It’s no secret that Arabs and Jews have descended from two half-brothers, Ishmael (the father of the Arabs) and Isaac (the father of Israel) who, although they had different mothers (Hagar and Sarah), both had the same father (Abraham). In this series we will take a closer look at Ishmael, whose descendants are the Arabs, the majority of which now profess the religion of Islam. Just to clarify: modern Judaism has strayed from its biblical roots, and so have most Arabs. Nevertheless, God’s Word still sheds light on their ancient beginnings.
One dark night God spoke to Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham) saying, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number the…So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:6). Abram believed this promise, but in time he questioned exactly how it could be fulfilled, primarily because he and his wife Sarai were getting up in years. Acutely aware of her aging body, Sarai worried about the same thing too, and she eventually thought of a plan “to help God out of this pickle.”
“Honey,” Sarai might have whispered to Abram one quiet evening, “the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). As strange as this suggestion may appear to us today – especially coming from a godly man’s wife – it wasn’t so unusual in those bygone days. Sarai had a youthful Egyptian servant-girl named Hagar, and her maid seemed like the perfect vessel through which God could fulfill His promises.
Husbands should listen to their wives, right? (at least in most cases), and that’s exactly what Abram did. “Okay,” he essentially said, “I’ll do it.” Yet he had no idea how far-reaching the consequences of that single choice would be, or how much trouble it would cause, both in his own family, and throughout history, to this very day!
So Abram “went in to Hagar, and she conceived” (Genesis 16:4). But as the tiny fetus grew inside the Egyptian woman’s body, so did unanticipated difficulties within Abram’s household. As Hagar contemplated how she – and she alone – was carrying Abram’s child, she yielded to temptation, exalted herself, and began despising Sarai. I’m carrying the heir, she thought proudly, the child of promise! Sensing her maid’s haughty attitude, it didn’t take long for Sarai to have a change of heart too. Oh, why did I suggest Hagar to my husband in the first place? she moaned. Before long, the two women were quarrelling like angry cats. “That Egyptian woman must go!” Sarai soon pleaded to her husband. And when “Sarai dealt harshly” with Hagar, the younger woman “fled from her presence” (Genesis 16:6).
Thus we can see that, even before Hagar’s baby was born, conflict erupted over whether her child was to be a legitimate heir of God’s promises or not. And as we shall soon see, the exact same conflict still rages today among Arabs, Jews, and Christians.
So Hagar “fled” from Abram’s desert camp, to wander alone in the wilderness. Imagine how discouraged she must have felt. A few days earlier she was an esteemed wife of Abraham. Now she was homeless and friendless, and on top of that, pregnant! Yet unknown to her, a merciful, all-seeing eye watched her closely. After all, Hagar was still a wife of one of God’s favorite humans. And she was carrying his child – his firstborn son. What happened next is deeply significant. Take a close look:
Now the Angel of the LORD found her [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” The Angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.” Then the Angel of the LORD said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” And the Angel of the LORD said to her:
“Behold, you are with child,
And you shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the LORD has heard your affliction.
Four times in these verses do we read that “the Angel of the Lord” talked to Hagar, which must mean that both she and her child have a place in God’s plans. Upon careful examination, we discover that God made many predictions, or prophecies , concerning the child and his descendants. After a brief initial conversation, “the Angel of the Lord” told Hagar encouragingly, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.”
Next, “the Angel of the Lord” informed Hagar that she would “bear a son,” and that she should “call his name Ishmael.” Now consider this: there are only four times in the entire Bible where God actually named a baby before it was born, and this is one of them. The first two times concern Abram’s first two sons, Ishmael and Isaac (see also Genesis 17:19), and the other two times concern John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (see Luke 1:13,31). All Christians know the importance of Isaac, the Baptist, and above all, the Savior. But what about Ishmael? He must be important too.
If he weren’t, God wouldn’t have picked his name.
But what is even more significant is what that name means. The “Angel of the Lord” declared, “You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your affliction” (Genesis 16:11). “Ishmael” literally means, “the Lord hears,” and because the name not only originated with God Himself, but also refers to God Himself, it makes sense that this very name must also contain a special message from God too. Apparently, the message is that God not only heard Hagar’s affliction, but that He is, by His very nature, a God who “hears” and responds to the afflictions of human beings. Ishmael himself was to be a divinely appointed carrier of that message, embedded in his own name, throughout the rest of his life, and even after his death (because his name is recorded in the Scriptures), to the end of time. How significant! Thus both Hagar and Ishmael have been permanently incorporated into God’s plans as everlasting witnesses to a key divine attribute.
Just to clarify: yes, I know that God’s primary promise flows through Isaac, not Ishmael; and it is through Isaac that Jesus Christ was brought forth. Yet according to Genesis 16:7-11, Ishmael has a role in prophetic history too. And above all, we must never forget that our Savior died on the cross for Jews, and Arabs too.
Both groups need the same Savior.
To be continued…