“The Bible’s Children: Ishmael”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Just a couple of months ago, back in January of this year, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, published a book called Spare. As you can imagine, it instantly became number one on the list of the New York Times bestsellers.
One reviewer wrote: “Little boy, beloved son, brother, husband and father, prince, soldier, and advocate for social causes, Prince Harry Duke of Sussex has lived a life staged in the public eye, and who he really is has been the subject of second guesses, speculation, and projection.
“But no more. Spare is the up-close, behind the scenes, intimate, and forthright memoir of a man reclaiming his own story---its joys, sorrows, aspirations, conflicts, writ small and large. Pick it up for an unsparing glimpse into an extraordinary life!”
And in that book, Harry tells his side of what it was like to grow up in the House of Windsor, the royal family.
You see, Charles and Diana already had one son. That was Prince William. And Prince Harry was their second son. And because he was born second, that made him the extra, “the spare.” In fact, when he was born, Charles supposedly said to his wife Diana, “Wonderful! Now you’ve given me an heir and a spare--my work is done.”
So what’s the book about? Let’s just say Prince Harry is not very kind to his father, his brother, or to most anyone else in the royal family for that matter. He talks about the sudden loss of his mother, his troubled teen years, and his time serving in Afghanistan in the British Army. He talks about his relationship with his father and brother, about his courtship and marriage to American actress Meghan Markle, and about what it’s like to be a father.
He said, “I’m writing this not as the prince I was born, but as the man I have become. I’ve worn many hats over the years, both literally and figuratively, and my hope is that in telling my story--the highs and lows, the mistakes, the lessons learned--I can help show that no matter where we come from, we have more in common than we think.”
And while some have called his book “breathtakingly frank” and “horrifyingly personal,” others have called it the “weirdest book ever written by a royal.” You be the judge.
The book of Genesis also tells the story about an extra, a spare, a boy whose name was Ishmael. I’ll start at chapter 16, verse 1: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:1-3).
Now I’ll skip down to verse 15: “And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Genesis 16:15-16).
Let’s step back for a moment to see what’s going on.
It’s easy to say that Abram, (whose name later became Abraham), is one of the most important figures in all of the Bible. Though he was far from perfect, he had, as one commentator wrote, a “profound faith and a vibrant relationship with God.”
Remember? He’s the one who, at the Lord’s command, moved all the way from his home in Ur of the Chaldees to the Promised Land, who was not just rich, but very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold (Genesis 13:2). He’s the one who prayed desperately for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that God would spare them, who rescued his nephew Lot, and who nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. He’s the one of whom the Lord said his descendants would be as many as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Those who knew him even called him, “A mighty prince of God” (Genesis 23:6).
That’s the good news. Now for the bad news.
You see, the Bible is full not only of the good, but also the bad--downright problem people in the worst, messiest, and most complicated situations that you could ever imagine. As one author wrote, “Throughout our salvation history, God chose to work through imperfect people in difficult, conflict-ridden realities to bring about redemption and healing.” To put it simply, God accomplished quite a lot of good in spite of our mess.
And nowhere was that more true than the story of Abraham.
Let me explain. Earlier in the book of Genesis, in chapter 12, the Lord spoke to him one clear, cloudless night. He said: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
But before he could ever become the father of a great nation, he first had to have a what? A son. You know that. I know that. And Abraham knew that too.
He even went so far as to say, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2). In other words, a promise is fine, Lord, but it’d sure be nice if I had a son!
So where’s the son? Abraham was, after all, getting up there in years--eight-six years to be exact. And needless to say, Sarah was no spring chicken either. So Lord, with all due respect, things better get moving and they better get moving now!
That’s when, out of the blue, a thought crossed his wife’s, Sarah’s, mind. Why not have a child through my servant Hagar? I mean, the Lord is, after all, awfully slow in keeping His promise, and everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we do it too?
So she said in verse 2: “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2).
And what did Abraham do? What would you do? Well, he decided to play along. And before it was over, let me tell you, we’ll have all the makings of quite the soap opera--one man, two women, multiple children, jealousy, greed, and even attempted murder. Toss in a couple of cameras and a few extra chairs, and you’ve got an episode of Jerry Springer!
So here’s the deal. You see, just like Abraham and Sarah planned, Hagar did get pregnant. And when Sarah saw that she was pregnant, what did she do? She got jealous and, (with Abraham’s blessing), sent poor Hagar packing. They kicked her out! But the Lord sent her back with the words, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction” (Genesis 16:11).
And as the years passed, Ishmael grew to become quite a strapping young lad, and even an expert with the bow. And if Abraham and Ishmael were like any other father and son, you can bet that they spent quite a lot of time together--hunting, fishing, and working on the family farm.
