In our text for this study, I want to make the assertion that God sees the unwanted. As I do so, I want to ask, do you?
The story of Ishmael is a tragic one in so many ways. It is a story unbelief, adultery, family division, rejection, and being an outcast. It is a story of selfishness, envy and even “biological warfare” (in that the conception of a child was used by both parties to seek to injure the other). It is a story of cruelty and unkindness. It is a story of impatience and utilitarianism. It is the story of brokenness in a very broken world. It is essentially a story of people made in the image of God who were treated as non-entities; they were unwanted by the very people who should have wanted them the most: their family.
Sadly, this story continues to be retold and repeated from generation to generation. The sermon on which this study is based was preached on Sanctity of Life Sunday 2013 (27 January 2013 in South Africa), a time in which Christians pause to reflect on the-oft repeated stories like the one before us. It should be noted, with reference to the sanctity of human life, that the global abortion holocaust has many parallels to this story recorded in Genesis 16 and 21.
Because of selfish impatience, marital infidelity, autonomous promiscuity, sexual utilitarianism, domestic strife, self-centred egoism and materialism, the world is fast filling up with the unwanted, who become the rejected, and are either put to death or abandoned. South Africa is no stranger to this malady.
The first of February 2013 marks the sixteenth year of legalised abortion in our country. Since then some 70,000 children each year are legally put to death before they ever see the light of day. Running parallel to this is the reality that many children who have been born into this world are soon thereafter abandoned. Recently I met with a family in another part of Johannesburg for coffee. They arrived carrying a baby, just a few weeks old, who had been found abandoned in a field just hours after its birth.
This culture of death has also had its impact on others in our society. Sanctity of life applies not only to abortion. We see the disabled disregarded, the mentally ill ignored and the elderly marginalised. Increasingly, the culture of death (which began in Europe and has gained momentum in America) is fast overtaking our nation. The concept of the sanctity of human life is becoming as outdated as telegrams. This is why Sanctity of Life Sunday is such an important day in the life of our church.
Several years ago our church began to annually observe this designated day to promote awareness of the murderous scourge of abortion in our society. But we do so not merely to decry the evil but rather, as we expose these deeds of darkness, to equip the congregation to actively engage in doing something to rescue the perishing. Solomon wrote, “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Surely we did not know this,’ does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?” (Proverbs 24:11-12).
If we take this principle seriously then we will engage in activity to do what we can to see and to receive the otherwise unwanted.
There are dangers and attitudes that must be avoided as we engage culture on this level.
For example, we must avoid the danger of evangelical and Reformed pietism, whereby we claim that active involvement in such social issues has nothing to do with the gospel and therefore with the church.
Similarly, we must avoid fundamentalist militantism, whereby we hatefully make ourselves known as standing against certain people—abortionists, homosexuals, etc.—without lovingly seeking to win them for Christ. Jesus, while never condoning sin, was known as a friend of publicans and sinners. He lovingly reached out to them in order to win them, and we must do the same.
On another level, we must avoid the danger of evangelical accommodationism. That is, we must not somehow try to embrace and excuse evil practices. A Roman Catholic hospital was recently sued by a man after a doctor on call ignored emergency pages, with the result that the man’s wife and unborn twins died. The defence mounted by this Roman Catholic hospital was that the unborn are not persons with legal rights.1 While that may be law in Colorado, it is a denial of everything the Roman Catholic Church teaches. It is nothing more than unbiblical accommodation.
Rather than embracing any of the aforementioned unbiblical attitudes, we must instead act with biblical activism. We need to see that the sanctity of human life is a gospel issue, and therefore, as citizens of our country, we must do what we can to stand against such evil practices.
There are many aspects to this huge issue of the sanctity of life, and I cannot possibly address all of them in one study. But I want us to reflect upon the reality that we live in a nation that gives a mother the legal right, in many cases, to hire someone to kill her unborn child. In fact, there are many who will do it for free! Since the baby is out of sight, it is assumed that the child is also out of mind. But this is not so for God.
Before moving into our text, we need to note that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is also the story of God’s grace, faithfulness, sovereignty, compassion, love, justice and concern for the outcast. It is a story of loving providence. It is a story of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. And we glorify God that this story is also retold and repeated from generation to generation.
In this story we have biblical evidence that God sees not only unwanted children but also (in many cases) their bewildered, conflicted, because unwanted and rejected, mothers. God expects His children to see them as well and to be His eyes, ears, hands and feet. That is, He expects us to open our eyes, to see the need and then to do something very practical about it.
In this study, therefore, I want to help us see from the Scriptures the fundamental reality that God sees the unwanted and that He wants us to see the unwanted as well. In fact, He wants us to see them that we might save them. He wants us to see them so that we might step into their lives. And as we do so, the wonderful reality is that they will come to see Him. Our hope is that they will come to the point that the God who sees them is then seen by them.
May we become more proactive and may this become increasingly so in the wider church. And as this happens, then by God’s grace such special days as Sanctity of Life Sunday will one day no longer be needed. May the gospel so produce a culture of life that the current culture of death will not have a chance of surviving. Yes, may the culture of death succumb to its own depraved success. May the culture of death itself die.
The Story Explained
As indicated, this is a sad story indeed. Sarai, a person of faith (Hebrew 11), became impatient regarding the promises of God. She finally believed that God would give her and Abraham a son, but though she had faith, she had lost hope. And because she had lost hope, she had taken matters into her own hands.
She proposed a culturally accepted (but biblically wrong) course of action: She offered Hagar to her husband as his wife. While polygamy was practised in the culture of the day, it was never sanctioned by God. The ancient Code of Hammurabi actually codified polygamy, but it was never God’s intention. In this whole ordeal, Sarai treated Hagar as chattel, as a non-entity, with indignity. Sarai’s theology needed some real help. She failed to see and to treat Hagar as one who was made in the image of God.
Abraham agreed to Sarai’s suggestion and a son was conceived. Hagar, perhaps embittered and emboldened by pride, was unkind to Sarai. Sarai blamed Abraham, and Abraham once again succumbed to his wife’s pressures so that a very pregnant Hagar was expelled from the home. She was unwanted.
What are the factors in this story? We see clear hints of utilitarianism (using another to meet one’s needs), impatience and unbelief (resulting in compromise of principle and conduct). A fellow human being was seen merely as a means to an end. Minimising another’s dignity makes it easier to reject them!
The results were sad. In a sense, we have the story of a fatherless child. The mother was also unwanted. A conception occurred in defiance of God’s order. A sinful act resulted in a pregnancy (and birth). A “disenfranchised” woman was taken advantage of. The pregnancy at first so desired soon became a power play. The child became a thing—a threat—rather than a person. The “adoptive” mother wanted to get rid of the inconvenience.
There is an eerie parallel between the world of Sarai and Hagar and our world. Does the following sound familiar? A woman and her unborn child were abandoned. The mother sensed that she was unwanted, and felt humanly hopeless. She saw no hope for the future. A child was about to be brought into the world without a father and without a larger family—without a home.
Our world, like theirs, is broken, and therefore such tragedies continue to take place. There are many hagars, and unborn ishmaels, who are still treated as unwanted and therefore as outcasts. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the approach of many. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent that when it comes to unwanted pregnancies and therefore unwanted babies. In some cases, even where the pregnancy is wanted the baby is ultimately not.
This sinfully tragic story is seen over and over in our day.
We live in a world rife with sexual promiscuity born of a lack of self-control and faith in God’s wisdom. The result is pregnancies in which the message is (sometimes) sent that both mother and baby are unwanted. Mothers often feel a sense of hopelessness in a harsh world, with nowhere to turn. God’s people—like Abraham and Sarai—seem to be a major contributor to the problem.
Sarai, a woman of faith, was guilty of harshness, and perhaps even of hatred. Even people of faith can be cruel, uncaring and inconsiderate. Even believers can live with and out-of-sight-out-of-mind outlook. Sarai (Sarah) would ultimately find her name in the Hebrews Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11:11), but here she needed some help toward being prolife.
