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2. Hagar, Pt. 2: When Troubles Won’t Go Away (Gen. 21:8-21)

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In the last lesson from Abraham’s life (Gen. 16:1-16), we learned the principle that “even when you act in self-will, your life is still controlled by God.” We saw that Sarah’s frustration and folly led to the fulfillment of her ill-conceived plan, choosing to rely on her own scheme to overcome her barrenness by having a baby (Isaac) through the illicit union of her husband, Abraham, and her maid, Hagar. The plan backfired and caused nothing but turmoil and resentment in the household. So Sarah treated Hagar harshly, causing her to flee from the household like a fugitive. But then, God’s favor turned toward Hagar in her hour of darkness, because God is the God who turns darkness into dawn.

Now we move on to another dark experience in Abraham’s and Hagar’s lives. By now, Isaac has been born and Abraham’s household becomes a place of euphoria and celebration (21:1-7). First, there was euphoria over Isaac’s birth in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. Now, some 3 years later, there is great celebration over Isaac’s weaning. But how quickly everything changes. The euphoria turns to conflict (21:9), indignation (21:10), and finally Hagar’s banishment (21:14).

In the December 31, 1989, edition of the Chicago Tribune, the editors printed their photos of the decade. One of them, by Michael Fryer, captured a grim fireman and paramedic carrying a fire victim away from the scene. The blaze, which happened in Chicago in December 1984, at first seemed routine. But then firefighters discovered the bodies of a mother and five children huddled in the kitchen of an apartment. Fryer said the firefighters surmised, “She could have escaped with two or three of the children but couldn’t decide who to pick. She chose to wait with all of them for the firefighters to arrive. All of them died of smoke inhalation.” (From the story: “Times When It Is Hard to Leave”).

Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye to those we love. You see it in the TV images of people heartbroken for loved ones, not giving up hope that they may still be alive, and desperately not wanting to say “good bye.” It’s hard to let go of those you love, whose company you enjoy. Sometimes family members come for a visit. You look forward to them coming for so long and all of a sudden it’s over, and you’re sad to see them go. Time moves on so quickly; things change so suddenly.

That’s how it was in Abraham’s household in this story as he bids goodbye to Hagar and Ishmael. We will see once more that God turns darkness into dawn. But notice this principle carefully that as darkness comes before the dawn, so trouble often precedes triumph. Trouble comes from all kinds of sources…

1. Trouble often finds it source in our bad attitudes (21:8-10): Sarah’s resentment.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing (21:9). Evidently, Ishmael has been tantalizing Isaac (whether verbally, physically, or both we don’t know), ridiculing him, scoffing at him, and this has caught Sarah’s attention. Ishmael is a teenager by now, probably 16-17 years old. According to Gen. 17:24, Abraham was 99 when he was circumcised and Ishmael was 13 at that time. Isaac was born the next year (when Abraham was 100 and Ishmael 14). Isaac would be weaned at about 2-3 years old. Therefore, Ishmael would have been 16-17 at this time.

Ishmael can see what is happening in the family. All his life he had probably been told that he was the child of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. But when he found out that Sarah was pregnant, perhaps he knew that it was not so. Now Isaac becomes the centre of attention. This incites Ishmael’s jealousy and anger against Isaac. Ishmael feels victimized and deceived, supplanted. Unfortunately, he has adopted his mother’s attitude. Just as Hagar despised Sarah (16:4), so now Ishmael despises Isaac. You can see how much a child’s environment affects their behavior and attitudes - like mother, like son.

But the problem isn’t so much Ishmael’s scoffing as it is Sarah’s bad attitude. She has never judged her resentment toward Hagar and Ishmael, so that when conflict occurs in the family home, the same emotion quickly resurfaces and the same solution is quickly demanded again: “Get this slave woman and her son out of my house!”

