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BBBI - 2018.03.28 - PM - The New Creature & the Old Nature (Gen. 21:1-21)

BBBI - OT101.2 - Genesis II  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  1:07:57
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God can work in the midst of conflict.

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A. Outsiders and Insiders

Moby Dick

CHAPTER 1. Loomings

Call me Ishmael.

“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 of those 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

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. Count Your Blessings (Gen. 21:1-8)

Sarah’s laugh of derision eventually gives way to faith, since Hebrews 11:11 tells us that, “Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, … because she judged him faithful who had promised.

A. Promised Son Is Born (vv. 1, 2)

Genesis 21:1–2 KJV 1900
And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
God is present in Sarah’s life to fulfill His promise, and the result is a miraculous pregnancy. This is not a virginal conception, for that is a unique event in human history. But this is still a supernatural event—a conception, gestation, and birth that science cannot explain.
Somehow, God reverses the effects of aging on Sarah. Thus a woman who is some 40 or 50 years past the natural childbearing state is allowed to be as fertile as a 20-year-old wife for the case of this single pregnancy.

B. Promised Son Is Named (vv. 3–5)

Genesis 21:3 KJV 1900
And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.
In a wonderful bit of irony, the boy is named Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” This is no longer the laugh of derision or doubt. It is now a laugh of joy.
In this case, God’s promise-keeping has the providential side effect of giving an elderly childless couple the joy of their hearts. They have the son they must have asked for in prayer for many years.
Genesis 21:4–5 KJV 1900
And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.
God previously had established the circumcision of all the males in Abraham’s household to be the primary sign of his covenant with Abraham. Accordingly, Abraham had applied the circumcision knife to all the men and boys, including his son Ishmael and himself (Genesis 17:23, 24).
We can imagine the joy that Abraham now feels. He is able to apply this sign of the covenant to the one who will fulfill the promise of a multitude of descendants for him.

C. Promised Son Brings Joy (vv. 6–8)

Genesis 21:6 KJV 1900
And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.
We see a side of Sarah here that should endear her to us. Her original laughter of contempt is reevaluated, and now she is able to see the humor of her situation. She has abandoned any bitterness she may have harbored for her years of childlessness. She is not embarrassed to laugh out loud so anyone who hears can share with her, for her laughter springs from a deep joy that God has given to her.
Laughing for Joy
“Did you hear the one about … ?” So goes the opening line of countless jokes. Most of us enjoy a good joke, and if the story is told well, it doesn’t even have to be plausible to make us laugh. Some people like side-splitting, belly-laugh-producing jokes; others prefer subtle humor. Whatever our preference, laughter is good medicine.
In recent years science has established that laughter is good for our physical, mental, and emotional health. A good laugh relaxes muscles, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and enhances the function of the immune system. It even reduces pain.
Sarah’s decision to name her child Isaac—meaning “he laughs”—was especially poignant. At first, Sarah laughed at God’s “ridiculous” announcement. That was a laugh of derision, and it’s hard to see any “good medicine” in it. It was a scornful laugh that originated in the pain of barrenness.
But by the time her child was born, Sarah was laughing for joy. This was a laugh of thanksgiving for a promise fulfilled. If we see God as Sarah came to see Him, we will also find our lives filled with joyful delight. Think about it: When was the last time you laughed with joy over something marvelous that God did in your life? —C. R. B.
Genesis 21:7 KJV 1900
And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age.
Sarah’s situation is startling: an elderly woman nursing a baby who has an old man as the father. It is absurd from a worldly standpoint, but marvelous from the standpoint of faith. Sarah’s joy for having a son is mingled with her pleasure at giving her faithful husband this child.
Genesis 21:8 KJV 1900
And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned.
The rate of infant mortality in the ancient world is very high. Perhaps 25 percent of live-born babies do not live to see their first birthday. There is nothing more tragic than the death of a baby, but many societies have done things to protect parents from part of the pain this loss can bring. In some cultures, for instance, babies are not named until they are several years old. The idea in that practice is to lessen attachment to the infant in case of early death.
In Abraham and Sarah’s world, it is a time for celebration when a baby is weaned. This is because weaning is a fairly reliable sign that a child will live to adulthood and not become a casualty of a childhood disease or birth defect.
So they celebrate! The first step in becoming the father of a large nation has now been taken. God has kept His promise, and Abraham’s faith has not been in vain.

II. Hagar & Ishmael Banished (Gen. 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)

Genesis 21:9 KJV 1900
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, 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.
Genesis 21:10 KJV 1900
Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with 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.

B. Conflict for Father Abraham (vv. 11–13)

Genesis 21:11 KJV 1900
And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of 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.
Genesis 21:12 KJV 1900
And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
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.
Genesis 21:13 KJV 1900
And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
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.

III. Hagar & Ishmael Borne Up (Gen. 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)

Genesis 21:14 KJV 1900
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
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.
Genesis 21:14 KJV 1900
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
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 Beer-sheba. This is in the southern part of Canaan, the beginning of the cruel Negev desert. Abraham later sees Beer-sheba 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)

Genesis 21:15–16 KJV 1900
And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
Hagar has lost hope and is preparing to die. Her location is desolate, but it has enough vegetation to provide shrubs 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.
Genesis 21:16 KJV 1900
And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
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. The text describes this as a lifting up, a prayer. God has allowed her to reach the utter depths of human despair, but He has not given up on her.

C. Saved by God (vv. 17–19)

Genesis 21:17–18 KJV 1900
And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him 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 out of heaven! Interestingly, the angel doesn’t say that God has heard her prayer, but that God has been moved by the voice of the lad.
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 overall plans of God.
Genesis 21:19 KJV 1900
And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad 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.

IV. Hagar & Ishmael Blessed (Gen. 21:20-21)

Being saved from death-by-dehydration is not the end of the story for Hagar and Ishmael. With a secure water supply, they 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)

Genesis 21:20 KJV 1900
And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, 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 wilderness. In this he prefigures a future rejected relative: Esau (Genesis 25:27). One occupation is not superior to another, for God blesses both.

B. Ishmael Takes a Wife (v. 21)

Genesis 21:21 KJV 1900
And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of 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 wilderness 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 (or Ishmeelites). 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 with the safety and family that followed. 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.


A. Children of the Free Woman

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 “bondmaid”; Sarah is a “free woman.” Paul points out that the child Abraham produced with Hagar was “born after the flesh,” that is, through natural impregnation and birth. The child produced with Sarah was “by 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 bondwoman, but of the free” (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 the love of God” (Jude 21).

B. Prayer

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.

C. Thought to Remember

God can work in the midst of conflict.
[Adapted from: Nickelson, Ronald L., and Jonathan Underwood, eds. The KJV Standard Lesson Commentary, 2007–2008. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2007.]
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