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The Family of Abraham

Abraham, the Friend of God
The Friend of God Falters
The Tragedy of Hagar
Ishmael: God Hears
Hostility toward the Brethren

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For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him. (Gen. 18:19).

No one can underestimate the importance of Abraham to the three great monotheistic faiths of the world and even to the world itself. Jesus Christ was called the "Son of David," the "Son of Abraham" (Mt. 1:1). Jesus Himself said, ". . . Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56). Muhammad is quoted in the Quran as saying, "Without doubt, among men, the nearest of kin to Abraham, are those who follow him, as are also this Apostle [Muhammad] and those who believe [Muslims]: and God is the Protector of those who have faith [Muslims]" (Q. 3:68). Who is this man Abraham? What is his significance to God? To man? Why does everyone want to belong to the family of Abraham? In this chapter, we shall attempt to answer these questions.

Abraham's Call

God singled this man out to be the means of blessing to all people. Let us look closely at the call of this first missionary.

. . . Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:1-3).

This call has profound implications for the whole human race. Everyone will either be blessed or cursed depending on how they relate to Abraham. What is so significant about him? Abraham said "yes" to God; "yes" to leave all and follow God; "yes" to God's plan to bless all peoples on earth through him; and "yes" to the idea of suffering "shame for that name."

God found a man with whom He could begin His plan to recover (bless) lost humankind; a man who would believe in Him, a man who would faithfully teach His children about the one true God, a man who would walk by faith and not according to the flesh, and, ultimately, a man through whom the Messiah of all people would come, Jesus of Nazareth.

Abraham, the Friend of God

God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, but Abraham remained childless. He talked to God about it, and God said, ". . . a son coming from your own body will be your heir . . ." Then God took him outside and spoke again, ". . . Look up at the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count them . . . So shall your offspring be" (Gen. 15:4,5).

Then God instructed Abraham to prepare animals and birds for a special sacrifice. God manifested Himself between the split pieces of the animals and birds, thus sealing His covenant of friendship with Abraham (See Gen. 15:1-19). From this unusual ceremony, Abraham was given the name, "Friend of God." He is mentioned in Scripture as such and he is also known in Islam as Khalil Ullah, ("The Friend of God"). But unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims claim their identity with Abraham through Hagar and Ishmael rather than through Sarah and Isaac. And this is the root of the alienation that exists between Christians and Muslims, both of whom claim to be the heirs of Abraham.

God's Promise to Abraham

Let us look again at the actual words of God's promise to Abraham: ". . . a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if indeed you can count them." Then He said to him, "So shall your offspring be" (Gen. 15:4,5). This gives rise to the question, "Is this promise of descendants to be taken racially or spiritually?" The answer is both. God did give Abraham innumerable descendants and truly made him the "Father of Many Nations." But, as it turns out, not everyone who can claim racial descent from Abraham is really an heir of Abraham in the spiritual sense. Jesus acknowledged that the Jews of His day were racially descendants of Abraham, yet not really his children. ". . . If you were Abraham's children . . . then you would do the things Abraham did . . . You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. . ." (Jn. 8:37-44). The touchstone is genuine faith in the one true God as represented by His Son Jesus Christ. Racial descent does not qualify anyone for spiritual identification with the family of Abraham.

Who is a True Heir of Abraham?

In due time, Jesus was born, as the long promised "seed" of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). How we relate to Jesus becomes the determining factor in whether or not we truly belong to God. The Jews of Jesus' day had trouble with this claim. They said to Jesus, ". . . We are Abraham's descendants . . . " (Jn. 8:33). Jesus replied to them, "I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do what you have heard from your father" (Jn. 8:37,38).

In response, they said to Jesus, "Abraham is our father" (John 8:39). Jesus took the discussion further and said,

If you were Abraham's children, then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does (Jn. 8:39-41).

In response, the Jews insisted, "We are not illegitimate children . . . The only Father we have is God Himself" (Jn. 8:41). Jesus minced no words in His reply: "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. . . " (Jn. 8:44). As the controversy developed, the Jews got to the point where they asked, "Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?" (Jn. 8:53). Jesus, of course, answered these questions with a stunning claim: "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day; he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56). And, "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" (Jn. 8:58).

The True Child of Abraham Believes in Jesus

The Apostle Paul further clarified this issue in his letter to the Galatians: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,' meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ" (Gal. 3:16). All the promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Jesus. It is through Abraham's Greater Son, Jesus, that the blessing spoken of in Genesis is going to come to the peoples of the world. Paul summarizes this so decisively: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ . . . If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:26, 27, 29).

Heirs of the World

The mentioning of the word "heirs" leads us on, then, to a much wider discussion that has to do with eternity. Above, we dealt with the question of who is to be an heir of Abraham. Now we take up the question of how one receives salvation. The Jews, and we might add, the Muslims, mistakenly think they will be saved by keeping the law, whereas, the Bible unequivocally points out that salvation is only by faith in Christ. In Abraham's case, the Scripture says, "Abram believed the Lord; and He credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Paul shows clearly that faith in Christ is the key to obtaining this righteousness:

The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness - for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Rom. 4:23-25).

The implications of this "righteousness by faith" are far reaching. "It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Rom. 4:13). And the object of our "saving faith" is Jesus Christ. It is believers in Christ, who are the true children of Abraham, who will receive forgiveness of their sins, and inherit the world.

Abraham and the Endtimes

The implications of the above teaching is that how you relate to Jesus Christ determines whether or not you are a true child of Abraham and thus, an heir of the promise. Jesus, in speaking of endtimes, spells out this sharp distinction between those who will sit with Abraham and those who will not.

