Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Outline the facts regarding Abraham’s dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael.
2. Summarize the significance of God’s promise in Genesis 21:13.
3. Suggest some ways for his or her church to reach out to Muslims or other non-Christians with the gospel.
How to Say It
Koran or Qur’an. Kuh-RAN.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Sept. 17—Sarah Deals Harshly with Hagar (Genesis 16:1–6)
Tuesday, Sept. 18—God Protects Hagar (Genesis 16:7–16)
Wednesday, Sept. 19—Abraham’s Offspring (Genesis 21:9–13)
Thursday, Sept. 20—Waiting for Death (Genesis 21:14–16)
Friday, Sept. 21—Water from God (Genesis 21:17–19)
Saturday, Sept. 22—Ishmael Grows Up (Genesis 21:20, 21)
Sunday, Sept. 23—Ishmael’s Descendants (Genesis 25:12–18)
[God said to Abraham,] “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Why Teach This Lesson?
Divorce is common in various cultures today. In addition to family strife, we often see infighting in the workplace, and even in the church. In a word, human relationships are messy. What your learners need is a model of right relationships! God himself provides us with such a model. God loves us even when we behave unlovingly to others. God protects and provides, even for those who are not in a relationship with him at the moment.
When faced with conflict, we often put our energy into assigning blame so we can figure out who has the burden of making amends. In today’s lesson, we do not see God in the role of cosmic referee in which he tries to undo people’s bad choices. Rather, God works with us, through our flaws. This will teach your learners that it’s more important that we help others grow into the people whom God wants them to become than it is for us to critique them and choose sides.
A. Outsiders and Insiders
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins the famous novel Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Melville employs many biblical names and images to tell a story of self-destruction of the obsessive Captain Ahab. Ishmael, the narrator, is always the outsider, not quite part of the main drama unfolding around him. His namesake, the Ishmael of Genesis, also ended up being an outsider.
Today, Muslims see Abraham as their father in the faith, much like Jews and Christians do (compare Romans 4:16). Muslims, however, trace their spiritual lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael, the son who was cast out of Abraham’s household. According to the Qur’an (or Koran), the holy book of the religion of Islam, Abraham was told by God to take Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, to a far land. They traveled many days until they came to a deserted place.
Unbeknownst to them, so the story goes, this was the spot where Adam had built the first place to worship God. Abraham left Hagar and Ishmael there. When Hagar and Ishmael were near death from lack of water, the Qur’an claims that the youngster began to kick in the sand, and a well sprang up. This became the well Zamzam, and the city that grew around it is known today as Mecca. Muslims falsely believe that a descendant of Ishmael named Mohammed restored true worship of God at this site in the seventh century ad.
Unrest and violence in the Middle East today are partly fueled by different ideas concerning how people are connected to Abraham and his sons. Jews claim the side of Isaac, the child of promise according to Genesis. Muslims believe that their ancestor Ishmael was the primary child of promise blessed by God. Each side sees itself as the “insider” and the other as the “outsider.”
This religious rivalry, combined with politics and nationalism, has led to instability and war, disrupting the lives of many innocent people. The fundamentalist brand of Islam believes there is no room for accommodation with infidels, those who don’t believe as they do and who don’t follow the teachings of Mohammed to the letter.
This week’s lesson looks at the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael from the Bible’s point of view. It is a sad story of a family broken apart because of foolish behavior and bitterness. We grieve with Abraham as he is forced to choose between his two sons. Many studying this lesson have experienced the pain of family fighting and break-up. Today’s text offers hope to us in that we see that God did not curse one side of a family squabble while blessing the other side.
B. Lesson Background
Last week’s lesson focused on how Abraham and Sarah were able to have a son in spite of advanced age. Regarding Sarah specifically, we learned of many admirable qualities: her faith, her courage, and her sense of humor and joy.
Yet there was another side to Sarah that was not so admirable. Today we see a headstrong woman, who could be jealous and scheming. In the end one of her schemes backfired, and her jealousy caused her to act with cruelty.
Sarah and Abraham lived in a world where it was common for households to include slaves. One of their slaves was an Egyptian girl named Hagar (Genesis 16:3). Hagar was Sarah’s personal attendant. When Abraham and Sarah’s attempts to produce a child were unsuccessful, Sarah hatched a scheme to remedy the problem: she offered to let Abraham have Hagar as a type of slave-wife, hoping this union would yield a child.
