God’s Navigator


We will begin drawing  our portrait  from the famous chapter 12 of the book of Genesis, where the story of Abraham starts and the Scripture becomes a chronicle of one family: 

Now the Lord had said to Abram:
“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1]

Have you ever tried to locate an object on GPS or any other navigation device? You see a flashing red dot on the little screen. Usually, you’re interested in the “street view,” but you can also zoom out from the street view to the city view, to the state view, to the national view, and finally, to the world view. You will still see the same flashing red dot, but now it is situated on the map of a city, a country, or on the map of the whole world. Something similar is happening here. As we read the first three verses of this chapter, we can watch God zooming out from the house where one particular family lives. As he zooms out, we see the descendants of this one family become a great nation, and then we see the whole world view, where this family has reached all the families of the earth.

Verse one starts with one man and one family: It’s as though we can see this particular man, Abraham, standing on one particular street of Haran, next to one particular house–his father’s house. Abraham has lived here for many years, but is now commanded to leave: Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Against the background of this different, completely unknown land, the next verse zooms out to the national level. All of a sudden, we see the family of Abraham transformed into “a great nation” with a “great name.” God’s blessing is promised to this nation, and the nation itself is promised to be a blessing. This is the second step in God’s plan of salvation: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great.”

And then, finally, God’s zoom moves to the world view and we see the same red dot, flashing against the map of the whole world now. The same man we saw in the “street view” standing on the narrow streets of Haran, and then in the “national view” as the father of a great nation, now we see in the “world view,” as Abraham becomes the Father of many nations.

I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

We all know these words, and we know that everything God promised that day to Abraham, He fulfilled literally. He did make Abraham into a great nation and this nation has indeed become a blessing to all the families of the earth. God’s Word and God’s salvation came to the world through this nation. However, try to imagine these same words as Abraham heard them 3,000 years ago, when none of that had happened yet: Who would have believed these magnificent promises? I often wonder where this man got his faith–that absolutely unique faith that made him trust the Lord and follow His commands even when they seemed extremely complicated, painful, or illogical. How long had he been a true believer before he heard God say “lech-lecha” (go out) and then did what he was told? And was he actually the first one to hear those words?

The father and the son

Of course, you  know those  famous  God’s words  to Abraham that we just read: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” Generations of rabbis, preachers, and regular students of the Scriptures have been impressed, encouraged, and inspired by these words. Endless Jewish, and especially Messianic, projects and organizations have been named after these famous words lech-lecha,” the Hebrew words that open this chapter. For me personally, however, it is not these words that depict the most impressive part of this chapter, that make up the story, or that provide us with a glimpse into the remarkable personality of the one whom God called his friend. It isn’t God’s words that make this story so special; it is how Abraham responded to them.

Let me explain what I mean. In verse 5 we read: Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.[2] So in response to God’s call, Abraham went forth to go to the land of Canaan. Then, after a while, he indeed reached the land of Canaan. Nothing, it seems, could be more obvious and self-apparent than this simple sentence. Doesn’t it go without saying that when people start a journey, they intend to finish this journey and arrive at the place they were heading for? However, just a few verses earlier, at the end of the previous chapter, we read:

And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarah, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.[3]

Though the beginning of this passage is the same–they went out to go to the land of Canaan–it ends in a completely different way! Abraham’s father, Terah, also started to go to the land of Canaan; however, he never completed the journey. He never arrived!

Why did Terah start heading for Canaan in the first place? I personally believe that before God spoke to Abraham, He had spoken to his father; otherwise, why would Terah leave Ur and start going to Canaan? We know that Terah did not worship the one true God; we know this, not only from rabbinical writings, but also from the Scripture itself: This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”[4] In no way does this mean, however, that Terah had never heard about the true God, or that he had never heard from the true God. Perhaps the very first lech-lecha–go out–was actually spoken to Terah; perhaps it was Terah who was supposed to have become the father of nations. However, many are called, but few chosen.[5] We all long to hear His voice; we all desire to have a Divine encounter, but make no mistake: It’s not the Divine encounter that defines our destiny, but what we do after this encounter. It’s not what He says to us that defines us, it’s how we respond to what He says! It’s not enough to be called; one must remain faithful to this calling. Remember Yeshua’s (Jesus’) teaching: Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.[6] It is likely that Terah had been called first, before his son; he probably responded to this call by heading for Canaan. However, he never got there. He stopped in Haran, because dwelling in Haran was much more comfortable and safe than living in tents in Canaan. The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word–choke the call. Thus, Terah never became what he could and should have become.