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 8:11,12).

From the above it can be clearly seen that it is not going to be those who claim lineage from Abraham racially who will be invited to sit with Abraham on the Great Day following the judgment of the world. This cuts at both the Jews who would claim to be physical heirs through Isaac, as well as Muslims, who would claim the same through Ishmael.

Paul, in his letter to the believers in Rome, summed it all up in these words:

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring - not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations" (Rom. 4:16,17).

In the light of such Scriptures, Abraham emerges as the first man of faith, the model for us all. This, of course, is not to take anything away from Abraham's "seed," Jesus Christ, without whom our salvation and inheritance would never have come.

As much as we would like to see Judaism, Christianity and Islam as branches of one big happy "family of Abraham," it cannot be. The stumbling block is Jesus Christ, the "seed of Abraham." When the Jews rejected Him, they put themselves outside the family of Abraham. The Muslims, on the other hand, have been more generous in the things they have said about Jesus, but the good effect of all of that has been nullified by the adamant stance Islam has taken against the very heart of the Gospel message. These points of the Muslim denial of the deity of Christ, incarnation, atonement, the crucifixion and the question of God as Father, Son and Spirit will be taken up in a later section of this book.

The issue between Islam and Christianity has to do with the way Muslims have departed from the Scriptures and denigrated Christ. In fact, they have gone far beyond doctrinal differences; they have set up a rival religion that seeks to supplant Christianity. Muhammad sought to give legitimacy to Islam by identifying with Abraham and his other son, Ishmael. He attempted to replace the Law of Moses with his own laws, and finally, consciously or unconsciously, to replace Jesus Christ as God's provision for our salvation, with a false law that leads only to bondage and eternal death.

Let us look into the circumstances that laid the groundwork for this development. Abraham, like the rest of us, was a flawed human being, subject to error and bad judgment. If in his faith, he typified the model believer; in his flesh, he forgot God's ways. This is going to be spelled out in the next chapter.

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So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived (Gen. 16:3,4).

On a certain occasion I had to preach in a large wealthy church in California. While seated in a row of ministers, the one next to me, about five minutes before I was to stand up and speak, asked, "Did you know that two-thirds of the people in this congregation are single and the majority of them are divorced?"

The shock of this information struck like a thunderbolt and I thought to myself, "Good grief, what are all these terrible mixed up people doing here in this attractive ‘house of God?'" That was not the right reaction, of course. I turned to the Lord and asked, "How do you see this?" He said, "You should have praised me; I finally got them here where they belong." Then I prayed, "Lord, please give me an opening sentence for this unusual congregation."

This is what He gave: "How many of you think God cares for every person in a domestic tragedy when the man of the house sleeps with the maid?" Instantly, every one's attention was riveted on this unusual question. Then I said, "This is the story of your father, (long pause) Abraham."

Seven Steps to Tragedy

The audience followed with rapt attention as we walked through the chain reaction of faltering faith in the lives of Sarai, Abram and Hagar. Let us look at these seven steps to tragedy in Genesis 16:1-6:

One. Sarai loses all hope of God's promise being fulfilled in her life. God has spoken to her husband saying, "A son will come from your own body."

Sarai must have thought, "God only spoke to my husband; He didn't speak to me. My time is gone; I am beyond the age of childbearing. What should I do?" She counsels her husband to sleep with her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. "I will build a family through her."

Two. No questions asked. No consultation with the Lord. Just do what the neighbors do. "He slept with Hagar, and she conceived."
Three. "When she [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress [Sarai]." The rivalry begins.
Four. Sarai blames Abram for this development: "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering . . . May the Lord judge between you and me."
Five. Abram shamelessly absolves himself from all responsibility, washing his hands of the whole affair. "Your servant is in your hands . . . Do with her whatever you think best."
Six. "Then Sarai mistreated Hagar." Anger, frustration, violence, either verbal, physical, or both, rule the day.
Seven.    She [Hagar] fled from her [Sarai]. Abram was chosen to be the instrument of blessing to all mankind. Hagar fled from her only source of blessing.
What a list of missteps:
  Take matters in your own hands. (Sarai)
  Do not bother to consult the Lord. (Abram)
  Be proud. Become a rival. (Hagar)
  Blame someone else for your mistake. (Sarai)
  Refuse to accept responsibility for your child. (Abram)
  Give way to anger. Be abusive. (Sarai)
  Do not repent. Run away. (Hagar)

Some people think the episode should have ended there. Abram made a mistake. The pregnant slave girl ran away. That should have been the end of the story.

An Angel Sent to Hagar

Wrong. God does not work that way. He was watching the whole scene. He loved Abram. He loved Sarai. He loved Hagar, too. There are statements in Scripture that tell us what God is like: ". . . God is love . . ." (1 Jn. 4:16), and ". . . God our Savior . . . wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:3,4), and ". . . He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pe. 3:9).

Abram was God's friend and God was his friend. God would handle this matter in an honorable way. He sent an angel to minister to Hagar. How odd. Scripture says, "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (He. 1:14). Would God send an angel to Hagar? Yes! Great promises were made to Hagar. Her descendants would be too numerous to count (Genesis 16:10). Today, one-fifth of the human race identifies with Hagar.

God Heard of Hagar's Misery

God named her unborn son. In Semitic cultures names have great significance. His name was to be "God Hears." From the Hebrew language that is transliterated as "Ishmael." The Lord chose this name because He had heard of her misery. What a comment on the compassion of God.