Sarah’s logic in this seems strange to us. Why would a wife willingly allow her husband to have an intimate relationship with another woman? This seems to be a recipe for disaster! But the logic of this practice, common at the time, went something like this: “If my slave produces a child, that child will be mine, just like his mother is my property.” Sarah thought she could have a son by a secondary way, and thus please her husband.
This plan “worked” (if we can use that word!), and Abraham and Hagar conceived the baby that was to become Ishmael. But the plan backfired on Sarah in two ways. First, becoming pregnant had an unanticipated effect on Hagar: she began to think that she was better than Sarah (Genesis 16:4). Hagar had been successful at becoming pregnant, something Sarah had failed in; this ruined the relationship between the two women and ensured that Ishmael would never be accepted by Sarah. Second, Ishmael himself displayed his own arrogance after Isaac was born. This is where today’s lesson begins.
I. Hagar and Ishmael Dismissed (Genesis 21:9–13)
Many people today live in “blended” households. Typically, this involves a woman with one or more children marrying a man with one or more children—the children from previous marriages. Those familiar with blended families will testify that theirs is not an easy situation. There is often conflict, perceived slights, and favoritism. Now imagine a blended family that involves more than one wife! That explosive combination is what we find in Abraham’s household.
A. Conflict in the Household (vv. 9, 10)
9. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking,
Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian, is recorded as mocking. We don’t really know what or why he is mocking. He may be mocking Sarah for her old age, or he may be mocking Isaac. This is probably learned behavior, copied from his mother. We also don’t know exactly how old the boy is at this time, although Genesis 17:25 indicates that he is at least 13. We can see that he is old enough to poke fun and immature enough not to know that this is a dangerous practice.
10.… and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Ishmael’s unwise display of haughtiness is the final straw for Sarah. So she demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from the household, where she rules as the supreme mistress. She had once used Hagar as a tool to satisfy her husband’s desire for a son. That purpose is no longer valid, for Sarah now has her own son, namely Isaac.
In her anger, Sarah decides to jettison this embarrassing mistake once and for all. She does this both to soothe her own wounded pride and to protect the rights of the younger Isaac as Abraham’s rightful heir.
What Do You Think?
What was a wrong-headed (or even sinful) way that you tried to deal with a mistake you made? How did things turn out? What should you have done instead?
[Psalm 51 and 1 John 1:9 can enrich your discussion.]
B. Conflict for Father Abraham (vv. 11–13)
11. The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.
This is not so easy for Abraham. Sarah is rejecting his true, biological son by another woman. Abraham’s blood flows in Ishmael’s veins. Abraham, however, was a willing accomplice in the unwise impregnation of Hagar. The fact that he tried to “push” God’s timetable in trying to obtain a son now brings him grief.
12. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.
In this moment of great distress, God does not abandon Abraham. God instructs Abraham to go ahead and do what Sarah wishes, as curious and cruel as it may seem. God’s promises will still be fulfilled through Isaac.
Families can be horribly dysfunctional. They can bear the scars of abuse, betrayal, and tragedy. However, God does not abandon us, even in the darkest days. Yet, while God is at work, he does not always restore a family to an earlier state that seemed to be better. The mess that had been created in Abraham’s family by several factors is not going to be fixed by God as we may think of fix or repair in human terms. Instead, we will see God unfailingly love each family member and do what is best to care for him or her.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when God worked amazing things in your family life when the situation seemed hopeless? How did you honor him for his provision?
13. “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
This word of the Lord must surely be a surprise to Abraham. God has plans for Ishmael too! His descendants will become a nation also. He too shares in the blessings of being a son of Abraham. However, Abraham will experience little firsthand joy in the successes of Ishmael’s life, for the expulsion is to proceed.
II. Hagar and Ishmael Sustained (Genesis 21:14–19)
Abraham ultimately is driven by his obedient faith. He has been tested many times before. Now he is about to be tested again.
A. Abandoned by Family (v. 14)
14a. Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
It seems that Abraham’s greatest tests are acted out when he rises up early in the morning. This is the way he had witnessed the horrific destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:27). In the next chapter, it will be the setting of his supreme trial: the sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:3). We can imagine the grief at this early-morning drama, perhaps so early that no one else in the household is a witness.
