Saturday, January 12, 2013

Teens in the Bible - First up: Ishmael

Teens in the Bible were subject to parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and youthful indiscretion. They made mistakes, chose the wrong friends, suffered abuse, learned forgiveness, made bad choices, and disobeyed. Yup, teens in the Bible were no different from teenagers in any other time period.

Let’s look at their stories, see what they learned or didn’t learn, and let’s also see what we can learn from them. First up are Ishmael and Isaac, from whom descended two great nations: the Jews and the Arabs.

You can read their stories in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. When Abraham, their father, was still going by the name Abram, his wife Sarah was barren and totally frustrated that she had never conceived. She gave her handmaiden, Hagar, to her husband as a wife! when Abraham was 85 years old. That sounds pretty old to us and I want to say “eew”, but that’s what happened and since Abraham lived to be 175 maybe we should just picture him as middle aged.

Hagar gave birth to a son. Before he was born, an angel of the Lord told Hagar to name him Ishmael and described what he would be like: a wild donkey of a man with “his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him”.  Think about that description. The wild donkey image makes me think of stubbornness. To extrapolate further, Ishmael may have also had the characteristics of obstinacy, inflexibility, tenacity, and perseverance, all offshoots of that stubborn streak. If he had “his hand against everyone” I picture a person who was angry and socially immature; his grade school report card would have had this box checked: does not get along well with others. And if everyone’s hand was against him, then can’t you visualize someone who was a loner, who couldn’t catch a break, or who was just plain unlikeable? We see the first indication of that personality when the boy hits his teens.

Abraham must have doted on him, his only son at that point. Then God confirmed a covenant with Abraham that changed his name from Abram to Abraham, promised him innumerable descendants, and gave him the whole land of Canaan. The catch was that God promised a son through his wife Sarah who was then ninety years old. That’s when Abraham said to God, “if only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” God said, “Yes, but . . .” The covenant would be established through Isaac though God promised to bless Ishmael as well and make him into a great nation. That whole covenant-making thing happened a year before Isaac was born. Ishmael was thirteen and on that very day both Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised. Ouch.

There’s no record of Ishmael’s reaction, complaint, compliance or anything, but I’m going to guess that he wasn’t happy about that or about being replaced as principal heir. Maybe that’s when those personality traits started on their negative path. His half-brother, Isaac, was born when he was fourteen, just becoming a man. Two or three years later when Isaac was weaned there was a great feast for the toddler. The Bible says that at that feast Ishmael “was mocking”. I don’t think it means just a curled lip or a misspoken word or a single cutting remark. His behavior at that party got him and his mother sent away. Envision a party situation where a teenager’s conduct is contemptuous, scornful, sarcastic, and disrespectful. Ishmael was irredeemably in the wrong.

Mocking. And Ishmael took it too far. All behaviors have consequences. This seems like a pretty big one, but Ishmael knew his family’s dynamics and history. He obviously was pushing all the wrong buttons. Abraham gave Hagar and Ishmael some food and water and sent them off to wander in the desert of Beersheba. Guess how this boy behaved then – this boy who was to become a donkey of a man, disliked by all and disliking everyone. Ishmael cried. They ran out of water and the teen boy sat under a bush and cried. Now you can look at that as a pretty sissy thing to do if you want, but God heard him crying. The story ends with them finding a well of water that God provided. Ishmael and Hagar lived in the desert. Ishmael became an archer, got a wife, had many, many descendents, and lived to be 137 years old. Apparently those donkey traits served him well.

There’s some pretty good evidence that Ishmael’s half-brother, Isaac, was in his late teens when he went with his father, Abraham, to the region of Moriah, up the mountains to make a sacrifice to God. Isaac shows us a personality very different from Ishmael’s.
(next Saturday we'll look at teen Isaac)

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