The God of Ishmael – a sermon on Genesis 21


We continue our sojourn with Abraham today – Abraham, the ‘father of faith’.

We’ve been working our way through the story of Abraham for some time now – stories about Abraham & Sarah, Abraham & his family, Abraham & his descendents, Abraham and the promises God made to him – Abraham the ‘father of faith’.

We started the story when this aging Bedouin figure had the word of God come to him and, at the age of 72, climbed up onto his camel and headed out into the unknown.

If you have a very good memory, you may remember that Abraham rode from his homeland in Ur up to Haran in the North, then down into Canaan in the South West – to a land that was one day to be named after his grandson, ‘Israel’. And Abraham pitched his tent in that land and he claimed that land by faith, as the rightful homeland of his descendants, even though he was 75 years old and had no descendents.

If you know the story, you will remember that a strange event then took place. Three mysterious men came to visit Abraham and Sarah and shared a prophecy – that these two would have a child of their own within a year.

Abraham at this stage was 99 years old, we are told, and Sarah was well past ‘the way of women’. So she laughed when she heard the prophecy – a laugh of cynical disbelief. But her cynical laugh became a laugh of surprised joy when the baby was born as predicted, and so she called him‘Isaac’ – meaning ‘she laughed’ (though God knows how she could have been laughing after giving birth in her old age).

It was a great miracle nonetheless. It would be a great miracle if it happened today. Today we have girls as young as 12 in Sydney getting pregnant and giving birth, but not women as old as 70 or 80. That sort of thing only happens in church!

But just when you thought that the story of Abraham was looking like a religious version of The Waltons, we find that things start to turn nasty. Sarah decides to do away with Abraham’s other son Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, and Abraham goes along with the plan and more or less condemns the two to death.

It is a grizzly scene. Sarah tells Abraham to get rid of them because she does not want this son of a slave woman to be his heir. Abraham is upset with Sarah because she’s talking about his son. He doesn’t appear to be too worried about Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, who had been his lover. At any rate, he complies and sends them both away.

And you’d think that he’d give them a camel and enough money and supplies to set themselves up somewhere else. He could have done that.

Abraham was a wealthy man. He could have given them enough food and provisions to last them for the rest of their lives. He doesn’t do that. Instead he gives them a loaf of bread and a bottle of water – one bottle of water between the two of them – and sends them off into the desert.

Hagar and Ishmael are not given enough to survive. They are given enough to get far enough away from the camp so that Abraham won’t have to see or hear them die. Well, that’s how it must have been perceived by Hagar and Ishmael at any rate. From the perspective of the author of the book of Genesis it’s not quite that simple.

You see Hagar and Ishmael aren’t simply innocent victims of Sarah’s irrational rage. Hagar used to work for Sarah before she became the mother of Abraham’s heir. This meant that if Abraham died, that Ishmael would be in charge of everything, which would mean that Sarah, if she survived Abraham, would find herself subject to Ishmael and to Hagar. And it’s clear from the story that Hagar has already worked this out, and has started acting a bit too big for her boots.

And Ishmael is not just a happy smiling toddler at this stage. He’s a stroppy young teenager, about 14 years old. And the story suggests that he’s already starting to throw his weight around with young Isaac, as teenagers are apt to do. Isaac gets his revenge of course, more so than he probably expected (or even desired).

And Abraham carries out the grizzly task under protest. He prays about it and gets assurance from God that God will take care of Ishmael (if not Hagar).

Even so, Abraham appears to be almost too faithful in the way in which he leaves it all to God – making no realistic earthly provision for his son or his son’s mother whatsoever. Certainly Ishmael would remember the day when his dad kissed him on the head and said ‘best of luck’, and sent him off into the desert with his bottle of water and with no other means of survival.

Sarah of course comes across as about as endearing as the wicked queen in Snow White when she orders the expulsion of the child, even if her own place of authority in the family was at being placed at risk.

I suppose Isaac had reason to be pleased, though I suspect that he mourned the loss of his brother. I’m sure Abraham shed some tears. Perhaps Sarah laughed again as she saw her enemies leave camp. Perhaps she felt pangs of guilt. We don’t know.

It all has the makings of a good soap opera – one man, two women, multiple children, jealousy, greed and murder. If only we had got the whole crew on Jerry Springer before it reached its tragic climax, with Hagar leaving Ishmael to die under a tree.

Ishmael should have been a strapping young lad by that stage of course, full of energy and young muscularity, and yet he apparently faded even faster than did his mother. Perhaps the emotional shock of it all was more than he could take. At any rate, we’re told that she couldn’t stand to watch him die, so she goes off a distance to die alone. But God ‘hears the cry’ of the boy and He comes to save both mother and son from death.