God asked her to go back and to submit to Sarai. But before she did, she gave a name to the place where her great encounter with the Lord occurred. She called it "The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me." She obeyed the Lord and went back and submitted to Sarai. Because this book has to do with Muslims, a word which means "one who has submitted," it is interesting to note that the passage could be recast as "Go back and become a ‘submitter' or a ‘Muslim' to Sarai." God acted so humanely, so compassionately, so lovingly. He gave them all a second chance to live together in harmony. The years rolled by. Abram trained Ishmael in the ways of God. He loved him. Ishmael was his firstborn son and, as far as he knew, the one through whom God's promises would be fulfilled.


When Abram was ninety-nine years old and Sarai was eighty-nine, God appeared to them. He reconfirmed His covenant with Abram. He gave circumcision as the sign of this covenant. Abram and Ishmael were circumcised on the same day. Then God changed Abram's name to Abraham; from "Exalted Father" to "Father of Many."

Then came the surprise. Sarai was given a new name too. She was to be called "Princess" (Sarah). But what was far more important was that she, also, was going to bear a son. Because it seemed so physically improbable, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at this impossible development. God gave the name "Laughter" (Isaac) to this coming miracle baby. A year later "Laughter" was born.

Now Ishmael had a rival. He stood to lose everything because the real wife, the first wife, was going to have a son. Things simmered along until the day of Isaac's weaning ceremony. It was Ishmael's turn to make a mistake. He made fun of his little half-brother. That was too much for Sarah. She made an irrevocable decision: ". . . Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" (Gen.21:10).

What did this mean? Did it mean that Ishmael was to be denied the blessing of salvation? Or was Sarah thinking only about wealth, the family fortune? We think it was the family wealth. For there are too many "sons of Ishmael" who have become Christians for it to mean they would be denied salvation. Naturally, Abraham was upset. He loved his son Ishmael. In his time of distress, God spoke to him.

. . . Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring (Gen. 21:12,13).

In the beginning of the relationship, Abraham listened to his wife, and it turned out to be bad counsel. Now God had asked him to listen to his wife and expel Hagar and Ishmael from the home. If it had not been God who had spoken, Abraham might well have turned a deaf ear, but it was the Lord. The Lord was concerned with the principle of faith over decisions of the flesh. God's plan works only through faith. After all, that is why Abraham was called "The Friend of God." He believed God.

Hagar's Expulsion

The next morning Abraham released Hagar and her son Ishmael from his service. He gave them provisions and sent them on their way. What a shattering blow to everyone involved. Hagar's pregnancy was all Sarah's idea. Abraham complied. Ishmael was named by God Himself. Ishmael was the first child circumcised in Abraham's family. Hagar was even called Abraham's wife (Gen. 16:3). And now a heart-wrenching expulsion.

Worse was to come. Hagar became disoriented and got lost in the desert of Beersheba. The provisions were all used up. Death stared Hagar and Ishmael in the face. Hagar made arrangements for both of them to die separately. Ishmael began to cry. Hagar began to sob. Again, the problem of Abraham and Sarah's mistake looked like it was going to be solved with the tragic deaths of the two victims. But again God had other ideas. God heard a teenage boy, whom He himself had named "God Hears," crying. He was not going to let this tragic mother and son die. He had made promises to Hagar and her son. He intended to keep His word. God opened Hagar's eyes and she saw a well of water. By God's personal intervention again, their lives were spared. This God-blessed and resourceful single parent family survived by God's grace. Scripture even says that "God was with the boy as he grew up. . ." (Gen. 21:20).

Our concern in this study is with the question of the healing of broken relationships. In a sense, Hagar and Ishmael, even though they both had committed grave errors, were victimized by Sarah's poor counsel and Abraham's irresponsible behavior. How does the question of salvation bear on this tragic separation? Does it mean that blessing is only to reside in Isaac's side of the family tree, and that nothing but curses and an eternity in hell await all the descendants of Ishmael? Hardly! Abraham was singled out not only to receive blessings from God, but he was chosen to be the instrument of blessing to all others, even Hagar.

God's Great Love for Hagar

There are many indications in this story to show God's great love for Hagar and Ishmael. Twice He sent angels to minister to them and save their lives. He gave Ishmael a beautiful name and was with him as he grew up. There is no question as to God's desire to bless them. But there is another consideration that figures into the question of the healing of this broken family, and that concerns the very nature of God's call to Abraham to be a missionary. Let us look at that for a moment.

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:2,3).

Abraham was not chosen to establish an exclusive family line, but rather was chosen as the instrument of blessing to all other families in the earth. Isaac and Ishmael, one a miracle child and the other the result of a very human decision, with neither of them having anything to do with the circumstances attending their births, were not intended to be rivals. Isaac, who received the same call as his father, was chosen to bless others, including Ishmael and his descendants. ". . . God . . . wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:3,4).

Reconciliation: The Question

Reconciliation is not out of the question, it is the question. Christ, Abraham's seed, is the Savior of all. He came to reconcile all things to Himself, including the people who call themselves Muslims (Col. 1:20).

Unfortunately, from Ishmael's line sprung a man, Muhammad (570-632), who had other ideas. He initially founded Islam as a religion for the Arab people. Later he tried to universalize it and impose it on all mankind. In Islam, Jesus is reduced to a mere prophet; and by making himself equal to Jesus and ultimately superior to Him, Muhammad perpetuated the spirit of rivalry, not reconciliation. The roots of this present-day alienation go back to the tragedy of events that led to the breakup of Abraham's family. Islam became the venue for the aggrieved and alienated members of this family to redress the shame of that early expulsion from the tents of Abraham. Even more than that, Islam is committed to the attempt to dominate the world.