Some people become bitter very easily and then they find it hard to repent of it. They continue to express their resentment, sometimes even years later. Bitterness and resentment are powerful emotional forces. If you become resentful, know this: the same feelings and reactions can quickly rise to the surface again. They always seems to lie just beneath the surface, ready to explode. The apostle Paul says, Be angry and sin not. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath (Eph. 4:26). In other words, do not let anger become sin by nursing it, enjoying it, using it for selfish purposes, or by becoming angry over things we ought not to be angry about. Instead, put a limit on your emotions; put a time limit so that your anger is judged and finished. “Don’t go to bed mad”; bring it to an end. Our emotions are powerful forces in our lives. God has given them to us but not for them to be used sinfully or to go unchecked. It’s sad that our anger is often misdirected. We don’t become angry about things we should and we become angry about things we should not. We should be angry over things that make God angry, but we usually become angry over things that we don’t like.

Sarah’s bad attitude now boils over into her deep-seated resentment. She orders Abraham to cast out this slave woman with her son(21:10a). The word Sarah uses here for slave woman indicates that Hagar’s position in the family has advanced. Hagar is no longer merely a shiphhah, a female slave (16:1-3), but now she is an amah, a maidservant. For all practical purposes Hagar is Abraham’s second wife (16:3b), whose son, Ishmael, under cuneiform law, has a legal claim to Abraham’s estate.

Sarah’s resentment evidently focuses on the family inheritance. She isn’t merely indignant about Ishmael’s scoffing at Isaac, but, more specifically, about the matter of the inheritance, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son, Isaac (21:10b). Perhaps that was always at the root of her bad attitude, and now she gives expression to it. She says: “There’s no way that this son of a maidservant is going to share in the inheritance with my son.” Sarah is actually asking Abraham to disinherit Ishmael, his firstborn son.

Resentment can cause us to have a bad attitude. And a bad attitude can cause us to be very critical, to say things we wouldn’t normally say. Resentment tends to do that. It loosens your tongue to say things that are very caustic, vitriolic. Sarah had not raised the matter of the inheritance before but her bad attitude causes her to find and see things that weren’t issues previously.

Resentment over money often divides families. So often money issues lie at the root of squabbles and resentment. The Bible says that The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10). So, be sure that it doesn’t get hold of your heart as it did Sarah’s.

Trouble often finds its source in our bad attitudes. And…

2. Trouble often finds its source in our bad decisions: Abraham’s predicament (21:11-14a).

Abraham’s bad decision, when he agreed to Sarah’s scheme with Hagar, is now affecting his state of mind. The thing / matter was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son (21:11). His attitude is now deteriorating. He also has undoubtedly witnessed Ishmael’s ridicule of Isaac, on account of which he is most disturbed and distressed.

Notice the predicament that one bad decision can initiate. His bad decision initiates Abraham’s tense relationships. Now he has a blended family, which often causes conflict. Ishmael is as much a son of Abraham as Isaac is, but not so for Sarah. Abraham is caught in the middle between Sarah and Isaac on one hand and Hagar and Ishmael on the other; between what is legal and illegal; between what is right and what is hard; between his love for Ishmael and his love for Sarah. What Abraham thought was long past comes back to haunt him.

In the midst of his predicament, we see Abraham’s remorse over the bad decision he had made earlier. He must have said to himself a million times: “I wish I had never done what Sarah asked me to do with Hagar. If only I could relive that part of my life. Won’t this problem ever go away?” He sounds like David in Ps. 51:3b. Now he is reaping the consequences of his previous irresponsibility, lack of leadership, and distrust of God.

Bad decisions sometimes produce lifetime scars. Most of us experience the results of past sins (either our own or the impact on us of others’ sins). Abraham sinned in his intimacy with Hagar and he was deeply impacted by Sarah’s bad attitude – her scheming, bitterness, jealousy, resentment. We reap what we sow: it’s the law of the harvest (Gal. 6:7). Sins committed in haste and self-will often continue to haunt us. We get caught in the web of our own weaving. Sins that are forgiven often have consequences that live on. “Though every act of sin is forgivable, the effects of some are not erasable” (Chuck Swindoll, “Abraham”, 110), such as drug abuse, promiscuity, criminal acts. Nonetheless, if we repent, God takes the burden and brings relief. He turns the darkness of our lives into the dawn of his deliverance.

