October 21, 2013


Life had become a drag. Tension had built unremittingly over the past years. Bitterness and resentment seemed to be ever present in the compound of Abraham since that fatal day. He had been known as Abram then, and they had tried everything. For many years they had waited—to no avail. Sarah just could not conceive—and now she had passed the age when a woman could conceive. Had they not both heard the divine promise loud and clear? A land—their land, a future, and descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5) or the sand of the Mediterranean Sea shore (Gen. 13:16).

One day Sarah had a great plan. Here was a solution: it was doable; it was culturally sensitive; it could be controlled—at least that’s what Sarah thought. Abraham agreed to what Sarah said (Gen. 16:2) and slept dutifully with Sarah’s maidservant—anything for the big cause. The maidservant fell pregnant, and nine months later a healthy son was born. God knew the little tot and even gave him a name. Ishmael—in English God had heard—was Abraham’s son and the reason for the increasing tension in Abraham’s camp. Things had gotten so bad that Hagar had even fled into the desert prior to Ishmael’s birth (Gen. 16:6-15). Since then things hadn’t gotten any better.

Fourteen years had passed since the birth of young Ishmael, and an air of expectancy filled the camp. Sarah was large with child; everybody could see the miracle as she moved around camp. God had finally come through. Twenty-five years after they had first heard God’s incredible promise, Abraham and Sarah held a healthy baby in their arms. All was well—all except for Ishmael. The teenage boy could sense that something was amiss. He felt the misgiving stares. He heard the whispered projections of his future. At the celebration of Isaac’s weaning (usually three years after birth), things finally boiled over. Bible versions struggle as they translate Genesis 21:9. What exactly was Ishmael doing? The NIV reads here “mocking,” while the NKJV opts for “scoffing.”1 The NRSV translates the term with “playing.”2 The Hebrew root causing so much discomfort among translators is actually the same root that forms the basis of the name Isaac, “laughter.” 

This was too much for Sarah. “Get rid of that slave woman and her son” (Gen. 21:10), she must have muttered under her breath to Abraham. No names, apparently no compassion, no common future. Abraham
is distressed because Ishmael was his son. God intervenes at this moment and commands him to follow
Sarah’s counsel (verse 12). That slave woman and her son are sent away into the wilderness of the Negev.

For a second time Hagar finds herself alone, despondent, and out of options (cf. Gen. 16). Again, God comes through. The first woman to be addressed by name by God in Scripture (Gen. 16:8) gets another important visitor. God hears the crying of the boy—by now 17 years of age, but still a boy lacking experience and guidance.

As we listen in on a crucial moment in Hagar’s and Ishmael’s life, we are reminded of the God who still hears. He specializes in hearing the downtrodden and disappointed. He is eager to hear (and encourage) today’s single parents and depressed and homeless and undocumented. He hears the guilty and the careless and the self-righteous (whenever they get around to cry). He still opens eyes (Gen. 21:19; cf. the parallel action of Abraham on Mount Moriah in 22:13). He still leads us to still waters. He still makes sure that our (confessed) sins are drowned at the deepest spot in the ocean.

The God who hears has no favorites. The God who hears is willing and able to mop up our messy life situations. The God who hears waits patiently in the wilderness of your life.

  1. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.