Thirteen years have passed since Hagar conceived Ishmael when God appears and informs Abraham that Ishmael is not in fact the child of promise. As God reshapes Abraham's understanding of what He has promised him, He confirms His covenant and makes it clear that Sarah also has a role to play in what He has planned for Abraham's line. Join us as we explore the pitfalls of assumption and jumping ahead of God.
I’m not much of a re-reader. I can count on one hand how many books I have read more than once (the Bible not included). Something happens when we revisit a story: We come to the text with the end in mind, knowing how it all comes together. As the reader, we know the characters’ mistakes and where their decisions will take them. Because of that, we tend to impose our knowledge onto the characters, forgetting their limited perspective.
The temptation to do just that exists even when we read the Bible. I have been guilty of imposing my knowledge of Abraham’s completed life onto the beginning and middle as he is living it. How many times have I heard this story? How many times have I read about Hagar and Ishmael, knowing this isn’t the son through whom God intends to fulfil His promise of countless descendants? Yet every time, I assume that Abraham knows it, too.
By the time we arrive at Genesis 17, it has been thirteen years since we last saw or heard anything about Abram—now Abraham. Thirteen years since Hagar bore him a son. Thirteen years since there has been any record of God speaking directly to him. I wonder: For thirteen years, has Abraham lived fulfilled as a father because of Ishmael? Has he assumed Ishmael is the one through whom his offspring will become as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5)?
If we approach the text by first setting aside what we know already and our modern cultural biases, we see the story in a whole new light. Abraham is the patriarch of a new family God is creating. He comes from a lineage and cultural background that was not founded upon God’s Law, for that has not yet been given nor will it be for hundreds of years. Barrenness was shameful and a common cause for divorce in the ancient world because of the importance of continuing the family line. Sarai—now Sarah—cannot carry out her responsibility as a wife. Understanding this, it isn’t shocking for Abraham and Sarah to turn to Hagar to birth an heir for Abraham and to view Ishmael as the solution to their problem.
Interestingly, Sarah is not even mentioned in the previous promises God made to Abraham (Genesis 12:2, 15:5). It isn’t until nearly twenty-five years later that God reveals she is part of them. In fact, God finally gives the promise a name, and it isn’t Ishmael: “‘Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’” (v.19). As a father, this must be a difficult thing to hear—that the son he already has, already loves, is not the promised one. Abraham and Sarah now have to come to terms with what this reiterated and clarified promise now means: There will be another son. Their way of fulfilling the promise was, in fact, not God’s way.
We’re often guilty of the same thinking, of making the same assumptions about God’s plan. It’s tempting to assume our own desires and ideas are what He must have for us. We may even find ourselves in situations similar to Abraham and Sarah—attempting to fulfil God’s promises in our own way and time. The truth is, however, that we don’t get to determine how God brings about His promises. That job belongs to Him alone. He is the Author and Finisher of not only our faith but also this whole grand story He is weaving together (Hebrews 12:2). Our job is to follow Him faithfully, refraining from trying to jump ahead or imposing our own ideas upon Him. It is His story, after all. May we recognize the amazing privilege of simply being invited into it.
Spend some time sitting with your own story. How has assumption or running ahead of God gotten you into trouble? How have you seen Him redeem your story in spite of this?