As we’ve been going through the Abraham story the promise of an heir for Abraham has been hanging over much of it. It has been the source of doubt for Abraham and Sarah. It has also caused them to develop their own plans for procuring a son. Yet here in Genesis 21:1-21 we finally have the birth of the promised son, Isaac.
For as much as the birth of Isaac has been anticipated, there is very little time spent on Isaac’s arrival. Just within this chapter there is more time spent on what happens regarding Ishmael than there is on Isaac’s arrival. Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? It does at first, but I wonder if it is really all that backwards.
If you think about the fact that so much of the dialogue regarding the birth of Isaac has primarily been within two circumstances. The first is the announcement of a a promised son in the first place. This is the establishment of the promise of God and makes sense that this would be a place of discussion. The second circumstance seems to be in the context of doubts or struggles that Abraham is having. God shows up to reaffirm the promise and attempt to alleviate the doubts of Abraham.
At the birth of Isaac there is neither of these circumstances in play. We have been told of the promise already and there is no presence of doubt now that Isaac is actually here as God has promised. John H. Sailhamer puts it this way, “The plan not only came about, but more importantly, it happened as it was announced. Thus the narrative calls attention to God’s faithfulness to his word and to his careful attention to the details of his plan.” While I may disagree that God revealed his entire hand from the start regarding the details, the message that God’s promise was fulfilled is certainly true and may explain why this is such a short event.
Walter Brueggemann takes a similar track, as he focuses the importance of this passage on the connection between the word of God and the birth of Isaac. He goes on to say, “Indeed, the whole story depends on that coupling. It insists that one cannot separate the eternal purpose of God and the concrete biological reality.” Again the emphasis seems to be the faithfulness of God, but Brueggemann acknowledges that this was not just a spiritual achievement, but one that take form through the natural process of child birth.
So if the fact that Isaac has come just as God had promised is the reason for a short, but meaningful announcement of his birth, why then does Ishmael get a longer treatment? I think that this is because unlike Isaac, who is unmistakably the promised one, the problem is what to do with Ishmael. We should not be surprised by the arrival and future of Isaac at this point, but the fate of Ishmael is more uncertain.
Ishmael is introduced as mocking Isaac during the feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning. Sarah is the one who spotted this and tells Abraham to send him and his mother packing. Abraham is uncertain of what to do. Abraham does not have the negative view of Ishmael that Sarah seems to hold. In fact God doesn’t seem to hold this negative view of Ishmael either. While God tells Abraham to do as Sarah wants, God also let’s Abraham know that Ishmael will be taken care of. He will become a great nation also even though he is not the son of promise.
Brueggeman puts it this way, “God cares for this outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon. There is no stigma attached to this “other” son. All are agreed on the preciousness of Ishmael–Yahweh, angel, Hagar, Abraham–all but Sarah.” We see that put on display by the actions of the angel of God in Genesis 21:17-19. God provides water for Hagar and Ishmael even though Hagar had thought they were going to die (or at very least that Ishmael was going to). Ishmael is taken care of by God, even if he is not the son of the promise.
So what kind of impact does this story have on us today? I find it to be a somewhat difficult question to answer. As I’ve mentioned on earlier chapters we often do not have the direct promises like Abraham had with Isaac, so the idea of God’s fulfillment of promise can be a bit more nebulous than it appears in this passage. That’s not to say that God doesn’t promise us anything, but that often they aren’t as concrete as I will give you a son.
Again the biggest take away seems to be the faithfulness of God. Both the birth of Isaac and the care of Ishmael show God being faithful to his word. What is interesting is how understated this faithfulness really is, particularly in the case of Isaac. While it is worded in a way to get the point across very little space is taken to acknowledge God’s faithfulness. One could almost call the presentation matter of fact. As if there was never any doubt God would do as he promised so why make too big a deal out of it.
Another aspect to think about looking at the larger story is that God spent much more time with Abraham working through his doubts and worries. When we come to the resolution of the promise God is obviously the cause of it, but is absent in any kind of role in the story. We see Abraham and Sarah celebrating, but God isn’t an active player.
Compare this to the story of Ishmael and we see something very different. In the uncertainty of what to do with Ishmael, God is there. He is there with Abraham letting him know that God will take care of his son. The angel of God is there to help Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. The longest engagements with God in the Abraham story seem to be about doubt and struggle.
While I don’t want to draw any formulaic expression from this tendency, it does give us hope that the God we often doubt, even as we believe, engages that doubt and the struggles of faith. This challenges the idea that we must never doubt or at least never show doubt in our faith. We see God dealing with the doubt of Abraham a number of times in this story, but still keep his word to Abraham. It’s strange that we see God most silent at the fulfillment of his promise. What we have a God that doesn’t find his faithfulness strange, but also doesn’t seem to find our human tendency to doubt, worry, and struggle to believe strange either.