The Casting Out of Ishmael

“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, . . . What saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”

Galatians 4:29, 30

It was Sarah that first insisted that Hagar and Ishmael should be cast out from the camp of Abraham. Psychologically one can conjecture a very natural explanation for this. It was, of course, Sarah herself that prepared the way for the birth of Ishmael. After many years of longing and waiting to bring forth a son unto her husband Abraham, Sarah began to despair and to doubt that she would ever bring forth the son that had been promised them by God. In her state of desperation she devised the plan whereby Abraham was to go in unto her handmaid and bring forth a seed unto them through Hagar. No sooner had this taken place, however, than she began to regret what she had done. To see her handmaid succeed where she had failed, would seem reason enough to move Sarah to jealousy. To see Hagar, before quiet and submissive, lifted up in pride so as to despise her mistress Sarah only aggravated this jealousy. After complaining to Abraham, Sarah began to treat her handmaid harshly, even to the point where Hagar fled from the camp. Nonetheless, upon the command of God, Hagar returned to the camp of Abraham, and Ishmael was born, the first son of Abraham. This birth, at least from Sarah’s point of view, did not bring the blessedness to the house of Abraham as had at first been planned; but, rather, the very sight of the child was a thorn in the flesh of Sarah, constantly reminding her that she herself was barren. 

The final birth of Isaac in Sarah’s old age did not, as might have been hoped, alleviate her jealousy and regret. It only aggravated it the more. Then it became evident that the scheme which resulted in the birth of Ishmael had been unnecessary, and her contempt for him became the greater. Isaac having been born there was no longer any need for Ishmael. These pent-up feelings finally reached their bursting point at the great feast which was held on the day that Isaac was weaned. There she saw Ishmael mocking her son Isaac. That she could not stand and in a rage of jealousy and envy she went to Abraham and told him that Ishmael had to go. “Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.” Gen. 21:10

Following such reasoning some commentators have been led to remark, as Wm. Robertson Nicoll does inThe Expositor’s Bible, “It is one of these cases in which one poor creature, clothed with a little brief authority, stretches it to the utmost in vindictive maltreatment of another. Sarah happened to be mistress, and, instead of using her position to make those under her happy, she used it for her own convenience, for the gratification of her own spite, and to make those beneath her conscious of her power by their suffering. She happened to be a mother, and instead of bringing her into sympathy with all women and their children, this concentrated her affection with a fierce jealousy on her own child. She breathed freely when Hagar and Ishmael were out of her sight. A smile of satisfied malice betrayed her bitter spirit. No thought of the sufferings to which she had committed a woman who had served her well for years, who had yielded everything to her will, and who had no other natural protector but her, no glimpses of Abraham’s saddened face, visited her with any relentings. It mattered not to her what became of the woman and the boy to whom she really owed a more loving and careful regard than to any except Abraham and Isaac.” 

Such reasoning may all seem to make good sense; it may even appear to be good psychology; but in one thing it sorely lacks, it is not in accord with Scripture. 

When we go to Holy Writ so as to gain an understanding of this event we find that Ishmael is called in Galatians 4, “he that was after the flesh,” and “the son of the bondwoman.” These appellations have their primary reference to the birth of Ishmael. The occasion of his birth was to be found in the weakness and doubt of both Sarah and Abraham. After many years of waiting during which the promised son was not born unto them, they began to doubt that God would ever be able to give to them a son. Therefore in an attempt to evade the necessity of complete reliance upon God, the scheme was devised whereby a son would be brought forth from Hagar rather than from Sarah. This was an act of sin which arose not from faithful reliance upon God and His promises to them, but from their own human imaginations. The fact that Ishmael was born was not out of faith but out of the sinfulness of their flesh. 

After the birth of Ishmael, although the child was in a very explicit way conceived and born in sin, Abraham put forth his best effort to raise him as a covenant child. Still there remained in the heart of Abraham a lingering hope that Ishmael might be acceptable to God. With the faithfulness of a covenant father he instructed Ishmael in all of the glorious truths of promise that God had revealed unto him. When the time came that the sacrament of circumcision was instituted as a sign of the covenant promise, Ishmael too was circumcised as a member of the household of Abraham. He was brought up with all of the tender and loving care which every covenant father bestows upon his children. But all was to no avail. Ishmael was “born after the flesh,” not only as to his literal birth, but also as to the inner character of his heart. Spiritually he was insensitive to the truth. He cared not for the promises of God. Although faithfully raised within the sphere of the covenant, the inner, spiritual experience of covenant friendship found no place within his heart. 

