Banished. Isolated. Pushed away. Trying to survive in a lifeless desert. That’s what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael, according to Genesis chapter 21. Deserts, though, aren’t as lifeless as they appear. God does interesting things in deserts.
According to an online article I read recently titled, “127 Stunning Desert Plants,” an amazing array of vegetation grows in arid climates. Most crops, of course, grow best in fertile, well-watered soil, but a wide variety of plants survive and thrive in the desert. Some gardeners actually plant a special kind of garden called a xeriscape (from the Greek word xeros, which means “dry”) that replicates desert-like conditions.
In the desert you can find the mint-green and pinkish shades of the ghost plant and the burro’s tail, the reddish-orange stems of the pencil plant, and the disc-shaped leaves of the paddle plant. Small round plants called living stones blend into the scenery because they look like little rocks. Cactus comes in different varieties with descriptive names like the zebra (shaped like a green cone with white stripes), the round golden barrel, and the aptly-named bunny ear. Wildflowers bloom in the desert, too, including orange California poppies, royal-looking magenta winecups, yellow desert marigolds, and desert sages that paint the landscape with purple and blue. Trees like the Joshua Tree and the aloe, with its healing properties, grow in the desert as well.
Learning a Useful New Skill
Throughout the Bible, God used deserts as a laboratory for spiritual growth. The Israelites wandered in a dry, dangerous wilderness for 40 years, but it wasn’t a purposeless meandering; God was leading his people, disciplining and shaping them. David’s time in the desert refined his prayers and provided the setting where he wrote many of his greatest Psalms. Fasting in the desert, Jesus faced temptation for 40 days at the start of his ministry. Away from the crowds in the desert of Arabia, the Lord prepared Paul for his ministry as an apostle (Galatians 1:17, 18).
Which brings us back to Ishmael, the son of Abraham. According to Genesis 21:20, “God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.”
Archery was a useful skill for someone who lived in the wilderness. Ishmael’s aptitude with the bow and arrow enabled him to protect himself from danger and hunt wild game for food. Archery also provided a constructive way to pass the time during lonely days in the desert. Learning a new skill or perfecting a talent is a good way to fend off boredom. Everyone needs a goal to pursue—something to shoot for. In Ishmael’s case, archery provided a literal target at which he could aim. If Ishmael never lived in the desert, would he ever have learned the bowman’s craft?
I have gone through dry, arid times in my life when the spiritual climate didn’t seem ideal for anything to grow. Perhaps you have gone through such times, too. Maybe you are in the desert right now. Look carefully. There in the desert, you might be surprised to see some beautiful things starting to take root and grow. You might discover a new skill or a new target at which to aim. Even more, look carefully and you might detect the presence of God.
David Faust serves as the Associate Minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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