But the Lord wasn’t done, not by a long shot, for thirteen years later, He came to Abraham once more. He said: “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Genesis 17:19).
Which is good news, great news to be exact! At long last, Abraham and Sarah would, in fact, have their very own son.
But what’re we going to do about Ishmael? That’s where it gets a little complicated.
Let me fast forward to Genesis chapter 21. It’s where Sarah said: “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). I mean, we can’t have two sons here--an heir and a spare. So Hagar and Ishmael had to go!
And what did Abraham do? This time he kicked both of them out--mother and son! As it says in verse 14: “So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba” (Genesis 21:14).
Now let’s think about that for just a moment. Abraham was a wealthy man. He was, as the Bible said, very rich in livestock, silver, and gold. And while he could have given them enough food and supplies to last for the rest of their lives, what did he give them? He gave, between the two of them, a loaf of bread and a bottle of water--barely enough to last a day. And of all places, he sent them into the desert, one of the driest and most dangerous places anyone could go.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, just as soon as the bread and the water were gone, Hagar laid poor little Ishmael down under a tree some distance away, just so she wouldn't have to watch him die.
But in spite of the absolute worst of circumstances, God knew exactly what was going on. So He sent His angel once more who said, “Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 21:18).
Now you have to admit that this story about Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael is all very strange. It seems to have no business being in the Bible at all!
I mean, why not just stick with the script of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac? Why include Hagar and Ishmael at all?
Because God is not only the God of the important. He’s the God of the underdog too!
Anyone could have told you that Hagar wasn’t important. Not only was she an Egyptian, (no offense to Egyptians, by the way!), she was a slave girl, which was about as low on the social and economic scale as you can go. Look at the text and you’ll see that Abraham and Sarah never even called her by name. To them, she was simply, “that slave girl.” As far as they were concerned, she was invisible. She didn’t count. No rights. No dignity. No freedom. No choice. Though she was undeniably human, she was, at the end of the day, nothing more than a piece of property, a means to an end.
But even though she was of so little importance to either Abraham or Sarah, she was invaluable to God. In fact, she’s the first woman in the Bible to be visited by an angel, she’s the first woman to be given the promise of descendants, and she’s the only one in all of Scripture who gave God a name: “El Roi.” It’s a name that means, “The God who sees me.”
And so what seems to be a dead-end story ends up being not so dead-end after all.
In an article entitled, When God Writes Your Life Story, author Mitali Perkins writes that, when she was young, her father was an engineer. So by the time she was eleven, she had lived in India, England, Ghana, Cameroon, Mexico, and the United States. But no matter where she lived, her father taught her the Hindu religion and that God was good.
And she believed that God was good until high school, when a friend was killed by a drunk driver. And that’s when her eyes were suddenly opened to a world of suffering. Why kind of God would allow it and then, according to Hinduism, reincarnate us back into a painful world? For the rest of high school, she did all she could to forget about God.
Then in college as she studied different philosophies and religions, her first assignment was to read the book of Genesis. But reading it left her scratching her head--fruit trees, a snake, a God who spoke, and who strolled through a garden? Did her friends really believe it? Since the campus bookstore offered partial refunds for ten days, she returned it, certain that she’d never open it again.
Three years later, during the midwinter break of her Junior year, she visited the Hermitage, a world-renowned museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. And as she went from room to room, she saw one painting after another depicting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. She stood at the edge of the group, with questions racing through her mind.
And as her group was about to leave, the guide pulled her aside. He asked, “What are you thinking about so deeply?”
She said, “A loving God. Human suffering. How can both exist?”
He answered, “You’re standing at an intersection. Either Jesus is the Son of God, or you turn your back on Him forever.”
When she returned to school in Vienna, she decided to go to the original source of His story--the New Testament. And there she encountered a Jew with olive-colored skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, who healed foreign women, who knew what it was like to feel lonely and rejected, who said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and who submitted to the four enemies of humanity--pain, grief, evil, and death--in order to destroy them all. And then she came to realize that it was in the cross that a loving God and a suffering humanity could finally be reconciled.
And so she believed in Jesus--the defender of the outcast and the healer of the brokenhearted.
Whether we realize it or not, we’re surrounded by modern-day Hagars--those who have little power or influence at all.
But the same God who gave us life gave them life. The same God who hears our cries hears their cries. He cares for even the most “invisible” people after all.
The question is--will we care about them too?
Open our eyes, dear Father, and enable us to see the needs of those around us. And just like Hagar and her son Ishmael, grant that all of us may find hope and help in You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen