Why did God bless Ishmael?

By Beth Hyduke

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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).

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Published 5-11-16