Genesis 16:1-16; 21:8-21 – “God Was with the Boy” (Ishmael)
SummaryHagar, the servant of Abraham and Sarah, bears a son by Abraham. He is showered with promises almost as extensive as those given Isaac. This raises the issue of how God will keep these promises to an "outsider."
Through Genesis 15, the story does not make clear the identity of the mother of Abraham's promised descendants (the specific promise regarding Sarah does not appear until 17:15-16), an issue not least in view of Sarah's barrenness. At the initiative of Sarah, Hagar is given to Abraham to enable him to bear children through her. There is no indication that this move is a lack of faith, for the identity of the mother has not been made clear by God and this means of bearing children was common in Israel and the ancient Near East (for example, 30:1-5).
Abraham becomes the father of a child through Hagar (named Ishmael at God's directive), and the story strongly suggests that he is a fulfillment of the divine promises (16:15-16). Indeed, Ishmael is at least thirteen years old before Sarah as a mother comes into view (16:16; 17:1).
In the wake of the birth of Isaac (21:1-7), a conflict within the family emerges, perhaps especially since Sarah is concerned about the place of her son Isaac's inheritance (21:8-11). As a consequence, Hagar and Ishmael are excluded from the family and wander at deep risk to their lives in the wilderness. But God comes to them where they are and preserves the lives of these outsiders. Indeed, "God was with the boy" (21:20; the same language that is used for Abraham in 21:22).
One of the most striking dimensions of these narratives is that God makes extensive promises to Hagar and Ishmael (16:10-11; 17:20; 21:13, 18). These promises are very similar to those given regarding Isaac (except for covenant, 17:21). What does it mean for God to speak such promises to outsiders and so commit the divine self to this unchosen community? What might such divine commitments mean to the descendants of Isaac and their relationship to the descendants of Ishmael? Where might the "chosen people" look for the fulfillment of God's promises? Is this fulfillment ongoing through the centuries into our own time? Might it be found among the present-day descendants of Hagar and Ishmael--that is, traditionally, the Arab people?