By Elysia McColley
In this series about Ishmael, we have looked at how we need to critically re-evaluate how we think about Abraham’s oldest son. We have already seen how he was blessed and how he and his mother became the first two people to see the pre-incarnate Christ. Today, let’s look at one of the more difficult-to-understand aspects of Ishmael’s blessing.
The Bible records some births as either divinely ordained or divinely proclaimed. The most obvious is the birth of Jesus – His mother was a virgin when an angel appeared to her and proclaimed that she would give birth to the Son of God. There are other noteworthy births, such as that of Samuel, whose mother was barren and prayed at the temple every day that God would give her a son. Samson’s mother was also barren; the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said that she would give birth to a son. The angel later appeared to both her and her husband, and her husband asked for His name. The angel responded, “Why do you ask My Name? It is wonderful.” (Judges 13:18)
Granted, Samson failed quite miserably in many ways, but his life was characterized by supernatural provision. People whose births were divinely proclaimed find that blessing and favor follow them, despite their failures. Ishmael was one of those whose birth was announced by the angel of the Lord and whose life, though difficult, was full of supernatural provision and blessing.
When Hagar became pregnant, her mistress, Sarah, became jealous, probably because she did not have a child. She began to mistreat Hagar so badly that, even though she was carrying a child, she ran away to escape. Then, in Genesis 16:11-12, Ishmael’s birth was divinely proclaimed to her.
The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live to the east of all his brothers.”
A child’s birth being divinely announced is certainly a sign of immense blessing, but there are some puzzling phrases in this passage. Ishmael was to be a wild donkey of a man, and his hand would be against everyone. Those attributes sound like curses, not blessings!
Until we consider that Hagar was a slave. Though she was Abraham’s concubine, Hagar was Sarah’s slave; because her son was conceived in slavery, he would probably be a slave, too. In saying that Ishmael would be a wild donkey of a man, what the angel of the Lord was saying was that Ishmael would not be a slave. He would be free.
Having everyone’s hand against you sounds like an immense, almost unbearable level of animosity, at least in modern English parlance. But let’s forget the modern West for a minute. Hold your hand up and imagine someone pressing his or her hand into yours. Does that gesture suggest animosity, or rather does it suggest friendship? What we find in later chapters of Genesis, which speak of Ishmael’s relationship with his brother Isaac, is that the two were friends.
So let’s take a look at the blessing of Ishmael. His birth was divinely proclaimed. Blessing or curse? Blessing. His name was divinely proclaimed. Blessing or curse? Blessing. His name means, “the Lord hears.” Blessing or curse? Blessing. The angel of the Lord promised that he would be free. Blessing or curse? Blessing. He would be friends with his brothers. Blessing or curse? Blessing.
Taking a second look at the blessing of Ishmael and the divine proclamation of his birth helps us to recalibrate our views about this Old Testament figure. Nobody is cursed by God because of the circumstances surrounding his or her birth. And Ishmael, far from being cursed, was immensely blessed.
For the rest of this series, we’ll continue looking at how Ishmael fits into the stories of Abraham and Jesus and how he was part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.