In spite of the spread of Islam among such a large segment of the earth's population (approximately one-fifth in the 1990's), it is still characterized by many spiritual inadequacies. Because of its inability to satisfy the deepest needs of the human heart, increasing numbers of Muslims are open to Jesus and the wonderful ways He ministers to human needs. In the end Jesus will win. We know, for example, the accolades that will be given to Christ at the end of this age:

. . . You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slain, and with Your blood You purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Rev. 5:9, 10).

There will be descendants of Ishmael, Muslims, in that great heavenly scene from every tribe, language, people and nation. The broken family of Abraham will be reconciled through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, for fourteen centuries, Islam has defied Christendom's best efforts to effect that reconciliation. It is, undoubtedly, the thorniest challenge facing Christian missions and the Church today.

As we respond to this challenge, let us take a closer look at the primary figures in this early domestic tragedy in the tents of Abraham. What do we need to know about God's relationship to both Hagar and Ishmael? What clues can we find in the scriptural account that could influence us in our approach to Muslims? God our Father truly does care for every party in this great tragedy of the broken family of Abraham. Let us turn first to God's relationship to Hagar.

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. . . Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going? "I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered (Gen. 16:8).

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 (Gen. 21:17,18).

One of the most remarkable relationships in all the Scriptures is that between God and Hagar. Would God be interested in an Egyptian slave girl? If so, what does this say about Him? What does it say to us as we look at the people today who claim either physical descent from her or a spiritual affinity with her, the Muslims?

God's Concern for Hagar

What is of immense interest to us is the concern God showed for this unfortunate woman. Twice He intervened to save her: the first time, He sent her back to submit to Sarai, her mistress, and the second time, He spared her and her son Ishmael's lives when they were perishing in the desert. Our premise is that if God was so concerned to save the life of this Egyptian slave girl and her son, we should be just as concerned today to reach those who claim to be her children. I believe the explanation for this concern can be found in the opening chapter of Genesis. It is there that we read that not only man, but also woman was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Hagar, in spite of her lowly estate as an Egyptian slave, and also marred by the propensity to sin, as are we all, still bore that noble image of her Creator God. He valued her. She was important to Him. If Abraham was chosen to be the agent of blessing to the rest of humankind, Hagar was representative of those who were to be the object of that blessing.

God Not Willing That Any Should Perish

It is apparent from Scripture that Abraham and Sarah were willing that Hagar perish. It was Peter who taught us that God was, ". . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pe. 3:9). Abraham and Sarah had a lot to learn about God's love from this episode in their own lives. God wanted this first missionary couple to learn the value He places on human life. He would not allow them to treat life so cheaply. Later, Jesus came to express God's concern in these unforgettable words, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Lk. 12:6,7). Then in real life He exhibited this concern for the "woman at the well" in Samaria (Jn. 4:1-42). Jesus found a "Hagar" in his own day with whom He could demonstrate God's same loving concern.

Hagar and the Woman at the Well

The similarities in the story of Hagar and the "woman at the well" in Samaria are so striking as to deserve comment. Both women were outcasts of society, the one an expelled slave girl, the other a woman who moved from man to man, finally living with one with whom she was not married. Both encounters took place at wells. To Hagar, the Lord provided life-sustaining water; to the other, Jesus offered "living water." Hagar said, "I have now seen the One who sees me" (Gen. 16:13). The Samaritan woman said: "He told me everything I ever did" (Jn. 4:39). God opened Hagar's eyes, and she saw a well of water that gave life to her and her dying son Ishmael. Jesus opened the eyes of the woman at the well to reveal Himself to her as the Messiah. From the beginning of redemptive history, in anticipation of Jesus' teaching on the Father's love, God demonstrated to Abraham and Sarah His great love for the unfortunate, in this case, Hagar and Ishmael.

God's Love for Hagar's Daughters

Today this lesson needs to be learned for all Muslim women, and that constitutes about one out of every five women of the world. We know that God surely kept His promise to Hagar when He said, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count" (Gen. 16:10). As was pointed out earlier, not all Muslim women can claim physical descent from Hagar, but they claim a spiritual affinity with her.

Hagar's Story Preserved in Pilgrimage

Hagar is never mentioned by name in the Quran. But the Hadith, that is, the Traditions, correctly name her as the mother of Ishmael. In the pilgrim rites at Mecca, all Muslims re-enact Hagar's desperate search for water as they run between the hills of Safa and Marwa. The search is climaxed as they reach the well of Zamzam where they drink in memory of God's mercy to Hagar.

For us who know Jesus as the Fountain of Living Water, the Muslim pilgrim scene is painfully poignant on one hand, and yet pregnant with hope on the other. The pain is in watching the pilgrims re-enact this search for physical water, knowing all the while that God longs to give them spiritual water. Jesus is the true end of that search, and Islam denies Muslims that knowledge. The hope is that God will, in His mercy, satisfy the deepest thirst of the human soul, as we bring them to Jesus to drink the "living water."

In bringing this chapter to a close, I would like to share from a rare and moving selection of Dutch poetry found in Isaac da Costa's (died 1860) brilliant poem, "Hagar." This poem had never been translated into English until the summer of 1990 when it was done by Marten Vogelaar of Leiden at the author's request. With the translator's consent, the author has recast the selection into a more poetic English form. This selection captures the feelings of pathos which I think we would do well to emulate as we think about Hagar's daughters today.


Before the poet's eyes, a scene recalled,
A precarious hour - Of barren wilderness
With everything in perfect stillness,
Untouched by wind or storm.

A woman utterly alone, wracked with grief
And sorrow, and the pain of shattered pride,
Reflects the shaming humiliation from inner depths,
As she stumbles on with unsteady steps.

A flattened waterskin, long since empty,
Flaps loosely on her swelling breasts.
Pangs of hunger doubled by the new life within
Aches for the bread too soon spent.

A pathetic contrast to the scene before,
When in thoughtless pride, You Sarah scorned.
O haughty one! Where will you go?
You who reaped this curse of woe?

Cast out in fitting chastisement
From the blessing of Abraham's tent.
Do not go back to the land of Ham,
Refuge find in Mamre's stand.

Humble yourself before God at Sarah's feet,
There your supply will be replete
In godly faithfulness of water and bread,
And for your soul, support and comfort spread.

In willingness serve and your seed will prosper,
For in Abraham's tent there's more than one promise.
What springs forth from Abraham's loin
Portends a mighty chieftain yet to be born.

O Mother of Ishmael, I see you once more,
Wandering the frightening desert, forlorn,
Unconsoled, despairing, in agony's grip,
Tossed in the tempest of mental torment.

You, too, gave glory to the God of heaven.
The veil was rent. He came; He spoke to you:
"At Sarah's feet you will repent
And confess your foolish pride ill-spent."

It is only in the folds of Abraham's tent
You obtain the blessing of God's covenant.
Yes. The moment you cry, your spirit is free:
"O God of my life! Have compassion on me."


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The angel of the Lord also said to her: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery" (Gen. 16:11).

Ishmael. Translated from the Hebrew, it reads "God hears." This is the name given by God Himself to the unborn son of Hagar, the abused, pregnant runaway maidservant of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. The child she was carrying was Abraham's. In this unfolding domestic tragedy, how God relates to each person is of supreme importance; for here, in His dealings with Abraham and his family, we find early intimations of God's universal love, mercy and compassion. In the preceding chapter, we learned of God's love for Hagar. In this one, we are going to look at the amazing way in which God showed His love to Ishmael.

Ishmael, Part of the Covenant Family

Ishmael was born to Hagar, just as God had promised. He grew up at his father's side as part of the covenant missionary family worshiping the one true God. When Ishmael was thirteen years old, God appeared to his father and gave to them the covenant of male circumcision. As members of one family, Ishmael and his father Abraham were circumcised on the same day. What is so striking today is that even though circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran, Muslims, following this early family pattern, circumcise all their male children.

"I Will Surely Bless Him"

When God appeared to Abraham on this occasion, Ishmael was one of the subjects of their conversation. God had said that Sarai, even in her old age, was going to have a son. Abraham's immediate response was, ". . . If only Ishmael might live under your blessing" (Gen. 17:18)! Having long ago been willing for Hagar and her unborn son to be let go, it is now wonderful to see that Abraham has developed a truly fatherly heart and asks God to bless Ishmael. What is even more revealing of God's love is to hear His answer. It is a resounding "yes." After discussing the future role of Isaac in His covenant plan for blessing the human race, God takes up the matter of Ishmael again: "And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation" (Gen. 17:20).

Of supreme importance here is God's affirmative answer to Abraham's prayer and these words, "I will surely bless him." The reason this statement is so noteworthy is that the majority of Christians believe that God has cursed Ishmael, or at least bypassed him and that he is of no consequence. God is not like that, especially with Abraham's own son. He is to be blessed. Furthermore, he is going to become the father of twelve rulers, all part of a great nation. Insofar as this prophecy goes, we can sum it up by saying Ishmael will be blessed and multiplied into an ethnic family with twelve subdivisions. The mysterious words that God will establish His covenant with Isaac still prevail, but not to the exclusion of Ishmael from God's blessing. Isaac, like his father, is to be the agent of blessing, as will be his ultimate descendant, Jesus, in whom and through whom we finally see the nature and magnitude of that blessing. As to the issue of God's prophecy about Ishmael's hostility toward his brothers, that will be taken up in the next chapter.

The Breakup of the Family

Following the announcement of the coming birth of Isaac to Sarah, there seems to be no hint of trouble in the family until the weaning ceremony for Isaac. On this occasion, Ishmael gave in to the same kind of feelings his mother had toward Sarah. He expresses his scorn for his little brother. This leads to an explosion in the family. Sarah is deeply offended and senses the impossibility of having Hagar and her son live as bitter rivals inside the same household. She delivers an ultimatum to her husband: "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" (Gen. 21:10). The interpretation of what this means must be handled very carefully. First of all, it does not mean that Ishmael is to be excluded from God's presence or deprived of His blessing. He is, like all the rest of us, a candidate for salvation. God does want all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Apparently, all that it means is that Ishmael, by despising God's choice of who the heir is going to be, has disqualified himself from participating in the intimacy of family life with Abraham and any share of the family wealth. God now comforts Abraham in his distress over Ishmael's behavior and Sarah's ultimatum:

Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring (Gen. 21:12,13).

Abraham is comforted in two ways. First of all, God has solved his family crisis by telling him to heed Sarah's advice and assuring him of an heir by her, and secondly, by assuming responsibility for Ishmael's future. With this kind of reassurance, Abraham then releases Hagar and Ishmael from his service. They are free to develop an independent life apart from Sarah and Abraham.

