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HAGAR AND ISHMAEL IN THE DESERT.
(GENESIS XXI. 14-19.)
ABRAHAM, the father of the faithful, and “the friend of God,” was called by the Almighty from Ur of the Chaldees, into the land of Canaan, where it was promised him that his posterity should become a great nation. Abraham obeyed the call, and when he arrived there the promise was renewed. Still, with this magnificent prospect set before his eyes, Abraham was childless. So years rolled on, during which period the patriarch wandered about in the midst of the idolatrous inhabitants of Canaan, or sojourned in Egypt to escape the horrors of famine. At length the promise was again repeated, and even ratified by solemn covenant. Still the performance was delayed, and the faith of Abraham subjected yet longer to trial. His own faith was pre-eminently strong; but not so was that of Sarah. Abandoning all hopes of having offspring herself, she requested him to take Hagar, her Egyptian maid, who in due time bare a son, whom Abraham named Ishmael, which signifies “God attends,” or “hears.”
Before Ishmael was born, the conduct of her mistress had become so trying, that Hagar fled from her presence into the wilder
Here an angel appeared to the fugitive, commanding her to return and submit herself to her mistress, giving her at the same time a promise that her child should be the father of multitudes. This was doubtless told to Abraham, for the name he gave to the child, as mentioned above, was dictated by the angel. Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, the promise was renewed with a more distinct explanation, and the performance was declared to be at hand. Sarah was to bear a son, of whom the Messiah should come, or, as it is expressed in the word of God, in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed, Gen. xxii. 18.
At length the promise was fulfilled. Sarah was delivered of a son, whom Abraham circumcised on the eighth day, calling him Isaac, as he had been commanded.
The joy of the parents on the birth of Isaac must have been great indeed.
In him they beheld the promised Seed through whom the whole world was to be blessed.
Thus time passed on, without any recorded event of note till Isaac was weaned, which was probably about three years after his
birth, according to oriental customs. On that day, Abraham made a feast, and recognised the son of Sarah as his heir. This excited the envy of Hagar, who had probably cherished the idea that her son would inherit Abraham's wealth. Ishmael, also, had been led to expect this, and partaking of his mother's feeling, he was detected by Sarah mocking Isaac. In consequence of this, Sarah demanded of Abraham that he should banish Hagar and Ishmael from his tents; and the Almighty having designs of his own with both Isaac and Ishmael, directed him to comply with Sarah's demand, and the “bondwoman and her son” were sent forth, with some bread and a bottle of water, to seek subsistence elsewhere, perhaps to return to Egypt, her native land.
The sacred historian says that Hagar wandered into the “wilderness of Beersheba.” Now Beersheba signifies the “ well of an oath,” or the “well of seven," and it was so called afterwards on account of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, king of Gerar. The spot where this covenant was made was at the southern extremity of the subsequent kingdom of Abraham's descendants, the extent of which was proverbially described by naming the two extreme towns Dan and Beersheba, both of which were erected at an after date. The “wilderness of Beersheba," then, probably denotes the desert country beyond Beersheba, and towards the desert of Paran, where Hagar and Ishmael afterwards lived. An idea of this desert may be gathered from an extract, borrowed from an interesting “Report of Travels in Palestine and the adjacent regions, undertaken for the illustration of Biblical Geography.” “We now came," say the writers of this report, “ to Wady Lelen; and on the north side of its water-course we had the satisfaction of discovering the site of ancient Beersheba, the celebrated border city of Palestine, still bearing in Arabic the name of Bir Seba. Near the water-course are two circular wells of excellent water, nearly forty feet deep. They are both surrounded with drinking troughs of stone, for the use of camels and flocks, such as doubtless were used of old for the flocks that then fed on the adjacent hills. Ascending the low hills north of the wells, we found them strewed with the ruins of former habitations, the foundations of which are distinctly to be traced. These ruins extend over a space of half a mile long, by a quarter of a mile broad. Here, then, is the place where Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob often lived; here Samuel made his sons judges; and from
HAGAR AND ISHMAEL IN THE DESERT.
here Elijah wandered about into the southern desert, and sat down under the rethem, or shrub of broom, just as our Arabs sat down under it every day and every night.”
