Connections 06.25.2017: Birth Stories

Genesis 21:8-21

An angel flew up to me and asked, “What circumstances would you like to be born into?”

I said, “I’ve been watching those folks Champ and Sara Ruffin down there in Barnesville, Georgia. They’ve wanted a child for years. They’re hard-working folks. They’re good Baptists. I’d like to be born to them.”

And so it came to pass in September of 1958 that my request was granted.

That’s the story of how I chose my family, my ethnicity, my community, my social setting, my religious background, and my economic situation.

It is, as you already know, a fantasy. I didn’t pick my birth circumstances. Neither did you, and neither has anyone ever.

It’s funny how much stock we can put in things we had nothing to do with. But it’s also true that the situation into which we were born can cause problems for us.

The Western “The Big Valley” aired on ABC from 1965–1969. It was the story of the Barkley family, made up of matriarch Victoria and the children, now adults, she had with her late husband Tom: Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and the seldom-seen Eugene. Then there was Heath, whom the voice in one of the show’s trailers described as “the outsider.” He was Tom’s son but not Victoria’s. His struggle to be considered and included as a full member of the family created much dramatic tension.

Ishmael was the outsider in Abraham’s family, which seems odd when you consider that he was Abraham’s first-born son in a time when the first-born son occupied an honored position, even though he had no more to do with being the first-born son than I did. But Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, not Sarah, and he lost his place of prominence when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Eventually, he lost his place completely, and he and his mother had to go elsewhere.

Genesis makes it clear that God planned to continue the promise to Abraham through a son born to him and Sarah. But this week’s lesson text makes it clear that God also blessed Ishmael, born under less-than-ideal circumstances though he was. In fact, Ishmael fathered twelve sons, from whom came twelve tribes, just as Isaac’s son Jacob would do (Gen 25:12-18). And Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father Abraham (25:9).

Neither Ishmael nor Isaac chose their birth parents or their birth circumstances. They got what they got and they had to live with, in, and through it. But God blessed them both. And I suspect they both did their best to make their way in the world.

I don’t know how much they helped each other, if they did so at all.

But I do know that we Christians are to help others, and one step toward helping others is to understand that none of us had a thing to do with how we got here or with where we initially landed.

I think it’s called humility.


1. Why do you think the Bible tells us so much about people’s family lives? Why do you think it even tells us about the negative things that happen in their families?
2. How would you have felt if you had been in Ishmael’s place? In Hagar’s?
3. Why didn’t Hagar see the well before “God opened her eyes”? (v. 19).
4. God kept the promise to “make a great nation of” Ishmael (v. 18; see 25:12-18), but Isaac was the one through whom the nation of Israel would develop. So Ishmael was great, but he was the second greatest of the two sons. Does this teach us anything about accepting a lower place? When should we do so? Should we ever strive for a higher place? Why or why not? How do Christians deal with the tension between accepting one’s place and wanting to improve one’s lot?

Reference Shelf

21:8-21. Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The threat to the life of Ishmael in being exposed to the elements (vv. 15-16) parallels the threat to the life of Isaac in being bound on the altar (chap. 22; both traditions bear the characteristics of E). On both occasions, the threat arises when God tells Abraham to do that which will endanger the son—send Hagar and Ishmael away (v. 12), and offer Isaac on the altar (22:2). On both occasions, the threat is resolved at the last moment by the miraculous provision of a well of water for Ishmael to drink from (v. 19), and a ram caught in a thicket by its horns to be substituted for Isaac on the altar (22:13).

The two traditions exhibit a striking differences between themselves also: the women, Sarah and Hagar, are the primary human actors in the drama of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s expulsion, and Abraham is merely compliant (v. 14). In the story of the binding of Isaac (chap. 22), however, Abraham is the chief actor, and Sarah, who would seem to have a stake in what will happen to Isaac, is not even mentioned.

Nothing is said of Abraham’s emotions or inner thoughts as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac; Hagar, on the other hand, says to no one in particular, “Do not let me look on the death of the child,” and sitting a long way off, she lifted up her voice and wept (v. 16).

Except for references to his descendants … and to his helping Isaac with the burial of their father … no more is told of Ishmael than the brief details here. Living in the wilderness of Paran (v. 21) locates the tribe or clan, of which Ishmael is the eponymous ancestor, in a region somewhere between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northern border of the Wilderness of Sinai. Ishmaelite caravaneers will appear in the story of Joseph, where they buy Joseph from his brothers as a slave to be sold in Egypt (Gen 37:25-28).

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Genesis,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 109.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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