It was a great day for all the family. Such stirring about as there was, getting everything ready for the guests who had been bidden to the feast. Sarah, the mother, was busy in the tent making loaves of bread. She kneaded the dough, then cut it in pieces and rolled them thin and round until they looked like the covers to the sugar jars in your pantry. Each guest was to have three of these loaves, and they must be freshly baked for the evening meal. When all was ready for the baking, she put the loaves between As I shall ask you to be a guest with me at this banquet, it is wisest for me not to tell you how she baked them. Though you may be one of the most courteous of young people and know how guests should behave when invited out to a dinner, I’m afraid your face would express disgust when one of these loaves was offered to you. In those days and today also for that matter there were different ways to bake bread, but unfortunately, the very best way for the Oriental is in our eyes the very worst.
Everyone was in holiday spirits. Donkey boys were feeding their charges an extra portion of fodder, and instead of giving them the usual kick were actually stroking their sides. Even the surly camels seemed to have caught the spirit of joy, for they had stopped fighting among themselves and lay quietly, contentedly chewing their cuds, and forgetting to nip the hand of their keeper as he passed them. Out in the pasture the little kids kicked up their heels as they frisked about their sedate mothers, who were attending to the serious business of eating their morning meal. True, they looked wonderingly at some men moving about among the flock. Every now and then a man would seize a particularly lively kid and throw it across his shoulders. Poor little kids ! A big fire was being built and a spit made ready to hold the limp bodies that hung so lifelessly across the mens’ shoulders.
In the evening there was to be a great feast. Kids must be roasted, bread baked, corn parched, and porridge mixed so that every guest should have plenty. Ointment must be at hand with which to anoint the beards of the venerable men, and many jars of fresh water must be ready so that every visitor might have his feet washed.
Some of you are exclaiming, “What, wash the guest’s feet! Doesn’t everyone at a party have clean feet?”
Yes, in your day. Remember you wear shoes and walk on dry pavements. But in the time of our story such a thing as a stocking was unknown, and a sandal covering only the sole of the foot and fastened to toe or ankle was all that was ever worn on the foot. When people traveled a long distance, walking up and down hill, through mud or dust, through wet marshes or over dry desert sands, they were weary and footsore, and the feet were not pleasant to look at when the journey’s end was reached. So you see it was very refreshing to the guest and a mark of respect on the part of the host to have his visitors’ feet washed.
Our dinner party was in the age when the world was new and the day of history had just begun to dawn. Schools and houses there were none, for the people roamed about so much that tents which could be easily carried were the most convenient things to live in. The father, the head of the family, was both king and priest until, as its members increased, there grew a tribe and then a nation. In those long-ago times there were no conveniences. People had to walk perhaps half a mile for a jar of water, or, still worse, they might have to journey a day or more before finding a spring or well. Their cattle, their bondmen and bondwomen, their camels, goats, and sheep made up their wealth. Yes, they had gold and silver, but as there was so little to buy there was not much need of those metals.
Do you remember getting out of your warm bed in the chill of early morning, and do you recall how every object was blurred, veiled in the gray morning-mist? And as you gazed out of your window a solitary, shadowy figure passing along the dim, misty street gave you a queer feeling as though something strange were happening. So things appeared in the early morning time of history. Commonplace happenings in those days seemed unusual events.The day on which our story opens meant much to Abraham, the father of the household.He sat in the door of his tent holding a little lad between his knees and softly stroking his hair as the child looked lovingly into his face. Little Isaac was about three years old, had just been weaned, and the feast of the evening was to be given in his honor. Soon his mother, Sarah, appeared, holding out to Isaac a tempting morsel of bread; then, taking him from his father’s arms, she hailed a slender, dark-eyed boy passing the tent leading a donkey. “Ishmael, let Isaac have a ride on your donkey,” she said.The boy stopped and, placing the child astride the animal’s back, led the donkey out into the pasture. The baby clapped his hands in glee, but not once did a smile from Ishmael reward the little fellow’s efforts to be friendly.”How disagreeable he must have been!Some of you are saying. But wait before you judge. It is so much easier and far more comfortable to be smiling and happy that when we see a face that cannot light up with a smile we may be sure there is some reason for it. Perhaps if we knew the reason we would think kindly instead of being severe.
Possibly some of you can remember being told one day that your nose was broken; and when you indignantly denied it, you were shown a shapeless bundle of flannel out of which peeped a small red facethe face of the new brother or sister. Gradually you began to realize that the newcomer was getting a great deal of the attention that used to be yours. If you remember such an experience you can sympathize with Ishmael. He was Abraham’s eldest son, and his mother was Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman, Sarah’s maid. In the time of our story a man had more than one wife, and one usually was loved much more than the others. Abraham loved Sarah, the free woman, more, much more, than the bond-maid Hagar.
