An Amazing Promise
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” We are in Chapter 15 of the book of Genesis. The entire conversation in Genesis 15 is absolutely amazing. That night, for the first time ever, Abram expressed his pain to the Lord—for the first time ever, he complained. We don’t know whether it was a decision consciously made in advance that made him say these words, or the fact that he just couldn’t hold back his pain and disappointment any longer. All we know is that, when God tells Abram: “Your reward is exceedingly great,” instead of humble, meek gratitude, we actually hear a resentful complaint: “Lord God, what will you give me? I am going childless.” This is how the English translation reads. In Hebrew, however, it is even worse: “Anohi oleh ariri!” The word ariri ( ערירי – spelled with the letter ayin) means “childless, lonely, abandoned.” But this word also sounds so close to the root “curse” (ariri spelled with the letter alef), that the bitterness of this statement is truly overwhelming: I am cursed by being childless and You are talking about reward?! “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.”
Moreover, Abraham repeats this complaint twice, as if to make certain that his pain and disappointment are clearly conveyed to the Lord. Thus, the third verse of chapter 15 merely reiterates the second, with the same resentful, almost angry, attitude: “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir.”
It is in this conversation that God promises him a child of his own: “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” At this point, Abraham was 85 years old—younger than 100, of course, when Isaac would be born, but still not exactly a young man. Nevertheless, he believed what the Lord told him—and it is here, in this very place, that the Torah says those famous words about Abraham: And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.
A “Perfect” Solution
Thus, by chapter 16, where the story of Hagar and Ishmael begins, we already know two key things about Abraham: his faith in God, and his desire to become a father. First of all, he loves God with all his heart, he believes in Him just as wholeheartedly, he has great faith, and he has proved his faith many times by being completely and unreservedly obedient. On the other hand, he is desperate to have a child, to see his physical and spiritual heir in “one who will come from his body.” Not only do these two things define Abraham, but they are intertwined in his heart. He knows that God has promised him a child, he believes wholeheartedly in this promise—he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness—and he is waiting for this promise to come to pass. Not only because he himself desperately wants to become a father, but also as a token of faith and obedience, he knows he has to have a child.
This is why, when Sarah comes to him with her “Hagar plan,” he must have seen it as a perfect solution to what seemed to be an insoluble problem. Not only was he getting older, but Sarah was getting older, as well. In fact, she was too old already; she was past child-bearing age, so evidently would not be able to bear his child. On the other hand, the Lord did promise him a descendant “from his body,” so obviously, there has to be another woman to bear this child. However, if this woman were Sarah’s maidservant, her child would still legally be considered Sarah’s son. Brilliant!
It was a great “Aha!” moment for Abraham. He probably looked at his wife admiringly, once again amazed by her wisdom. Perhaps he wondered how Sarah had figured out God’s plan while he hadn’t. Not only did he agree to this plan wholeheartedly, without any objections, but since he believed it to be God’s design and God’s will, he was quick to fulfill it, as he always had been in his obedience to God’s will. So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.
Was he happy to lay with Hagar? Or, on the contrary, was it a great sacrifice and a great effort for him? We find nothing said about his feelings. Yet, isn’t this exactly the case each time the Scriptures describe Abraham’s obedience? Whether we read about him leaving his homeland, or parting with Lot, or going to sacrifice Isaac, there is not a single word describing his feelings. There is only action: And Abraham went forth… And Abraham rose up early… and once again: and Abraham rose up early…. More than just once or twice after Abraham began walking with the Lord do we see him accomplishing very challenging tasks, yet in describing those tasks, the Bible rarely provides any insights into his thoughts or emotions. Though doubtlessly it was not easy, he performed those difficult tasks time and time again out of love and obedience to God.
This time, however, he was wrong. Tragic as it is to see people willingly and knowingly sinning against God, or just ignoring Him and committing terrible sins, it is even more tragic to watch somebody who loves God with all his heart make a terrible mistake out of sincere belief that it is God’s will—and this is the case with Abraham in our story. How do I know it was a mistake? Simple math can suffice here: We witnessed Abraham’s encounter with God in chapter 15, when he was 85 or 86 years old. The very next time we hear the Lord talking to Abraham is in chapter 17, when Abraham was 99. For thirteen years, God did not speak with him —was this because He was not happy with Abraham’s attempt to bring about the fulfillment of His promise?
And yet, I do believe that Ishmael was also part of God’s plan from the beginning. For many years, I have wondered why God gave this promise to Abraham: “count the stars, if you are able to count them…. So shall your seed be”—when in fact, the Jews have always been among the fewest of all peoples. Our numbers are small and not impressive, especially if one compares them with the Arab peoples, for instance. However, if we believe that in chapter 15, the Lord was talking, not just about the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob line, but about the descendants of Abraham from both sons—the descendants of Ishmael as well as the descendants of Isaac—then there can be no doubt that the seed of Abraham is indeed as countless as the stars in heaven. But if so, this means that God already foresaw Ishmael’s descendants, and that Ishmael was to be part of His plan from the outset. God never says “Oops!”; many biblical stories (the story of Joseph, for instance) show us people’s errors and misdeeds—whether they are sincerely mistaken and deluded or they consciously sin and go against God—but through all of that, God is unfolding His plan. The story of Ishmael was not an “Oops!” story, either; Ishmael had to be born, God saw him from the beginning – and therefore He Himself gave the boy this special name: God will hear. Through the delusions and mistakes of those involved in this story, He was unfolding His plan…
 Genesis 15:1
 Genesis 15:2
 Genesis 15:3
 Genesis 15:6
 Genesis 16:4
 Genesis 15:5
 Deuteronomy 7:7
Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this series, you can get this book and my other books from my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/ . Also, my new book “Unlocking the Scriptures” is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11
If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (email@example.com).