The Fallout of Abraham Sleeping with Hagar & Imagine Ishmael

John C. Rankin (2008)

In Genesis 12-22, the storyline highlights the broken marriage covenant between Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah). It has led to the greatest of social evils and war in history. It is a unique and unchosen, yet chosen, failure of the power to give in fatherhood.

Yahweh has called Abram out of his pagan Babylonian roots to worship the true God. Abram says yes, but he has yet to overcome some pagan assumptions. Yahweh has promised him that even in his and Sarai’s old age, they will bear a son, and through Abram’s lineage, all the nations of the world will be blessed.

However, Sarai loses patience for the promise to be fulfilled, so she suggests to Abram that he sleep with her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, to “build a family through her” (16:2). Abram foolishly agrees to the idea. This is the power to take from a powerless woman, not the power to give as Yahweh first gives. Sarai seeks to fulfill Yahweh’s promise by means of human flesh, not by the power of the Spirit. Hagar thus becomes the first surrogate mother in recorded history, with a rented womb as it were. She is reified, that is, reduced to the status of mere property. For Hagar cannot even be allowed, like a pagan concubine, to raise her own child. Rather, Sarai is going to take the child from birth, and Hagar will never hold or breastfeed her very son.

Thus, Hagar despises Sarai when she realizes how she is being used. Sarai despises her in return, and the war between the women begins. Abram, compromised by sleeping with both women, is impotent to resolve the conflict. He loves his wife, and has erroneously sought to please her intent to build a family through Hagar. But the child Ishmael is also his son, and he loves his son. But because of the war between the women, he is never able to raise Ishmael himself. Sarai makes sure of that.

Yet Abraham so loved his son Ishmael that he wanted Yahweh to bless him, and was willing to forego having another son provided for by the power of the Spirit. But Yahweh knew that the human flesh cannot accomplish God’s will, and that brokenness had been sown into Ishmael’s soul due to the broken marriage covenant and the war between the women.

Ishmael turns out as “a wild donkey of a man,” always living “in hostility toward all his brothers” (16:12). This is due to being the quintessentially fatherless boy, raised only by Hagar, knowing who his father was, but not understanding why his father is not there for him. It rips Abraham’s soul apart, and he desperately wants to be Ishmael’s present and loving father. He is not choosing to absent himself from Ishmael’s life, but due to his prior choice to sleep with Hagar, he now has no choice in the matter if he wants to love and be faithful to Sarah. So many piercing dilemmas of broken sexuality visit our common humanity. Break the covenant of marriage, and we break the original provision for the power to give.

So Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah. But the rejected Ishmael hates Isaac as a usurper of their father’s love and blessings from the beginning. The war continues between their descendants, that is, the Arabs who come from Ishmael, and the Jews who come from Isaac. The war continues to this day in the Middle East with international consequences, and it is a war that will not be fully resolved until the Second Coming.

In other words, the source for the power to give is in the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman for one lifetime. Any brokenness of this covenant will lead to the power to take. One look at the prevalence of Arab hostility toward the Jews today shows the 4000 years of this history still unfolding – the sons and daughters of Ishmael on the one hand, and the sons and daughters of Isaac, on the other.

Only redemption of the power to give can rescue Arabs and Jews alike, and that power to give is supremely fulfilled by the death of one man on a Roman cross, and the resurrection that follows. The lineage of Jesus traces back to Abraham, and in him all nations will be blessed.

Therefore, imagine Ishmael:

As a young boy, perhaps five years old.

There he sits outside the small tent, meant to spend these years at play and wonder, yet the intrusion of undeserved pain already gnaws at his soul. There, at the bitter edge of a large nomadic community, he lives alone with his mother Hagar. They are shunned by most people, with furtive glances that young Ishmael doesn’t know how to define, but he feels them deeply and unhappily. His mother loves him dearly, holds him tight and teaches him the basics of hygiene, language arts and social skills, of how to grow into manhood.

But his father is not present to model such a manhood, for Abraham is married to Sarah, and Ishmael is the son of a hastily arranged and foolish concubinary with Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. In other words, we come to learn that Ishmael is the son of a discarded slave woman whom Sarah despises for no good cause. Ishmael has no legitimate inheritance rights or honorable standing in the community. He is rejected and feels the shame deeply, all for something that is not his fault, which is not his mother’s fault. But at age five, he does not understand these social and sexual realities – he only feels the shame, and doesn’t know why he has to feel it, when other boys his age do not. They have daddies at home.

Then imagine the periodic community-wide feast involving perhaps 2,000 people. The seat of honor goes to the patriarch, the wealthiest and most powerful man in the area – Abraham. And next to him sits his beautiful wife, Sarah. Then back at the edges sit Hagar and little Ishmael. Hagar has told him before that this man is his father, but little Ishmael is not allowed to see Abraham, for Sarah would be furious, and they would have to flee for their lives into a desert that only holds death. Ishmael listens, and most of these words are not really understood, but serve as background for the years ahead. At this moment though, the little Ishmael only has one desire – to sit next to his daddy in the sight of all the people, to be honored as daddy’s little boy. So simple, not possible, and thus Ishmael grows to be a wild donkey of a man, always fighting for survival and for a dignity and honor not given.

Ibn Isḥāq, the most extant, ancient and authoritative biographer of Muḥammad, claims this lineage for him, and Islam grows out of Arabia 2600 years after Abraham. There is a deep struggle in the subconscious of Ishmael’s lineage. The Arabic word for struggle is jihad. Underneath the texts of the Qur’an and Sira and Hadith this is an inner struggle for honor to erase the undeserved shame, for freedom from a birthright of slavery. It is an inner struggle at the root of the historical and original jihad against all who will not submit to Islam. And in the face of this reality, the calling for biblical people is to honor Ishmael, to honor all Arab and Muslim peoples, and all others including ourselves, as equals in the sight of the one true Creator, Yahweh Elohim, the eternal Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only then can the message of the Prince of Peace cut through the boiling tempest of the Middle East – he who is rejected by men as he goes to the cross in our stead, then rises from the grave with all rejection conquered. Hagar called Yahweh “the God who sees me,” and the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Do we also see and hear?