Genesis 21:14-21 “Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bow-shot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.”
Paul told the Gentile congregation in Galatia to take ‘figuratively’ (Gals. 4:24) the fact of Abraham having two sons, one by a slave woman and one by the free woman. The apostle said that the two women represented two covenants, one of bondage and one of freedom. In other words this incident in Genesis 21 was an allegory of the different relationships of men and women with God today.
Let me say a few words about what an allegory is. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progess is an allegory. It is the story of a man on pilgrimage from this world to the Celestial City, that is, to heaven, and on his way he meets such symbolical figures as Faithful, Giant Despair and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and he passes through symbolic places as the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle and Vanity Fair and thus through these pictures plain truths are taught us. There are also allegorical elements about C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in a way which is totally absent from the Harry Potter books. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was completed in 1948. In it, four children discover that a wardrobe in an old house is really a doorway to another world inhabited by talking animals and ruled by Aslan, a lion. The evil White Witch, however, has been taking control of that world causing the land to suffer a perennial winter.
One of the boys, Edmund, is influenced by the White Witch as she plies him with Turkish Delight and promises of great power. In the end, Edmund is saved from this evil when Aslan the lion sacrifices his own life. But Aslan returns to life and leads his forces in a great battle, after which the children become kings and queens of Narnia. This was not the end of the stories, and C.S. Lewis would write six more with the final one being published in 1956. Aslan obviously represents Christ – a lion is a common symbol of Jesus. The White Witch is Satan tempting Edmund, who initially is a kind of Judas figure. Peter, one of the children, represents the wise Christian. Father Christmas may represent the Holy Spirit, who comes and bring gifts to true believers so that they can fight evil. C.S. Lewis himself didn’t think of his Narnia books as being a Christian ‘allegory,’ strictly speaking. He did not intend the different characters to represent deity and evil in the way Bunyan did.
But Paul tells us that the two boys, Isaac and Ishmael and their two mothers, Sarah and Hagar are allegories of two covenants. There are allegories in the Bible. After King David had an affair with Bathsheba leading to the murder of her husband Uriah, the man of God, Nathan, comes to David and tells him about a rich man with many flocks who steals a poor man’s only lamb. He kills it and serves it to his guests. Apparently David didn’t see it coming, and declared out of his own mouth how that the rich man should die for his actions. That’s when Nathan said to him “Thou art the man!” What courage! Nathan went on to tell the king about the consequences of his action and David acknowledged his sin against the Lord. And yourself today? Is your life accountable to one of God’s preachers? Might you be living your whole life away from the warmth of the love of God in a permanent winter of the soul? Have you yet turned in repentance to God and confessed your sin against him? The Lion of the tribe of Judah, King Jesus, has laid down his life that sinners like you might receive pardon. Go to God by Christ, and ask him to forgive and pardon you
So my point is that there are some simple allegories in the Bible that help us understand God’s message, but I also want to say that there have been men and times in the history of the church which have seen allegories in the Scripture everywhere. The red ribbon which Rahab the harlot put in her window in the city of Jericho to be spotted by the invading army of Israel was not an allegory of the blood of Christ. The oil and the wine which the Good Samaritan took out of his travel pack and poured into the wounds of the man who fell among thieves lying at the roadside were not allegories of the Holy Spirit, and the blood of Christ.
If you set out allegorizing everything in the Bible like that then it becomes a pernicious approach to Scripture. It is saying, “We people in the know, we illuminati (and not the common multitudes who can’t see these realities) – we have the deep spiritual sense to discern the meaning of Scripture. So let us tell you about the book of Revelation!” Welcome to Fantasy Island Seminary! That’s the mentality that gave birth to the DaVinci Code, and such speculation results in an attitude of disdain and disregard for the plain, natural sense of the text – “Ah yes, but what is the Scripture really saying when it mentions that Peter caught 153 large fish after Jesus rose from the dead? Why 153 exactly?” Because someone counted them? If you go down that road then the Bible becomes a book of word puzzles. You are no longer believing in the perspicuity of the Bible – its clarity. Then it needs experts from “Mother Church” to explain to simple folk like the slate quarryman, and the sheep farmer, and the shop-keeper what the Bible means. It takes Scripture out of the hands of the taxi driver, and the electrician, and the pensioner, and the housewife and makes it the preserve of the specialist who considers himself and is considered by others as the really ‘spiritual’ man.
So we are careful about making things in the Bible ‘allegories’ that are not allegories at all but are straight forward statements. But Abraham’s involvement in the two women, Sarah and Hagar, and the resultant birth of two sons, has become a true allegory, though, of course, the events took place – unlike the incident of Nathan’s parable of the rich man stealing the poor man’s only lamb. But God used the historic fall of Abraham to teach the church until the end of time some simple but very important lessons.
The true children of Abraham are Christians who are relying on God alone to do for them what he has promised. They are waiting on God. If they attempt to achieve God’s will for themselves by their own devices then the blessings they receive are not gracious gifts of God. They are our own human achievements. The difference is paramount. When I was a pay clerk paying out miners at their pits on a Friday morning they did not bow and think me profusely for the money I gave them. They had earned it working in the bowels of the earth. It was not a gift from me but a reward for a work they had done.
How will you get to heaven? If you answer, “I will live a decent life, and always do my best. God can ask nothing more from me that that,” then your hopes of heaven are based on what you do, and if you are religious then you will also do your best to s
ay your prayers each day, keep one day special and fast for a month once a year. You will get to heaven by your works. You are of the line of Ishmael. You are standing on Mount Sinai. Your hope is based on the law.
A Christian will answer very differently. He will say, “I find that self and pride are mixed up in everything that I do, so there is no hope for me to get to God by my own achievements. I am going to rely on the achievements of another. Jesus Christ has done for me what I could never do. He has kept the law of God and done the will of God in every single detail of his life. He loved God with all his heart and he loved his neighbour as himself. That righteousness of Christ imputed to me, as I entrust myself to him, is my only hope of heaven. You will get to heaven by the works of Jesus Christ. You are of the line of Isaac. You are standing on Mount Calvary where your Lord was made sin for you, who knew no sin that you might be made the righteousness of God in him.
If you are going to have spiritual life from heaven then it is going to be by a new birth which is a gift of God. Its conception, continuity and consummation are all divine. But Abraham in a period of temptation wanted a son then, and so he got Hagar pregnant; it was not difficult. It was by human devices, but to get Sarah pregnant was something that Abraham had failed to do for over fifty years because Sarah was barren and then she was passed the age when women can have any children. But when Sarah conceived and bore Isaac then there was only one explanation, that God had done it. So God was teaching Abraham and Sarah to wait on God to do what he alone could do. Life comes from him, and faith trusts God. You need to ask God and keep asking until you know he has heard and answered you. “Come to me and I will give you eternal life.” We come to God; that is all we do. We have to turn in repentance from our sins and we have to entrust ourselves to the one who has invited us, and because of what Christ has done we are accepted and justified by God. All we bring to God is our sin and need. We don’t have to get circumcised first or keep religious rules to get this life. Salvation is a gift of grace. Jesus Christ has done everything needful. Let us be content with Christ. That is a Christian. He is of the line of Isaac, the line of grace; the line of Christ. Abraham had to learn that lesson, that deliverance and redemption came by the line of Isaac alone. Sarah had seen it. Their inheritance was through Isaac alone. God needed to speak to Abraham to confirm that what he wife had said was true (v.12). So let’s see what Abraham did when God spoke to him and told him to listen to whatever Sarah told him (v.12).
1. 1. ABRAHAM PUT AWAY THE SLAVE WOMAN AND HER SON.
We are told, “Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy” (v.14). It is a scene full of pathos. This was Abraham’s son whom he loved, and yet he sent him away. He rose early in the morning with one thought on his mind. Lot rose early but lingered. King Abimelech rose early in the morning to restore Sarah from his harem back to her husband, and Abraham was to rise early in the morning to sacrifice Isaac when God tested him. This was really a dry run for that sacrifice. If Abraham could not even send this child of the slave woman away as an 18 year old with his mother with food and water then how in the world would he obey the command of God to sacrifice the son of the promise?
What a long process this is, of learning to do what God says when it hurts. Abraham has been a slow disciple in Jehovah’s school but now he is showing stronger faith. You can trust God utterly to keep his word. He has told Abraham about Ishmael, “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (v.13). It is not merely, “He will survive,” but Ishmael would prosper, and so Abraham “sent her off with the boy” (v.14) into a prosperous future. There is no prolonged farewell mentioned; no lingering, putting off the inevitable. God has told him what he must do, and that is always the best. Abraham stays with Isaac to watch God fulfil his covenant word through Isaac whom he loved. God told him to separate these two boys and their two ways of salvation one of which ends in hell and the other in heaven, one by the works of the flesh while the other is through the finished work of the Messiah.
The Christian life is always a call to separation from serving any other god. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ You think of Joshua presenting that stark choice to the people of God as they moved into Canaan. “‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’ . . . Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God’” (Josh. 24:15,16&18). They had to make a choice, and if they chose the Lord, as Joshua chose him, then it meant abandoning the gods of the Amorites and the Egyptians, to serve him alone. There is no way they could worship those gods plus Jehovah. They had different values, demanded different responses, encouraged totally different world views. You have to chose.
You remember Ruth choosing to leave Moab and go along with her mother-in-law, her Lord and her people. Ruth’s choice certainly entailed an act of renunciation; it was a declaration of her separation from what she had once believed. Ruth was bidding farewell to an old life-style, to her former values and associations. She was waving good-bye to all the idols of Moab; she was turning her back on every single one of them. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:15).
So you remember Elijah making the choice so clear to the people of God on Mount Carmel? “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him’” (I Kings 18:21). You cannot serve God and Baal. They are totally different gods and you have to choose one or the other.
You find such separation in every kind of crucial choice. When a man takes a wife then he has her alone until death separates them. He says no to every other woman. When we become the diplomat of our country we serve our motherland only and we don’t aid her enemies. When a football club buys a player then from that moment on his commitment is to that club alone. When he has a game with his old club he does all he can to make sure his new club wins. He has broken all his old loyalties.
So it is in the Christian life; Jesus said, If any man follow me let him deny himself – there is self-renunciation – take up his cross and follow me. No longer does self rule, but the Son of God rules over us. Peter said to Jesus, We have left all and followed you. We find the same thing with Paul; he tells us that the things that once he considered to be a tremendous attainment – all his Jewish status and achievements – he now counts as loss. He placed those things for ever behind him – those things he once prized were now like a pile of cow dung which he stepped across without glancing back at the steaming heap. For to me to live is Christ, he said. Think how Isaac Watts takes that up when he writes, “My richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.”
That attitude is absolutely indispensable at the moment of our faith in the Lord, and then in the life of faith. There is a constant element of renunciat
ion; that is the first general principle of true conversion. Whenever there is trust in the living God then at the same time there is a refusal to be taken up by anything that would draw us from God. The old gods? Sport . . . money making . . . drinking?
“The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee.”
Abraham was aware that he’s made too much of an idol of Ishmael. Is there some great prize that is too precious for us to leave, about which we are saying we are not prepared to let it go, even to answer the call of God? It is becoming increasingly common for friendships to end when a girl tells her circle that she has become a Christian. Some parents also get angry with their children when they start attending church. Some careers are terminated the moment people become true Christians; promotion can go when we will no longer cheat even a little, or lie a little to please the boss. I am asking whether perhaps, at a much smaller scale, whether there is a price we are not prepared to pay for the salvation of our soul? Is there something to which we are so unequivocally and totally attached that we will never let it go? But Abraham was prepared to part from Ishmael.
Let me put it in another way. Let me address those who have made a profession of faith but have moved into a situation where that commitment seems to be qualified, where they have set conditions before God, where they are saying that they are now in a position of some influence and they cannot be open about their faith as once they were. Perhaps they are in complex friendship, or there may be family connections in their business, or they are conscious that the eyes of the media or the eyes of politicians are upon them, whatever the reason is they’re saying that things have changed and now they can’t obey this call to discipleship. I am asking whether you have some burden that is preventing you running for God, something that competes with Jesus Christ for your affection?
There is a great word of the Lord Christ, that if your eye makes you stumble then pluck it out. I must say to myself – indeed I must say everything to myself before I preach it to you – but having searched my own life I must then say to you that it is perfectly lawful and very desirable to have both your eyes, and to go through life with them both is ideal, but if an eye makes you fall and fall again and again, and if that eye betrays you into sin, if that eye becomes a hindrance and a cumbrance to Christian service are you prepared to pluck it out?
What we are seeing in this great sacrifice of Abraham the impossibility he saw of keeping in a relationship with all that Ishmael stood for and all that Isaac stood for. He found that he could not have the values and philosophy of Hagar and Ishmael while also doing the Lord’s will. He had to make a choice, renouncing the one and cleaving to the other. I am not saying that in these particulars we can exactly follow Abraham but I am saying that in terms of this great principle we must ourselves turn our backs on every relationship and association that pulls us back into compromise and our works and away from casting ourselves on the works of Jesus Christ alone. We must promptly get rid of the slave woman and her son from our household, in whatever form that make be taking, in order to serve unashamedly, the Lord alone.
1. 2. GOD TOOK CARE OF THE WOMAN AND HER SON.
Now you might presume from reading all this that the God of the covenant was very righteous and strict, and that congregations which had been influenced by him were overwhelmingly straight-laced, moral groups of people and that the message of Christianity was, “Behold, how righteous God is!” Now there is truth and also some good news in that statement. Imagine what the condition of the cosmos would be if it were in the hands of a God of malice and capriciousness and unpredictability – like the baals. The prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel had no idea why their god would not hear them, or even if he bothered to listen. Far better for us to be assure that God is straight and righteous altogether, the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all.
However, that is only one truth about the living God. He is much more than that. He is multi-faceted in his being, infinite and measureless in every attribute, and the glory of our God is the glory of his grace. He is the God who sent his own Son into the world, the one who said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Think of him on his knees washing the feet of his disciples – that is what God is like, a young man doing a menial chore which everyone else is pretending not to see. Think of him praying for his persecutors as they nail him to the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is what God is like, patient, slow to get angry, swift to forgive and God who takes our blame and suffers what we deserve that we sinners might be forgiven.
God loves his enemies. Think what Jesus said of him in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Matt. 5:43-46). So here a curtain is drawn aside and we see the smiling face of God looking lovingly at the slave-woman and at Ishmael.
i] God heard them. So here we read of Hagar and 18 year-old teenage son, Ishmael, losing their way in the wilderness as they walked south to Egypt; “When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bow-shot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying” (vv.15-17). The boy is not naturally appealing, as we have described him and as we meet him in this chapter persecuting his little half-brother. Instead of being a support to his mother he quickly gives in and lies down to die, crying piteously. But God hears him. The same God who heard Jesus cry if it were possible to have another cup. The Lord full of tenderness, of whom the writer to the Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebs. 4:15&16). This is the God who says, “I know how lonely she is, how fearful about the future, so troubled about her daughter, feeling she cannot cope, afraid of dying . . .” and helps us receive mercy and gives us grace in our time of need. I was with a man in Swansea last week who has an incurable illness and only months to live, who told me how he weeps in his bed at night with the pain he is going through. God heard the boy crying. He hears the old man in Swansea crying; he hears me crying. We do not weep into a void.
Do you see how this is emphasized in this wonderful 17th verse, how God sends an angel to his mother and tells her not to be afraid, “God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.” Hagar must have thought that the lowest time of her life had been 17 or 18 years ealier, again in the desert, when she had run away from Abraham’s household with her son. Then the Angel of the Lord had met her and comforted her and restored her to Abraham’s household. Hagar had seen the one she called, “the One who sees me” (Gen. 16:13). The unseen Lord from heaven had
seen her gloating over her son in Sarah’s household, giving pitying looks at poor Sarah, unable to have children. You would think that such cruelty would result in her being chastened and ignored by the God of Sarah, but there in the desert he met her, and comforted her and restored her to Sarah’s household telling her to behave herself in the future and submit to her mistress.
If only she had listened! If only she had mortified her pride in having had Ishmael by the most famous man in the world, Abraham. If only she had inculcated respect and reverence in Ishmael, what a different man he would have been, but she so quickly deserted the one who called her by his grace in the wilderness and she turned to a different gospel of personal ambition for her son, which is really no gospel at all. What folly! She turned away from the One who was her salvation and so ended back in the desert facing death.
Yet what grace that the angel who had come to her and helped her in the wilderness 18 years earlier came again to her in the same area and helped her again.
“His love in times past forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink” (William Cowper)
God would not stop hearing the boy whose name is “God hears.” The discipline executed upon this rebellious mother and son flowed from God’s love for them, and now he restores them to himself, with his great loving heart. Look how concerned he is for the dynamics of their relationship. “The boy needs you now,” he says, “don’t desert him.” “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (v.18). This is the God we serve, a God who pays attention to details, who wants a mother to hold her son’s hand and bond with him in his exhaustion and self-pity, when he has given up on life. God repeats to Hagar the same promise that he made to Abraham (v.13). Rather than the boy dying he will live, be fruitful and multiply. So, just as in the more famous story of Isaac’s sacrifice, as Isaac is about to die, an angel of the Lord calls from heaven and tells Abraham to stop, so here, as Ishmael has given up and is lying down to die, God acts again. Grace comes to us in time of need. An angel of the Lord calls from heaven at that time, and saves him. This story, I am saying, is preparing us for the greater story of Isaac’s sacrifice in the next chapter, for this is not Ishmael’s story, and of course, Isaac’s sacrifice prepares us for the Christ who is full of grace and truth.
ii] God provided for them. Then something else happened. God came matching his marvelous words but with wonderful deeds; “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.” (v.19). Only by the living God opening their eyes can they see the well of water from which to drink – though it’s there all the time. Do you see that? Thousands of people are urged to come here and drink of the Christ who meets with those who gather in his name, and live. As Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:13&14), and yet they don’t see it. So they turn to alcohol – see the quiver of excitement they have as students back at the university able to meet together and drink beer. What excitement! What maturity! What insight into life and death! “Let’s down another pint” and then get thirsty again and drink again and never heed the voice of the one who gives the living water that becomes a spring welling up in our souls to eternal life. May God do for thousands of students, men and women, and thousands of others in the town what he did for Hagar in her own wilderness; “he opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” May he do it for my friend and for your friend, and then they can serve others as Hagar did. God can do this for one person, but he can do it for a whole community as in times of awakenings, like the Israelites in the desert, “they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4).
iii] God accompanied them. “God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt” (vv.20&21). Candlish, the Scottish commentator, entertained the hope that though Ishmael was cast out of Abraham’s house and out of Abraham’s fellowship that he and many of his followers were converted to the true church of Abraham. He was not utterly excluded from the kingdom of God. Ishmael is there burying his father Abraham at his death (Gen. 25:9) and when Ishmael came to die at the age of 137 he was “gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:17) not because he shared the physical lineage of his father but he had faith in Christ the Seed, and his people were children of God Most High who freely gives of his grace, even to single parents without a roof over their heads very much alone in the wilderness of this world. Their comfort is that God loves them.
The great lesson that Ishmael and his mother had to learn was one millions of people born into influential Christian families have also had to learn, that the kingdom of God is not owed to them. It is not theirs by right of parental commitment and good works. It is all of grace if one of our children becomes a Christian. It will be in spite of how inconsistent and unworthy we have been. There is not one person who presumes to lay claim to eternal life as some right. It will be a wonder of grace if the sweetest child here becomes a Christian and is delivered from hell. We have no rights to heaven. Our own sin and the sin of our father Adam have forfeited them all, and our own good deeds won’t open glory to us. Christ only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. God is making it clear when he exits Ishmael from Abraham’s household and sends him out to a wilderness that he does not owe anybody anything. So let’s be afraid of a boasting spirit. How wonderful that God should show his grace to Ishmael and be with him as he grew up. “May this same merciful Saviour be with me, and with my daughter, and with my son, and never leave them in the deserts of this world, and enable them to drink the water Christ freely offers them.”
4th October 2009 GEOFF THOMAS