************ Sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 20, 2013
"Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away"
"The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast" (Gen 21:8).
"The child grew." A normal child. A normal childhood. He learned, he explored, he walked, he talked, he played.
"The child ... was weaned." Isaac no longer needed his mother's milk and was able to eat vegetables, grain, and meat.
"On the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast." To us this can only seem strange. We throw parties on birthdays. Jews celebrate circumcision and Christians celebrate baptism. But Abraham waits to have a party until Isaac is weaned. We need to realize that the Ancient World had a high infant mortality rate. Breast-feeding often did not stop until a child was two or three years old, and death was an ever-present risk until then. Consequently, Isaac's weaning is cause for celebration. He has survived. He is healthy. He is growing. He, indeed, will be Abraham's heir.
We need to look at five words to understand and appreciate the passage in front of us this morning.
A The first word we need to look at is "laugh." We find it in the Hebrew of verse 9; our pew Bibles translate it as "mocking" (Gen 21:9). Ishmael was "mocking" Isaac. That is, Ishmael was laughing at Isaac.
This is now the fourth time we have seen this word in the Abraham stories. The first time, remember, is in the name Isaac. Isaac means "he laughs" and this is the name God commanded Abraham to give his son (Gen 17:19).
The second time is one year before Isaac's birth. God announced to Abraham that "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son" (Gen 18:10). When Sarah heard this she "laughed to herself" (Gen 18:12). This was laughter of unbelief or disbelief. "Yeah, sure, an old lady like me having a baby."
The third time is when Isaac was born. Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me" (Gen 21:6). This was laughter of joy and happiness at the miracle of a child.
The fourth time is in our passage today.
B Ishmael "laughed." Now, this was no innocent act on Ishmael's part; the form of the verb used for his laughter in verse 9 usually has nasty connotations. For example, the same word was used to describe the behavior of the Philistines moments before they brought a blind Samson out of prison to entertain them with his stumbling (Judges 16:25).
The Jewish rabbis look at this word and charge Ishmael with idolatry and wickedness.
In Galatians 4:29 Paul understands this as a form of persecution:
(Gal 4:29) At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.The son born in the ordinary way is Ishmael. He was conceived and born through human activity. The son born by the power of the Spirit is Isaac. He was born as the result of a promise. No human effort involved; just grace, God's power, and miracle.
Paul says that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. The son born in the ordinary way "persecuted" the son born by the power of the Spirit.
Ishmael "laughed." This was a laugh of derision. This was a laugh of mockery. He was poking malicious fun of Isaac. This was persecution. So, no, this was no innocent act on Ishmael's part.
C Why did Ishmael laugh at Isaac, mock him, and persecute him?
Consider the situation from a purely human point-of-view. For fourteen years Ishmael has been the only child of Abraham. Now, he suddenly has to share his father's love with another child.
Ishmael was also well acquainted with the customs of the day. Ishmael knew that custom dictated that the oldest son was the father's heir. For a while Ishmael must have hoped that he, as the only and oldest child, would inherit the blessing and the promise and be Abraham's heir. Then along comes baby Isaac and he is informed that all he gets is leftovers. It seemed so unfair, so wrong, so unjust, so unnatural.
Was Ishmael jealous? Of course he was! Was there sibling rivalry? Of course there was! Was Ishmael angry and hateful? Most certainly!
D I earlier mentioned the Apostle Paul's view of Ishmael's behavior. Under the inspiration of the Spirit Paul identifies Ishmael's behavior as persecution. Now, did you happen to catch Paul's last phrase? Paul writes, "It is the same now."
Children of grace, says Paul, are always persecuted by those who are children of law. Those who are part of the Kingdom of Light are always cruelly treated by those who are part of the Kingdom of Darkness. Paul had three things in mind: his persecution by the Judaizers, the persecution of the church by the Jews, and his persecution of Christians before he came to know the Lord.
