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Verdrijving van Hagar en Ismaël

Pieter Lastman ca. 1583 – 1633
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael
oil on panel(48 × 71 cm) — 1612
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Last held on the 5th of September 2004 at Hattem

Hagar and Ishmael

I once walked near a primary school, where the children had just flown out. A little girl stepped right in front of me. She pulled her cutest face and said: Hi, Mr Mayor!

Growing children are lovely. Each phase has its charm. Babies arouse warm feelings because they still are so delicate and dependent. Toddlers are so funny when you see how they discover the world around them and hear them babbling their first words. It’s nice to see how eager to learn primary school children often are, how they do their best, the tip of the tongue out of the mouth while writing. The tumultuous years of puberty also have their charm. You see them struggling through trial and error in their search for their own identity and life path. And it’s great to talk to the more mature youth on an equal level. Because they’re not yet got stuck, they can open your eyes to what you’ve become somewhat blind to over the years.

Growing children, it’s a blessing to be with them, as grandma and grandpa like my wife and I in recent years. But above all, to experience them up close, and to be part of this process of growing up as a father and mother, by leading that process, guiding it, witnessing it. In any case, I'm very grateful to our dear Lord for my children and grandchildren. Do you too? Gods rules on the creation and maintenance of human life are formidable.

Moreover, it’s not self-evident at all, but it’s a miracle if everything goes according to those rules. Therefore it’s also written about Isaac: "And the child grew up." God had given him to Abraham and Sarah when it was no longer possible. A supernatural miracle. If that’s the life start of Isaac, then nothing can happen to him, can it? And yet it’s mentioned in the bible as an equally wonderful sequel: and the child grew up.

We may think it’s simple. But it wasn’t like that at that time. The infant mortality rate was appallingly high. Thank God, it’s low now. Yet. Children can be victims of a traffic accident. They can die from SIDS. They can get cancer and, because of their young age, a very aggressive one. Or any other illness. Unfortunately, I read in the church bulletin of a previous congregation that a 17-month-old boy had died. He had by me well-known parents and grandparents. One grandfather is an elder in the church, and the other a pastor who has worked there. Fortunately, it’s true of most children what it says of Isaac: the child grew up. But it remains a divine blessing. Blessed, you young people, if you may grow up to adulthood like this. Blessed, you parents, if you can raise children like this. Blessed, you grandparents, if you can have grandchildren. Thank God for it.

“And the child grew up and was weaned.” What does that mean? He no longer received milk from the mother’s breast but had to learn to get used to other food and drink. It happened then around the third year of life. It was the very first step towards independence and adulthood. And it wasn’t easy, because Olvarit (brand of baby food in the Netherlands) wasn’t there yet. Yes, that’s how life works too. In phases, the bond with mother and later also with father becomes increasingly looser and they finally stand on their own two feet. This process is a learning experience for the children themselves, but just as much for the parents. The children must dare to go out into the world, and the parents must let go of their children. Weaning starts with the mother’s breast but continues in other areas as you grow up. It's an exciting but also challenging process. It’s anyway a necessary process. May God give wisdom to young and old so that this process may go well. There may well be frictions, but do they have a positive or negative effect on that process? That’s very important. Think about it, young and old.

“And the child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.” They slaughtered an animal for the meat of that meal. The wine flows freely on that meal. In short, there's a celebration. The scholars have a beautiful French expression for this. They are the “rites de passage”. So rites, actions, customs, which make it clear that a particular stage in life has been passed. We, too, have these rites. Our birthday. Our graduation party. We close something and make a new start. It’s always a reason to look back with gratitude. “Up to this point, the Lord has helped us.” Hallelujah. Without Him, it would not have come to this. But it’s also a reason to look ahead with confidence: He does not abandon the work of his hands. I will face the future with Him. Let us so gratefully remember our milestones and celebrate our feasts. It’s an excellent way to honour the God of our lives.

But the feast in Abraham’s tents is not without blemish. “Then Sarah saw that the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she bare to Abraham, was mocking.” The text is not simple. Some scholars read an innocent word here: The two children, Ishmael and Isaac, are just playing with each other. But most still think of mocking laughter. A silly joke about weaning? Let it be known: I’m still the oldest, even if you are the birthday boy now? It’s guesswork. In any case, Paul also saw it as something negative, for he writes in Galatians: “He who was begotten in the flesh persecuted him who was begotten in the spirit.” No, things don’t always go well with growing children. Evil has penetrated them too. There’s sometimes teasing, bullying, quarrels, sometimes violent quarrels. Even today, it’s not always hunky-dory in the families.

