When you hear the word Ishmael, is your first reaction positive or negative? I confess mine was the latter… until I actually read the history closer. The facts unfold as follows, beginning in Genesis 16. Hagar gets pregnant and despises Sarai, her boss. Sarai so mistreats her that she flees. The Lord intercepts her, sends her back to Sarai with the admonition to submit. And then God tells Hagar the name she is to give the son in her womb: Ishmael, which means “God will Hear.” God Himself names the child and it is a nice name. The Lord then proceeds to pronounce good things over Ishmael.
Hmm… nothing negative so far. The Lord continues in Genesis 17:20, when Abraham laughed at God’s promise of a son through Sarah. When the name of Ishmael comes up, the Lord clearly and specifically says, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”
What a strong endorsement from the Lord! God clearly doesn’t hate Ishmael. Several years passed and Isaac arrived as promised. In Chapter 21, Abraham makes a feast for Isaac’s weaning, where Hagar ticks her boss off again, for which Sarah tells Abraham to fire her on the spot. Abraham demurs, but God tells Abraham to listen to his wife. (Yes, the Bible really says that in 21:12.) Then the Lord confirms, yet again, that He is going to make Ishmael into a great nation.
This is now the third time God had only positive things to say over Ishmael. I never realized how many times the Lord spoke positively about Ishmael. Abraham listened to the Lord and Sarah, and sent Hagar and Ishmael off with a good supply of food and water. The food and water ran out while they were still in the desert. “This is it,” Hagar thought and placed the fourteen year old in the shade of some greenery. Because she didn’t want to see or hear him die, she went to sit down about a hundred yards or so from him. There, she simply burst into tears and cried. She didn’t do anything religious like pray or cry out to God; she simply wept at her misfortune.
Suddenly and miraculously, God appeared. The last time they met, He reminded Hagar, He told her to submit herself to Sarah. She didn’t obey, and so she got herself fired because of her snippy attitude. What did she expect? She had reaped what she sowed, God said, and so she had to pull herself together, get over Ishmael, find another job and get on with her life. And next time, be a doer of the word, not a hearer only, or pay the price again.
No, that’s not what happened at all. God told Hagar not to be afraid; both she and the lad would survive and, indeed, prosper. And then God said it one more time: He will bless Ishmael and make him a great nation.
Four times God had His opinion about Ishmael recorded, and each time it was nothing but positive. Like most Christians, I’ve heard several sermons about Ishmael, but none of them echo God’s four-time endorsement of the man.
Where does all this negativity about Ishmael come from, then? The answer is found in Genesis 17:21, right after the second time God said good things about Ishmael. God follows up His endorsement of Ishmael with “…but My covenant I will establish with Isaac…”
Nothing wrong with Ishmael, but Isaac is the one with whom God chose to covenant. What is so different about Isaac? Simply put, Isaac was a miracle baby, the son God intended to use. Abraham and Sarah added Ishmael by themselves. Ishmael was the result of human effort; Isaac came, supernaturally, from God. We know the end of the story. Like all nations on earth, Ishmael’s descendants moved or became assimilated, and gradually ceased to exist as a specific nation. Nothing evil, just the normal flow of the natural. Isaac’s descendants, on the other hand, are still around as a nation. God called them into being supernaturally, and no normal flow of natural events will erase what God creates.
The distinction between Ishmael and Isaac, therefore, is not that one is bad and one is good. It’s that one is of the flesh and one is of the Spirit. Until we are born again, we are of the flesh. However, when we are born again, we are miracle born, because as John 3 tells us, this is a birth in the Spirit.
We can do things in the kingdom of God either in the natural or in the supernatural. Nothing wrong with the natural, that’s important to note. But God’s covenant blessing won’t rest on those things. If the human effort is good, the results will be good, but once the human leader(s) move on, the work will dissipate.
When God calls forth something as He called forth Isaac, and we wait for Him to do what he promised, in His way and in His time, that work will last forever, because that no longer is our work but His. If we want our work in the kingdom of God to last, it’s important to ask: am I doing this in the supernatural or the natural?
Nothing wrong with the natural, but only the supernatural will last.