Those who have been seen and saved by God can often be the very ones who are the cause of others feeling unwanted. Not all abortions are committed by those outside of the community of faith. Not all children given up for adoption are done so by unbelievers. The fact is, people of faith throughout history have often contributed—albeit often unwittingly—to a culture of disregard for those who are deemed an inconvenience.
Let’s face it: The church has not always been consistently prolife. How else do you explain a Roman Catholic hospital mounting a legal defence that a foetus is not a person with legal rights?
Further, though most informed believers oppose abortion (for all reasons), it is still true that we have much work to do with reference to practically responding when mothers are persuaded to not abort their child.
One of the complaints that pro-abortionists launch against the prolife community is that we are quick to denounce abortion while on the other hand (supposedly) doing nothing to practically care for unwanted children when they are born. That accusation cannot be justified universally, though no doubt there are many cases where the criticism probably sticks. In other words, even God’s church seems unconcerned!
According to James, those who have been justified by faith alone are to justify their faith by Christ-driven works—such as caring for orphans (James 1:27). Do we see the need? There are an estimated 120 million orphaned children worldwide. Surely the church ought to do something to meet this need? If we do see the need, what do we plan to do about it?
We still live in a sin-cursed world into which many enter unwanted. They then face a wider world where they are unwanted. No one seems to care; no one seems to see. And if the unwanted are not seen, then it is doubtful that any effort will be made so that they will be received by the world. But I must qualify this negative statement: A truer statement might be, almost no one sees and receives—for God sees and God receives. God sees the unwanted. And because He sees the unwanted, the stories of His grace towards the otherwise unwanted continue.
I trust that God will use this story to help us to see the fatherless and to do something—very practical—about it.
The Story within the Story
The story gets much better, for God saw what no one else would:
Now the Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”
In v. 7 we learn that Hagar, though she felt abandoned, was not unnoticed—at least not in heaven. The text tells us that “the Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness.” What a beautiful statement!
This may have been a Christophony (a preincarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ). Whether or not this is the case, it is clear that the Lord Himself undertook to care for this woman and her unborn child. He “found” her, which implies interest—a search; a concern. And when He found her, He initiated an exchange.
Verse 8 is very significant. Two questions are asked, which indicate that the Lord really did see the unwanted.
First, the Angel asked, “Where have you come from?” God was not seeking information. He knew where she had come from. He was showing that He cared about what she had been through. He did not disregard her story and did not dismiss her pilgrimage of pain. He was interested in her as an individual.
Those in need—all around us—have a story. They have a history. We need to care enough to enquire. We need to care enough to listen to their story. We need to treat them as those who matter; as those whose stories matter. We must listen before we judge. Not all who are pro-abortion are radical feminists or lawless libertarians.
The second question was also significant: “Where are you going?” In a sense, the Lord was asking, “And what will you do now? Do you have a plan?” The question, in a very real sense, was an invitation. “I care and I can do something about it. There is hope!”
Many women are pregnant and hopeless. They need someone to take them seriously and to probe their plan and to let them know that they are not alone. Our church has a crisis pregnancy counselling ministry—Eva’s Hope—which operates from this very concern.
The point is simply this: We must engage with those who are otherwise hopeless in order to offer some very real hope. But, of course, this raises the issue of what kind of hope and help we can and will offer.
It is interesting that Hagar really did not have a plan—unless you call running away from home a plan. That was, to her, the only option: Run from the problem and hope for the best.
This is precisely what motivates many when it comes to abortion. They see an unexpected pregnancy as an insurmountable problem and therefore abortion as the means to run away from it. The unexpected pregnancy becomes an unwanted pregnancy. It is a hopeless situation as far as they can see. But thank God that He can see further!
The Heavenly Response
God had a plan and it had nothing to do with running away. Instead, God wanted both Hagar and Sarai to face the music.
The Angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.” Then the Angel of the LORD said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” And the Angel of the LORD said to her: “Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
The Lord gave hope. He informed her that the child she carried had value and a future. The Lord gave her a prophecy of hope. Her future had meaning.
Derek Kidner observes with wonderful insight: “His comfort for her was bracing rather than soothing, drawing her mind to things ahead away from past injuries.” He encouraged her to face the hardship, confident that He would be caring for her. This is what counselling at crisis pregnancy centres ought to do.
But the greatest thing that she got from this encounter was that God saw her and she saw God. As someone has pointed out, it is God as seen rather than as seeing that is the emphasis of these two verses. Literally, “You-Are-the-God-Who Sees” in v. 13 can be rendered, “You are a God of sight”; that is, a visible God. The name of the well in v. 14—Beer Lahai Roi—literally means “the well of the living one, my seer.” This name commemorated the abiding, rather than the merely transient, nature of the experience.
Are we so bombarded with the heartaches of this world that we have come treat such brokenness as white noise? As we reach out to those who are in need—unwanted babies, unwanted mothers, unwanted aged, neglected disabled, etc.—we are in a position where they can know that God sees them, and by God’s grace they can come to see Him.
The Story Extended
There is a repeated story of rejection in chapter 21. But there is also a repeated story of God’s reception.
So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. “Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water; and putting it on her shoulder, he gave it and the boy to Hagar, and sent her away. Then she departed and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba.
And the water in the skin was used up, and she placed the boy under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down across from him at a distance of about a bowshot; for she said to herself, “Let me not see the death of the boy.” So she sat opposite him, and lifted her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad. Then the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. “Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the Wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Once again, at Sarah’s instigation, Hagar and Ishmael were driven from the home. Once again, they found themselves unwanted, though not unnoticed by God. This time, God heard the cry of Ishmael. As Kidner notes, “Hagar’s was a cry without hope; it was the lad’s voice, not hers, that brought help.” Again,
The episode tellingly portrays man’s plight and God’s grace: on the one hand, diminishing supplies, scant refuge and final despair; and on the other, the abundance of the well (once it was revealed), the promise of life and posterity, and (20) the presence of God.
Once again the Lord God saw Hagar and her now teenaged son. He also supplied for her material need. The world was not any kinder to her now than it was 13—15 years earlier. But God was still kind. And the church should still be kind as well.
We must deal with what is rather than with what we want(ed). How will we respond to the reality of the unwanted in our midst? Again, God sees and cares for the unwanted; do (will) we?
There are repeated stories of sadness in this world. The broken world is a fact of life. Will we be angels of the Lord? After all, though brokenness will diminish, it will not be completely demolished until Jesus returns. Rather than looking for “unwitting angels” (Hebrews 13:2), why don’t you decide to be one?
The Story’s Epilogue
In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul comments allegorically on the story of Ishmael as recorded in Genesis.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labour! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
Ishmael was not to be the covenant son. But this did not make him any less a son. It did not make him any less valuable a son. It did not make him any less valuable a person. His life still had value and God saw it. Sadly, there are those who somehow think that Ishmael’s life had less value than Isaac’s. In A Passion for the Fatherless, Daniel Bennett deals with this issue and what he calls “Ishmael Theology.” He sets the scene with the following fictional scenario.
Roger is considering adopting a child. As you talk about the process of adopting, he mentions that he and his wife are struggling to decide between international and domestic adoption.
“This is a big deal,” Roger laments. “There are so many decisions we need to make. In fact, each decision just seems to lead to more choices. I don’t want to make a mistake.” He thinks for a moment, as if he’s not sure how to articulate his frustration.
“After all,” he confides, “I don’t want to create an Ishmael. Abraham failed to trust God to provide him with the son he had promised through his wife Sarah. So Abraham worked to bring about a son on his own terms and fathered Ishmael with Sarah’s servant Hagar. I want to wait for the Lord’s will, for Isaac instead of Ishmael.”
Can you see the problem with Roger’s reasoning? He assumes that Ishmael was somehow a second rate son, not quite God’s perfect will for Abraham and Sarah. To be sure, Abraham’s union with Hagar was not God’s intention, and there would be consequences to it, but Ishmael was not one of those consequences. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, and God fully expected Abraham to treat him as such. God was concerned about Ishmael (and his mother) and Abraham ought to have been too.