14b. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
We should remember that the land of Canaan is largely undeveloped at this time. Hagar has no place to go, and she heads into the unpopulated wilderness of Beersheba. This is in the southern part of Canaan, the beginning of the cruel Negev desert. Abraham later sees Beersheba as a place of worship (Genesis 21:33). Centuries later, it will be the southern extremity of Israel (Judges 20:1).
B. Abandoning Hope (vv. 15, 16)
15, 16a. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away,
Hagar has lost hope and is preparing to die. Her location is desolate, but it has enough vegetation to provide bushes that are large enough to provide a measure of shade from the relentless sun. The distance of a bowshot is about 100–150 yards, still within hearing distance.
16b.… for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
Hagar cannot bear to watch her son die. The teenage boy does not follow her, so we assume he is incapacitated from lack of water. Now alone, Hagar weeps bitterly. She pours out all her feelings of abandonment. God allows her to reach the utter depths of human despair, but he has not given up on her.
C. Saved by God (vv. 17–19)
17, 18. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
God now conveys a message to Hagar. We can imagine that the last thing she expects to hear in the desert is a voice from heaven! Interestingly, the angel doesn’t say that God has heard her sobbing, but that God has been moved by the sound of the boy crying.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when God answered you in a way that you weren’t expecting? What did this teach you about how God likes to work?
Hagar herself will share Ishmael’s blessings. She is thus made privy to the promise Abraham has been given: Ishmael too will be the father of a great nation. Hagar’s life has not been in vain. Her life has great purpose in the plans of God.
19. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
The rare watering place in the desert (oasis) is highly prized by the seminomadic shepherd people of Abraham’s day. Water is life. “No water” means rapid death. Hagar and Ishmael are saved by God’s miraculous provision of water where there should be no water, a well in the wilderness.
What Do You Think?
In what ways have you seen God provide for his people when all seemed hopeless? Why do you think that God sometimes waits until the need is very severe before he intervenes?
Taking a Gamble … or Not
A California couple decided to spend a few days in Las Vegas on a gambling vacation. The thoughtful pair arranged for a dog-sitter. However, they left their two sons—a nine-year-old and an autistic five-year-old—by themselves at home. The boys’ grandmother began to suspect the nature of the situation and called police.
The couple was charged with two felony counts of child endangerment. The emotional charge by the older boy was, “They shouldn’t leave us alone. I didn’t know who I could call in an emergency. I thought they loved [the puppies] more than they loved us.” The boys had reason to question their parents’ care for them. A similar event had taken place a few months earlier.
Abraham didn’t abandon his son so he could go to Las Vegas in search of a good time. Even so, some may think that Abraham took a gamble on his son’s life. But we must not overlook one crucial fact: Abraham acted at God’s direction. To follow God’s leading is never a gamble. To believe that statement is probably fairly easy; to have the godly courage to live it out may be another matter entirely! —C. R. B.
III. Hagar and Ishmael Blessed (Genesis 21:20, 21)
With a secure water supply, Hagar and Ishmael begin to prosper. Later, there is a measure of reconciliation between the two sides of Abraham’s clan, for we are told that Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father (Genesis 25:9). Ishmael lives to the ripe old age of 137 and has a large family (25:12–17).
A. Ishmael Becomes a Man (v. 20)
20. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
To be an archer implies that Ishmael rejects the life of a tender of flocks of animals. He is now a hunter, living off the wild game of the desert. In this he prefigures a future rejected relative: Esau (Genesis 25:27). One occupation is not superior to another, for God blesses both.
What Do You Think?
What can the phrase, “God was with the boy as he grew up,” teach us about God’s presence during wilderness times in our lives?
[You may find Exodus 2:15; 3:1; Luke 4:1- 2, 42; 5:16; Galatians 1:17; and Revelation 1:9 useful in wrestling with this question.]
B. Ishmael Takes a Wife (v. 21)
21. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
It is difficult to be certain about this location, but ancient Paran is probably located near the site of modern Elat on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. The Desert of Paran is the extremely inhospitable region to the west, still largely uninhabited today. The name Paran has a rich biblical history. (See Genesis 14:6; Numbers 10:12; 12:16; 13:3, 26; Deuteronomy 33:2; Habakkuk 3:3.)
