The Lord shows us this same way of looking backward for a source of hope in the story of Hagar. Hagar is an example for every mother raising a child by herself. There was a moment earlier in her life when God prepared Hagar for a greater challenge that arrived when she and her son found themselves alone and desperate in the desert near Beer-sheba in the south of Canaan.
Before Ishmael’s birth, Hagar had wandered in that same desert, running from a confrontation with Sarah. An angel appeared to Hagar. She was in the wilderness, alone, and pregnant with Ishmael. The angel asked her two questions: “Whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?” (Genesis 16:8). Do you ever find yourself in a similar position, asking yourself similar questions? “How did I get here? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?” Sometimes we get ourselves into difficult situations; sometimes life creates them. The important thing is what we are going to do once we are in them.
The angel continued: “Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction” (Genesis 16:11). Names in the Bible, in Genesis in particular, are critical. We need to know the Hebrew meaning of each name because often a story’s theme is contained in the name or names of its principal characters. Ishmael means “God hears.” God hears! That is the theme of Hagar’s, and Ishmael’s, story.
The Lord instructed Hagar to name her son “God hears.” He knew that that name would be important later in Hagar’s life and, in a broader context, for countless people throughout generations. Several years later, when Ishmael had grown to be a young teenage boy, Hagar found herself alone and in critically desperate straits. Here we learn the rest of the story and the importance of the name given to Ishmael in the past.
Sarah, fearing for her son Isaac, asked Abraham to separate him from Ishmael; the Lord confirmed her wisdom. “[Hagar] departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, . . . for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept” (Genesis 21:14–16).
Do we remember the name of the boy that was perishing in the shade under a shrub? Both he and his mother were on the verge of death. But what is the boy’s name? He is called “God hears.” The next words we read in Genesis, therefore, come naturally: “And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, 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 thine hand. . . . And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:17–19; emphasis added).
That is a powerful story! It is particularly important for those of the Islamic faith, who trace their spiritual ancestry through Ishmael, not Isaac. Millions and millions of people reenact this story year after year in Mecca during the Hajj. The story of Hagar bears testimony that God hears. No matter who you are or what circumstances you may find yourself facing, God hears. But God planted that name, and that lesson contained in a name, in Hagar’s son years before her moment of desperation, when she needed to know that her Father in Heaven was aware of her. When you need hope, look backward. There will be experiences in your past that will bring hope to fill the present need. Or perhaps the present need is the very experience you will look back to in a future time of urgency.