Most of us know the story of how God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-19). However, in Genesis 21:1-21, we find another story in which God asks Abraham to do something almost as displeasing in regards to his other son, Ishmael. And what was it that God asked Abraham to do to Ishmael? Let him go.
Stating it bluntly, Ishmael was the son that Abraham never should have had. God had promised to give Abraham a son through his wife Sarah, but after years of continued barrenness on her part the couple devised a plan to “help” God keep His promise. With Sarah’s blessing, Abraham had sexual relations with Hagar, Sarah’s servant girl. Consequently, nine months later Ishmael was born. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong. There was never a day when God accepted Ishmael as the son that He had promised Abraham. And several years later, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the true son of God’s promise.
Well, the arrival of Isaac into the camp initiated a ton of friction between not only the two mothers but also the two sons. That friction came to a head on the day when Isaac was weaned, which was most likely when he was three years old. On that day, Abraham threw a great feast for Isaac, a feast that really irked Ishmael, who was a teenager by that time. At some point during the festivities, Ishmael started making fun of little Isaac in a mean-spirited, mocking kind of way. Abraham didn’t see him do it, but Sarah did. She then immediately went to Abraham and said (to paraphrase), “That woman and her son have got to go. This camp’s not big enough for two heirs.” And how did Abraham feel about that? Genesis 21:11 says:
And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son (Ishmael).
It’s interesting that the verse doesn’t say that the matter was very displeasing to Abraham because of Hagar. Truth be told, he had never truly loved her. Ishmael, however, was another matter altogether. You see, despite the sinful circumstances of the boy’s birth, Abraham loved him greatly. After all, Ishmael was in every literal, earthly sense of the word his firstborn. Think about it, what kind of father would delight in having his firstborn son around until the boy became a teenager and then be glad to send him away? Abraham must have thought, “I can’t send him away now. He’s just reaching the early stages of manhood. Surely he’ll need me to guide him through these next few difficult years until he is ready to get out on his own.” But God, for His part, chimed in with Sarah. Genesis 21:12-13 says:
But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of the 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.
Abraham must have received that word from the Lord on the night following the feast because he got up early the very next morning and sent Hagar and Ishmael off to create a new life for themselves. By the way, it’s worth noting that in each story in which God commands Abraham to do something displeasing with his one of his sons, Abraham rises early in the morning to do it (Genesis 21:14; 22:3). That right there speaks volumes about the man. No, he wasn’t perfect, but his love for the Lord was real and his obedience ran amazingly deep. How many of us would get an early start to do something that we didn’t want to do, simply because God had told us to do it?
Now, in closing, let me say that whatever else these two stories from Abraham’s life teach us, they teach us that God’s commands aren’t always easy or pleasant. The hard, cold fact of the matter is that God sometimes asks us to do things that we really don’t want to do. And it is during such times that we find out just how much obedience we actually have. Perhaps God is right now telling you to do something that is very displeasing to you. Perhaps He is telling you to go. Perhaps He is telling you to stay. Perhaps He is telling you to break up. Perhaps He is telling you to make up. Perhaps He is telling you to raise your voice. Perhaps He is telling you to hold your tongue. Obviously, different situations call for different commands. But no matter what God’s word to you is, and no matter how much you disagree with it or how much it pains you, you must do as He says. He simply won’t be satisfied with anything less. Abraham, when he was at his best, understood that, hence the early-morning starts. And may you and I understand it as well and get our own early-morning starts on obedience.