I find it interesting that so many people make the leap from Paul’s covenantal argument in Galatians 4 to assuming that Ishmael was an unbeliever. That is not necessarily the case. In fact, Genesis 21:20 tells us that “God was with the lad,” which is language used elsewhere in Scripture of Joseph (Acts 7:9), Solomon (2 Chronicles 1:1), Asa (2 Chronicles 15:9) and Jesus (Acts 10:38). That’s pretty good company to be in! Such language is used of those who are God’s children. While Ishmael was not the son of the covenant (i.e. not the son through whom the promised seed of Genesis 3:15 would come), that does not necessarily mean that he was not in a covenant relationship with God.
We know that Ishmael mocked Isaac and that, later, his descendants persecuted the descendants of Isaac, but that did not make him any less of a son than Isaac. The end result was not the issue. The fact is, Ishmael and his mother were human beings, created in the image of God. They ought to have been treated accordingly.
Was this failure a contributing factor to the hostility that would arise? Are we contributing to the enemies of the church?
Regardless of whether or not the ones that we see and receive are heirs of salvation, it is still right to care for the unwanted. Life and love are both risky. We don’t have to know the end in order to care.
On Saturday afternoon, 19 January, my world was turned upside down. It was changed—I think forever. A baby who had entered the world less than twenty hours earlier was in my home. He was a baby that entered this world unwanted. His mother gave him up for adoption—before his birth. But God saw this unwanted baby and He had made a plan. As my wife held this little boy in her arms, and as our family gathered around, I laid my hand on his little head and prayed that the Lord would save him and that a godly family would raise him for Christ. Later, I would hold him, kiss his forehead and tell him that I loved him and that most importantly, God loved him. I believe this.
My heart was broken that this little guy was born and rejected at the same time. I wanted him to know that we saw his need and that we would do what we could to care for Him. Most importantly, I wanted him to know that God loves him. Though he came into this world unwanted, he was loved. Someone cared. God saw him and his need.
I was deeply saddened to reflect on the reality that millions of such little ones around the globe come into this world unwanted. Who will care for them? Will anyone see their need and help? I was deeply disturbed in my spirit that this world is so broken and harsh—especially towards the weakest in society. I want to see the unwanted and I want to do something constructive about it. And what encouraged me in this is that God sees the unwanted—long before you and I do—and He desires to use us to both see and to help them.
My story has what I trust will be a happy ending. The mother and the wider family, just a few days later, made the decision to take him into their hearts and into their home. We met the mother and one of the family members. As Jill placed him in his mother’s arms her tears dropped on his blanket.
I don’t know how that story is going to turn out. But his name is on my prayer list and I will be repeating it at the throne of grace, perhaps for the rest of my life. I want to see him in heaven. I want to wrap my arms around him and sing praises with him to our Saviour. I want that for his mother. I want to see that.
Yes, we are to be practically prolife—even if we save the life of one who becomes an enemy of God’s people. Do we love those who love us? How are we any different to unbelievers in that regard? Do we love and pray for those who spitefully use us? We are called to love and this love must not be selective.
God sees people and God sees future outcomes. He asks us to do what we know to do and to leave what we don’t know to Him (Deuteronomy 29:29). Our mercy must not be selective. God may well use us as the means to change a life forever!
The Story’s Encouragement
Kidner notes that the Lord “watches over the disregarded person and pattern and works His sovereign will.” Interestingly, Hagar was not the only needy woman whom the Lord met at a well in Scripture. What Kidner says of Hagar could be equally said of the woman at the well in John 4.
John 4 records the story of another outcast; another woman who was unwanted (except for hedonistic pleasures). Like Hagar, Jesus saw her and met her need—at a well.
In this case the Lord gave to the woman the water that satisfies forever. He engaged her in conversation, asked her questions, showed keen interest in her life—and ultimately changed her forever.
We have no idea of the eternal impact that we might have as we both see and receive the otherwise unwanted. And that is why we are here!
God can do amazing things with the most unlikely pregnancies. No pregnancy is a tragedy. God sees the unwanted and cares. He calls us to do the same. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Will we?
Are you somehow unwanted? Look to Christ, who sees and receives those whom no one else wants.
Let us see those in need and do all we can to introduce them to Jesus Christ, who can satisfy their thirst forevermore.