In this sense, the short verse regarding Abraham–they departed to go to the land of Canaan… They came to the land of Canaanis much more than merely a technical comment. The biblical description of Abraham’s great faith begins here, at Genesis 12:5; not only did he set out to do what he was called and commanded to do–so many start!–but he completed it. If Terah was called by God–and I believe he was–he responded to God’s call by starting to do what he was called to do, but he never finished it. Abraham was called by God–we know he was–and he responded to God’s call, not by only starting, but actually completing and accomplishing everything he was called to do. This is what faith is all about, and it’s no wonder that Abraham and his father ended up so differently; Abraham became the father of a people and of peoples, while the Scripture tells us virtually nothing about Terah, except the fact that he was descendant of Shem and father of Abraham. This is a spiritual law that we should all be aware of: We choose our destiny by the way we respond to God’s call.

A Famine in the Land

Did Abraham receive any reward for obeying God so unreservedly? If we look at the circumstances of his life after he arrived in the Land in full obedience to God’s commandment, we find only “unseen” rewards, the ones that you can see by faith alone. When the LORD appeared unto Abraham, and said: “Unto thy seed will I give this land,”  he and his family were living in tents and were still complete foreigners and newcomers in that land. By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country…. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.[7]

How I love this interplay of visible and invisible in the Word of God! The whole book is about the contrast between things that are seen and things that are not seen. Again and again it teaches us to live by faith, to be certain of the things not seen,[8]teaching us through the stories and the people we read about. In the invisible realm, Job is a righteous man, treasured and distinguished by God Himself, but on the visible level, he is absolutely miserable, sick, and desperate, and seems to be crushed and punished by God. In the invisible reality, Benjamin is loved dearly by his brother Joseph, but on the visible level, he is a thief and Joseph accuses him of a crime he did not commit. In the invisible, true reality, Yeshua (Jesus) is the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel, but in the reality that was seen, Yeshua hung on the cross, helpless and humiliated. The story of Abraham is probably the first story in the Tanach where this contrast is so obvious: In the invisible realm, Abraham is chosen by God for His plan and His covenant; he will be the father of a nation and of nations and one day, he will possess this Land. In the visible realm, however, he lives in tents, he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country, and even that wasn’t the worst of it. To make matters worse, there was a famine in the land:  And there was a famine in the land; and Abraham went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.[9]

 And so Abraham, being 75 years old, obeyed God and did something not many of us would be able to: when called to go, he… obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.[10]He probably expected some sort of reward for this incredible obedience, for this truly outstanding action. Or perhaps at least his wife did. Instead, the very first thing that greeted them upon their arrival was a famine. With all due respect to the biblical matriarch, I can imagine that Sarah asked her husband more than once: “Why? Please remind me exactly why we came here? Why did we leave our settled, comfortable lives in Haran and come here to live in tents, to wander from place to place, and now to starve?” Abraham had had a personal revelation, a personal call from God, and a strong faith; Sarah didn’t have any of that, and so for her, I can imagine that these hardships that “rewarded” their unprecedented move would have seemed especially unreasonable, even unfair. One has to have a real relationship with God to be able to live by faith and be certain of the things not seen. Sarah needed to experience God’s love first; only then would she be able to live her life out of love for Him. In all honesty, I believe that this is the main reason God allowed the appalling and highly distasteful Egyptian episode to be part of Abraham’s story: for Sarah’s sake.

Fearing for His Life…

In our next chapter, we will see the Egyptian story through Sarah’s eyes as the story of God’s might and faithfulness. In our current chapter, however, we are looking only at Abraham’s perspective, and all we see is a story of human weakness and unfaithfulness. For me personally, however, the whole passage about Abraham going down to Egypt in the second half of Genesis 12 is absolutely precious because it teaches us several valuable lessons. First, we learn that being obedient to God and abiding in His will doesn’t mean being safe from all difficulties. Abraham did an incredible thing by leaving behind everything and venturing to a new land at the advanced age of 75, yet the first thing he encountered in the land, instead of reward and blessing, was this famine.

