I started reading through the Old Testament recently, and of course, one of the first things one comes to is the story of Abraham. We’re used to hearing the story of Abraham, or Abraham and Isaac. But it seems a bit more rare that we see Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael. Ishmael is kind of overlooked in favor of Isaac, but today I began to see how important all three are. I found it in Genesis 16-18, 21-22.
One thing to remember: Ishmael is not a bad kid. In 16:10-12, God says that He will multiply Ishmael’s descendants. This is very similar to what God told Abraham. God has no issue with Ishmael; in fact, He instructs Hagar to give him that name, which means, “You are a God Who sees.” In 17:20, God agrees to bless Ishmael. He doesn’t let he and Hagar die in the desert (21:15-20). God has plans for Ishmael; He is with him. Ishmael was circumcised, too (17:20, 25). Abraham loves Ishmael. When God first lays out the covenant and Abraham is trying to understand it, he says, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:18) It hurt him to turn Ishmael and Hagar out (21:11). The point of all this being, it’s not a matter of Ishmael being inherently better than Isaac.
The difference is Isaac was chosen by God for something special. God’s promise concerning Isaac is similar to His promise concerning Ishmael, but it’s not the same. God says, “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” (17:6-8)
Most of us know the story. In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham does what he has to do, though we can imagine it must have been tough.
But, here’s what I didn’t realize until today: Abraham had to sacrifice both Ishmael and Isaac. Basically I see Ishmael and Isaac as the difference between better and best. Not promised and promised. Before Abraham could proceed in the path of this promise God had made to him, he had to give up his other son. As I said, this had to be hard. He loved his son. However, to make way for the promise of God, Abraham had to let Ishmael go. Why sacrifice Isaac if he was the symbol of God’s promise? For exactly that reason: because Isaac was the symbol–the embodiment–of God’s promise. Abraham had to sacrifice Isaac to keep him (Abraham) from becoming proud and more attached to the promise than to the God who promised it. See, hard as it is for us to sacrifice our own wills and ideals to God, sometimes it’s even harder to place what we understand to be God’s will back into His hands.
Following God almost always involves some sort of sacrifice, even if it’s just a small one. Still, at some point, we have to choose between better and best. Even if it’s a “small surrender,” we must surrender it. We cannot fully experience what God wants to do in our lives until we decide that our plans are worth trading for His.
Trust me, I am “preaching to myself,” as my dad sometimes says. This is hitting very close to home right now because I’m facing such a conundrum myself. I don’t know yet how big or small the sacrifice will have to be, but I see it looming. At this point, it’s really, really hard to let go of Ishmael, even if I end up only having to let go a little. Still, I know if Isaac is the promise, I’ve got to stick with that. Unfortunately, though, I can’t control that, either. Sooner or later, I must sacrifice both the better and the best back to the God from whence they came.