In this desert Hagar and her son wandered till their bread was eaten, and their water“spent in the bottle.” This was a situation of such misery as fancy cannot depict, for the inhospitable desert afforded no prospect of a fresh supply. The mother and her loved one were, therefore, in danger of perishing with thirst. Ishmael, it would appear, although a young man, began to fail sooner than Hagar, and needed her support. This she afforded him as long as her agonizing feelings would permit; but when the usual symptoms came upon him—when his eyes became inflamed, and his parched lips and tongue were chapped and swollen—when his brain seemed to grow thick and inflamed, and he was deafened by the hollow sound in his ears—some bushes afforded him a shelter, under which he would fain lie down and die; and then his affectionate mother withdrew, that she might not witness his death, and that she might lift up her voice and weep without restraint.
With the ancient masters, the usual mode of treating this subject has been to place the mother and her son in the midst of a verdant grove of chesnuts, with Italian monasteries in the back ground, to which the outcasts in vain cast their longing eyes; or else to represent them in the costumes of a virgin and child, seated on the margin of a rich stream of water, while they are dying with thirst. These travesties, which have neither Scripture, ancient geography, nor oriental costume for their support, are powerfully controverted in the accompanying engraving. In the foreground, Hagar is seen prostrate on the sands, sinking under the united effects of famine and despair; the exhausted skin bottle lies on the ground, while her sunken eyes seem to be making a last effort to implore the mercy of Heaven. In the distance, Ishmael is discerned half imbedded in the sands, and partly hidden from view by the slender branches of the Tamarix gallica, a shrub which abounds throughout the peninsula, as well as in the land of Edom and Palestine. The sky is cloudless and of a milky hue, the light bright, the shadows sharp and strong, betokening the presence of a sun of consuming splendour, and all the accessories expressing death and desolation.
These representations are borne out by the narrative and the physical condition of that country. Every thing seemed to ensure
the death of the banished ones. But “man's extremity is God's opportunity.” As Ishmael, of whose descendants it had been
promised that they should become a great nation, seemed about to close his eyes in death, the God of Abraham sent his angel to comfort Hagar, assuring her that her son should yet become the father of a great nation; and at the same time the angel showed her a well of water, which saved them from impending death.
The sentiments which should be excited in the mind of the reader by this narrative and its illustration, are those of sympathy for the sufferings of Hagar and her son, and admiration of the mercy of Him who looked from his throne in heaven and pitied and relieved them. They are calculated also to imprint one important truth on the memory, namely, That God is ever ready to listen to the voice of prayer. While passing through this desert earth, the invitation is freely offered — “ Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters,” Isa. lv. 1.
Relieved from death, Hagar and Ishmael soon after settled in the desert of Paran, which is a continuation of the desert of Beersheba, probably joining themselves to a party of Bedouin shepherds. Here Ishmael acquired a charaeter in conformity with that which the Divine predictions had assigned to him. " And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren:" that is, he should become wild and fierce as the desert ass—his hand should oppose every man, and every man's hand oppose him—and he should never be rooted out from the domain which God would give to him, bordering upon the possessions of the other children of Abraham. And so it has happened. Ishmael took a wife out of the land of Egypt, and God so prospered him, according to his promise, that his descendants became numerous, and lords of the deserts over which they roamed, a distinction which they enjoy to this day. The Arabs, indeed, seem to make aggression on all the world a condition of existence. Issuing from their deserts, they make aggressions upon settled districts, and upon travellers, and then retire into their wilds again, where they are safe. Their hand is against every man, therefore, and every man's hand is against them; whence they are living witnesses to the truth of the Divine word. Reader, ponder upon these things, and admire and adore the prescience and the ways of the Almighty.