How many times–too many to count–have I been comforted by these verses? When you do something that God calls you to do, expecting reward and blessing and open doors, but instead find yourself in a very difficult situation, what a comfort then to know that you are not alone! Abraham experienced this same thing, so we really are in good company!

This passage teaches even more, however. The Scripture doesn’t portray Abraham as a flawless hero of faith, a sort of spiritual superman, and this is the beauty of the Bible, which never tries to embellish the people it describes. Right after this incredible act of unreserved and complete obedience, just when he arrives in the Land, Abraham goes down to Egypt to escape the famine. I am not even sure that this little trip was approved by the Lord in the first place, but the Scriptures say nothing about that. Yet while in Egypt, out of fear for his life, he does something that it is very difficult for us to justify or understand, let alone imagine somebody actually doing it: He passes off his wife as his sister. “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you”.[11]

In the very beginning of chapter 12, Abraham is willing and able to leave everything and everybody behind in order to obey God, yet just a few verses later, the very same man who just committed an act of incredible courage commits an act of incredible cowardice. For me, however, Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s obedience become even more precious after this story. Now we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he is no superman, that he has weaknesses and fears, that he is neither very courageous nor brave by nature, and perhaps not even very honest. Nevertheless, he had a unique and amazing faith as the strongest feature of his character, and because of this faith, he becomes an amazing person, doing incredible things for the Lord, never using his emotions or fears as an excuse.

How was he able to be so unreservedly and completely obedient to God, even when obedience implied uncertainty and a risk to his own life, yet still love his own life and fear for it while he was in Egypt? There is only one possible explanation: His love for God was even bigger and greater than this love for his own life. That is why God called Abraham His friend–greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends–and that is why he became the father of all those who love God more than their own lives.

Almost a Father

Genesis chapters 13 and 14 are so clearly marked by the name of Lot that we cannot pass them by without saying a word. We have to pause here in order to understand Abraham’s relationship with his young nephew. The very first time we see Lot’s name, at the end of Genesis 11, verse 27 says that Haran begot Lot, and then the very next verse says that Haran died before his father Terah. In other words, Haran died an untimely death, leaving his son Lot an orphan.

Was Lot a sweet little boy, a bitter teenager, or a completely grown up young man with his own family when his father passed away? Was it at this time of mourning and grief that Lot formed this special relationship with his uncle Abraham? Had Abraham become almost a father to his fatherless nephew? Had Lot become almost a son to his childless uncle? We don’t know for sure when and how it happened, but the fact is that it did happen at some point; otherwise, there is no explanation for those simple words from Genesis 12:4-5: So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him… Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son…

When Abraham departed for Canaan in full obedience to God’s call, he had been willing to leave behind everything and everybody. He took only his very own with him and once we read that his nephew belonged to this group of Abraham’s “very own,” we realize that he must have had a close, special relationship with him. This relationship also had to be mutual. Apparently Lot loved and respected his uncle very much, because not only was Abraham willing to take him (verse 5), but Lot himself was willing to leave everything and follow his uncle to a completely unknown land (verse 4).

Scripture says nothing regarding Lot’s time in Egypt, but once they are back from Egypt, uncle and nephew part company. Genesis 13:6 describes the moment where they part: Now the land was not able to support them that they might dwell together.[12]True, it refers to their possessions as being so great that they could not dwell together, but somehow the reader gets the feeling that there was more to this conflict than just sharing the land. As complicated as a “father-son” relationship can get, an “almost father-almost son” relationship is even more complicated. The moment inevitably comes when the long-dreaded words: “You aren’t my father, you can’t tell me what to do,” pierce the heart of the “almost father” with their tragic truth. I think that it was at just such an unbearably sad and grievous moment that Abraham, exhausted by their endless fights, finally gave up and said with a heavy heart to his “almost son”: Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren…. Please separate from me…”[13]

We are talking about Peshat, remember? “The plain, simple meaning of the text; the understanding of Scripture in its natural, normal sense.” The plain, simple meaning of the text indicates that the fights were first of all between Abraham and his nephew–between you and me–and only then between the shepherds: between my herdsmen and your herdsmen. When Abraham adds “for we are brethren,” it sounds like a lost argument, a sorrowful reminder that they are still family, in response to the cruel words that had probably been said at some point: “You aren’t my father; you can’t tell me what to do.”

