Why did God bless Ishmael?
By Beth Hyduke
When we consider that the descendants of Ishmael would become the Canaanite clans that surrounded, harassed, and plagued the nation of Israel from its infancy onwards, and especially when we trace the line of Ishmael forward to the radical Islamist factions we see today on the world news, it is hard to justify why the God of the Old Testament Israelites would have ever chosen to bless Ishmael. Since God is omniscient, or all-knowing (Proverbs 5:21, 15:3; Job 34:21; Psalm 33:13-15; Jeremiah 16:17; 32:19; Hebrews 4:13), it goes without saying that when He blessed Ishmael, God fully knew what future problems and friction this would cause between Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendants, and how this conflict would eventually involve and affect the entire world. Making the problem even more prickly is the fact that in addition to His omniscience, God also reveals Himself to be omnipotent (1 Chronicles 29:10-12; Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 19:26; Job 42:2; Daniel 2:20-22), which is another word for all-powerful. If God is all-powerful, it means that He could have easily thwarted Ishmael from procreating and growing into such a populous enemy, or at any future time, He could have intervened and restrained his descendants from doing any kind of evil towards anyone.
But the Bible tells us that He didn’t do that, and that through His blessing of Ishmael to become “a great nation” (Genesis 17:20), He actually enabled and guaranteed that persecutors would immediately arise out of Ishmael to oppress Israel, and that his distant descendants would still be causing trouble today. That, of course, raises several questions; namely, how and why does a just and good God allow evil to exist when it places others in danger, especially His own followers?
I think the main problem why we have trouble wrapping our minds around this is that we fail to recognize that God is truly sovereign. When you talk to most people about what they believe, theists typically reiterate some version of this: From creation, God who is good has been locked in an epic death struggle with Satan who is evil. Whoever wins the battle between good and evil gets the ante — although most also believe in a happy ending in which God who has a slight power advantage over Satan will eventually pull off the win. But the Bible does not present us with a virtual balance between good and evil where the ambiguous outcome has yet to be determined. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is and has always been ultimately sovereign, and as such, He rules over everything, in complete and total control of everything, including the evil that exists in our world.
This sounds shockingly heretical to our ears because we know that God is good (Matthew 19:17; Psalm 107:1; Nahum 1:7), so how can He allow evil? While Scripture attests to the character of God being perfectly good and thoroughly unpolluted by sin (James 1:13), it also reveals that God is a shrewd tactician, frequently using sin and evil to further His own good purposes (i.e., Psalm 105:23-25). Speaking to His people in Isaiah 54:16-17, God unapologetically takes full credit for raising up serious opposition towards Israel:
“See, it is I [God] who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work. And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc; no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from Me…”
As we have already observed by asking why God would bless Ishmael, the real issue is not that God simply permits evil but that He ordains it, and that He does so without ever endorsing it or being liable for it. In Romans 9:17, Paul quotes from Exodus 9:13-16 in which God spoke to Pharaoh, the persecutor of His people, through Moses. This passage offers an important insight into why God uses this strategy: “I [God] raised you [Pharaoh] up for this very purpose, that I might display My power in you and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
God’s penchant for using evil to promote a higher good is not a one-time event. All through the Bible, we see evidence of God pursuing this same course of action, of purposefully hijacking the sins and wrongdoings of others to bring about some positive good. Years after being betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph could newly view their sinful actions which had meant for him a good deal of personal suffering, misery, and pain in the wider light of God’s handiwork, which had turned the evil deed on its head and brought out of it something beautiful and beneficial and far-reaching. Coming face to face with his brothers prompted Joseph to respond in forgiveness and recognition of God’s providence rather than retaliation, and in his forgiveness speech, he gives this as the reason, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good in order to save many people” (Genesis 50:20).
This comes into the clearest, sharpest focus when we look at the example of Jesus Christ. Acts 2:23 says, “…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In other words, God providentially foreordained the death of His innocent Son. From the greed and betrayal of Judas Iscariot, to the frenzied jealousy and dirty dealings of the Sanhedrin, to the crowd-pleasing Pontius Pilate, even down to the unnamed centurions who drove the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet, the Bible tells us that none of it was a tragic accident or epic misunderstanding, but rather the deliberate orchestration of a sovereign God who raised each of these individuals up and arranged to put them in that exact place at that precise time, just as He had done with Pharaoh in Egypt and with Joseph’s jealous brothers, to accomplish what God had purposed to do. Paradoxically, the Crucifixion — the worst crime ever committed in human history, the worst evil ever executed by mankind — was done to bring about the best good and the best benefit to mankind. That’s really what John 3:16 tells us when it declares that God’s motive for sending His Son to His death was love, and that ultimately that love, through Christ’s death, has purchased and secured the way to what we all so desperately need, even more than physical life and safety and deliverance — spiritual life and safety and deliverance through salvation and reconciliation with God.
Understanding this difficult biblical principle — that sometimes God deems it good to permit evil and use it to accomplish His purposes — is key to understanding why God would bless Ishmael when He knew the evil that Ishmael’s offspring would do. Ultimately, God blessed and prospered Ishmael because through the adversity that Ishmael’s descendants would bring upon Israel and other peoples, God would bring glory to Himself by saving many people out of that danger and into repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, many of whom might otherwise never have been reached. Incidentally, but far from coincidentally, there has been a record number of Muslim-to-Christian conversions within the past few decades that has dramatically spiked with the rise of radical Islam and terrorist organizations like Hamas, al-Qaida, and ISIS. Some statistics estimate as many as 2 to 7 million former Muslims have come to Christ in the last twenty years. If even a fraction of that estimation is true, it would mean that more Muslims have come to Christ in the last twenty years than in the entire 1400-year lifespan of Islam. In 2014, World Magazine interviewed David Garrison, a Christian missionary and author of A Wind in The House of Islam which he wrote to document this massive exodus out of the darkness of Islam and into the light of Christianity that he and other missionaries were witnessing. You can find the interview with David Garrison here.
Also check out Leading The Way ministry which utilizes “Kingdom Sat” (Christian satellite broadcasts that specifically target Muslim countries and communities) and Help The Persecuted (an organization that helps refugees fleeing from ISIS and other religious persecution with material resources like food, housing, lawyers, etc.) to spread the Gospel of Jesus to unbelievers around the world, many of whom are Muslims. LTW’s Youtube channel provides many testimonies of former Muslims who have converted to Christianity and are now leading other Muslims to Christ within their own communities. Shahid’s powerful story is just one of many such testimonies you can view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg8pou-55ik”>here.
From numerous personal accounts like this, we can start to glimpse God’s steady hand in all this chaos and begin to view even the most horrendous and personal persecution, affliction, and evil as Joseph did his own unfair enslavement and imprisonment by his closest family members — as something sinful men intended for evil but which God will use for eternal good. This awareness can and should inspire us to become actively and compassionately involved in spreading the Gospel to unbelievers, and in strengthening and encouraging our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
In the midst of severe persecution and opposition, it is sometimes hard to see the bigger picture of what God is doing, but Christians can rest assured that God is somehow using even the worst kind of evil “to work all things together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).