Since Ishmael’s father is not a part of his life, it is up to his mother to find him a wife. Hagar does so, and the unnamed wife is from her people, the Egyptians. Elsewhere we learn that Ishmael ends up with 12 successful sons (see Genesis 25:12–16). Some of these descendants later figure into other Bible stories as the Ishmaelites. See Genesis 37:25–28; Judges 8:24.
God keeps his promise to Abraham and to Hagar concerning Ishmael and his descendants. While our family structures differ from those of Abraham’s time, we learn important lessons about God’s care for families in conflict.
Unwelcome, but Still Loved
A couple was evicted from their home of many years on Fifth Avenue in New York City. “Pale Male” and “Lola” are red-tailed hawks that had built a nest on a window ledge of an apartment house. Some residents of the building had complained about the carcasses of rats and pigeons that fell from the nest onto the sidewalk below. Thus the eviction.
However, the hawks were invited to return just three weeks later. After the original nest was removed, bird lovers raised a fuss. So an architect designed a new nest to prevent the overflow of uneaten prey that had caused the trouble. The birds were soon back home, raising a family.
Hagar and Ishmael had been evicted from Abraham’s home because their presence was distasteful to at least one of the residents (Sarah). Then God befriended them and saw to it that they were blessed. Today, those who trace their spiritual descent through Abraham and Ishmael are the Muslims. Many of them have declared Christians to be their enemies. In reaction, at least some Westerners would like to “evict” Muslims and send them somewhere else. How can we demonstrate the truth and grace of Christ to people whom we may find hard to love? —C. R. B.
Visual for Lesson 4
Point to this visual as you ask, “What kind of call from God would cause you to be willing to make a move of this magnitude?”
The apostle Paul uses the life and person of Abraham to illustrate the truths of the gospel and its application to the people of the church. In Galatians 4, Paul employs the family troubles of the patriarch to explain our freedom in Christ. You must know the story of today’s lesson to make sense of his powerful argument.
Paul’s primary agenda in Galatians is to refute the idea that Christians are required to keep the Jewish law. For Paul, this obligation would negate the freedom we have in Christ. One way Paul makes his point is to use a story from the first book of the law (Genesis) to illustrate the importance of freedom in God’s plan of redemption.
Paul begins with a contrast of Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:22). Hagar is a “slave woman”; Sarah is a “free woman.” Paul points out that the child Abraham produced with Hagar was “born in the ordinary way,” that is, through natural impregnation and birth. The child produced with Sarah was “as the result of a promise,” that is, through supernatural provision to allow the elderly woman to become pregnant (4:23).
Paul goes on to equate the slave woman and her son with the bondage of the law as symbolized by the Jerusalem of his day (Galatians 4:25). This is his way of talking about the stifling, restrictive legalism that some Jewish Christians were trying to impose upon Paul’s Gentile converts. To force the law upon these non-Jews would be to bind them by the old covenant and ignore the blessings of the new covenant.
Paul contrasts this with the free woman and her son, whom he equates with the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26). His final point in this section is “we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (4:31). In other words, why would you exchange the marvelous freedom from sin that is possible through faith in Christ for the bondage of the Jewish law? (See 5:1.)
Paul’s foundational point here is not directly tied to the teaching points of the Hagar/Ishmael story as found in Genesis (today’s lesson), but that should not worry us. Our study of Genesis allows us to see this crucial doctrine of Christian freedom in a striking way. We are free in Christ! Not free to sin, but free to live our lives for the glory of God and in his service.
There is a larger doctrinal point that lies behind both the Galatians illustration and the Genesis account, however. That is that God is a God of promises, and he always keeps his promises. He did not abandon his promise to Abraham when Abraham attempted to keep his line going by having a child with a slave woman. The Lord was still faithful to provide through both Isaac and Ishmael, despite Abraham’s foibles.
Likewise, God will not abandon us, even when our families—either our physical family or our spiritual family—are in shambles. God’s love for us is proven through his gift of his only Son, Jesus. Even when the animosity among the members of a fractured family runs very high, God’s love is constant and unchangeable. In times of personal adversity, we are well reminded to “keep yourselves in God’s love” (Jude 21).
Thought to Remember
God can work in the midst of conflict.
Father, you show us unity in your very person; we show you division in our lives and families. May you continue to heal our rifts and calm our conflicts. We pray this in the name of your only Son, Jesus, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007,