Isaac and Ishmael: Spirit and Flesh
All was not well in Abraham’s household even though God had provided the heir. Ishmael was a potential rival to Isaac’s inheritance. This section records another crisis in the story of Abraham’s heir.
Time went on, and Isaac grew and was weaned from his mother. Abraham prepared a special feast in Isaac’s honor, to celebrate the day he was weaned.
Genesis 21:8 (VOICE)
When a wealthy man like Abraham hosted “a big party,” everybody came. On this occasion they were celebrating a rite of passage – the weaning of a child who’d “survived this first and particularly dangerous stage of his life.” In ancient times mothers nursed their children for about three years, though one commentator suggested that, because of Sarah’s advanced age, “Isaac was probably weaned earlier.”
Are you kidding?
The woman waited 90 years to have a baby! No way would she give up nursing her son one day sooner than absolutely necessary. Throwing a party for the neighborhood was probably the last thing on Sarah’s mind. Sarah no doubt struggled with fluctuating hormones, separation anxiety, and a healthy concern for Isaac’s future, especially with his older half-brother, Ishmael, hanging around.
The mother weans the child because she loves the child and wants him to be free to grow up and not be dependent on her. But the child interprets her actions as an expression of rejection and hatred. The child clings to the comforts of the past as the mother tries to encourage the child to grow up and enter into the challenges of the future. The time comes in every Christian life when tools and selfish security must replace toys by unselfish service (John 12:23-26).
In Galatians 4:28-29, Paul makes it clear that Ishmael represents the believer’s first birth (the flesh) and Isaac represents the second birth (the Spirit). Ishmael was “born of the flesh” because Abraham had not yet “died” and was still able to beget a son (Gen. 16). Isaac was “born of the Spirit” because by that time his parents were both “dead” and only God’s power could have brought conception and birth. Ishmael was born first, because the natural comes before the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46).
When you trust Jesus Christ, you experience a miracle birth from God (John 1:11-13), and it is the work of the Holy Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Abraham represents faith, and Sarah represents grace (Gal. 4:24-26), so Isaac was born “by grace… through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is the only way a lost sinner can enter the family of God (John 3:16-18).
It is worth noting that, in the biblical record, God often rejected the firstborn and accepted the second-born.
Isaac pictures the child of God not only in his birth but also in the joy that he brought. Isaac means “laughter,” and this time it was not the laughter of unbelief (Gen. 18:9-15).
Nowhere do we read that Ishmael caused great joy in Abraham’s home. Abraham loved his son and wanted the best for him (Gen. 17:18). From before his birth, Ishmael was a source of painful trouble (Gen. 16); and after he matured, he caused even greater conflict in the family (21:9). The old nature is not able to produce the fruit of the Spirit, no matter how hard it tries (Gal. 5:16-26).
Note a third comparison between Isaac and the child of God: He grew and was weaned (Gen. 21:8). The new birth is not the end, but the beginning; and the believer must feed on God’s Word and grow spiritually (Matt. 4:4; 1 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Peter 3:18). As we mature in the Lord, we must “put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:9-11) and allow God to “wean us” from temporary helps that can become permanent hindrances.
Child-Like Trust in the Lord
O Lord, my heart is not proud. My eyes are not filled with pride. And I do not trouble myself with important things or in things too great for me. For sure I have made my soul quiet like a child who no longer nurses while he is with his mother. My soul within me is like a child who no longer nurses. O Israel, hope in the Lord, now and forever.
Psalm 131 (NLV)
Trouble At Home – Hagar and Ismael Sent Away
One day Sarah saw the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, poking fun at her son Isaac. She told Abraham, “Get rid of this slave woman and her son. No child of this slave is going to share inheritance with my son Isaac!”
The matter gave great pain to Abraham—after all, Ishmael was his son. But God spoke to Abraham, “Don’t feel badly about the boy and your maid. Do whatever Sarah tells you. Your descendants will come through Isaac. Regarding your maid’s son, be assured that I’ll also develop a great nation from him—he’s your son, too.”
Genesis 21:9-13 (MSG)
Sarah was wrong when she told Abraham to marry Hagar (Gen. 16:1-2), but she was right when she told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp. The Apostle Paul saw in this event an allegory involving the Law of Moses and the grace of God (Gal. 4:21-31). Sarah represents grace (the heavenly Jerusalem), and Hagar represents Law (the earthly Jerusalem under bondage). The lesson is simply that God’s children are to live under the blessings of grace and not the bondage of Law.
The conflicts in Abraham’s home could have been solved four ways.
- Isaac could have been sent away, but that would mean rejecting the promises of God and all that God had planned for the future.
- Isaac and Ishmael could have lived together, but that would mean constant conflict.
- Ishmael’s nature could have been changed to make him more agreeable, but that would have required a miracle. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and it always will be flesh.
- The only solution was to send Ishmael and his mother out of the camp and make Isaac the sole heir.
When you consider the facts about Hagar, you will better understand the relationship between Law and grace in the Christian life.
To begin with, Hagar was Abraham’s second wife. She was added alongside Sarah. Likewise, the Law was “added” alongside God’s already existing promises and was temporary (Gal. 3:19, 24-25). God did not start with Law; He started with grace. His relationship to Adam and Eve was based on grace, not Law, even though He did test them by means of one simple restriction (Gen. 2:15-17). The redemption of Israel from Egypt was an act of God’s grace, as was His provision, the sacrifices, and priesthood. Before Moses gave the Law, Israel was already in a covenant relationship with God (“married to God”) through His promises to the patriarchs (Ex. 19:1-8).