God to the Rescue Again

Left to her own devices, Hagar proves not to be a good leader. She wanders aimlessly in the wilderness and runs out of water. She loses all hope of surviving and prepares herself and her son for death. Again, this could have been a convenient end to their story. They made bad choices, but there was God. He is love. He heard the boy (named "God Hears") weeping. God sent an angel in response to that cry and spoke to Hagar: "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" (Gen. 21:17,18). Hagar, like her mistress before her, had forgotten the promises of God. The Lord reminded her of His concern for Ishmael and then He opened her eyes and she saw a well of water nearby. They were spared. This deliverance was followed by one of the most remarkable statements in the Old Testament - remarkable because in our preoccupation with the line of Isaac, we did not expect God to show such love to Ishmael. The sentence is: "God was with the boy as he grew up" (Gen. 21:20). God became Ishmael's adoptive father.

Ishmael in Islam

Ishmael is mentioned several times in the Quran and is powerfully memorialized in the rites connected with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. He is frequently listed along with the other patriarchs. The one Quranic passage that treats Ishmael at length is worth quoting:

Also mention in the Book the story of Ismail: he was strictly true to what he promised, and he was an apostle and a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord (Q. 19:54,55).

In another section of the Quran, Muhammad cites Abraham and Ishmael in designating the Kaaba as the pilgrim center for Muslims:

Remember we made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the Station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and we covenanted with Abraham and Ismail, that they should sanctify my House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves therein in prayer (Q. 2:125).

The Pilgrimage Commemorates Ishmael

The greatest feast of Islam, Id al-Adha, occurs at the conclusion of the pilgrimage. Each Muslim is supposed to participate in a sacrifice, whether it be a sheep, goat or camel. The sacrifice commemorates Abraham's willingness to offer up his son to God. (Most Muslims believe it was Ishmael. The Bible clearly states it was Isaac). This sacrifice is observed simultaneously throughout the whole Muslim world, both by pilgrims in Mecca as well as Muslims in their own homes where they live, thus linking all Muslims, through this commemorative feast, with the family of Abraham. Anyone familiar with the Biblical account of these events knows full well that these events did not occur in Mecca, but elsewhere, and that it was Isaac, not Ishmael, who was the designated sacrifice (Gen. 22:2). Ishmael had been expelled from the home years before (Gen. 21:14).

Hunger to be in the Family of Abraham

As misplaced as these rituals and beliefs may appear in the light of Biblical material, they are, nevertheless, profoundly insightful. Deep within the psyche of Muhammad and the Arab people, and subsequently all Muslims, whether Arab or not, is this deep urge to be counted in the family of Abraham, "the Friend of God." Through Jesus this door is open for a true reconciliation within the broken "Family of Abraham."

The Cries of Ishmael's Children Today

In the latter chapters of this book we shall be discussing various ways that Muslims can become true members of Abraham's family. Meanwhile, let us emulate our Heavenly Father who first heard "God Hears" crying. In the quiet hush of myriads of mosques, the droning voices of Muslims intone: "There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." In slavish imitation of their Arab "prophet," they mime the words, while the cry of their inner heart is that God would count their endless prostrations for good on Judgment Day.

Not far away, in the shadow of the mosque, at the tomb of a dead "saint," a daughter of Ishmael weeps. Believingly, she strokes her hands on the "holy" tomb in the hope that blessing will rub off on her. Then she strokes her face and breasts crying out, "O God, answer my prayer for . . ."

Deep in the forest, in the circle of the Sufis, matching the rhythm of their incessant rocking to and fro, one hears over and over again: "Allah hua", "God is!" - two hundred thousand times! - until the devotee enters a psychic state of ecstasy, which he has been taught means that he has achieved union with God. What hunger. And why not? Orthodox Islam has taught him that God has not spoken to a single human being since Muhammad died in 632 A.D. And he cannot live with that. He must find and be in touch with a living communicating God.

Just outside that village, in the jungles of Java, it is an unearthly, piercing cry. All the ritual prayers of the Muslim mullahs, (priests) all the blood of many sacrifices with their magical incantations have not delivered this daughter of Ishmael from the torment of demons who have taken control. It is the helpless scream of the demonized from which Islam has no power to deliver. In Ramalah, it is no longer Rachel, but Riffat weeping for her children because they are no more. Israeli bullets obliterated their lives there in the dusty roads of the West Bank. It is the cry not only for children forever gone, but also for bulldozed fruit trees and leveled homes that are no more. Senseless slaughter! The cry is for justice and fairness. The cry is that age old question, "Will not the God of the whole earth do right?"

And now in the dismal camps of the dispossessed, it is the cry of the refugee for his ancestral home. For now Ishmael has been driven from his land - not just in Palestine, but in Kuwait, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, and through economic disaster, hundreds of thousands more from Bangladesh, India, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco. The cries of Ishmael's children go up endlessly.

On the garbage dumps of the glutted cities - Cairo - Calcutta - Dacca - Karachi - the cry is more of a moan - the utterly destitute, resourceless, scavenging among the refuse and rats, too tired to even whimper their question, "Where are you, O God?" Does God hear? Yes! Ishmael. He named this unwanted child "God Hears!" He hears! Hallelujah! He hears! God grant that we, too, may hear!

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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 in hostility toward all his brothers (Gen. 16:12).

This ancient prophecy about unborn Ishmael is cause for much thought. Does it mean this prediction about Ishmael's behavior was arbitrarily predetermined by God? Or is it possible that God foresaw the inevitable consequences of these broken relationships in the family? The answers to these two questions are not very far apart, for God does know the dynamics of human personality, of how things work. But God is also the one who made us to function the way we do. In this sense, He saw the inevitability of what was going to happen to Ishmael and foretold it.