And one evil often evokes another. When Sara sees this, her old jealousy towards Hagar resurfaces, which she already had when Hagar turned out to be able to give birth to a child, but she couldn’t. Her maternal love and protective instinct take on something harsh, harmful, bigoted against Hagar and Ishmael. Looking ahead to the future, she envisions Ishmael as Abraham’s eldest son running off with the larger inheritance, even though he's only the child of a slave girl. She must prevent that. Yes, it’s very humane in the tents of Abraham, just like in our houses, where it’s not always quiet peace either. We daily need the converting, renewing, and reconciling power of the Lord Jesus, also in our family life. What can be there and remain without those forces between people? Between children, parents, between children and parents. Alienation, anger, hatred, thirst for power, fear. And what harm one can do with mockery, because the one you mock with, especially if he is in a delicate and sensitive age, is humiliated to the depths of the soul and sometimes suffers spiritual traumas through it throughout life. How much harm jealousy can do, fear of being lesser and of falling short! The word devil is in Greek diabolos, which means: the wedge driver. He’s the one who throws himself in between. He knows well how to drive wedges sometimes. To throw oneself between people who were supposed to love each other. Also in families, also in Christian families. No one is too good and too religious for it. It happened in Abraham’s tents. It also can happen in our homes. Perhaps you, unfortunately, you’ve been there. In any case, let it be a comfort for us that God did not make His covenant of love and grace with perfect people, that He did not give His promises of salvation and peace to perfect people, but for sinners like us. That He also holds on to such people in His faithfulness when they’re raising children and wants to give advice in tensions and conflicts and show the right way, as He did to Abraham.

However, we do have our questions about this at first. For Sarah says to Abraham: "Chase that slave-woman and her son away, for the son of this slave-girl shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." Do you hear Sara’s contempt and hatred? That slave-girl, she says. And: her son. She can’t even get the names past her lips. But Abraham has no desire at all to reject them. After all, Ishmael is his physical son. That creates a close bond.

And yet God says to him: “Don’t let it be evil in your eyes to do what Sarah tells you.” What now? Is the Lord as hard and ruthless as Sarah? Is He merciless and unjust? It does look like this. Why doesn’t He call for peace and reconciliation? ‘Folks, lay down the swords, live together lovingly.’ But you know, we must not forget that it wasn’t the will of the Lord, but it was through the unbelieving act of Sarah and Abraham that Hagar had a child by Abraham. It was a situation that didn’t make sense and was contrary to God’s calling and election of Abraham. It was due to a lack of faith in God’s promises and disobedience to his word. It was a human violation of God’s purposes. Now, as the children grow up, the nasty consequences become more and more visible, which could escalate into terrible deeds. And that’s why it must end now. It seems hard but breaking up is the best. Yes, the Lord always points the best way. Although it can be the most difficult.

How should we transfer this to our time? Does the Lord ask us to drive growing children out of the house if they’ve been defiant? No, of course not. But He does ask us to create pure relationships in our families. We must remove everything that infringes on his eternal intentions for us and end the nasty consequences of our disbelief in Him and our disobedience to Him. We must get rid of all kinds of conflict material that has arisen from our sinning. Those who are called and chosen by the Lord to live in a glorious covenant with Him must sometimes take harsh measures, must remove from life things that are contrary to that covenant, that threaten that covenant. We cannot harmoniously combine everything. To give an extreme example: If you’re the owner of a notorious pub or hotel, a gambling house, and become a genuine Christian, then you’ll get rid of those things. Watching certain films cannot be combined with your faith either. I’ve heard of someone who came to faith that he put piles of videos he used to watch over and over again in bags and set them up for the garbage truck.

And such personal choices and actions of faith can also sometimes put the ties of family and ties of friendship under threat. You have to disappoint others, hurt them, sometimes let them go completely. If there’s always conflict material because of a very different faith, philosophy, and lifestyle, if you only make each other unhappy, it’s better to let each other be free. The sending away of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham also has that aspect. It’s not just negative. They thus are freed from slavery. And Abraham also gives them water and bread, enough to travel to a place where they can settle. We can’t always hold each other. Sometimes we have to let go of each other. That hurts. But sometimes, it’s for the best. And then give each other as much as possible.

That does not alter the fact that our sympathy goes much more to poor Hagar and Ishmael than to those hard-hearted Hagar and Abraham. There’s also something of the contrarian nature of God’s election. He doesn’t choose sweet, nice people, people who do so well, people who don’t get stuck in life, but he chooses sinners, who carry the burden, the bad consequences of their sins with them all their lives, even though they know of divine forgiveness. Fortunately, because otherwise, who would be saved?

And that choice also means that God removes everything that stands in the way of the fulfilment of his promises, even if it’s through human suffering and pain. He promised to bless the posterity of Abraham and Sarah. They will be the chosen people. From them will arise the Savior. And Ishmael must not stand in the way of that, which happens when he sets aside Isaac and starts claiming the birthright and the inheritance associated with it for himself. Ultimately, nothing and no one can stop God’s plan of redemption. And that’s, on the one hand, a plan in which Israel, the people sprouted from Abraham and Sarah, plays an exceptional role, which other nations don’t play. That’s why Ishmael must fall out of our story, also in God’s view. But, on the other hand, God’s plan is a plan for the redemption of the whole world, of all nations, through Israel, especially through that one Son of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ, which is why the Lord does not abandon Ishmael in his need.