Surely two persons among the merrymakers at the feast were not happy. Hagar’s heart must have burned with a sense of injustice. Was not her boy, Ishmael, Abraham’s son, and was he not entitled to some attention? Had she not been promised that her son should found a great nation and inherit some of Abraham’s wealth? Why this feast for the child Isaac? Were she and her son to be neglected before the guests?
With such thoughts in her mind it is not surprising that Hagar looked cross and forbid-ding as she served her master and mistress and their friends. Ishmael caught his mother’s spirit and rebelled against all the attention and praise being given to his baby half-brother. Abraham and Sarah with their guests gave all their praise to the little Isaac, for God had promised Abraham, ” In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
Ishmael could no longer control his hot temper, and with scornful laughter he ridiculed the guests and their praise of Isaac.
Sarah, never very kind to Hagar or Ishmael, rose to her feet, her face darkened with anger as she spitefully demanded of Abraham, ” Cast out this handmaid and her son : for the son of this handmaid shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.”
The guests, awed by her jealous fury, were silent, and Abraham, really tender-hearted, at first objected to her command. Was it possible that Sarah could not see that there was enough for both the boys? Did she not realize that the son of a free woman would of course have the better and larger share? The bond-maid had done no harm: she had been faithful in her service. Why deprive her and her son of the portion which belonged to them? These must have been Abraham’s thoughts, for the Bible states that he was grieved because of Sarah’s demand.
But at last he yielded. Abraham must have thought that the dreary desert with God to care for them, was safer than his household over which was a jealous woman determined that neither Hagar nor Ishmael should share any-thing with Isaac.
When morning came again, and the star of dawn still hung in the heavens, Abraham arose and called Hagar. He had to tell her that she and her son must go, that no longer could his home and that of Sarah shelter both her boy and the little Isaac.
Hagar pressed her lips tightly together and fire shot from her eyes. But she was silent as she received the water-filled skin which served for a bottle, and not only her shoulders but Ishmael’s were heavy laden with the bread Abraham gave them. Side by side, deserted by everything human, they turned their faces toward the wilderness. Their footsteps, at first quickened because of anger at the wrong done them, grew slower and slower as the home which had sheltered them faded from view and the wilderness with its unknown terrors lay before them.
The sun rose higher and higher in the heavens ; its heat made the stones of the earth hot. The bottle of water was soon empty; not that they had drunk so much, but on a hot day skin bottles sweat even more than our earthen and silver pitchers, and the water had evaporated rapidly and dried the skin.
Ishmael’s endurance was at an end. True, he was about sixteen years old, but he had always had tender care, and plenty. The hours spent in this burning wilderness with little shade and no water were beginning to tell on his strength. His thirst was unbearable; his lips were blistered, and already his swollen tongue so filled his mouth that speech was impossible. He stumbled and fell. His mother raised him to his feet and again he took a few steps forward. Once more he fell, this time rising with greater difficulty, only to totter feebly for a step or two and then to fall face downward upon the ground.
Hagar’s face, drawn and white, was piteous in its despair as she dragged his limp body close to some scanty shrubbery. There she left him that she might not hear his hopeless call for water nor be present when his eyes should close forever. Then she bowed her head and burst into agonized weeping. It seemed to help her. She grew calm and seemed to be listening. Yes, in the quiet, after her grief was spent, there was in her heart a voice speaking; and into her mind there came the remembrance of God’s care and his promise that Ishmael should be the father of a great nation. What was it the voice said ?
“What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.”
She looked around her. Had anger and fear so filled her mind that she had forgotten this desolate place was the wilderness of Beer-sheba, a bleak, uninhabited tract, but possessing many wells of refreshing water? Then God opened her eyes, and she sawwhat she might have seen beforea well of water. Quickly rising, she filled the bottle and held it to the boy’s lips. Oh, that refreshing drink! that clear, life-giving draught of sparkling water! Do you wonder that Isaiah, the prophet, likening trust in God to a well of living water, said, “God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for Jehovah, even Jehovah, is my strength and song; and he is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
As the evening shadows fell, Hagar and Ishmael ate their remaining bread and made themselves comfortable for the night. God had heard ; His promise had been kept, Water had come to them in their distress and now, although alone, friendless, without shelter, they felt at rest. Hagar knew that when morning should come again, the God who had opened her eyes to see the well would also guide her feet to a home for her child and for herself.
Ishmael remained always a dweller in the wilderness. What to others was nothing but a barren waste became to him a home and country. In the wilderness he and Hagar found every need supplied. Cast out from one home, they walked straightway into another. It was in this wilderness that Ishmael founded the nation God had promised him. He was always a wanderer but never without home or kindred. The Arabs of today as they pitch their tents in the desert will tell you they are the children of Ishmael. Could we draw aside the curtain of years which hide these ages so long past, and could we speak with these two people deserted by man but blessed by God, I am sure each one would tell us that faith in God makes every good thing possible.