Twists in Ishmael's Personality

Let us review the events in Ishmael's life to try to find an explanation for the development of this attitude of hostility towards his brothers. In a time of despair, Sarah counseled her husband to have a child by her Egyptian handmaid. As soon as Hagar knew she was pregnant, the spirit of rivalry was born. Hagar began to hold her mistress in contempt. In the culture of that day, a woman's fulfillment was in bearing children, especially sons. A woman who could not bear children was considered a failure in life. Hagar prematurely drew the conclusion that God had favored her and had withheld this blessing from Sarah. She gave way to pride. Sarah, of course, was deeply hurt by Hagar's behavior and responded abusively with anger, causing Hagar to flee from her presence. So, while Ishmael was still in the womb, his mother experienced all the emotional trauma of the tongue-lashings from Sarah and the refusal of Abraham to defend her, and then, the sense of utter abandonment as she fled from the family. Fear, anger, hostility were all there in the turbulent emotional upheaval going on inside of her while she was carrying Ishmael in her womb.

God came to her. He comforted her. He named her unborn child "God Hears," for He had heard of her misery. He sent Hagar back to Sarah's tent, where she gave birth to Ishmael. On the surface, it appears things were smoothed over. Ishmael grew up at his father Abraham's side, fully believing, as the firstborn, that he was to be his heir. He was circumcised on the same day as his father at the age of thirteen and undoubtedly considered himself an important part of this special family.

Later, the stability of the family was shattered by the news that Sarah was going to have a baby boy named "Laughter" (Isaac). Ishmael now had to live with the possibility that he, as a son of a slave woman, might be preempted from his role as the firstborn by the son of the legitimate "first wife." Undoubtedly, Hagar's old feelings of rivalry were reawakened by this new threat, and she may have helped engender feelings of jealousy and contempt in her son towards Sarah's son. By the time of Isaac's weaning feast, Ishmael's feelings were out in the open. The Scripture says he mocked Sarah and her son (Gen. 21:9). All the old feelings of outrage and anger were reawakened in Sarah. She demanded Hagar's and Ishmael's dismissal from the family service.

Abraham, under God's counsel complied. Hagar and Ishmael were provisioned and dismissed from service. Who can gage the depth of bitterness and resentment that must have filled the hearts of Hagar and Ishmael? The source of the Lord's prophetic utterance concerning the behavior of Ishmael is rooted in these events.

No Innocent Parties

Who is to blame? Hagar and Ishmael could justifiably blame Sarah and Abraham for all that had caused this shameful expulsion. On the other hand, as we know from the principles of Christian counseling, we are all responsible for our decisions and responses to what happens to us. On the human level, there are no heroes in this story: all are blameworthy. Were it not for the grace of God operating in each person's life in this domestic tragedy, things could have been far worse, for example, murder and revenge killings. But God was there dealing with each one in His own loving way. Hagar's and Ishmael's lives were spared. The word of coming greatness was again given to Ishmael. God was with him as he grew up. And, of course, Abraham and Sarah, in spite of advanced age, were blessed with their own son and promises of a glorious future.

Any Linkage Between Ishmael and Islam Today?

What bearing does all this have on us today who are witnessing the phenomenon of Islam? In mid-1995 Muslims numbered more than one billion people and, no doubt, constitute the largest threat facing the Christian Church today. Is there any linkage between the characteristics of Ishmael and that of Islam which has embraced him as one of their patriarchs? As strange as it may seem, we think there is. History seems to bear this out.

Remembering Our Own History

Lest we be too harsh on Ishmael's descendants, let us remember our own sorrowful history. The two World Wars of this century began in the West. Unti lthe collapse of the Soviet Union, the two most feared and dangerous powers in the world today were both considered to be Western powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. We must be careful not to judge Islam for what we ourselves have been guilty of.

What is this dynamic of violence, and of the hostility that feeds it? For the following explanation, I am indebted to Edward Hunter and his unique book, Brainwashing in Red China (1953). This grew out of the Korean War and the dismay that we felt in the United States when we learned that some of our troops, captured in battle, were successfully brainwashed and turned against our country. Hunter's point was that the Chinese communistic brainwashers had learned how to use what psychiatry had discovered about the cycle that leads from a sense of sin (real or induced) to violence. Parenthetically, even though many scholars say that Muslims are characterized more by a "shame and honor" set of values than a "sin and obedience" one, this writer believes that real sin is done against the real God, and entails real guilt. In his investigative work in the Quran and extra-Quranic resources, Woodberry's research supports this idea (Woodberry 1989:150-159). Therefore, I believe the following material fits a discussion of sin, with regard to Muslims.

It works something like this. Sin, real or imagined, engenders a sense of guilt. Guilt, if not dealt with, breeds fear. This fear, if not removed, leads to a vague sense of hostility. In due time, this hostility will begin to focus either inwardly, causing psychosomatically induced illnesses or suicidal tendencies, or it will project itself outward on some designated hate object. Eventually, if the person is not delivered from this fateful dynamic, the hostility can be triggered to commit acts of violence, either against a person (homicide) or against a people (genocide or war). Ishmael's hostility and propensity to violence were rooted in the sin of his own scoffing and jealous attitude towards his brother Isaac. Muslims today are those in whom this vicious cycle has not been broken. They have voluntarily chosen to identify with Ishmael and have, consciously or unconsciously, embraced the spirit of that ancient and bitter rivalry. The present-day animosity of Islam towards Jews and Christians, in this author's opinion, can be traced to the Islamic embrace of the spirit of Ishmael. Hunter's analysis fits Islam today, and, we might add, all the rest of mankind who have not experienced the forgiveness of their sins in Jesus Christ.

