In this chapter we discover how difficult and unhappy a situation Sarah had created by taking affairs into her own hands by suggesting that her maid Hagar should bear offspring for Abraham. We thought that this indicates some of the problems that can arise when we departure from the ideals of marriage and also gives us an insight into the vulnerable and precarious conditions that slaves lived under. The world was certainly far from perfect then, as it is now.
In verse 9 we were unsure whether Hagar’s son Ishmael, now aged about 14, was actually ‘mocking’ or simply playing; the Hebrew word can mean either, but it is clear that Sarah didn’t want him around. This might have been because of his attitude or that of his mother who had despised Sarah because she had been barren (chapter 16 v.4). Abraham was very fond of Ishmael, but seeing how unhappy Sarah was, he supported her decision to send Hagar and Ishmael away. He must have found great comfort in God’s reassurance that Ishmael would be looked after and become the forefather of a nation.
Ishmael and Hagar wandered in the desert and had almost died of thirst when God appeared to them and directed them to a well of water and ensured their survival. We are told that Ishmael eventually married a woman from Egypt. We noted how important wells of water were in this part of the world as later in the chapter Abraham had to resolve a dispute between his herdsmen and those of Abimelech over access to wells.
In this chapter we have the incident in which God asks Abraham to offer his and Sarah’s son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. We discussed the fact that this seems a barbaric thing for God to have required and for Abraham to have consented to, but agreed that to look at it like this completely misses the point that Abraham had complete faith and trust in God. Abraham must have been hoping and praying every step of the way up the mountain and through the building of the pyre that God would stop the proceedings and not demand this terrible sacrifice. And of course God did just this, but only at the last minute – once Abraham had been able to demonstrate his complete love, trust and obedience. We thought that Abraham must have believed in the ability of God to bring Isaac back from the dead and that this faith was what enabled him to go so far in this action. Perhaps this faith was another thing that greatly pleased God. We also thought that Isaac demonstrated faith too as he would have been old enough to resist by now, but clearly didn’t.
Because Abraham was able to bear this incredible test and demonstrated his faith in, and love for, God above all things, God rewarded him with wonderful blessings saying that through Isaac, Abraham would become the father of a vast nation and that through one of his descendants the whole world would be blessed.
We could not help seeing parallels between the way that Abraham was willing to give his son in sacrifice and the willingness of his son to comply, with what God later did in giving his son as a sacrifice and in the willingness of Jesus to die. We thought that God had not asked Abraham to do anything that He Himself was not prepared to do. This demonstrates to us the love that God and his son have for us.
Perhaps the hugely symbolic significance of this incident is underlined in v. 16 where God says “because you have not withheld your son, your only son” I will surely bless you. We know that Abraham had at least two sons, but in one of the most well-known verses in Scripture we are told that “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son that whosever believeth in him should have eternal life”. (John 3.16)