In part 1 of this study, we looked at the beginning of Ishmael’s story, with Hagar becoming Abram’s wife and her flight from Sarai. In part two, we will look at Ishmael himself.
Ishmael doesn’t play much of an active role in the story of the patriarchs, but then, neither does Isaac really. The parts of the Bible where he appears are Abraham’s story, and he comes in more or less as he relates to Abraham and Sarah.
For such an effectively minor character, however, he certainly gets treated with a great deal of importance. The love Abraham has for him is evident, as is God’s care and concern for him. He is, after all, one of only eight people in the Bible to be personally named or renamed by God.
I’ve noticed a tendency among Christians to denigrate and downplay Ishmael. We make statements basically dismissing him as “Abraham’s mistake” or “the result of Abraham’s lack of faith”. We want to elevate and focus on Isaac as the son of the promise, but we do so to such a degree that we often seem to reject his elder brother entirely. I don’t think this is fair to the Scriptural account; God doesn’t seem to treat Ishmael as an unfortunate mistake, but rather He takes care of him and provides for him. We should not go so far in loving Isaac that we reject Ishmael. After all, as we shall see, God did not reject him.
Chapter 16 of Genesis leaves off with Hagar returning to Abram’s household and giving birth to her son Ishmael. Chapter 17 picks up thirteen years later with God instructing Abram to circumcise every male in his household who was eight days old, as a sign of the covenant God was making with him.
Abram’s name is changed by God, from Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of a Multitude”). And Sarai is renamed Sarah (“My Princess” to the more powerful “The Princess”), and named as a mother of kings and of a special son to be named Isaac.
Abraham’s reaction when God says that Sarah will bear him a son is the entirely human one of incredulous laughter. It’s not like he and Sarah hadn’t been trying for lo these many years. Now, after all this time, now will Sarah bear a child?
The other part of Abraham’s reaction is the very natural and right concern for his other son. The son he had been given every reason to expect was the son who would inherit the covenant relationship with God.
God’s words to Abraham promising him a son by Sarah are very reminiscent of the words spoken by God the other times God specifically speaks to him, bringing him out of Haran to Canaan, and promising him a son of his own flesh. “Sarah will conceive a son. I will make her the mother of kings, many nations will come from her.” If Sarah’s son is all of that, what is to become of Ishmael? Is there something wrong with him? Is God rejecting him?
Naturally and rightly, as a father and a man before God, he’s concerned.
“Oh, that Ishmael might live under your blessing!” he says. Good for him. I would hope any good parent would echo that.
The next verses we need to read carefully, because our focus on Isaac as the child of promise can make us miss things. We’re apt to look at Ishmael through the lens of Galatians, where he’s serving in a symbolic role for the Jewish people, and that, too, can make us prone to gloss over things.
God’s response to Abraham’s desire for Ishmael is a clear and simple “Yes”.
It’s not often in the Scripture that we get such a simple and straightforward “Yes” from God, and it shows that God was fully and completely on board with Abraham’s fatherly desire for his son. He goes on to say that Isaac will have a particular covenant relationship with God, but Ishmael is in no way rejected. He, too, is still part of the household of faith.
It’s as if God says “Yes, Abraham. Everything you want for your son Ishmael – the relationship with Me, the inheritance, the becoming a great nation – I want too.”
Is Ishmael included in the Abrahamic covenant, then?
Well, kind of, maybe. Certainly he has a relationship with God; one of the last things we’re told about him is that “God was with him as he grew up.”
But equally certainly, the Bible account makes it clear that Isaac is the one through whom Abraham’s offspring will be reckoned. It’s Isaac, not Ishmael, who is in the line of the Messiah. Isaac is the primary heir of the covenant.
Ishmael, however, isn’t rejected. He’s part of God’s family and a partaker of Abraham’s covenant relationship with God. And presumably, because of the way covenants work, passing that partaking in a covenantal relationship with God (or at the very least its potential) down to his children.
This is not to say that either Arabs or Muslims don’t need to be saved. They need to know Jesus just like their brothers descended from Isaac do. What I take issue with is the idea you sometimes seem to get from very pro-Israel people that Ishmael’s descendents are basically barred from salvation and eternally outside the covenant. Enemies of Israel and thus cursed by God and rejected.
They aren’t. Even when God is confirming the covenant through Isaac, he’s taking care of Ishmael too. And even the most ardently pro-Israel people seldom explicitly take it that far. It’s more of an underlying attitude that gets communicated whether they mean it to or not.
In the fullness of time, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Named “Laughter”, he’s the son of promise, the one with whom God makes a special covenant.