In the midst of his remorse, God brings Abraham’s relief. “God said to Abraham, Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named (21:12). Sarah is right, but for the wrong reason. Abraham is to banish Hagar and Ishmael not because Ishmael has done anything to deserve disinheritance, nor because of Sarah’s resentment, but because of God’s sovereign decree that his promise to Abraham will take place through Isaac. So long as Hagar and Ishmael live in Abraham’s house there would be no peace, nor would Abraham be able to focus on raising Isaac, the child of promise.

Sometimes obedience to God involves letting things go - things that we don’t even know are a hindrance to us; things that are sometimes very dear to us (as Ishmael was to Abraham); things that weigh heavily on our consciences, which we have to deal with and let them go. For some 14 years, Abraham had been under a false impression that Ishmael was the promised child (15:5; 16:10; 17:18). Now he knows otherwise. Nonetheless, it’s still hard to let Ishmael go. Undoubtedly, Abraham must have thought: “He’s still my son. Hagar is my second wife. And they have nowhere to go. How can I do this? I can’t let them go!”

Sometimes the way to correct our bad decisions means making hard decisions. Many times God’s ways aren’t easy for us to accept. Sometimes he uses our bad decisions for his purposes. Perhaps you have an Ishmael in your life. You’ve held on to something for years, as Abraham had held on to Ishmael and it’s hard to let it go because it’s dear to you. Sometimes, obeying God isn’t easy and it is particularly not easy when we have to do something hard to correct something we did wrong. Our affections and desires get in the way and our past keeps coming back. We don’t understand how it will all work out. We keep asking: “Why? What’s the purpose of this experience? It all looked so good at the beginning and now you’re taking it all away. This is a burden too great for me to bear.”

But Abraham wouldn’t have to live the rest of his life under this burden of guilt. Notice how God brings relief to Abraham’s burden by giving him a promise about Ishmael: And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring (21:13). God, not Abraham, would take care of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham could let the burden go, roll it off onto God. Ishmael would lose his family rights as a son but he would gain a national right as the father of the Arab people. Ishmael would lose his inheritance of property but gain an inheritance of a nation. Ishmael would be cut off from what is his by legal right but be connected to what is his only by God’s promise. Why? Because he is your offspring. Such is the grace of God to Abraham. Despite Abraham’s failure to live up to his responsibilities last time, God will fulfill his promises to him concerning both his sons.

No matter what the consequences of our past sins, God brings relief. If we accept the consequences of those sins and wait upon God, he pours his grace into our lives. Sometimes God removes the cause of the problem so that we can live happily in his will. Sometimes the cause of the problem can’t be removed because we have taken actions which are irreversible and to try to reverse them would be to commit another sin. But God forgives when we accept responsibility and confess our sin, so that we no longer live with the burden of guilt even though we may live with the burden of reality and its  consequences.

Abraham’s remorse turns into Abraham’s relief and finally to Abraham’s responsibility. So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away (21:14a). He is distressed over Sarah’s excessive demand but he responds in obedience to God. Little does he know what God is going to require of him in the next chapter – to sacrifice his son of promise. And yet again Abraham will act in perfect obedience. So here, he does what he has to do but with care and concern for the two of them.

He gives Hagar the basic staples of life (bread and water) and entrusts Ishmael to her care. But bread and water will provide little solace either for their physical or emotional well-being in the life-threatening rigors of the desert. Undoubtedly heart-broken by this tragedy, he sends them away but not in the way or with the anger that Sarah displayed. Instead of hostility there is love. Instead of resentment there is remorse and regret.

Trouble often finds its source in our bad attitudes and in our bad decisions.  And…

3. Trouble often finds its source in our bad circumstances: Hagar’s banishment (21:14b-16).

Sarah’s resentment produced Abraham’s predicament and, finally, Hagar’s banishment. She departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba (21:14b). These were bad circumstances to say the least.