Jesus' Insight into Human Nature

As an aside, it is astonishing that Jesus Christ understood this, and drawing lessons from the two thousand year history before His incarnation, He went on to prophesy accurately the two thousand years of human history since that time. In one of His endtimes sermons He said:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . (Mt. 24:6,7).

Jesus understood something else, and that is, until a person experiences repentance and forgiveness, he will behave violently toward those who have. The very presence of a righteous person, further inflames the conscience of an unrepentant one. Thus, He warned: "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me" (Mt. 24:9). Until Muslims are reconciled to God through Christ, they will follow this path.

Conversion to Christ is the Key to Healing

It is a universal truth that all people stand in need of conversion to Jesus Christ, and that we, too, but for the grace of our God, would have been counted among the violent. People are already condemned and stand under judgment. They do not need more condemnation from us. They need deliverance that comes only through a living faith focused on Jesus Christ, the Deliverer, the Savior of the world. Therefore, when we look at scenes of violence in the Muslim world, we should recognize them as symptoms of a deep-seated and undealt with hostility that finds its roots in human sin. We should not use these incidences of violence as an excuse to turn away from them, but rather seek to deal with their root causes through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Wild Donkey Prophecy

Let us look again at that verse about Ishmael's characteristics: "He will be a wild donkey of a man . . ." (Gen. 16:12). "A wild donkey of a man." What does it mean? God, in His withering rebuke to Job, spoke of the wild donkey:

Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, and the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion in the town; he does not hear a driver's shout. He ranges the hills for his pasture and searches for any green thing (Job 39:5-8).

Ishmael was to be strong, wild and free; and we might add, he also would be difficult, holding his brothers in contempt, despising town life, loving his freedom to the point of not being able to get along with his own kin or anyone else. As one commentary puts it: "The Ishmaelites live in an incessant state of feud . . . with one another or with their neighbours" and in the same passage quoted above, "Ishmael would maintain an independent standing before [in the presence of] all the descendants of Abraham" (Keil and Delitzsch, Reprint, 1954, 1:220). In the light of these characteristics, Muhammad was a true descendant of Ishmael. While trying desperately to tie into the genealogical tree of Biblical prophets, he fiercely maintained his independence as an "Arab prophet" with an "Arabic Quran" (Q. 12:1; 20:113; 46:12).

The "Religion of Abraham"

Moreover, Muhammad stoutly maintained that he was neither of the Jews nor the Christians but of the "Religion of Abraham" (Q. 2:135). In taking this position, Muhammad, attempting to establish his own identity as a legitimate prophet, borrowed from the traditions of each, as well as separated himself from both, in order to supersede all of his predecessors and become "the seal of the prophets," that is, the end of the line of prophets, and therefore, the final voice of God to the human race.

Rejection and Violence

At first, Muhammad attempted to woo both Jews and Christians. When he was unsuccessful, he not only turned away from them, but in the case of the Jews, after dispossessing two of the tribes, he banished them, and massacred all the men of a third tribe and made slaves of the women and children. In the case of the Christians, he also reduced them to second class citizens (Dhimmis) and attempted to destroy the very heart of the Christian message. Since these points will be taken up later, we will not enter into a full discussion of them now. Having made himself odious to both Jews and Christians, Muhammad then took the step of enshrining violence forever among his followers by sanctifying vengeance (Q. 42:39) and fighting (Q. 2:216; 4:74; 9:5; 61:4). (There are more than fifty separate references in the Quran on the duties and conditions of Holy War [Whitehouse 1981:50-51]). In some mysterious way, it appears that the characteristics of Ishmael, as described in Genesis 16:12, have survived to this day in the lives of those who have so closely identified with him through the life of Muhammad and his teachings in the religion of Islam.

Harvest and Suffering

At this point, let me state that many Muslims are wonderfully tolerant, hospitable and open to the Gospel. Thank God. There is a harvest going on in the Muslim world. But for the Christian worker seeking to evangelize Muslims today, the patterns of hostility and violence mentioned above constitute, in many situations of the Muslim world, a most unfavorable environment. It's best to have no illusions when going into Muslim work.

In our Lord's lifetime, victory did not come cheaply. Today is no different. We live with constant danger, and the work of the Gospel goes on right in the midst of it; sometimes because of it, sometimes in spite of it. We who love Christ as our Lord, have in our hands the message that can change a Muslim heart. For those of Ishmael's children whose cries are for help, justice, healing, deliverance, communion with God, guidance, hope and salvation; we will find a ready response.

"I Will Surely Bless Him"

Abraham's prayer was not in vain. He prayed, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" And God said, "Yes . . . I have heard you: I will surely bless him" (Gen. 17:18,19,20). God is waiting for us today to ask him to bless the sons of Ishmael - the Muslims - through the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Ishmael and his spiritual descendants, the Muslims, do not have to remain outside the broken family of Abraham. Jesus has, on the cross, effected the reconciliation of all men by His shed blood. Yes, we will go forth as sheep among wolves, as Jesus said, but we also go in the power of His Spirit with a mandate to set the prisoners free. In faith, we believe there will be a harvest among our hostile brethren, and healing will come to the broken family of Abraham, the father of us all.


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