Losing Two Sons

All you parents out there: stop reading if you don’t want the $#*& scared out of you.

In Romans 4 and 9, and Galatians 3, Paul calls Abraham the “father in faith” of all who believe in Jesus Christ.

The truest and best example of Abraham’s faith in YHWH is his obedience in sacrificing Isaac (Gen 22). The fact that he was willing to follow YHWH’s command even to the point of killing his own son has been the subject of much philosophical, ethical and theological study (e.g., Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling).

It is quite easy, however, in our eagerness to get to Genesis 22, to overlook Abraham’s comparable act of faith in Genesis 21. In 21:1-7, we read the happy story of Isaac’s birth to Sarah. But the happiness of the foretold birth quickly gives way to the tragic realization that Abraham’s mistake with Hagar (Gen 16) will bring either strife or heartwrenching goodbye.

Gen 21:8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.

How much pain, guilt and turmoil are packed into that single verse eleven, only eight words in the Hebrew! I have known my son ex utero for 208 days, and the six I spent apart from him while away on business were terribly lonely. I can’t even begin to imagine how deep my love for him will be when he becomes a young teenager as Ishmael was.

Yishma`el means “God hears.” Abraham had thought for certain that Ishmael would be the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises to him (17:18). Now, as much as he loves his son, he eternally regrets taking matters into his own hands. His decision to take Hagar as a surrogate wife will haunt him every time he wishes he could walk or play or hunt with his firstborn son.

Gen 21:12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

21:14 is echoed in 22:3. Both verses begin, “So Abraham rose early in the morning;” in 22, Abraham lays provisions on his donkey, whereas in 21 he lays them on Hagar.

What must Abraham have been thinking the night before “he rose early?” Did he tell Hagar what YHWH had told him to do? Did he tell Ishmael? How would you explain to your son that you will never see him again? This is not like having a child who lives with an ex-wife in another state. As difficult as those situations are, at least we have phone, e-mail, Skype, cars and airplanes. As Abraham watches his hysterically sobbing son walk off into the desert, what could he be thinking? Is he praying that he would see Ishmael again? Does he ask God to take care of his son–or lash out at God for tearing the family apart?

Gen 21:15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Unbeknownst to Abraham, YHWH honors his faith and preserves Hagar and Ishmael. Even the descendants who are not those of the promise (Rom 9:7) receive a blessing for Abraham’s sake.

Abraham experienced doubt and fear, and he made the same mistakes over and over again. But in these consecutive chapters, he exhibits incredible faith–faith that YHWH would keep his promises, promises Abraham would not live to see fulfilled.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to Losing Two Sons

  1. Pingback: Best of 2011 | think hard, think well

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