Old Testament vignettes [1]: The Divine Plan for Ishmael

Editorial Note: This is the first article in a series of three by Dr. Tony Maalouf that focus on Old Testament vignettes telling the story of Ishmaelite Arabs in key Biblical contexts. We urge the reader to consider how modern day cultural influences have shaped our collective understanding of the Arab peoples, and perhaps as a result, our posture as the church towards her descendants, both Muslim and Christian. We are confident you will find the context of Ishmael’s birth, Job, and the Song of Solomon an encouraging corrective in today’s politicized landscape of fear towards the peoples of the Middle East.

Because we focus so intently on God’s faithfulness in the supernatural provision of the promised seed Issac, we tend to forget how divine mercy is displayed toward those who stumble with their limited social privileges. We rarely hear messages preached on Hagar and Ishmael and God’s gracious dealings with them. Oftentimes, when the Hagar/Ishmael story is remembered, it is used to highlight human failures on the part of Abraham and Sarah. Yet the narrative is loaded with lessons and principles emphasizing God’s grace and love displayed on behalf of lowly humanity.

The narrative in Genesis 16 is a very nicely woven story. Although only sixteen verses long, the chapter is full of action, drama, and favorable and unfavorable events. Much has been said about the unbelief of Abraham and Sarah and their lack of patience in the matter of Ishmael’s birth. However, a closer look at their circumstances and the cultural customs of their time makes the informed reader sympathize more with the couple in their difficult ordeal. This is especially true in light of the divinely caused problem of Sarah’s chronic barrenness, leaving the couple to wrestle with the possibility of a cultural alternative for appropriating the seed promise in light of their advanced age and the limited revelation they had from God.

Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert By François-Joseph NavezOwn work, Michel wal, 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Thus God’s sovereign action in shutting Sarah’s womb for so long and opening Hagar’s is explicable in view of his intention to set human natural efforts in contrast with divine supernatural interventions, and in light of the plan he had for Ishmael and his descendants in secular history. Human reasoning prompted Sarah to resort to Hagar for children. Yet from a divine perspective, this scheme was short of God’s plan for the birth of the “son of promise.”

However, this ordeal proved to be his unique plan for blessing Hagar and her descendants in history. Enduring the terrible consequences of Sarah’s proposal and Abraham’s implementation was the only way prideful Hagar could have her unique personal encounter with the Lord. Affliction and powerlessness under slavery paved the thorny road to blessing from a God who “hears” and “sees.” Trible sums up the privileges of Hagar’s unique profile as it is reflected in this biblical drama:

Besides symbolizing the various kinds and conditions of people in contemporary society, Hagar is also a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture who dares to name the deity. Within the historical memories of Israel, she is the first woman to bear a child. This conception and birth make her an extraordinary figure in the story of faith: the first woman to hear an annunciation; the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants; and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special mothers but of all mothers in Israel.

As Far as Ishmael is concerned, the nomadic lifestyle of his descendants will set them against many and set many against them. Yet the name of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, became an indication that God will listen to their affliction as an unfavored people.

From God’s perspective, Ishmael is another potential for blessing through Abraham and his promised seed. His promises concerning Ishmael were the source of comfort for the helpless enslaved woman. Her son will be free and powerful as a nomad. Plus he will have inherited his own land from the Lord. Yet this dwelling place will be close by Issac, his brother. As such it will serve a double purpose:

  1. It will be a potential for blessings through the elect seed, Issac. Jeremiah expresses this blessing with the following statement from the Lord. “Then it will come about that if they will really learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the LORD lives,’…then they will be built up in the midst of My people” (Jer. 12:16).
  2. It will be a challenge before Isaac’s descendants, reminding them that faith and not mere blood relationship is the way to enjoying the Abrahamic promised blessings.
This post is excerpted from Tony Maalouf’s book Arabs in the Shadow of Israel.

About Tony Maalouf

Dr. Tony Maalouf was a professor of World Christianity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and served as an adjunct or visiting professor at numerous other institutions across the globe. He sadly passed away in 2020 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His areas of interest in teaching included Arabs in biblical history and Muslim/Christian relations. Dr. Maalouf wrote extensively on Ishmael, including a book titled "Arabs in the Shadow of Israel" about God's plan for the line of Ishmael. We deeply grieve his loss.