Ishmael, a Wild Donkey of a Man

In Genesis 12, Abram betrays his wife Sarai and sows the seeds for the tragic story of Ishmael. Lacking faith in God’s protection, he tells Sarai to pretend she is his sister and sends her into Pharoah’s house as a concubine (v. 15). In exchange for trafficking his wife, Abram accepts Pharoah’s reward of “male and female servants” and brings Hagar into his house, an endless reminder to Sarai of Abram’s treachery.

And what is the result? Hagar pregnant and alone, then sheltering without human hope in the wilderness with her young son (Genesis 16, 21). All Abram’s doing.

A depiction of Hagar and her son Ishmael in the Arabian desert by François-Joseph Navez.

And so from this poisonous vine that Abram tends grows a poisonous fruit. Ishmael, son of violence, “son of the bondwoman,” son of the covenant of works (Gal. 4:28-31), son of the law, born under a promise with a curse.

To make sense of the story of Ishmael, we return to Hagar’s first period of exile, when the pre-incarnate Christ tells her to return to God’s promise, planted in the community of God’s people (Gen. 16:9-10). Here, we learn what God already knows, what will come of all this sin. As a sign to her and to His people, He tells Hagar what her son’s life will be.

11 The angel of the Lord said to her further,
“Behold, you are with child,
And you will bear a son;
And you shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man,
His hand will be against everyone,
And everyone’s hand will be against him;
And he will live to the east of all his brothers.”
Genesis 16:11-12

I’ve seen these donkeys before. Donkeys carry a rich, important and often royal symbolism, as I’ve mentioned already. But like the raven and other creatures (Isa. 32:14), wild donkeys in particular represent God’s people unsettled, anxious, in exile. Job wrestles with this place of unrest, when he asks,

“Why are times not stored up by the Almighty,
And why do those who know Him not see His days? …
“Behold, as wild donkeys in the wilderness
They go forth seeking food in their activity,
As bread for their children in the desert.
Job 24:1,5

Wild donkeys are those who rebel against the Light, who do not want to know its ways nor abide in its paths (Job 24:13).

And so it was with Ishmael. As a boy, he mocked God’s people, and God instructed Abram to listen to his wife, to allow her to drive Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness for a second time, as a sign (Gen. 21:9). There, God provides these exiles with temporary refreshment, a sign of His common grace provision even to those who have not bowed their knee to Him, even those who have mocked Him.

But in fact, despite God’s provision, Ishmael never returns to God’s Covenant Promise. We read in Genesis 21 that the wilderness became his home, that he became an archer (see Amos 2:15), that he married an Egyptian woman. And at the age of 137 years, Ishmael, father of 12 princes died, leaving his descendents to settle “from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt, as one goes toward Assytria … in defiance of all his relatives” (Gen. 25:18).

Years later, the sons of this wild donkey of a man would buy Joseph from his brothers and carry him to Egypt (Genesis 37:25-28). The years would pass by, and on and on this trail of terror would go, until God commanded King Saul to utterly destroy the defiant descendents of Ishmael (1 Sam. 15:1-9), “from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt,” a command Saul does not obey. More idolatry, more unrest, more violence, more sadness. All because of Abram’s betrayal of Sarai. All because Abram wanted heaven’s blessing with human hands.

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowiczowa. Joseph Sold Into Slavery By His Brothers. 1883

This painful path is far from over at this place in God’s story. But even before God sends His saving Son, God gives a sign of hope to all wild creatures. We find one such sign in the book of Daniel, in God’s humbling punishment and restoration of the arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:33), which Daniel later explains to Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar.

He was also driven away from mankind, and his heart was made like that of beasts, and his dwelling place was with the wild donkeys.
He was given grass to eat like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until he recognized that the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind and that He sets over it whomever He wishes.

Daniel 5:18-21.

Ishmael never returned to claim the Promise of God, but there is hope for the wildest of donkeys, even the most arrogant donkey kings of the earth. Even in the fiercest, most savage places in the Bible, in rape and violence, in the wilderness, in exile, in darkness, God always provides a light.

And as we know, after Ishmael, after Nebuchadnezzar, hundreds of years later, the Son of God would come from heaven to earth to save the world. He would find a young donkey, a sign that those who were lost might be found again. And though so much time had passed, God’s people remembered the story of the wild donkeys. And they believed.

“For this reason also the people went and met Him, 
because they heard that He had performed this sign.”
(John 12:12-19).

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