The grace of God toward the descendants of Ishmael
This study is about someone in the Bible, who was the firstborn of a man whom the Bible calls ‘a friend of God’. His birth seemed to be an answer to his prayers. The Lord appeared to his mother before he was born and told her what his name should be and gave her great promises for the future. Later also his father prayed to the Lord to bless him and the Lord gave him great promises. When he was a teenager, the Lord answered his prayer and again made great promises. Despite this fact, many Christians nowadays believe he was cursed by God.
This person is ISHMAEL
Muslims and Ishmael
A widely held tradition in the Arab world associates Ishmael and his descendants with Arabs in general and Arab Muslims in particular. Muslims who do not belong to Ishmael’s bloodline still associate with him theologically. The appropriation of Ishmael by Muslims starting from Mohammad’s time has indirectly led the church to avoid this biblical figure and look at him with suspicion.
Ishmael a symbol of Islam?
- Ishmael is a descendent of Abraham, the father of all believers. Muslims consider Abraham one of them. The Qur’an even says: ‘Abraham was not a Jew, nor a Christian, but a Muslim’.
- Ishmael was a human invented, understandable, solution to the problem of man. Islam has be called “the best human attempt to create an acceptable religion without Christ”.
- Ishmael might not have been born, had Abraham and Sara lived closer to the Lord. Islam might not have been established, had the Christians Mohammad met knew their God and His Word better.
- Ishmael represents a religion based on works, under which a person attempts to appropriate divine favor, primarily by means of works, only to end up in bondage to the legal system. (Galatians 3:21-31)
- There was conflict between Isaac and Ishmael and there has been conflict between their descendants (both literal and spiritual) ever since.
The grace of God towards Ishmael
Despite the fact that Ishmael was born out of disobedience and that God’s plan of salvation of the world will be accomplished via Isaac, God did not turn his back toward Ishmael. God did not abandon Ishmael. God did not curse Ishmael. On the contrary: there are several indications from Scripture that show God’s love, concern and compassion, and we do well to look at these.
1. God values the unwanted
‘the Angel of the Lord found her’ (Gen. 16:7)
After Hagar, the slave of Abraham and Sarai had become pregnant, the relationship between her and Sarai deteriorated and Sarai ill-treated her in such a way that she ran away. She and her unborn son were unwanted. Imagine. A pregnant slave-girl on the run. This is a hopeless situation. What would be her future? She was dumped like garbage. She had no rights, she was unwanted. Her future was very dark. Who would want a slave woman who was pregnant? Where or to whom could she run to? Her life was considered unvaluable in the eyes of man.
But we read in Gen. 16:7: ‘the Angel of the Lord found her’. The word ‘find’ used here in Hebrew includes elements of encounter and of divine election (Deut. 32:10; Ps. 89:21; Hos. 12:5) After the Angel of the Lord found Hagar, he called her by her name (vs8), which implies a personal knowledge of her situation and a potential personal relationship. Hagar and her unborn son are the objects of a special divine favour, revelation, and comfort. God’s eyes were on her. God did not abandon her. He valued her and her unborn baby. She was so valuable that God even send the Angel of the Lord to meet with her. Not many people in the OT had an encounter with God in such a way. God revealed Himself to her in a special and supernatural way. So many Christians believe that Ishmael and his descendants are cursed and look down on them, treat them as garbage, pay no attention to them, but our God is a compassionate God and He cares for the unwanted. He often reveals Himself to them through supernatural means (like dreams).
2. God frees the oppressed (Gen. 16:11-14)
The angel was exhorting Hagar to go back and submit again to her mistress, apparently under the same conditions. God wanted Ishmael to be born in the house of Abraham, reared in the godly patriarchal family, and circumcised in Abraham’s home (17:22-27) before being ultimately led to his divinely appointed land. Hagar’s submission is not asked because God approves of her oppression; but it is necessary for his plans. After asking her to return to Sarah, the Angel of the Lord gave Hagar a message of comfort that would help her endure the hard circumstances of slavery:
- He promised to multiply her seed exceedingly (v10). In doing so, God gave her a promise parallel to the promises given to the patriarchs (17:2; 22:17; 26:24). Thus Hagar becomes the only woman in the Bible to whom God gives such a promise of multiplication of seed.