Maybe Hagar forgot God’s promise about her son (16:10). After all that was some 16 or 17 years ago, when God had spoken to her at the spring in the wilderness on the way to Shur. By now she probably believed, like Abraham, that Ishmael was the son of promise. She is probably unaware that God just renewed his promise about Ishmael in 21:13 in order to bring comfort to Abraham. In any event God’s promise probably seemed patently absurd to her now. After all, that was then and this is now. That was the dim and distant past and this is the here and now. She needed to deal with the reality of the present.

You can’t live just on memories of the “good old days”, you know. The reality is that she and her son are both about to die and she is about to face the deepest darkness of her life. Wandering in the wilderness” doubly underscores her darkness. It’s bad enough to wander hopelessly, like a straying animal, lost, not knowing where you’re going. But to wander in the wilderness would fill you with abject terror.

When I flew to Zambia a few years ago, I looked out of the window of the plane and saw the Sahara desert stretching out as far as the eye could see, nothing but mountains of sand, no sign of life. To be abandoned in the wilderness would be a scary prospect.

Soon the moment of total abandonment and darkness comes. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes (21:15). Under the scorching heat, with no shelter and the water supply exhausted, Hagar places Ishmael in the only shade she can find - a desert shrub. What can be more bleak and hopeless than for a mother to place her son under a desert bush and then watch him die. Obviously, she could not carry Ishmael for he is a teenager, but she could help place him in his weakness under a shrub. She takes the very best care of Ishmael that she can, denying herself the only shade that was available.

Powerless to stop the inevitable she sits at a distance awaiting Ishmael’s death. “Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said,Let me not look on the death of the child.And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept (21:16). All she could do is sit and wait. She can’t even bear to watch, incapable of preventing certain death. Surely she doesn’t deserve this treatment, this fate, despite her attitude toward Sarah and Ishmael’s attitude toward Isaac.

Sometimes the promises of God ring hollow in our experiences, don’t they? They must have been so for Hagar at this moment. “Where is God when I need him? It’s all very well for God to make these grandiose promises, but I need action!”

Trouble often finds its source in our bad attitudes, in our bad decisions, and in our bad circumstances. But remember: As darkness comes before the dawn, so trouble often precedes triumph. And in this lesson it is so, for…

4. Trouble always finds its solution in God’s intervention: Hagar’s encouragement (21:17-21).

For the second time in Hagar’s life God displays his goodness to her. Sarah’s resentment has led to Abraham’s predicament, to Hagar’s banishment and, finally, to Hagar’s encouragement as God intervenes in her life again to disclose to her a promise concerning Ishmael’s future. First, God hears again: “And God heard the voice of the boy” (21:17a). “Ishmael” means “the God who hears”.  God heard the cry of the dying boy and the wail of Hagar’s heart. Then, God speaks again: “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” (21:17b). These are words of comfort: “What’s wrong, what troubles you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid.” Just as God assured Abraham that he need not fear in sending Hagar away (21:12), so now God assures Hagar that she need not fear. Then, God promises again: “Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (21:18). Ishmael is not going to die as Hagar expected. Just as God fulfilled his promise to Abraham concerning a son of promise, even when Abraham was as good as dead (Heb. 11:12), so God fulfills his promise to Hagar (16:10) when Ishmael is as good as dead also. Now, in the midst of the ordeal, she hears God’s promise again that Ishmael will become a great nation. What God had told Abraham to give him assurance in sending them away, he now repeats for Hagar’s encouragement.

This is the principle of how God works. First the ordeal, then the revelation. First the suffering, then the solution. First the trouble, then the triumph. First the darkness of defeat, then the dawn of victory. And that’s when God takes action again. “Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink” (21:19).God is active and in control even in such a dark situation. God became a husband to Hagar (cf. Isa. 54:5) and a father to Ishmael (cf. Ps. 68:5-6). He not only promises the future but provides for the present. He gives them not only a promise but practical provision – the water of life. Just as he provided Elijah with a cake and a jar of water (1 Kgs. 19:6), so he blesses Ishmael with a drink and a destiny. The well was there all the time but Hagar couldn’t see it. As soon as God opened her eyes, she satisfied her son’s thirst - he is her first concern and responsibility.

