it. Even though he likely didn’t love Hagar, she was still his wife and he had a responsibility to her as much as Sarai.
After Hagar runs away, she is met by an angel. The angel tells her to go back and that God will make her descendants too numerous to count. This is the same promise that God gave to Abraham. Even though Ishmael is not the child of God’s plans, God still chooses to bless him and causes him to have innumerable descendants.
There is more that the angel tells her however. It is a prophecy and not all of it is good.
11 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.
12 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.”
Verse 12 is the kicker to this story. The descendants of Ishmael are modern day Muslims. They trace their ancestry back to Abraham like the Jews do. However their lineage goes through Ishmael and not Isaac. It is their claim to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel however. Their most sacred city, Mecca, was supposedly the place where Abraham and Ishmael built the Kaaba, the site that they gather around and prayer towards.
Verse 12 rings true of the Muslims today and throughout their history. We don’t have much recorded about the life of Ishmael but undoubtedly it was true of him as well. Calling someone a wild donkey is not a compliment. Donkeys are known for stubbornness and a wild one would be even worse as they are not broken.
The problems with the Muslim world and the rest of the world are nothing new. They have been hostile from the beginning, converting people at swordpoint. Not that the Christian church is innocent in the matter but the Crusades were fought against the Muslims. And today one simply needs to turn on the news to learn of the problems with the Muslim world. They are hostile to the rest of the world and the rest of the world is hostile to them. And they are even hostile towards each other as various factions within Islam fight amongst themselves and kill each other. This was all prophesied before Ishmael was even born.
Verse 16 tells us that Abram was 86 years old at the time that Ishmael was born. Thirteen years pass between chapter 16 and 17. When Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him again and forms the covenant of circumcision. It is at this point that Abram and Sarai’s names are changed to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is also promised that Sarah would have a son.
Abraham assumed that God’s promise to him would be fulfilled through Ishmael. Ishmael is his own flesh and blood and God has already promised that Ishmael’s descendants would be too numerous to count. But this was not what God had planned or intended from the beginning. This is the difficulty with faith. While we pray and have faith, we are not excused from human responsibility. Sometimes when we ask God for something, the response we get is that God has already given us everything we need to accomplish His will.
By having a child through Hagar, Abram believes that he is fulfilling God’s will through the means that God has given. But this was not God’s plan. Did Abram know that at the time? Probably not. Should he have known it? We can’t be sure. This is why faith is so hard sometimes.
Here’s the lesson to take home today. God has called us all to have faith in Him. Sometimes that faith means that we just hold on tight and wait for God to act. Sometimes it means that we go out and act on the faith that we have and we do something. Unfortunately there is no easy test to know when to hold tight and when to step out and use what God has already given us. Only with a lot of prayer and discernment will we know whether it’s time for action or we should wait upon the Lord for His timing.
Abram turned out to be wrong about what God planned. Even when God promised Abraham a son through Sarah, Abraham was satisfied with less than God intended.
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 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.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “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. 20 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. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”
Ishmael was blessed even though he wasn’t the son that God had promised. He was blessed simply because God had chosen to bless Abraham and Ishmael was his son. Isaac was to be the child of promise however and God would fulfill that promise to Abraham at the age of 100.
We don’t know how and when God is going to act in our lives. We must pray for wisdom to know when to act and when to stay still. But ultimately we must hold fast to the promises of God because they are completely assured.