Has God ever thrown you a curveball? Of course, He has. There’s an old Yiddish expression, “Man plans, and God laughs.” We wake up every morning with an idea of what the future looks like. We make plans, as we must, only to be blindsided by God. The surprises God throws at us are sometimes blessings, sometimes they challenge us to the core. And more often than not, we don’t even know what’s a blessing and what is a challenge until years later. But one thing is certain, God does not reveal His plans.
Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean? Of course God reveals His plans. It’s called prophecy.” Yes, the Bible is filled with the word of God telling us what the future holds. But here’s the thing. We still don’t know. God still surprises us.
We might be inclined to think that the reason we are so confused by God is due to our own limited understanding. Maybe we’re jumping to foolish conclusions. But this is incorrect. To quote Isaiah,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
This passage does not merely mean that God knows things He hasn’t told us yet. It means that there is a fundamental human inability to understand God’s thoughts and plans. And this isn’t a bug in the system. It’s a feature.
In fact, the inability to understand God’s plans for our lives is a central theme in the life of the father of monotheistic faith, Abraham himself.
In the very first story about Abraham, in this week’s parsha Lekh Lekha, we read that Abraham was sent by God to “the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) But almost immediately after arriving in the land, God brought a famine that forced Abraham to leave. And in one of the last stories of Abraham’s life, the binding of his son Isaac, God first tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, only to later retract that command and insist that Abraham not harm Isaac at all. There are numerous examples of God sending Abraham mixed messages.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is found in the birth of Ishmael.
When God first spoke to Abraham and told him to go to the promised land, God told Abraham that He would make Abraham a great nation. Despite this promise, Abraham and Sarah remained childless for many years. After Abraham’s victory in a local battle to save his nephew Lot, God promised Abraham “great reward.” (Genesis 15:1) Abraham responded by pointing out that God had yet to give him children to inherit any reward God would give him. God responded by promising Abraham that he would have a child “from your own body.” (Genesis 15:4)
Immediately after this prophetic promise, lo and behold, Sarah approached Abraham with the suggestion that Abraham take Sarah’s maidservant Hagar to have a child with her. After all, Sarah was in her late seventies and was far past child-bearing age. It’s not difficult to imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind. Think about it. God promises Abraham that he will have a child from his own body. Sarah then offers Hagar as a mother for Abraham’s child. There is no doubt that Abraham thought that the child born to him from Hagar was going to be the one who would inherit him and be the bearer of Abraham’s covenant with God. Abraham was certain that this child, Ishmael, would be the one to become a great nation as numerous as the stars of the heaven. (Genesis 15:5) He was certain that Ishmael’s descendants would go into slavery in Egypt and be redeemed “with great wealth.” (Genesis 15:13-14)
We know that Abraham thought that Ishmael was the son who would carry forward the covenant because Abraham said as much. Twelve years after the birth of Ishmael, God again spoke to Abraham. In this vision, God told Abraham that Sarah, at 90 years old, would give birth to a son who would become the bearer of the covenant. How did Abraham react?
And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” – Genesis 17:18
In other words, Abraham did not see the necessity for the miracle of Sarah bearing a child in her old age. After all, Abraham already had a son named Ishmael. To disabuse Abraham of his misunderstanding God immediately and emphatically responded.
Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.” – Genesis 17:19
Imagine Abraham’s surprise. For 12 years he was absolutely certain that Ishmael was the son who would inherit the covenant. After all, wasn’t Ishmael born as a direct result of Abraham’s prayer to God asking for a child? How could there be any other way to understand what happened? But Abraham was wrong.
Abraham was the very first person to profess faith in God. And yet, even Abraham was kept in the dark as to God’s plans for his life. But Abraham’s faith was not shaken by this confusion. He continued to trust God and to serve Him with perfect obedience.
Too often, when people are confused about God’s plan, when things don’t work out as expected, their faith is shaken. Instead, we must all take a lesson from the life of Abraham. God doesn’t want us to know His plans. He wants us to believe in Him.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He is cohost of the weekly Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.