That Ishmael was so spiritually insensitive can be seen also from the narrative of Genesis. Even before Ishmael was born God prophesied to Hagar concerning him, “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Gen. 16:12. Without going into a detailed exposition of this prophecy, we can easily see that this is not such as would be applicable to a covenant child of promise. Concerning Abraham and his spiritual seed it had been said, “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Gen. 12:1, 2. This is quite the opposite from the prophecy concerning Ishmael. 

Again we read the prayer of Abraham to God made at the time circumcision was instituted when Ishmael was thirteen years of age, “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” Gen. 17:18. We referred to this text in our preceding article as an expression of the desire of Abraham that Ishmael might be the son through whom the promise would be realized; but there is also another implication in this petition of Abraham. It contains the heart-cry of a father whose son will not receive his instruction. One of the hardest experiences of spiritual life is that of a father who, after putting forth his greatest effort to raise his child in the truth of the Word of God, finds that his child has no true desire for that Word whatsoever. Many a father has said, and undoubtedly in truth, that he would rather have his son taken away in death than to go through such an experience. With the love of a father for his son, Abraham cried unto God that God would convert the heart of his son. “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” But, as is so often the case, the will of God was other. 

Ishmael is, therefore, typical of the child who, although raised within the sphere of the covenant, is a stranger to its true spiritual reality. In Galatians Paul identifies Ishmael as “the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.” Gal. 4:24. Briefly what he has reference to is that such a child, born within the sphere of the covenant which inwardly he despises, finds his life within the covenant an aggravating restraint that drives him farther into the bondage of sin. Such is ever true; it was true of the Scribes, Pharisees and others who lived under the la; of Sinai; it was true of Ishmael and Esau who lived four hundred and more years before the law was even spoken from Sinai; it is true of the reprobate that lives within the sphere of the covenant today. The covenant of God does not present a certain “subjective, covenant-grace” to the reprobate within its sphere. Rather it aggravates the sin of such and is a means to their greater condemnation. 

That this was true with Ishmael became evident at the feast which was held to celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Ishmael’s mockery of Isaac was no mere expression of childish jealousy. It must be remembered that Ishmael must have been over sixteen years of age at the time. Thus he was old enough also to understand the importance of Isaac in God’s plan of salvation as he had surely been instructed by Abraham. If there had been within him any spiritual sensitivity, Ishmael surely would have rejoiced at the birth and presence of Isaac, for then in that child would rest also his hope of salvation. As it was, we read in Galatians, “But then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit.” The mockery of Ishmael was a spiritual persecution whereby he mocked Isaac, not only as a younger brother, but as the their of the promise of God. It was the deep-seated resentment of a wicked person against the very Word of God. 

This deep-seated spiritual hatred Sarah recognized. To ascribe to Sarah the motives of personal jealousy and hatred, is to ignore the essential spiritual character of Sarah. Although at times Sarah may have become weak in her faith, as did also Abraham, and as do all of the children of God, this act of Sarah was a work of strongest faith. She discerned the mockery of Ishmael as no mere childish rivalry but as deep-seated spiritual hatred. Up to that time she had endured the Godless behavior of Ishmael with patience, but as soon as he reached out with his evil influence toward the covenant child Isaac, she would bring the matter to a swift and proper end. Out of concern for the spiritual welfare for her son she insisted that Ishmael be removed from his position of influence over Isaac that could never serve toward any good. That the motivation of Sarah was pure and good follows without question from the fact God upheld her determination without limitation. The hesitancy of Abraham at this point can only mean that he at the time fell behind Sarah in spiritual discernment and faith. He allowed his natural love for Ishmael to obscure what was without question for the good of the covenant seed. But Sarah saw, and spoke in words which later were quoted by Paul as the infallible Word of God Himself, “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” Gal. 4:30. So would God preserve His Church. 

—B.W.