A “Perfect” Solution
Last time, we saw Abraham receiving the wonderful promise of God in Genesis 15. Thus, by chapter 16, where the story of Hagar and Ishmael begins, we already know two main things about Abraham: his faith in God, and his desire to have a child. Not only do these two things define Abraham, but they are intertwined in his heart: yes, 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.
That 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. Sarah was well past child-bearing age, so evidently she 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!
Can you imagine the feelings of an 86-year old man who has been childless his whole life—who has been dreaming of a son not only for many years, but for many decades, and finally a son is born to him?! How blessed and how fulfilled he must have felt holding in his hands this living proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises. Remember: even though we know that Ishmael was not a son of promise, Abraham did not know it. For thirteen years, from the moment he was born, Abraham saw Ishmael as his spiritual and physical heir. He loved his son dearly, his heart was full of Ishmael, and during those joyful years, somehow a “small” fact skipped past his attention: God wasn’t speaking to him anymore! We witnessed Abraham’s encounter with God in chapter 15, when he was 85 or 86 years old. The very next time the Lord appeared to Abraham was in chapter 17, when he was 99. For at least 13 years we have no record of God speaking with Abraham.
The New Encounter
Did Abraham realize that God had stopped speaking to him? The Scriptures don’t tell us anything about those 13 years that Ishmael was Abraham’s only son. Yet, when the Lord appears to Abraham in chapter 17, remarkably, the only thing that we (and God) hear from Abraham in this chapter is his plea for his son: “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You.”
Pay close attention: Abraham said these words when God had actually told him about another son! As we read Chapter 17, where God appears to Abraham after 13 years of silence, we see that the promise that shook Abraham’s world—that he would have another son—came only in verse 16. This was preceded by a long discourse, however, in which God told Abraham about the covenant with him and his descendants forever. Within the first fourteen verses of chapter 17, the word “covenant” occurs ten times; the word “descendant” five times, and all these occurrences happen before verse 16—before Abraham hears for the first time that he is to have a son by Sarah. This means that all this time, while listening to the Lord speaking about the covenant and the descendants, Abraham obviously thinks of Ishmael, because at this point he has no other descendants! Then the breaking news of Genesis 17:16 came: Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife… I will bless her and also give you a son by her—personally, I don’t think Abraham was especially thrilled to hear that. He was an old man, he already had a son, his heart and his life were filled with Ishmael, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted another son. So unexpected, so inconceivable, and probably so unwelcome also, was this news that Abraham was not in a hurry to tell Sarah about it: when Sarah hears of it in chapter 18, she laughs with that famous laughter “within herself,” that clearly shows that this is the very first time she has heard about it.
Guest or Guests?
According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance by the trees of Mamre in chapter 18. Abraham was not even completely well after his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. The Torah doesn’t mention it. Instead, we are shown something amazing, that in my opinion reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his encounter with God in chapter 17. The famous beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests, and it is here, in this conversation that we discover signs of Abraham’s uncertainty that are completely lost in the translation. Look at the Hebrew text below, and even if you don’t know Hebrew at all, you can see by the different colors that the Hebrew here switches from the singular (underlined) to plural (bold) – clearly reflecting Abraham’s uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or Divine. For instance, there is a controversy whether Adonai here is to be read here as a sacred word, “Lord”, or as a regular plural “lords”. I believe that right here, right after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural: whether he believed – or even wanted to believe – this supernatural promise!
|ג וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.||3 and said: ‘My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.|
|ד יֻקַּח-נָא מְעַט-מַיִם, וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם; וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ, תַּחַת הָעֵץ.||4 Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree.|
|ה וְאֶקְחָה פַת-לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם, אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ–כִּי-עַל-כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם, עַל-עַבְדְּכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ.||5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.’ And they said: ‘So do, as thou hast said.’|
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that Abraham wasn’t happy about the birth of Isaac or that he didn’t love his youngest son. Of course, he loved Isaac; there is absolutely no doubt about that. However, he had loved Ishmael for thirteen years before he even heard of Isaac, and in all those thirteen years, he hadn’t expected anyone else to take his place. Thirteen years is a long time, and for all this time, Ishmael had been his only son and heir. Of course after Isaac’s supernatural birth, Abraham knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which son was to be the son of promise; but we need to remember that he still loved Ishmael dearly, and it is this knot—tied from his enormous love for both sons and from God’s plan—which we are trying to unravel here.
Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this article, so if you like this article, you might also enjoy the book. Click here to get free sample: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
 Genesis 17:18