Almost two thousand years later we can still echo Paul's words, "It is the same now." I get weekly emails from Voice of the Martyrs and monthly emails from Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF). Not a day goes by that Christians are not cruelly oppressed and persecuted around the world for confessing Christ.
"It is the same now." Even in our own land. Most of those in control of the media have made no secret of how they consider sincere born-again Christians. They consider us to be old-fashioned, out-of-touch, dinosaurs who should be extinct. They use every opportunity to belittle our beliefs. They take delight in pointing out the failings and fallings of any born-again leader. They accuse us of being intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted, racist, and homophobic.
A The second word we need to keep in mind is "promise."
Sarah, and God, told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. When your wife and your God tell you to do something, you for sure don't have any choice in the matter. Yet, Abraham had a hard time, a horrible time, in saying goodbye. Scripture tells us that "the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son" (Gen 21:11). Telling us what? Telling us Abraham regarded Ishmael as a son and not as a slave. Telling us Abraham treated Ishmael as a son. Telling us Ishmael and Abraham had a real father-son relationship. They played together. They laughed together. Ishmael learned from his father. Since the time Ishmael was a young boy, Abraham probably took him along when he checked up on his servants and inspected his flocks and herds. But now Abraham is being forced to send Ishmael and Hagar away. Did it hurt? Of course it did!
As for Ishmael, he loved and respected his father. Even after being sent away he loved and respected father Abraham. How do we know that? Because he helped Isaac bury Abraham (Gen 25:9). At that time you did all the preparations yourself – of the body, the grave, the service. Not something done by a hateful child. Not something Isaac would have allowed Ishmael, his tormenter and persecutor, to do if Ishmael did not love Abraham.
B Ishmael was Abraham's first-born son. At one time Abraham had hoped that all of God's wonderful promises to him about a name, a people, and a land would be fulfilled in and through Ishmael (Gen 17:18). But God made it clear that Isaac, not Ishmael, was the heir of the covenant and its promises.
This does not mean Ishmael was left with nothing. God made it clear that He would bless Ishmael and make him into a great nation:
(Gen 17:20) 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.
So, what happens to this promise now that Ishmael is being sent away? In our passage God repeats and confirms His promise about Ishmael: "I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring" (Gen 21:13).
What do we see? We see that God is a God of promises. As we see in the birth of Isaac, God keeps His promises – in His own way and in His own time. So, Abraham has every reason to believe that the God of promises will keep this promise too.
Peter reminds us that God is not slow in keeping His promises. God promises the return of Christ. God promises life everlasting. God promises a new heaven and a new earth. God promises the day of the Lord. God promises the forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus (cf 2 Peter 3). God keeps all of these promises.
Abraham knew that God is the God of promises. Abraham knew that God always keeps His promises. So, he was able to send Ishmael away.
A The third word we need to look at is "Egypt." It appears directly or indirectly four times in our Scripture reading.
Did you notice the strange wording of verse 9? It would have been so much easier to use the name "Ishmael." But Scripture says "the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne" (Gen 21:9). Scripture emphasizes that Hagar – and Ishmael – are Egyptian.
When Abraham sent them away, where did Hagar and Ishmael go? We are told they "wandered in the desert of Beersheba" (Gen 21:14). Beersheba. The last stop before Egypt proper. Right on the border or frontier of Egypt.
Where did Ishmael live once he was a grown man? In the "Desert of Paran" (Gen 21:21). Also on the border or frontier of Egypt.
Finally, notice the last line of our Bible reading: "his mother got a wife for him from Egypt" (Gen 21:21). A simple line that tells us so much. This means Hagar knew and contacted someone in Egypt – maybe a marriage broker, maybe a relative, maybe a religious leader. This means negotiations. This means payment of a dowry. This means some kind of ceremony or covenant.
B Egypt. Egypt. Egypt. Egypt. Hagar and Ishmael turn again and again to Egypt. When Sarah mistreated her, where did Hagar flee? In the direction of Egypt (Gen 16:7). Again and again, Hagar looks to Egypt for protection, safety, security, and even life. Again and again, Hagar turns away from God and the covenant and the covenant line, and runs to Egypt.
Egypt represents this world and its attractions. Egypt represents life without God. Egypt represents earthly security.
What Moses writes about Hagar, Ishmael, and Egypt struck a responsive cord with the children of Israel. Because wasn't this one of the big temptations facing Israel as she journeyed through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land?
You know the stories. In the wilderness, these people tired so quickly of manna and wanted to return to the diet of fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic that they enjoyed in Egypt (Num 11:5). When the spies returned from their exploration of the Promised Land with stories of giants and walled cities, the people's first response was, "Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (Num 14:3). When there was no water to drink, they said,
(Num 20:5) "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!"To these people the prosperity and fertility of Egypt was a constant magnet as they faced the difficulties of the wilderness.
So, what was Moses saying? What was God saying to them? The people were being warned about being worldly like Hagar. The people were being warned about seeking safety on earth rather than in God.
Don't we need to hear the same warning?! We need to look to God and not to Egypt. We need to look to God and His promises and not human might and human strength and human ingenuity.
The fourth word we need to look at is the name "Ishmael." Nowhere is it mentioned directly. But the Spirit of the Lord keeps the name before us.
Remember how Hagar cried out to God when she ran from Sarah? God heard her cry. And, as a reminder that He hears, she was told to name her son Ishmael, meaning "God hears" (Gen 16:11). After this, Hagar also confessed that God sees (Gen 16:13). So, God hears all things, God sees all things, God knows all things!
Now what happens after Hagar and Ishmael are sent away? They run out of water. Ishmael is crying and dying. They have given up hope. "God heard the boy crying" (Gen 21:17). In fact, we are told this twice in verse 17. God hears.
God listens to His children praying.
How do we know God listens? Because God opened Hagar's eyes and she saw a well of water.
God listens. And God provides. And God was with the boy as he grew up. Even as He promised. He Whose eye is on the sparrow certainly kept watch over Ishmael.
A The fifth word we need to keep in mind is "destiny." I am talking about the sovereignty of God, the plan of God, the will of God.
Contrary to custom and superstition, Isaac rather than Ishmael was the child of promise and Abraham's heir. Why? Why was Isaac chosen instead of Ishmael? And, in Isaac's family, why was Jacob chosen instead of Esau? Isaac did not do anything to deserve this honor. There was nothing special about Isaac that made him more worthy than Ishmael. The choosing of Isaac had nothing to do with what he said or did. It was simply an act of God's sovereign grace – undeserved, unearned, unmerited.
Isn't our choosing and our salvation exactly the same way? There is nothing special about us. There is nothing worthy about us. There is nothing we say or do. Salvation and election is simply an act of God's sovereign grace.
B I did a Google search of paintings and pictures illustrating our Bible reading. Some of the pictures depict Sarah as a cold, plotting, wicked witch. Someone who couldn't stand the competition of another woman. Someone who was overprotective of her child and tried to turn him into a mama's boy.
In line with this, when we first read the passage it appears that it was Sarah who wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone. But it quickly becomes obvious that Sarah's request was also the Lord's desire. God said to Abraham, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you" (Gen 21:12). On the surface, our text is the result of a love triangle and the hatred and jealousy of two bitter rivals. A closer look, however, reveals the sovereign activity of God. We need to see Sarah as an agent of the Lord. She was being driven by more than human emotion.
C So we can and should ask, why did God want Ishmael gone? We need to realize that God was building for Himself a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. And, God was doing this not by human strength or human might or human skill but by His own sovereign grace. That's why Isaac was not born until Abraham and Sarah were too old to bear any children. The promised child came but only as a miracle, as an act of God, as an act of grace.
Isaac, the child of the promise, is the result of sovereign grace. Ishmael, by way of contrast, is the result of human effort. Therefore, Ishmael had to go and Isaac had to stay. God lets it be known that He, not man, is sovereign. He accomplishes His purposes. As the song we sing puts it
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
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