When we exhaust our resources, our tendency is to sit down and cry. Well remember, God still has a lot of options left. Our bad circumstances blind us to the provision God has made. In order to see God’s plan, all we need to do is open our eyes. And when we open our eyes, we see that God was involved all along.

God hears, God speaks, God promises, God acts, and, lastly, God blesses again. “20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt” (21:20-21). The story begins with Isaac’s growth as a child (21:8), but now Ishmael grows from a youth to a man. God is with the boy, and he grew up. There is intimacy, care, divine presence - not merely a voice from heaven – and there is nourishment. What was once a place of dark banishment into a hostile wilderness / desert, becomes Ishmael’s home.

To survive in the wilderness requires skill and Ishmael’s skill is that of an archer. The bowshot that once marked the distance between him and his mother (21:16) now becomes his means of survival in the Wilderness of Paran (21:20). In this little detail we see the wonderful literary skill with which this story is written.

In Hagar’s final responsibility to Ishmael, she chooses a wife for him (21:21). He would never be left alone in the desert. Isn’t it ironic that Hagar, who had no choice of a husband and was thrust into a relationship with someone of a different race and religion,  now takes a wife for her son from their own people, the Egyptians? She had far more spiritual discernment than Sarah did in giving an Egyptian to her husband.

Final Remarks

Remember: As darkness comes before the dawn, so trouble often precedes triumph. God is the God who turns darkness into dawn. The God who heard Ishmael’s cry is the God who hears us when we cry. The God who spoke from heaven is the God who speaks to us through his Word. The God who renewed his promise to Hagar is the God who daily renews to us his precious promises. The God who took action in the wilderness is the God who acts in our wildernesses. The God who blessed Ishmael is the God who blesses us abundantly in and through Christ.

Our privilege and resource in the darkness of our lives is to cry to God, to listen for his voice, to be comforted by his promises, to watch him act, and to receive his blessing. When the circumstances are the darkest, God hears our cry and speaks words of comfort and encouragement; God takes action and opens our eyes to see his power; God is with us even when we can’t see him.

Perhaps you are passing through particularly dark times. Perhaps there are things in your life that you aren’t facing up to. Perhaps there is unconfessed sin in your life of which you have not repented. Perhaps you haven’t changed what needs to be changed. Perhaps you haven’t appropriated God’s grace in your life. Perhaps you see other people as the source of all your problems. Whatever it is, make sure that you deal with it before God today; be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Don’t allow bitterness and resentment to control your life. Be willing to forgive others. Embrace the grace of God in all its fullness. Trust his precious promises.

Remember the lesson of this story, that as darkness comes before the dawn, so trouble often precedes triumph. Sinful consequences may disturb us but they need not defeat us. Marital conflicts may disrupt us but they need not destroy us. Personal confusion may disarm us but it need not demoralize us. No matter how dark the days may be, God never changes. He is always there when we turn to him. In those times when we can’t see his hand, we can trust his heart.

P. Gerhardt (1607-1676) wrote a hymn that John Wesley translated which sums up how we need to trust God through the dark times as well as the good.

Through waves, through clouds and storms,
God gently clears the way;
We wait His time; so shall the night
Soon end in blissful day.

He everywhere hath sway,
And all things serve His might;
His every act pure blessing is,
His path unsullied light.

When He makes bare His arm,
Who shall His work withstand?
When He His people’s cause defends,
Who then shall stay His hand?

We leave it to Himself
To choose and to command,
With wonder filled, we soon shall see
How wise, how strong His hand.

We comprehend Him not,
Yet earth and heaven tell
God sits as sovereign on the throne,
And ruleth all things well.

Related Topics: Character Study, Failure, Faith

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