Blessed are the parents who have never had to look at their child (or someone who is like a child to them) and tell him: Please separate from me…. If you take the left, I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, I will go to the left.”[14]Like any parent would do, Abraham lets Lot choose, and Lot, without much hesitation, takes the best–or what he thought was the best, from a natural point of view. Remarkably, Lot chooses a place where he imagines he wouldn’t need to depend as much on God, because it was well watered everywhere.[15]Much later, in chapter 19, when God comes down to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, this lack of willingness to rely on God almost cost Lot his life, but even in our current passage, we can clearly see that Lot prefers not to depend on God too much. He definitely knows about God, he has spent enough time with his uncle Abraham to know what God’s ways are–Peter calls Lot “righteous”–but along with God’s ways, he prefers to walk by his own strength, and he really thinks he doesn’t need God for this walk.

Very soon, of course, Lot finds himself in trouble. The trouble happens in the very next chapter when the neighboring kings made war with… (the) king of Sodom and also took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.[16] Again, blessed are the parents who have never experienced the torment of watching their child separate and choose a different way and then seeing him or her in trouble. Chapter 14 doesn’t tell us how Abraham feels when he hears that his nephew is taken captive, but neither do chapters 12, or 13, or 22 tell us about his feelings. Instead, we learn that he chased the culprits as far as Dan in the north, nearly 300 kilometers from Sodom; that he crushed the enemies at Hobah, north of Damascus; that he freed his nephew and recovered Lot’s possessions; and that he did all this with 318 of his servants (who served as soldiers in this battle, but clearly were not trained to be soldiers).

Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people.[17]

An angry bear protecting her cub is capable of anything, and it seems that Abraham’s deeds that we witness here belong to this same category. As far as we know, Abraham was a very peaceful man. We don’t see him involved in battles like David; in fact, this is the only time we read about him going to war. This says a lot about him, because it wasn’t even his war; he definitely could have stayed home. Instead, he got up and ran 300 kilometers to rescue Lot. Not because he liked wars (he didn’t); Not because he hoped to become rich from this war (in fact, he didn’t take anything to himself, according to Genesis 14:21-24); Not because he and Lot were extremely close and like-minded (they weren’t, at this point). He went because Lot had been like a son to him and his fatherly heart was absolutely crushed when he heard that Lot had gotten in trouble. Abraham had the heart of a father even before he actually became a father. He longed to have a son of his own and become a real father; it is this longing to become a father that shapes his story.

An Amazing Promise

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”[18] We are in chapter 15 of the book of Genesis – and  here for the very first time we hear Abraham arguing with God, almost griping: But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abraham said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”[19] Twice he repeats the same statement, with either reproach or complaint (or both) clearly echoed both times: Look, for all my obedience and faith, for everything I’ve given you, you haven’t even given me a child; what other reward can you give me? What other reward do I need? What is this reward you are talking about?

It is in this conversation that God promises him a child: One who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Let us remember that at this moment, Abraham was 85 years old–younger than 100, of course, when Isaac would be born, but still, not exactly a young father. Nevertheless, he believed what the Lord told him and it is here, in this very place, that the Scripture says those famous words about Abraham: And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.[20]Undoubtedly, Abraham had his weaknesses, as we have already seen, but first and foremost, he was a man with a great,  unique faith and it was his faith, not his weaknesses, that defined him.

I believe that here, in chapter 15, we also find our answer as to whether Ishmael was a part of God’s plan from the beginning. For many years, I wondered why God gave this promise to Abraham, in Genesis 15:5–count the stars, if you are able to count them…. So shall your seed be”–when in fact, the Jews have always been among the fewest of all peoples,[21]as Deuteronomy says. Yes, we are dispersed and scattered among the peoples, and that is why it feels as if we are everywhere. Our numbers, however, are small and not at all impressive, especially if you compare them with the Arab people, for instance. However, I’ve since come to believe that in chapter 15, the Lord was not talking only about the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob line, even including the multitude of Abraham’s gentile descendants through faith that Paul refers to in Galatians 3. He was talking about the descendants of Abraham from both sons: the descendants of Ishmael as well as the descendants of Isaac. In that case, there can be no doubt that the seed of Abraham is indeed as countless as the stars in heaven. But if so, this means that God already foresaw Ishmael’s descendants, and that Ishmael was to be part of His plan from the outset. Just as many biblical stories (the story of Joseph, for instance) show us people’s errors and misdeeds–whether people are sincerely mistaken and deluded or whether they consciously sin and go against God–but through all of that, God is unfolding and implementing His plan. God never says “Oops!” The story of Ishmael was not an “Oops!” story, either; Ishmael had to be born, God saw him from the beginning. And even through the delusions and mistakes of those involved in this story, He kept implementing His plan.