Second, Hagar was a servant. “What purpose then does the law serve?” Paul asks in Galatians 3:19, and he gives the answer. The Law was God’s servant (a “schoolmaster” or “child tutor”) to keep the infant nation of Israel under control and prepare them for the coming of the Redeemer (Gal. 3:24-25; 4:1-5). The Law was given to reveal sin (Rom. 3:20) but not to redeem us from sin. Grace does not serve Law; it is Law that serves grace! The Law reveals our need for grace, and grace saves us completely apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:20, 28).
A third fact is obvious: Hagar was never supposed to bear a child. The Law cannot give what only Jesus Christ can give:
- life (Gal. 3:21),
- righteousness (Gal. 2:21),
- the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2),
- or an eternal inheritance (v. 18).
All of these blessings come only “by grace [Sarah]… through faith [Abraham]” (Eph. 2:8-9).
This leads to a fourth fact: Hagar gave birth to a slave. If you decide to live under the Law, then you become a child of Hagar, a slave, for the Law produces bondage and not freedom. The first doctrinal battle the church had to fight was on this very issue; and it was decided that sinners are saved wholly by grace, apart from keeping the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-32). Legalists in the church today are turning sons into slaves and replacing freedom with slavery (Gal. 4:1-11); yet, God calls us to freedom! (5:1)
Partnership: God’s Never-Changing Design
Listening to Sarah’s (Sarai’s) voice had originally been folly for Abraham, just as it had been for Adam when he listened to Eve. Now, however, God says in effect, “Listen to her. She is speaking My truth.” Sarah had grown and matured since that earlier fateful day. Her name (nature) had been changed, a symbolic foreshadowing of the New Birth in Christ. God had clarified that His original plan was till in place – His covenant promise would be fulfilled through Abraham and Sarah together. God has never veered from His original design – man and woman working together to increase His kingdom in the Earth. A woman’s effectiveness multiplies when she is confident that she has a powerful place in the ongoing purpose of God and as her husband (or male counterparts in work or other relationships) affirms this.
So Abraham got up early in the morning, took bread and a container of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulder, gave her the child—his firstborn—and sent her away. She left and wandered in the wilderness near Beersheba. When the water in the container was all gone, in desperation she left the child under the shade of one of the bushes. Then she walked off and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away.
Hagar: I can’t bear to watch my child die.
Though Ishmael is about 16 years old at this time, she still considers him her child.
As she sat there, she cried loudly. God heard the voice of young Ishmael, and a messenger of God called out to Hagar from heaven.
Messenger: Why are you so upset, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the voice of young Ishmael. Come now, lift him up, and take him by the hand. I have plans to make a great nation from his descendants!
Then God opened Hagar’s eyes. She looked up from her grief and saw a well of water not far away. She went over to it, filled the container she carried with water, and gave the young man a drink. God watched over him for the rest of his life. Ishmael grew up, lived in the wilderness, and became an expert archer. So Ishmael went on to live out his life in the wilderness of Paran. When the time was right, his mother obtained a wife for him from her homeland Egypt.
God did not abandon Hagar and Ishmael; for Ishmael was the son of Abraham, God’s friend. If Ishmael and Hagar had any bad feelings toward Abraham, they were certainly in the wrong; everything God did for them was because of His faithfulness to Abraham. The Lord reaffirmed His promise that Ishmael would become a great nation, and He kept His promise. The Arab world is a force to be reckoned with today, and it all began with Ishmael.
In spite of the pictures in some Sunday School papers and Bible storybooks, Ishmael was a teenager and not a child when this event took place. In this case, it refers to a boy at least fifteen years old.
Ishmael and Hagar got lost in the wilderness, their water ran out, and they gave up in despair. This experience was quite different from the time Hagar first met God in the wilderness. Sixteen years before, she had found a fountain of water; but now she saw no hope at all. Apparently Hagar had forgotten the promises God had made concerning her son; but Ishmael must have remembered them, for he called on the Lord for help. God heard the lad’s cries and rescued them both for Abraham’s sake.
So often in the trials of life we fail to see the divine provisions God has made for us, and we forget the promises He has made to us. We open our hands to receive what we think we need instead of asking Him to open our eyes to see what we already have. The answer to most problems is close at hand, if only we have eyes to see (John 6:1-13; 21:1-6).
Hagar is certainly a picture of the needy multitudes in the world today: wandering, weary, thirsty, blind, and giving up in despair. How we need to tell them the good news that the water of life is available and the well is not far away! (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39) God is kind and gracious to all who call on Him, because of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Encouragement For Single Parents
Examples of single parents throughout Scripture offer encouragement and hope to those facing similar situations. Hagar stands as a key example of someone who has been unfairly treated, deserted, and cut off with little provision. Yet, in Hagar’s life, we see the Lord intervening with spiritual and physical provision (see background story in Genesis 16:6-15). Other examples show the Lord supporting single-parent situations:
- With provision (1 King 17:8-16),
- With deliverance (2 Kings 4:1-7),
- With restoration (1 Kings 17:17-22; Luke 7:12-15), and
- With instruction (1 Timothy 5:4).
God also promises to take the place of the spouse/parent who is absent (Is. 54:5; Hosea 2:19-20; Ps. 10:14; 68:5; 146:9) and to be available to help parents who find themselves alone (Ex. 22:23; Hebrews 13:5).
Rebecca L. Bauer