By Elysia McColley
There are a lot of controversial figures in the Bible – Cain, who killed his brother but received a mark of protection from God; Noah, whose family was saved from the flood but then cursed his sons for trying to cover him up when he was drunk and naked; Judah, who consorted with someone that he believed was a prostitute yet became the forerunner of the Messiah. The list goes on, ad infinitum. I want to spend the next few weeks looking at who I believe is the most controversial character in the entire Bible.
The Bible can be read as a metanarrative – that is, a grand, overarching story – of the family of Abraham. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, which tell about creation, the fall, the flood, and the Tower of Babel, can be read as a prologue to Genesis 12, which tells the story of when God called Abram to leave his people and go to the land promised to him. That metanarrative continues today, with the promised descendent of Abraham, Jesus, being the head of the church. Through Him all nations are blessed, as God promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3.
Somewhere in the story of Abraham, a character appears that many Christians prefer to ignore. At best, he seems to be an unwanted figure in an otherwise perfect story; at worst, he is cursed by God, as are his descendants. That character is Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son.
The story goes like this. When God called Abram, He promised that Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the shore and the stars in the sky. The only problem was that Abram and his wife, Sarai, were well advanced in years (Sarai was past menopause) and had no children. Now known as Abraham, he decided to take matters into his own hands and take the maidservant of his wife (who was now known as Sarah) to be his concubine. Hagar, the concubine, conceived a son, whom she named Ishmael. The name Ishmael means, “the Lord hears.”
When Ishmael was a teenager, Sarah miraculously became pregnant with Isaac, who was the child promised by God when He first called Abram. She forced Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out; they were sent out into the desert and left to die. When Hagar was sure that she and her son would both die of thirst in the wilderness, the angel of the Lord appeared to her and pointed her to a well. She and Ishmael drank from the well and lived.
Ishmael went on to become the father of 12 desert tribes and is regarded by many Muslims as the ancestor of the Arab people. Muslims claim to be the spiritual descendants of Abraham, often through his oldest son. The story of Abraham would certainly be easier to understand without Ishmael, but thousands of years ago, the author of Genesis thought that including him in the metanarrative was necessary. I want to spend some time unpacking his story and why we should care about Ishmael, not only about Isaac.
Many Christians assume that Ishmael was cursed because he was not the promised child; Isaac was. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In Genesis 17:18-20, God clearly said that Ishmael was blessed and gave him a unique blessing, to become the father of the 12 desert tribes.
Genesis 21:17-18, in speaking of when Hagar and Ishmael were sent out into the desert, says, “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of the Lord 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.'” Where the Old Testament speaks of the angel of the Lord, the reference usually refers to the pre-incarnate Christ. This appearance of Jesus was actually the second that is recorded in Genesis; the first was to Hagar when she found out that she was pregnant with Ishmael.
Clearly, Ishmael was blessed. He was the one who was heard by God. He and his mother were the first to see the pre-incarnate Christ. He became the father of 12 nations. His story is worth seeing with new eyes and understanding from a fresh perspective. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a new perspective on his story by looking at the blessing given to him, significant Ishmaelites in the Bible, and more ways that his story connects to the story of Jesus.