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Put yourself in this situation:
You are about 15 years old. You are also the oldest of your father’s two children.
One day, your father kicks you and your mother, to whom you are very close, out of the family. He does this because he is favoring your stepmother—who has always had something against you—and her son, your half-brother, who is now about 2.
And not only does he kick you out of the family, but he gives you a few supplies and then sends you out into the desert. Soon, the supplies you have are used up.
In the course of just a few days, your family has betrayed you and you are now looking at the very real possibility of dying of thirst.
How does that feel? How do you react?
This is, of course, the very situation in which Ishmael found himself in Genesis 21. Abraham, because of his wife Sarah and her son Isaac, demanded that he exile his concubine Hagar and his son Ishmael because Ishmael had teased Isaac on what was basically Isaac’s birthday. Never mind that Abraham taking Hagar as his concubine and having Ishmael was Sarah’s idea in the first place.
Earlier today, I was reading a pastor’s forum (yes, we have those) and someone posted about this passage, trying to get the perspectives right in his head. Because he could not understand why a 15-ish-year-old boy would be crying in this passage. I mean, he’s just a little thirsty, right? Why doesn’t he man up?
So often we have arrogance when we read the Bible. It’s the arrogance of looking back. We’re reading about events in someone else’s life, in someone else’s culture. It’s stuff that already happened and we know how it ended. We know God saved Ishmael and Hagar in the next verse. Why were they so despondent?
Because they didn’t know that! And even if they did, it doesn’t stop the hurt of having someone you love—your own father or your own husband—kick you out and send you out to die! Not to mention that ancient cultures didn’t see crying as an effeminate thing. If you read the Psalms, David spends a lot of time crying. Jesus wept. If you judge crying by 21st century standards of manliness, then some very manly men in history, even in the Bible, were little girly men.
But that’s an easy judgment to make because we’re not bothering to enter into the story ourselves. We’re reading it with the arrogance of hindsight.
And so the story doesn’t change us.
We do the very same thing as Peter did in Mark 14:26-31:
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.
Or what the religious leaders in Jesus’ day said in Matt 23:29-36:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (and you can keep reading to see just what exactly Jesus thinks of that excuse).
We all know that one guy who says, “If I were in that situation, I’d simply….” and then tell some story about how they’d get out of some problem from history or (more often) a movie. But we all know that that person’s pretty full of it. They’re watching stuff happen from the perspective of hindsight, knowing what’s going on in everyone’s head. They have been given all the relevant information and they’re not under pressure at all. They haven’t put themselves in the situation; they’re observers.
They’re armchair quarterbacks.
And when you read the Bible like that, you’re being an armchair quarterback. You cannot let hindsight blind you to the reality of the situation.
We worship a God who didn’t just watch our situation and say, “I wouldn’t have done that if I were you!” We worship a God who entered our situation so that he could redeem us from it.
Our God is no armchair quarterback. And neither should you be.
And one step to that is not merely reading the Bible, but entering into the stories it tells.
When you read a story in the Bible, put yourself in the shoes of all of the characters involved. When you read Genesis 21, picture the stories in your head from the perspectives of each person. Be Sarah, who feels insecure because she is the rightful wife of Abraham but her son is the second-born. Be Isaac, whose older brother—whom he probably looked up to a lot, as younger brothers generally do—teases you on your own birthday. Be Hagar, the wife cast out to die because of a jealous rival. Be Ishmael, the firstborn son abandoned by his own father and left to die. Be Abraham, whose beloved wife demands he cast out the others because of her own insecurities, and whom God reassures that his son will not be abandoned by Him. And look at it through the perspective of God, who is guiding events to reveal himself even more to them, knowing their innermost thoughts and insecurities, and knowing what is in store for all of them.
Enter into the Word!