Can you believe it? Abraham had just lived twenty-four years experiencing the hand of God since God spoke to him, in Genesis 12, and told him to go to the land which God would show him and that He would make him a great nation and bless him. God took care of Him during a famine. He saw God at work in Egypt when Pharaoh thought Sarai was his sister due to a lie he and she contrived. God had made Abram rich in livestock, silver, and gold. He saw God work out the disputes between Lot and himself. When Lot was taken captive by the enemy, he saw God use him to rescue his nephew and at the same time receive great honor and blessings from others. God saw him through the difficulties between Sarai and Hagar. And earlier in this chapter God reestablishes His covenant with Abram and gives him a new name. Yet, Abraham falls flat on his face, not in worship, but in laughter.
And rather than speaking back to the Lord, scripture says he said what he did “in his heart”. Did he, or do we for that matter, think that God has no access to what we think or determine to do, believe, or feel, in our hearts? If so, he, and we, are both mistaken. Abraham’s uttering to himself, “Will a child be born to a hundred year old man? And can a ninety year old woman even bear one?” may, at face value, appear like two simple questions. But for the believer in the Almighty God as Abraham was, they amount to sheer unbelief in God’s ability to deliver what He promises. His questions remind us of the serpent’s mutterings to Eve when he said, in Genesis 3 “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” And then later, “You surely shall not die!”
Once again, here is man considering God’s words in his own limited humanity. And perhaps we can identify with him, because after all, from a human perspective, he is right. One hundred year old couples do not have children, even in those days. We approach much of life in this way when it comes to spiritual matters or to the mysteries of God. Our beliefs are often limited to our experiences and to what we know to be true. Yet what God calls on us to do is to first deal with our belief in Him. Once we do that, then all else that He says must be relied upon. William Wilberforce in his book Real Christianity goes to great lengths to explain that basic requirement of the real Christian to take God at His word, or else doubt his own faith in such an Entity. Why would anyone want a God that he or she cannot trust?
With those thoughts of doubt in his mind, armed, albeit inappropriately, with what he considered to be the obvious answers to his private questions, Abraham then somehow musters up the ability to say to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” Now what exactly does that mean? I believe it can mean one of two things. First, considering how Abraham reacted to God’s statement about another child of his coming from Sarah, we could believe that this statement is his plea to God to set aside His intention and simply let Hagar’s son Ishmael be the very heir through which the covenant will come. That is, he is imploring God to find favor with Ishmael over any other potential heir that Abraham does not believe is even naturally possible. Alternatively, although I believe less probable given the flow of the content, Abraham may have accepted the fact that God will provide another heir and he is simply asking God not to forget Ishmael and to somehow bless him as well. Like a true father, Abraham still loves the son he had outside of God’s intention for his life.
At this point God had every right to become angry with Abraham and even to withdraw His promise to him. But does He? In the next passage, we find out.
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