Puzzling over Hagar and Ishmael

Any brilliant thoughts in this post aren’t mine but from Christopher Wright, in particular his sermon titled Abraham, father of the wrong family (length 35:56). Do have a listen to it!

A couple of weeks ago I was reading from the section of Genesis that contains the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, and some of it left me somewhat perplexed. We’re introduced to Hagar in chapter 16 when Sarai suggests that Abram may do well to sleep with her. Hagar becomes pregnant and looks down on barren Sarai; Sarai retaliates and Hagar flees to the desert.

Then came the first of my furrowed-brow experiences. The first appearance of the angel of the Lord was to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-12). To an Egyptian slave. Not only that, but He gives her a promise on par with the one Yahweh had previously given Abram: of descendants too numerous to count. Wait, what???! Equally surprising is that Hagar obeyed the command to return to the ill-treatment under Sarai. She delivers her son and gives him the name the angel of Yahweh instructed her to.

The next time we run into Hagar is in chapter 21 when Sarah tells her husband to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham’s reluctant to do so but Yahweh tells Abraham it’s okay saying, “I will make the son of the maid-servant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:13). Okay, fair enough.

So Hagar and Ishmael are sent off, but they run out of water in the desert. Yahweh finds Hagar again and repeats His promise. And then He provides an entire well of water! Genesis 21:20 says that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. Later in chapter 25, we read that God kept his promise to make him a great nation by giving him 12 sons. In fact, as Wright points out in his sermon, Isaac and Ishmael are blessed in identical ways except one.

What’s the point?

So why should we care what happened to the progenitor of the Arabs four millennia ago anyway? Answer: This account teaches us something of God’s unchanging character.

  1. God shows compassion to Hagar and Ishmael, because He delights to show compassion to the disenfranchised (Deuteronomy 10:18)
  2. Hagar named the place of her first encounter with God “the well of the one who sees me” and was instructed to name her son “God hears”.  This picture of a  God who sees and hears is an anticipation of the next book in the Bible (Exodus 3:7).
  3. God is determined to keep His promise moving, in spite of human error. His promise was to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3). All nations, including Ishmael’s descendants. Including you and me!

A helicopter tour of the book of Isaiah

Last year in my reflections on Isaiah I wrote that I didn’t know what to expect as I set out to read it. Thankfully, in the intervening time, I’ve become less clueless on the large chunk of Isaiah that we don’t read at Easter and Christmas.

In that vein, I’d like to recommend this series of talks given by John Bell, who is the (white) pastor of a (mostly black) church in Harare. In 5 talks he covers a number of themes in Isaiah including judgment and the messianic kingdom. Here are some teasers for each session to whet your appetite:

Isaiah 6:1-13

  • What was the significance that Isaiah saw the Lord in the year of King Uzziah’s death?
  • What lessons did Isaiah learn about God, about himself and about God and himself as a result of the vision?

Isaiah 11:1-12:6

  • Why do these two chapters go together?
  • Why does God include chapter 11 as a part of scripture?
  • How does Isaiah respond to the pictures drawn in chapter 11?

Isaiah 40:1-31

  • What is special about this point in the book?
  • What do these verses teach us about God?

Isaiah 63:1-6

  • What is the ultimate fulfilment of these verses?
  • What is the right response to these and similar passages of scripture?

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

  • Who are the singers in this ‘servant song’?
  • What are the themes explored in the song?

In the Q&A he gives a brief history of Zimbabwe and tells what the members of his church are doing in their particular situation. (IMO he cares a lot about his country and its people.) He also answers questions from the floor on what he had preached.

If you have the time and the bandwidth, have a listen to John Bell and to pretty much anyone else who has spoken @The Castle!

Rahab told a lie… and then she told the truth

This post is based on a sermon titled “A Shady Lady With a Bright Testimony” (length 52:26) by Dale Ralph Davis.

The New Testament in Hebrews 11  commends Rahab for her faith. We often overlook that as we focus on her lie (and her line of work, and her scarlet cord).

Why on earth did Rahab hide the Israelite spies? Because God had already been at work in her life long before the spies’ arrival.

Joshua 2:9-13

Rahab told the truth about God. She heard a testimony (verses 9-10). She formed a conviction about who Yahweh is (verse 11). She sought a refuge from Him (verses 12-13). This is a pattern for saving faith: you hear, form a conviction and seek refuge from God. You have not only the right beliefs, but also act on them.

As a result, in Jericho there was a safety zone in the midst of judgment. Previous examples of such safety zones are found in Noah’s ark and in Goshen during the plagues. These were pointers to Christ’s cross, our place of refuge in the midst of the judgment to come.


If you were to cut out chapter 2 and 6:22-25 out of the book of Joshua, you’d never miss them. The story flows along quite well without those portions. The narrator didn’t have to tell us the story of Rahab; he interrupted his normal programming to tell it to us.

Yes, Rahab the prostitute told a lie and tied a scarlet cord to her window. But she also trusted in a great and merciful God, who is still in the business of saving those who seek refuge in Him.

Addendum: Read A Remarkable Woman for someone else’s opinion 🙂

How to inherit eternal life

These are my notes on a sermon on Luke 18:18-30 (the story of the rich young ruler) by David Jackman (length 28:32). The sermon is an oldie-but-goodie from the City Lunchtime Talks initiative, in which churches in London seek to evangelise the thousands of workers in the city.