This is the surely most beautiful verse in the story:

“God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is”.(Genesis 21:17)

It reminds me very much of another word from God that appears a little further down the track of the Biblical narrative, where the descendents of Isaac ‘cried out to God because of their slavery’ in Egypt. And we’re told,

“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24)

God, it seems, tends to have his ears open to the cries of the vulnerable. As it happened in Exodus, so it happens here! God hears the cry of the boy and He remembers His promise, not toIsrael this time, but to Ishmael!

God had plans for Ishmael! God had made promises to Ishmael. God was going to build out of Ishmael a mighty nation! The interesting thing of course is that this man and these promises and this mighty nation do NOT form any central part of the ongoing Biblical narrative as we have it. This all becomes a part of another story. Dare we say it – it becomes part of the story of Islam!

I think this is why I have never seen a stained-glass window depicting the life of Ishmael.

In our Bibles, the story of Ishmael more or less finishes here. In the Koran though we read of Ishmael going on to Mecca and building a Mosque there. He becomes the physical father of the Arab peoples, and spiritual father to the Islamic community!

Now it’s not my job to tell you whether the account you read of in the Koran is true or false. And it’s certainly not my job to tell you whether you should like or admire Ishmael. What I must tell you though, from Genesis chapter 21, is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – is clearly also the God of Ishmael!

What do we do with that?

Isn’t the Bible the story of God’s salvation of the world through His chosen people, the descendents of Abraham, the Jews, and through that special descendent of Abraham, Jesus? Yes, it is, surely, and through Jesus, we ourselves trace a spiritual link directly back to Abraham.

St Paul would say that Abraham is the father of all of us who have faith. He is the founding father of the people of God, as we count ourselves to be a part of the people of God. Abraham’s people were God’s ‘chosen people’. And now we have been called to be part of that ‘chosen people’ who live by the grace of God in the cross of Christ.

We share a spiritual identity with Abraham and his descendants. Abraham is the father of faith. Hisstory is our story. His people are our people. His God is our God. And yet in Genesis 21, it appears that our God is also Ishmael’s God!

Hagar and Ishmael are persons with whom we do NOT naturally share any spiritual identity. Hagar and Ishmael are NOT the mother and father of faith. Hagar and Ishmael are NOT chosen by God in the same way that Isaac and Jacob are. Surely these people are NOT our people, their story is NOT our story, and yet … OUR God turns out to be THEIR God too!

I don’t know if you feel uncomfortable at the thought of your spiritual connection to Ishmael. If it doesn’t irk you particularly, try to see it from the perspective of the ancient Jews, who were the first intended recipients of this Biblical story. Think about it from the perspective of a modern Jew! For it is the Palestinian people who are the modern descendents of Ishmael.

Most Jews do not feel a great sense of natural kinship with their Palestinian brethren: “Your history is NOT my history. Your people are NOT my people. This land is NOT your land.” And yet … here in Genesis 21 we are straightforwardly reminded that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is their God too!

I don’t know if you’ve met many Ishmaels. I’ve met a few. You don’t meet many here in church on a Sunday morning. They’re not generally at church, any more than they’re at the synagogue. You’ll find Ishmael and his buddies down at the mosque. They are a different people, different history, different religion. And yet … they are children of the same God!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all religions are the same (that’s what you say when you don’t take anybody else’s religion seriously). And I’m not saying that it doesn’t’t make any difference how you think of God or how you speak of God or how you respond to God. Of course it does. What I am saying is just what Genesis says: that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants is also the God of Hagar and Ishmael and their descendents.

God loved Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and He loved Ishmael and his children too. God had a special plan for the life of Abraham and his descendents, and that He had a special plan for the life of Ishmael and His descendents as well.

“Hear O Israel” Moses would later say “Hear O Israel that the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God. He is the God of both brothers – Isaac and Ishmael. He is the Lord of both nations – both Jews and Palestinians. Ultimately He is the Lord and heavenly father of us all!

God ‘heard the cry’ of young Ishmael as he lay dying under the tree, just as God later ‘heard the cry’ of the Israelites under bondage in Egypt, just as God hears our cries and our prayers, as He hears the cries and the prayers of those who have nothing to do with us – those who are not part of our church, and not part of our religion.

We may well understand more of God than many of our neighbours. It may well be true that many here have a deeper experience of the presence of God than would most of our neighbours. It is almost certainly true that most of us here are serving God more deliberately and faithfully than are many persons in our community. And yet, in the final analysis, our God is their God. Their God is my God. The God who loves me and bleeds for me is the same God who loves and bleeds for them. Because the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of Ishmael too!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 2005.

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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