A Perfect Solution…

Thus, by chapter 16, where the story of Hagar and Ishmael begins, we already know two key things about Abraham: his faith in God, and his desire to become a father. First of all, he loves God with all his heart, he believes in Him just as wholeheartedly, he has great faith, and he has proved his faith many times by being completely and unreservedly obedient. On the other hand, he is desperate to have a child, to see his physical and spiritual heir in “one who will come from his body.” Not only do these two things define Abraham, but they are intertwined in his heart. He knows that God has promised him a child, he believes wholeheartedly in this promise–he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness–and he is waiting for this promise to come to pass. Not only because he himself desperately wants to become a father, but also as a token of faith and obedience, he knows he has to have a child.

This is why, when Sarah comes to him with her “Hagar plan”–and we will definitely talk more about it from Sarah’s and Hagar’s point of view–he must have seen it as a perfect solution to what seemed to be an insoluble problem. Not only was he getting older, but Sarah was getting older, as well. In fact, she was too old already. She was past child-bearing age, so evidently would not be able to bear his child. On the other hand, the Lord did promise him a descendant “from his body,” so obviously, there has to be another woman to bear this child. However, if this woman were Sarah’s maidservant, her child would still legally be considered Sarah’s son. Brilliant!

It was a great “Aha!” moment for Abraham. He probably looked at his wife admiringly, once again amazed by her wisdom. He probably wondered how Sarah had figured out God’s plan while he hadn’t. Not only did he agree to this plan wholeheartedly, without any objections, but since he believed it to be God’s design and God’s will, he was quick to fulfill it, as he always had been in his obedience to God’s will. So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.[22]

Was he happy to lay with Hagar? Or, on the contrary, was it a great sacrifice and a great effort for him? We find nothing said about his feelings. Yet isn’t this exactly the same as each time the Scriptures describe Abraham’s obedience? Whether we are reading about Abraham leaving his homeland, or parting with Lot, or going to sacrifice Isaac, there is not a single word describing his feelings. There is only action: And Abraham went forth… And Abraham rose up early… and once again: and Abraham rose up early…. More than just once or twice after Abraham began walking with the Lord do we see him needing to accomplish very challenging tasks. Yet in describing those tasks, the Bible never–or almost never, but we will soon discuss that single exception–provides us with any insights into his thoughts or emotions. He performed all of those difficult tasks obediently. And though doubtlessly they were not easy, he performed them time and time again out of love and obedience to God. But this time he was wrong.

Little did he know that by accepting this task, he had stepped out of God’s will. Undoubtedly, if he had known, he certainly would not have done it, but at that point, he sincerely believed that he was fulfilling God’s plan. Tragic as it is to see people willingly and knowingly sinning against God, or just ignoring Him and committing terrible sins, it is even more tragic to watch somebody who loves God with all his heart, make a terrible mistake out of sincere belief that it is God’s will. This is the case with Abraham in our story.

How do I know it was a mistake? Is there any basis for such a conclusion in this Peshat part? Simple math can suffice here: We witnessed Abraham’s encounter with God in chapter 15, when he was 85 or 86 years old. The very next time the Lord appears to Abraham, it is in chapter 17, when Abraham was 99. For 13 years, we have no record of God talking with Abraham. What other proof do we need to know that the Lord was not happy with Abraham’s attempt to fulfill His plan?

Perhaps the first sign that something had gone wrong were the words of his wife soon after Hagar had conceived: “My wrong be upon you!”  Wrong? He was so confident that he was doing the right thing! He must have been absolutely convinced that God was behind this whole scheme, which is why he said to his wife: Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.”[23] It might sound strange, or even cruel, to us; however, it only meant that Abraham trusted the Lord in the very same way he had always trusted Him. He was completely confident that it was God’s plan and therefore, that the child would be born safe and sound.

Ishmael – Son of Promise?

Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham.[24]

Can you imagine the feelings of an 86-year old man who has been childless his whole life, who has been dreaming of a son not only for many years, but for many decades, and finally, a son is born to him?! How blessed and how fulfilled he must have felt holding in his hands this living proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises! Remember: Even though we know that Ishmael was not a son of promise, Abraham did not know it. For thirteen years, from the moment he was born, Abraham saw Ishmael as his spiritual and physical heir and was absolutely content with this heir. Not only did he love his son with all his heart and soul, but even the boy’s name that Hagar had brought back from her Beer Lachai Roi experience, was a clear sign and an indisputable proof that Ishmael was indeed God’s promised child, the son of promise. There might be differing opinions about what the name “Israel” means, but there is no disagreement concerning what “Ishmael” means. God Himself gave the boy this special name: God will hear. What else did he need to prove that he was, indeed, the special child, the son of promise? The very name of this child shows how the merciful and just God has distinguished him as somebody very special in His eyes!

So, when Ishmael was born, the old patriarch’s joy knew no bounds. He loved his son dearly, he enjoyed every single moment with him, and during those joyful years, somehow a “small” fact skipped past his attention: God wasn’t speaking to him anymore!

Was God punishing Abraham? In a sense, the story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us of the story of the Fall from Genesis chapter 3. Did the people who were involved in these stories–Adam and Eve in the first case, and Abraham and Sarah in the second–do something outside of God’s will? Absolutely! Was it a breach in His original plan? Without a doubt! Did they find themselves in a completely changed reality compared to the one designed by the Lord? Definitely! But here, we see a difference. In Genesis 3, God punishes Adam and Eve by sending them out of the Garden; in Genesis 16, God does not do anything special to punish Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: He just leaves it as it is.

This is the greatest punishment that the Lord can give us: to let us have our own way. To the people who are not willing to say “Thy will be done,” He just says: “Well, then your will be done,” and this is the worst thing that can happen to us. This is what happens to Abraham here: Unlike in Genesis 3, God didn’t expel Abraham and Sarah, nor did He do anything else to punish them. He just stopped talking to Abraham, stopped showing him His will, and let the story develop by itself.

Did Abraham realize that God had stopped speaking to him? I think that all those years when his heart was so full of Ishmael, he might have missed the fact that something–Somebody–was absent from his life. The Scriptures don’t tell us anything about those 13 years that Ishmael was Abraham’s only son. Yet when the Lord appears to Abraham with breaking news and a long message in chapter 17, remarkably, the only thing that we (and God) hear from Abraham in this chapter is his plea for his son: Oh, that Ishmael might live before You.”[25]

Pay close attention: Abraham said this when God actually appeared to him, for the first time after many years! God promises him another son and explains His plan and His covenant with Abraham. However, Abraham’s response, and all that he can think of at that point, is about Ishmael: Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Not only would Abraham be perfectly happy to see Ishmael as his heir, as the one who would continue his life’s work and his special relationship with God, he actually did see Ishmael as his heir and successor. He was absolutely confident that Ishmael, indeed, was the son of promise. He loved his son and what seems like great news to us, the promise of another son by Sarah, was hardly good news at that moment to Abraham, whose heart and life were absolutely filled with Ishmael.

As we read Chapter 17 where God appears to Abraham after 13 years of silence, we see that the promise that shook Abraham’s world–that he would have another son–came only in verse 16. This was preceded by a long message, however: God explains to Abraham that he was making a covenant with him and with his descendants forever.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless.  And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.  Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.  He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.  And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”[26]

Within the 14 verses that I have taken the liberty of quoting here, the word “covenant” occurs 10 times; the word “descendant” five times. All these occurrences happen before verse 16–before Abraham hears for the first time that he is to have a son by Sarah. This means that all this time, while listening to the Lord speak about the covenant and the descendants, Abraham is obviously thinking of Ishmael (he has no other children and at this point, he has no idea that he will have another son).

Then, all of a sudden, comes the message of Genesis 17:16. Honestly, I don’t think it came as very good news to Abraham. At least, not in the way we are used to reading it: Look, finally, Isaac is coming! No, Abraham had a son already. He was perfectly happy with this son; his heart was full of Ishmael, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted another son. He was an old man, after all, and he was not sure he would have room in his life for another son. He heard the magnificent promises of God to his descendants and he naturally thought–and was absolutely happy to think–that all those promises referred to Ishmael. Certainly, he was obedient to the Lord, as always, and did not argue with Him when He announced His will; but I don’t think he was especially thrilled about the news of this new baby. In a sense, the breaking news of Genesis 17:16 was an unexpected and almost unwelcome change in Abraham’s world.

Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”[27]

So unexpected, so inconceivable–and probably so unwelcome also!–was this news that Abraham was not in a hurry to tell Sarah about it; or so it seems, at least. We don’t know how much time passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance by the trees of Mamre, in chapter 18. According to midrashim,[28] just a few days had passed and Abraham was not even completely well after his circumcision that occurred at the end of chapter 17. We don’t find any clue in the Torah, but even if this was the case and only a few days had passed since Abraham’s last encounter with God, it still seems that during these days, he didn’t find time to share with Sarah this great news that God had told him–and breaking news, indeed! For when Sarah hears of it in chapter 18, she laughs with that famous laughter “within herself,” that shows more clearly than anything else that this is the very first time she has heard about it.

Perhaps Abraham just didn’t take it seriously? Perhaps he thought he had misunderstood the Lord and there was no need even to talk to Sarah about it and raise her hopes when there was actually no hope for her? I can almost imagine Abraham thinking that he had misunderstood the Lord on this occasion: After all, it was indeed a very peculiar case and demanded a great deal of faith to believe that his 90-year old barren wife would bear him a child. However, just a few chapters later, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac–again, a very peculiar request–Abraham doesn’t hesitate or think even for a moment that he has misunderstood God. In my opinion, Abraham heard God very clearly; he knew His voice perfectly well and their communication was crystal clear. If Abraham decided not to share the news he had heard from the Lord with Sarah, it could mean only one thing: It wasn’t such happy news for him, at least to begin with, and he didn’t want to talk about it.

Isaac – Son of Promise!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that Abraham wasn’t happy about the birth of Isaac or that he didn’t love his youngest son. Of course he loved Isaac dearly; there is no doubt about that. What I am saying is that he had loved Ishmael for thirteen years, before he had even heard of Isaac, and in all those thirteen years, he hadn’t expected anyone else to take his place. Thirteen years is a long time, and for all this time, Ishmael had been his only son. Definitely, after chapter 18 and after the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had spoken, for Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age,[29] and after this supernatural birth, Abraham knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who was to be the son of promise.

Whatever his feelings might have been at the beginning, Abraham was a man of faith and knew how to obey God–he had proved it many times before. He proved it again in this story. Did that mean, however, that he stopped loving Ishmael or loved him less now? Undoubtedly, when Isaac was born, he found a place in Abraham’s heart–what baby would not melt the heart of his father, especially if this father is 100 years old? And yet, it didn’t mean that Ishmael occupied a smaller place in this heart now: Abraham still loved his firstborn as strongly and as tenderly as he had loved him all those years, when Ishmael had been his only child.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Sarah said: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac,” [30] Abraham was absolutely devastated. He looked at her in dismay and disbelief and was obviously so shocked that this is the only, absolutely unique time in the Torah that we do receive a report concerning his feelings: And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.[31] Can you imagine? Throughout all the long list of Abraham’s deeds of faith and obedience, before and after this scene, never ever do we hear anything about what is going on in his heart. We can only imagine that it was not easy to leave his home and family in Haran in chapter 12, or to part with Lot in chapter 13, or to cut off a part of his male organ in chapter 17. However, only here, in chapter 21, do we find the one and only time that the Bible says explicitly that Abraham, out of the obedience to God, did something that was “very displeasing” to him.

Let’s trace this story of Sarah’s demand from the beginning: The child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. [32] And now we come to one of those puzzling scenes in the Bible (there are many like this) when a reader can only endlessly guess what happened, because all we are given to know is the result. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… scoffing.[33]What did Sarah see? We will definitely talk more about this in the next chapter, when we look at this story through Sarah eyes; for now, however, let’s talk about the consequences of what she saw and did: the consequences for Ishmael, for Hagar, for Abraham, and in fact, for all of us–for all mankind.

