In this study, we took a slightly different approach and did a close reading of not one, but two passages. The case of Hagar and Ishmael present a very complicated situation in the reading of the Bible. Thus we need to look at what the Old and New Testaments say together about this. Both the Old and New Testaments interact and ultimately point us to Jesus.
(A) The OT on Hagar and Ishmael sent away: God is a promise-keeping, sometimes-baffling, entirely kind God. (Gen 21:1-21)
At this stage of the narrative, after 25 years of long waiting, the laughter that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah had finally arrived. Sarah finally gave birth to the promised son and Abraham gave him the name Isaac. In the first 7 verses of this chapter, we see the repetition of one key theme -- God acted as he had said he would, and fulfilled the promised that He had made to the couple. Sarah's laughter in this chapter had been transformed from one of bitterness (in Gen 18:6) to one of true joy. Abraham too, rejoiced at the birth of his son.
In contrast, however, was Ishmael's laughter which was one of mocking and scorn. Abraham and Sarah knew how Ishmael reacted, and Sarah proposed that both Hagar and him be sent away. Abraham was displeased with Ishmael's response too. God (strangely), told Abraham to do as Sarah said. And so Abraham sent the pair away, and mother and son struggled to survive in the desert. But God intervened. He heard Ishmael's cries (not Hagar's) and was faithful to his promise to Abraham for Ishmael was Abraham's son. The angel of God came to meet their needs. Whether he created a well or not, we do not know, but he gave her eyes to see this well. It is also significant because the well is a symbol of salvation for the people of that time. In verse 20, God's presence in the life of the son continues to be affirmed.
At the end of this narrative in Gen 21, we see more instances of how God keeps his promises. We also read of God's kindness to his people in how he met the needs of Ishmael in the desert. In the narrative, Hagar refers to God as the eternal God, and this is another of his characteristic that we can see from the passage. Do we see the blessings of this eternal and kind promise-keeping God, or are we like Hagar, sometimes so blinded by our circumstances and need Him to gently open our eyes? Do we know the promises of this God?
But yet, in today's study, we also struggle with the reasons for God's actions, namely how he could agree with Sarah's plan. We do not know why, but we are reminded of the Godness of God. If God is God, we expect him to work in ways beyond our understanding sometimes. Is our 'god' always pleasing to us, or can he sometimes challenge our perceptions and ideas of him?
(B) The NT on Hagar and Ishmael sent away: God calls us to stand firm on the gospel of grace (Gal 4:21-31, 5:1)
In the second half of the study, we focused on a New Testament passage in Galatians. Paul contrasted the lines of Hagar and Sarah, and helped us to see how the account in Genesis was not merely one of a domestic dispute, but helped to point towards Jesus and the gospel.
The son borne to the slave woman Hagar was born to the flesh, and represented by Mt. Sinai in earthly Jerusalem. Her children are in slavery. More specifically, they are slaves to the law. On the other hand, the son of Sarah was born through promise, and represents Jerusalem above. Her children are born to a free mother, freed through the gospel of promise.
What are we to make of this? The law helps us understand sin, but there is no power in the law to help us stop sinning. Gospel freedom came through Jesus, who obeyed the law perfectly, and all who place their faith in him have been freed. Paul uses the two children as an illustration of two different kinds of people -- those who live by the law versus those who live in freedom through the gospel. Christians who believe in the saving power of the gospel need to cling to the gospel of promise, and not to return to the trappings of the law. Christians are children of the promise, with freedom, from the line of Sarah.
Yet, there is a real temptation to go back to the righteousness that is from works to be justified by actions. We get upset every time we mess things up. We work hard for our work reviews. We get happy or sad every time we look at our bank accounts. These are small and big ways that we continue to live based on our works.
In the moments when we struggle with these things, let us remember Gal 5:1 -- "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." There is freedom in Christ. Like barren Sarah giving birth to Isaac, our salvation is a result of God's grace. Let us, therefore, stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace.