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Ishmael

And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into 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 boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. Genesis 21.17-20.

“The boy” in this morning’s reading is Ishmael who, for about fifteen years, has been Abraham’s only son — but a son born of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, in consequence of Abraham and Sarah’s flagging faith in the power of God to do as he had promised (Genesis 16). Now, however, God’s promises have found their fulfilment in the birth and weening of Isaac, the true child of Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar and Ishmael have now been cast out and are dying of thirst in the wilderness.

Paul sees this whole story of Ishmael and Isaac as an allegory (Galatians 4.21-31). He sees Isaac as representing those under grace (“children of promise”) and Ishmael as representing those under law (“children of slavery”). So, he concludes, “What does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son'” (Galatians 4.30) … Which serves very well Paul’s deep concern that the Galatian Christians should continue in their life of faith rather than taking themselves back into bondage under the law, but completely disregards or dismisses an important aspect of the actual story that has caught my attention this morning.

It is that Ishmael is a child of promise too — “I will make him into a great nation,” says God — and that God not only hears his voice and provides water to keep him alive, but continues to be “with the boy”. God is with Isaac, true; but God is also with Ishmael. God is Immanuel (Hebrew: “God [is] with us”) to both of them! He is “with” the ancestor of the Jews and “with” the ancestor of the Arabs (for, yes, the Arabs are the “great nation” that Ishmael eventually became) however much each might now wish to deny that that was ever so.

Where does this thought take me this morning? To a thought that is very well expressed in Frederick Faber’s old hymn …

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in His justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

The “measures of man’s mind” would confine the love of God to Isaac and shut out Ishmael, but this morning’s reading makes it clear that God’s love is too broad for that. What restrictions are the measures of my mind imposing on the love of God? Perhaps I need to look at wherever I don’t see it reaching so that I might find it there?

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