We will read that clearly in the sequel. Hagar gets lost in the desert. The water is running out. Ishmael threatens to die of thirst. His mother cannot bear that. She puts him under one of the bushes that grow there in the desert, probably some kind of thistle bush with thorns and small leaves, giving just a little shade from the scorching sun. She sits at a distance, as far as the arrow falls, that has been shot from a bow. The place is still visible but from afar. And sitting so at a distance, she raises her voice and weeps. And, so we read directly, God heard the boy’s voice. Our story poses quite a problem for the interpreters. According to Genesis 17, Ishmael was circumcised at 13, a year before Isaac was born. So that Ishmael must have been about 17 years old when he mocked on the feast day of Isaac’s weaning. But we also read that Abraham put the child Ishmael on Hagar’s shoulders with bread and a sack of water and that Hagar threw her child under a bush, giving the impression that Ishmael was not older than a single year. And now we’ve also to ask ourselves who’s weeping and heard by God: the mother or her child. We get the impression that a writer later on two related stories put together without considering it important to make the differences invisible. In any case, the most important thing is that God hears our weeping voices. Weeping voices of parents and children in their distress. In their own need and in their need for the suffering of the other, whom one loves so much. Growing children and caring, nurturing parents. Life doesn’t always go as planned. Bad things can happen there in the desert of a hard existence. We already mentioned a serious illness, a traffic accident. We can think of physical and mental handicaps, psychological problems, educational problems. No, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes tears flow. Sometimes, there is a cry to heaven, a cry in sorrow and great distress. Sometimes the suffering is so much that loved ones can no longer bear it. Yes, life is sometimes at stake.

But know this: God is hearing us. That’s what the name Ishmael means very literally: God hears. The Lord is not deaf. The Lord is not cold and indifferent. But He hears. “He will be the saviour of the poor; He hears their cry for help. He approaches their solitude with royal compassion.” (Ps. 72 in a dutch hymn ) Just cry it out. Loud. For whatever reason. For yourself. For your children. For the horrors in this world. God hears it wherever we are. Amid our woes. Under the thornbushes of our worries, fears, disappointments, sorrows. And the angel of God cried from heaven to Hagar and said to her: “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the boy’s voice where he is. The word “angel” is capitalized in most translations. If in the Old Testament it’s not about one or another angel, but especially about the angel of God, then we see God’s Son in it before He became flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the old covenant, the Angel of God still cried from heaven for salvation, but He came down to the earth for redemption in the new covenant. As the living proof: the Lord hears. The Lord saves. He saves from all distress and death. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, great in mercy. That’s a comfort and encouragement, also for us, in our needs and worries of whatever nature: caring for ourselves, each other, our children. The Lord hears and helps in Jesus Christ. We can rely on that. He will not forsake us in the desert of this life. He does not even leave us before the borders of death. Thanks to Jesus.

That’s good in our Old Testament story, and it’s already a prelude to what is fulfilled by the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. Ishmael must leave God’s chosen family. Ishmael does become a desert dweller, so not an inhabitant of the promised land. And yet the Lord does not write him off. For he is a descendant of Abraham. The Lord saved him miraculously. And he may also be the patriarch of nations. According to Genesis 25, he also had twelve sons by the Egyptian woman whom Hagar had chosen for him, and thus twelve tribes sprang from him. In other words, the Lord does not deal with him so much differently as with Isaac. The Lord will certainly not write him off.

It would go too far to draw all kinds of lines from our story to the current situation in the Middle East. They certainly exist, considering that Ishmael is the patriarch of the northern Arab peoples, who now live in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, including the Palestinians. There still is a wonderful love-hate relationship between Israel and the neighbouring nations, one that has already become visible in our text history. The majority of these northern Arab peoples are Muslims, incidentally a religion related to Judaism and Christianity. But many Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians are Christians, believe in Jesus Christ as God’s saving Angel on earth. So we feel the tension that our story is already full of. God only chooses Israel but for the purpose of his saving love for all nations. He doesn’t write them off, but “count them on the scroll, where he writes the nations, as being incorporated into Israel.” (Ps. 87) In our story, the wall between Jew and Gentile is a wall that God Himself erects in His covenant and election by advising Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, but which He also jumps over by hearing and saving Hagar and Ishmael. And so it’s in the new covenant. Salvation comes from the Jews. Because it’s through that one Jew Jesus Christ. But that salvation is for all nations at the same time. For us too. In that respect, the wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. The Lord hears Israel and Ishmael, and therefore also the Palestinians and therefore also us.

That’s how it is in our story. “And God was with the boy, and he grew up.” Growing children. All over the world. And in our own family. As Isaac: and the child grew and was weaned. Like Ishmael: And God was with the boy, and he grew up. What a privilege to witness, to lead, to guide their growing up. In this way, our own life of faith also grows.

” Hi, Mister Mayor.” “How sweet of you to greet me. But I’m not the mayor. I’m the pastor of the church. Who tells of the Lord Jesus, I said. And, I now add, of his love for growing children. Yes, for everyone. Everywhere in the world. Amen.

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