The struggle of the seeds in Scripture is not always as obvious a picture as an evil person desiring to kill a righteous person, as in the case of Cain and Abel. Quite often, the theme is far more subtle. At times, it appears in the form of a conflict born of doubt in the hearts of those to whom the promise has been made. It should be no surprise that the devil would seek to derail God’s promise by means of sowing doubt. After all, moving people to doubt the promises and character of God is the devil’s wheelhouse. His first recorded speech in the Scriptures opened with the question, “Did God actually say…?” When we see a conflict in Scripture and suspect that the struggle of the seeds might be present, we may consider, is there a juxtaposition of faith and unbelief?
Such is the case in the story of Ishmael and Isaac. The promised seed of Gen 3:15 is carried forward by the promise of God to Abram to give him an heir in the form of his very own son (15:4, cf 12:1-7). Genesis demonstrates that God is going to give the seed of the woman—Christ—through Abram and his descendants (Gal 3:16, 29). Gen 15:6 records that Abram believed the LORD, “and he counted it to him as righteousness.” So faith is at play. Abram believes that God will give him an heir through his own son.
The very next chapter shows this faith being attacked by doubt: Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai (Gen. 16:1-2).
Does that last sentence ring a bell? If you’ve read Genesis extremely carefully or repetitively, it may jump off the page. It bears a striking resemblance to the LORD’s words to Adam when He spoke judgment in the garden: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life…” (Gen. 3:17). With a simple sentence—And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai—our attention is called back to the garden, back to the first sin, back to the first doubt, and we are intended to understand that Sarai has doubted God. Just as doubt was sown in the heart of Eve, it was sown in the heart of Sarai. And just as Adam followed his wife into great heartache, so also did Abram.
Conflict immediately ensued in the form of Sarai and Hagar regarding one another with what could only be described as enmity: And [Abram] went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!" But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please." Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her (Gen. 16:4-6).
The struggle with doubt continued after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Even after God revealed to Abraham that his heir would come by Sarah (“I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her” [17:16]), Abraham expressed doubt: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? …Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:17-18). In other words, Abraham himself asks God to reconsider Sarah’s faithless plan! Sarah also expressed great doubt (18:11-15).
Yet, The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him (21:1-2). Still, the enmity continued: But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son (21:9-11).
What an irony. By doubting the promise would be fulfilled and acting on that doubt, they created a competitor, an enemy, of the son of promise. Yet, God’s faithfulness will never be trumped by our lack of faith (2 Tim 2:13). In a response that demonstrated both His fathomless mercy and purposed determination, the LORD spoke to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (21:12-13).
Out of kindness to Abraham, God promised to prosper Ishmael. Out of faithfulness to His promises, He protected the line of the ultimate seed by sending Ishmael away.
While the serpent is never mentioned in connection with this narrative, explicit references are not necessary to read the storyline begun in Gen 3:15 and concluded in Rev 20:2, 10. There are enough signposts in between to be confident that the narrative is constant in the mind of the biblical authors, who seem to be far more inclined to make allusions ("And Abram listened to the voice of his wife") than explicit connections ("the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" [Rom 16:20]). If we read carefully, repetitively, and prayerfully with the big picture in mind, these things begin to reveal themselves to us.
Let's not miss these points about His character—
The faithfulness of God is an unstoppable train. Its destination set, it will arrive at the fulfillment of every promise made. Even the weak faith and foolishness of its recipients cannot slow it down or divert its path.
The kindness of God is a well in the desert. In the wake of man’s attempt to sabotage His promise, the LORD not only keeps the promise, but showers care and blessing on those considered collateral damage. Those who find the compassion of Christ in the New Testament a contrast to the Yahweh of the Old Testament have not read the same Bible I have.
Where are you reading in the Word? What conflicts are depicted? Any that arise from disbelief and doubt that threaten to cut off or compete with God’s plan? How is the character of God displayed in these things?