- Subsequently the Angel of the Lord gave Hagar three characteristics that would portray her son Ishmael. These predictions were meant to comfort Hagar in a certain way:
- ‘He will be a wild donkey of a man’. The traits of a wild donkey as presented in the Bible: Strong willed, choosing his own way, and getting what he desires; living in the desert; free moving and having a nomadic life style; ‘A wild donkey of a man’ does not refer to ‘ a wild man’, but a free nomadic lifestyle.
- ‘His hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him’. his statement plays on the term translated ‘hand’ as a metonymy for power. For Hagar to be fleeing from confrontation is a sign of powerlessness. Consequently, this powerless slave mother was promised a son who will have power to fight for his freedom. He will not be under the hand of anyone. Although many would like to subdue him (“everyone’s hand upon him”), he will always be able to maintain his freedom (“his hand upon everyone”).
- “He will live in hostility (or ‘before the face of) all his brethren” plays on the motif of “face” in the sense of presence. A subject, powerless slave mother fleeing from the presence of her mistress without compensation feels compensated by the Lord promising her a son, free, powerful, and dwelling in a land designed for him by God in the presence of his kin
The characteristics given of Ishmael could also refer to what we often see in Islam: stubborn and proud, fighting to get what they want and living in hostility with their blood brothers, the Jews. Interestingly enough Islam means ‘submission’. And we know from Scripture that only when we submit our stubborn, pride, self-will to the Almighty God will we have true freedom. God promised to free the oppressed Ishmael and his descendants, and we know that the Gospel will make them free.
3. God sees those who do not look for Him (Gen. 16:13, 14)
Although Hagar wasn’t looking for God, God was looking for her. She acknowledges: “You are the God who sees me and she even named a well after that important event. God sees the millions of Muslims and is concerned for them.
4. God blesses all descendants of Abraham with His presence and care (Gen. 17:18-20; 20:13)
Most likely Abraham believed for thirteen years that Ishmael was the promised son. This conviction might have been reinforced by Hagar’s narration of the extraordinary encounter with the Angel of the Lord and the promises the Angel gave her. Therefore when God tells Abraham, that Sarah will bear him the promised seed, Abraham laughed and prayed: O that Ishmael might live before you (17:18). It is interesting that the answer to this prayer in different Bibles is translated differently. In some Bibles, the response is stated as ‘no’ and in others ‘yes’. How did God answers this question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I think that many western evangelicals would like God to answer ‘no’. But if we see things in the context, we see that God’s answer was ‘yes’. It is true God’s salvation historic plan would be continued through the line of Isaac and not Ishmael, but that doesn’t mean that God curses Ishmael or his descendants as many Christians nowadays seem to believe.
While confirming his covenantal plan for Isaac, God assured Abraham that Ishmael would not be neglected in the process. The patriarch’s prayer concerning Ishmael was that he might “live before God”, that is, under God’s blessing and care. God heard this prayer and promised to bless Ishmael, make him fruitful, and multiply him exceedingly, with twelve princes being the fruit of his loins (Gen. 17:20) Although Ishmael has been excluded from the covenant with Abraham, he and his descendants were still to live under the blessing of God (v20). And later when he was reluctant to send Ishmael away with his mother, God said: “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Gen. 21:13) Although God had special plans for Isaac and his descendants, the people of Israel, this doesn’t mean that He curses Ishmael and his descendants, the Arab peoples.
5. God hears the cry of those in the wilderness (Gen. 21:17)
After Isaac was born Ishmael and Isaac grew up in the same household, but apparently tensions built up and at one day Sara had enough and wanted Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Although reluctantly, Abraham send them away with some food and water. Hagar and Ishmael wandered around in the desert and soon the food and water had run out and Ishmael cried because it seemed like he would die of thirst. Having grown up as a son in a respectable home, he was now a refugee in a desert. His father had sent him away. He was abandoned by his earthly father. But God heard His cry.
When Hagar was not able to hear the agonizing voice of her son, God heard him ‘where he was’ (21:17). This indicates that Ishmael was not forsaken or forgotten by God. In fact, his name (‘God hears’) indicates the contrary. Thus God called to Hagar from heaven, and exhorted her to lift her son up with a strong hand, and reassured her of the great future that awaited the lad (21:18). The name, “Ishmael” means “God will hear.” It is the cry to be loved and accepted by God, to know God as Father.
God’s intervention on behalf of Ishmael did not stop at just providing water for his survival. For the Bible notes the presence of God with Ishmael to prosper his life. “And God was with the lad, so he grew up, and dwelt in the desert, and became a bow hunter” (21:20)
For more information: Tony Maalouf: Arabs in the Shadow of Israel