Genesis 20-21: God Keeps His Promises to Us Even When We Don’t Keep Ours to Him

Reading for Sunday, January 18, 2009

 In today’s reading we are once again introduced to a theme that has been emphasized throughout the Abraham narrative. God’s will is unstoppable and when God makes a promise, it is a promise “you can take to the bank.”  In this story we are introduced to another strange instance in which Abraham moved from the place he had been under the trees of Marme to Gerar.  Abraham was living in Philistine territory and for Abraham the Philistines were so terribly wicked (20:11) that he asked his wife to pull the ruse that she had and Abraham had  attempted in Egypt: she was to pretend that she was really Abraham’s sister to ultimately protect Abraham. You would think that Abraham would have realized by this point that God is his ultimate protector, but it was a lesson that he was going to have to re-learn.  We will find out later in the narrative that Abraham and Sarah were technically half brother and sister as they shared a common father but different mothers (20:12).  Such a marital situation seems quite bizarre to the modern ears and I will make no attempt to justify it – I would only like to say that Abraham entered into this arrangement before he met the Lord and I harbor the hope that had he married after the covenant between him and the Lord, that he would have married someone different than his half-sister.   Certainly, after the giving of the Mosaic Law, such a marriage would not have been legal. 

 

At any rate, Abimelech, King of Gerar took her thinking that she was not married to Abraham.  It is incredible here that this all happened as Sarah was up there in age at the time.  As the story goes, Abimelech, like Pharaoh before him received a warning from the Lord that he had better return Sarah to her husband. The reality here, though, is that Abraham should have known better.  God had promised an heir to Abraham through Sarah and he had just witnessed God’s power against Sodom and Gomorrah. Why in the world would he decide to stop trusting him at this point in his life? 

 

God was quite direct with Abimelech after he had taken Sarah, “you are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman” (Genesis 20:3).  Abimelech, like Pharaoh, did his best to return her right away and in this case Abimelech returned her with some gifts given the power of the God that Abraham serves. Incredibly, Abraham appeared to jeopardize God’s plan of providing an heir through he and Sarah, yet God intervened because it was his will that Abimelech would not have any sort of relationship with Abraham’s wife Sarah.  Not only did Abraham receive back his wife, but Abimelech, out of genuine fear for Abraham’s God sent him away with the handsome prize of 25 lbs of silver.  I don’t know what that would amount to on today’s silver exchange, but it would probably be a handsome prize.  So in this story, not only was it impossible for Abraham in his dumb decision making to thwart God’s will but he was even materially rewarded after his blunder.  It shows that God can add his blessing to our lives even after we mess up royally.

 

In chapter 21, we arrive at the fulfillment of one of the key promises made to Abraham.  Isaac, the promised son had finally been born to Abraham and Sarah.  The one that both thought were not possible had now come into their midst. They had tried to help God out and this decision brought forth Ishmael, yet now the one that God had promised them had come.  The one who is the heir would one day be the Messiah Himself, the Savior of the entire world.  Both Abraham and Sarah had laughed in disbelief when they had heard God’s promise of a little boy in their old age and now they were to laugh once more; not in disbelief, but in pure joy.  You can imagine what it must have been like for that strange looking family; a hundred year-old father and an aged mother with a little baby.  This was a child that they had waited for their entire lives and now, in God’s perfect timing, they had received the blessing that they had always craved.  God is faithful and he does carry out his will and God’s power is so great that Abraham and Sarah themselves, as prone as they were to fail, could not put in any sort of jeopardy the plans of God (21:1-7).

 

The last example of the unchangeable nature of God’s Will in this section is related to the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael.  When Isaac was weaned and the family decided to throw a big party to celebrate the event, Sarah noticed Ishmael in a state of mocking and finally she had had enough with the boy and she said to her husband, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son.”  Abraham was distressed because he had grown to love Ishmael, by all accounts (e.g., Genesis 17:18),   yet sent him and his mother away because the Lord promised to give the boy a bright future.  So this father, gave them some food and a skin of water and sent them off into the desert.  Obviously a skin of water was not enough for these two to last long in that place and after exhausting all they had, the boy Ishmael laid down to die in the desert.  I can’t imagine the sting that that boy must have experienced given that his earthly father, who had claimed to love him, had sent him and his mother to die in this way.  The boy cried out and his mother could not stand to witness what was happening and removed herself some distance from the boy she did not want to watch her son die.  Yet, just as God had made a promise to Abraham and Isaac that he would make a great nation through them, he also made a similar promise to Ishmael and in this text we find that God honored it here.  God met this broken woman and her son and performed a miracle in the moment of their great distress: he provided them an oasis to drink from and renew their strength.  And as the story goes, the boy grew up and he found an Egyptian wife and the great Arab people are the recipients of God’s promise keeping as they are the descendants of Ishmael. 

 

In these verses we find that when God makes a promise he keeps it.  When he made a promise to Sarah that she and Abraham would have a son, God would not let Abimelech get in the way.  When God promised them a son in their old age, he delivered on that promise right on time.  When God promised Hagar that her boy would be the father of a great nation, God delivered even in what appeared to be the most impossible of situations.  Praise be to the Lord for God is more than able to fulfill the promises he has made.

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3 Responses to “Genesis 20-21: God Keeps His Promises to Us Even When We Don’t Keep Ours to Him”

  1. Derek Taylor Says:

    I’ve heard commentators note that Ishmael’s descendants, as you have here- out of curiousity what is the evidence of this and how overwhelming is it?

    If this is true, as I suspect it is, it is fascinating to see that the rivalry, resentments and competing claims of blessing that occur between the Jews and Arabs parallel this story. That Ishael would become an archer or a warrior is doubly ironic when one considers the rockets that get launched at Israel to this day.

    I recently heard someone testify about some of the things that have been happening between Jews and Arabs in Israel today – churches where many who were fighting for Hamas or the Israeli army now worship side-by-side. The conclusion is compelling – Christ is the only one who can settle the competing claims to God’s blessing and the acrimony that was created by Abraham’s lack of faith. And I believe God will continue to do this, demonstrating that He alone is able to settle the Middle East crisis.

  2. Derek Taylor Says:

    I’ve heard commentators note that Ishmael’s descendants are the Arabs, as you have here- out of curiousity what is the evidence of this and how overwhelming is it?

    If this is true, as I suspect it is, it is fascinating to see that the rivalry, resentments and competing claims of blessing that occur between the Jews and Arabs parallel this story. That Ishael would become an archer or a warrior is doubly ironic when one considers the rockets that get launched at Israel to this day.

    I recently heard someone testify about some of the things that have been happening between Jews and Arabs in Israel today – churches where many who were fighting for Hamas or the Israeli army now worship side-by-side. The conclusion is compelling – Christ is the only one who can settle the competing claims to God’s blessing and the acrimony that was created by Abraham’s lack of faith. And I believe God will continue to do this, demonstrating that He alone is able to settle the Middle East crisis.

  3. Bruce Smith Says:

    Great thoughts Derek. I have always been taught that Abraham was the father of the Arabs and did not spend a lot of time researching that topic before I commented on it. I have looked at a number of resources that have assumed the connection, like I have, without spending a whole lot of time discussing the basis for the viewpoint. I would be interested looking at what John Walton has to say in his Old Testament Background Commentary which is published by IVP (this is one of my favorite commentaries).

    From what I have read, the biblical basis for the assertion that Ishmael is the father of the Arab people comes from Genesis 25:12-18 which says that Ishmael became the father of twelve princes. These men are purported to be significant contributors of the Arab people. This is what the text says,

    “12 This is the account of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. 16 These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. 17 Altogether, Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. 18 His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the border of Egypt, as you go toward Asshur. And they lived in hostility towarda all their brothers.”

    Historically, though without absolute certainty, Biblical scholars have associated this area from Havilah to Shur mentioned in v. 18 to be identified with various parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Josephus also identified the Arabs as the descendents as well as many classical Arab and Islamic scholars.

    So while it probably can’t be pinned down with absolute certainty, there seems to be enough evidence to make a reasonable case that the Arab people are descendants of Abraham.

    I love what you have to say about Christ being the answer in the Middle East today. Amen! The gospel is the true solution to this problem.

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