Jesus taught in parables in order to challenge wrong ways of thinking. Two questions in this passage (verses 18 and 26) reveal misconceptions held by the rich ruler and the disciples.

A direct translation of the rich man’s question would be, “What having done shall I be sure to inherit eternal life?”

The first misconception is that you can do something to inherit. Either you are an heir or someone chooses you.

In order to inherit eternal life, it’s not what you do but who Jesus is.

Having heard Jesus’ parable on camels and needles, the people are perplexed. Their reasoning may have gone something like this: Rich people can do lots of good with their money; if anyone deserves to enter God’s kingdom, it’s them. If they can’t, then who can?

The second misconception is that it’s what you have that matters.

It’s not what you have that saves you, but what God gives.

Jesus says that salvation is God’s gift, not man’s achievement (verse 27). Only God can produce the supernatural change that results in submission to Christ.

Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
–Luke 18:35

Countless explanations have been given to try to make sense of what Jesus was saying. If you were to change one vowel in the Greek, you’d go from camelon (camel) to camilon (thick rope). Having a sufficiently large needle, you could thread a camilon. Or, the more common explanation of the Eye of the Needle gate in Jerusalem which required unloading camels and having them enter on all fours. No evidence has been found for the existence of such a gate.

Rather, Jesus was going for the ridiculous. Just as it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, no sinner can enter the kingdom apart of God’s grace.

There’s no way I can save myself. Eternal life can only be received through the impossible working of God.

Forgiven 10,000 talents

These are my notes on a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35  by Christopher Ash (length 33:49). I’ve blogged before on the parable of the unmerciful servant.

An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew ...
The ungrateful servant (via Wikipedia)

Regarding the money owed:

  • The first servant owed the king 10,000 talents, an astronomical sum greater than the money in circulation in Palestine in Jesus’ day;
  • The second servant owed 100 denarii, which wasn’t a trivial debt. It amounted to somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of a year’s salary for the average worker.

At the end of the parable, far from distancing God from the king, Jesus identifies God with the king. You and I would’ve probably not done that.

What to do with this parable?

A wrong way to approach the parable is to say, “You MUST forgive, or else you won’t be forgiven.” Truth is, we may be so scarred by the sins committed against us that we don’t have the moral strength to forgive.

The logic of the parable is this: however deeply we may be victims, in the sight of God we are offenders thousands of times more. No one can offend us as much as we’ve offended God.

Our problem isn’t an inability to conjure up a 100-denarii forgiveness; it is that we don’t believe we’ve been forgiven 10,000 talents. Only when we grasp that shall the gates of forgiveness be unlocked towards those who’ve sinned against us.

Thank you Lord, for the great debt you paid for us. May the implications of this forgiveness be evident in the lives of your church.

Come, listen, put into practice

These are notes from the sermon What are you building your life on? (length 41:04) by Josh Harris and based on Luke 6:46-49.

In his introduction, Harris tells of upbringing in a subculture of the Christian subculture, a ‘double bubble’. As a result, he never considered that the parable of the builders applied to him. However, the opening verse tells us that Jesus was talking to religious people (who called Him ‘Lord’) and not to pagans. The parable is a warning to nominal believers.

Harris highlights three principles from the passage:

1. Come to Jesus

It is possible to make our Christianity about things other than Jesus Christ. Harris uses an apt illustration from the Amish practice of rumspringa, in which teens given the chance of leaving the community choose to stay for reasons other than God and His word.

Only by turning from sin and turning to Christ can we be saved.

2. Listen to Jesus’ words

Jesus’ words aren’t only those highlighted in red in the gospels—they’re the entire Bible. Additionally, listening to Jesus isn’t about accumulating Bible facts. Harris tells a most humourous fictional story to drive this point home (at 21:30 in the audio).

The Bible is the story of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.

3. Put into practice

Not putting into practice Jesus’ words does nothing for you—like watching an exercise video from your couch.

You can fool everybody, but you can’t fool the storm. The storm hit both houses, but only one was left standing. Genuine faith in Christ is that which is standing despite the storms of life, the greatest of which is death.

If you’re built on the rock, you can be assured that nothing will separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

The days of creation

These are notes on part of a sermon by Tim Chester.

The sermon, entitled A Theology of Washing Up (length 51:27 ), is about the sacred/secular divide in general and how to wash dishes to the glory of God in particular. While the entire sermon is definitely worth a listen, I shall focus on a portion of it (19:52 – 26:00) where he points out patterns in the creation narrative I’d never noticed before.

In days 1-3 God takes what was formless and gives it form; in days 4-6 He takes what is empty and fills it. He orders the chaos and He fills.

Additionally, in the first three days God separates and names.

Day 1: God creates light and dark Day 4: God creates sun, moon and stars to fill the heavens
Day 2: God creates water and sky Day 5: God fills the water with fish and the sky with birds
Day 3: God creates land Day 6: God fills the land with animals

The task given to humanity (Gen 1:28) mirrors God’s own creative activity: to govern and to fill. It’s no surprise that Adam’s first governing activity is to name the animals created on days 5 and 6. God begun the naming, but extended it to mankind made in God’s image.