Years ago, I happened upon the large family of a friend as they were all in the middle of a boisterous family fight. As I approached (and there was nowhere for me to escape to), they were still screaming something at one another and gesticulating wildly. When I got closer, they halted abruptly, all of them standing around in silence. Their faces were red, some eyes were teary, they all looked miserable, and the whole scene was very unpleasant and awkward. We all felt extremely uncomfortable and nobody knew what to say on such an unfortunate occasion. Then the mother looked at me with a forced smile and with great dignity, she said: “We’ve been having some family dynamics!”

I can imagine that something similar was going on here. As Abraham approached the scene, he could probably see the violent gestures and hear the two women screaming at each other. It is at this point of “family dynamics” that Abraham is challenged by his infuriated wife to cast out his firstborn, Ishmael: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” Sarah’s words just summed up this whole scene of “family dynamics,” which I can imagine contained everything from the aforementioned scene: violent gestures, emotional accusations, red faces, and teary eyes. But most importantly, two boys–a toddler and a teenager–standing together apart from the adults, looking absolutely miserable.

As we said, Abraham was absolutely devastated by Sarah’s suggestion. This is something that we have to be aware of: Abraham dearly loved his firstborn and it was extremely difficult for him to let Ishmael go. In English, the Scripture calls it “displeasing,” but just like “family dynamics,” it’s only a euphemism that encompasses a violent storm of emotions. In fact, the Hebrew describes the matter as exceedingly “bad” in Abraham’s eyes, which is a bit more adequate a reflection of his turbulent emotions than “displeasing.” He is asked to banish his firstborn, to reject and cast away his own beloved son. Undoubtedly, it was “very displeasing” to him, to say the least. But the very fact that this is the only place in Scripture that comments on Abraham’s feelings throughout all his tests of faith and obedience speaks for itself.

I suppose that, were this situation to happen today, Social Services would force the parents undergo family therapy. How could they cast out a child? How could they allow their teenage son to be rejected by the family and become a homeless cast-away overnight? Especially in his teenage years, when every trauma and every injustice leaves such a deep scar on the heart? And yet–and this is the most difficult thing to comprehend–it was not just allowed by God; it was confirmed, actually commanded by God!

But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called.”[34]

Let’s just follow the plain meaning of the narrative.  Abraham did what God told him to do: He sent away his firstborn son, Ishmael, the one that his hopes and expectations had rested on for so many years. He sent him out of the camp with a very heavy heart and great pain. By faith, he followed God’s command– as always, without hesitation or lingering, without doubting or questioning. He got up early, “took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder,’ [35] and sent them away with anguish on his face and tears in his eyes, but with faith and trust in his heart. He trusted the invisible God to watch over his beloved son, because in the visible reality, it looked as if he were sending him into the wilderness to die.

He does this same thing in the next chapter, Genesis 22,  when he trusts the invisible God with his beloved son Isaac. Once again, he has to look beyond the visible reality, because once again it looks as if he is leading his son to die. This time Isaac. Thus, Abraham was asked to sacrifice–and this is the very first time we are mentioning here this key word –both his sons: Ishmael and Isaac. He loved them both dearly and therefore, he had to trust the Lord, Who had commanded him to do this thing with both of them. Every parent knows that whatever Abraham did before chapters 21 and 22, before sacrificing Ishmael and Isaac, would have been nothing compared to those ultimate tests of faith and obedience to God that he went through–and passed!–in these chapters.


[1] Genesis 12:1-3

[2] Genesis 12:5

[3] Genesis 11:31

[4] Joshua 24:2

[5] Matthew 22:14

[6] Matthew 13:22

[7] Hebrews 11:8-10

[8] Hebrews 11:1

[9] Gen. 12:10

[10] Hebrews 11:8

[11] Genesis 12:13

[12] Genesis 13:6

[13] Genesis 13:8

[14] Genesis 13:9

[15] Genesis 13:10

[16] Genesis 14:2,12

[17] Genesis 14:14-16

[18] Genesis 15:1

[19] Genesis 15:2,3

[20] Genesis 15:6

[21] Deuteronomy 7:7

[22] Genesis 16:4

[23] Genesis 16:6

[24] Genesis 16:16

[25] Genesis 17:18

[26] Genesis 17:1-14

[27] Genesis 17:15-16

[28] Rabbinic expositional commentaries

[29] Genesis 21:1

[30] Genesis 21:10

[31] Genesis 21:11

[32] Genesis 21:8

[33] Genesis 21:9

[34] Genesis 21:12,13

[35] Genesis 21:14