It won’t be the last time God chooses a younger son over his older brothers. Jacob, Moses (probably), Gideon and David were all younger sons whom God chose. The culture common throughout the Biblical period was that it was the eldest son who was important. Even today, it’s the eldest son of the monarch who will inherit the crown.
But God frequently sets cultural norms aside when they don’t fit His purposes. It’s Isaac who gets chosen for the job of fathering the nation to which God would make a particular covenant. It’s David who gets anointed as the next king.
But Ishmael still isn’t abandoned. He’s still in Abraham’s household, elder brother of the heir of the promise.
His role as the elder brother is fascinating to me. Typically, the role of an elder brother is to take care of and guard his younger sibling. Is this a prophetic role God has for Ishmael? Is this something we should be praying into with regard to the descendents of the two sons of Abraham? I don’t know. Given the adversarial relationship they have today, it might seem unlikely, but for centuries, one of the safest places in the world to be a Jew was in a Muslim kingdom. And it wouldn’t be the first time that something that God intended gets totally inverted by Satan.
It’s my prayer that Ishmael will rediscover this calling and role, if such it is.
On the day Isaac is weaned (which according to Middle Eastern custom could even be as old as seven, though four would be more usual), Abraham has a big feast for his son Isaac. And now Ishmael’s thirteen-to-seventeen-year-old heart fills with envy.
It’s easy to imagine the source of his discontent. It’s the same thing Abraham had to work through with God earlier. It’s the same thing every parent has to work through when they have a second child. How do I love both my children equally yet differently? Ishmael was the centre of attention, the heir apparent, the son of the covenant. Now here comes Isaac. Son of Abraham’s first and senior wife, and according to God Himself destined to be the heir of a great promise. Teen angst, 2000 BC. Just add religious overtones.
Ishmael starts to mock.
As a Westerner, and particularly as a Brit, it’s difficult to get a grasp on how serious a cultural sin this is. We Brits mock everything; it’s our national pastime. Politicians, leaders, friends and foes. We even mock ourselves.
In this Bible culture, however, mockery is serious business. Saul wants to kill David because of a single line in a celebratory victory song that he thinks is mocking him. The prophet Elisha is jeered by some youths, and responds by calling down a curse on them so that they are mauled by bears. The wisdom book of Proverbs uses the word “mocker” to denote the sort of wilfully stupid and morally bankrupt person we would call a “jackass”. Jesus Himself says that anyone who calls his brother a worthless fool is worthy of judgement. We are told categorically that God Will Not Be Mocked.
We can see this attitude carrying through today in the reaction of Muslims to Western cartoons depicting their prophet. To us, it’s supposed to be amusing, and we don’t remotely understand why it’s a big deal. But Arabs are and have always been closer in culture to parts of the Bible. They understand this teaching on mockery far better than we.
Mockery takes something that someone else treats as important and denigrates it for the sake of humour. It shows a basic contempt for the thing being mocked and for the person who is offended by it. Contempt is directly counter to the ways of God because God values people.
So do I need to watch what kind of jokes I make? Probably. It’s easy to slip across the line from humour to contempt. In fact, it’s probably when we tell jokes that our inward attitudes are most revealed. We should be careful that we don’t secretly harbour contemptuous attitudes towards people Christ died for.
Does it mean we’re all at the mercy of whoever shouts “I’m offended” first?
Not necessarily. “I’m offended by this” is an easy claim to make, and I suspect some people claim offence which is not real. However, it’s not my place to determine which offences are real and which aren’t. I cannot get inside your head to know for sure if you’re genuinely offended or just disapproving, or even miffed at being called out for your crap. I have no way of knowing. So how can I set myself up as judge to arbitrate on what is or is not offensive to someone else?
Sarah is the one who sees what’s going on, and her reaction is swift, and to our eyes brutal. “Get that slave woman and her son out of here, because they will never share in the inheritance”.
Abraham is “greatly distressed, because the matter concerned his son”.
Is this a fatal character flaw in Ishmael? What about God’s “yes” to him? Is God now rejecting him? Do I really need to send him away?
God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, because “it is through Isaac that your descendents will be reckoned”. It’s Isaac who bears the covenant, and Isaac who is in the lineage of the Messiah.
But even now, Ishmael isn’t forgotten or abandoned. “I will make him into a great nation also”, says the Lord. Twelve rulers will come from him, paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. Though Isaac is the heir of God’s direct covenant, Ishmael, even with his unacceptable mockery of Isaac, is still the subject of God’s blessing and care.
Abraham sends him off with Hagar, and some provisions. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham himself went with them at least part of the way, and periodically visited them later on. This is not in the Bible, but it’s not unreasonable. Abraham is, for all his faults with deceptiveness, a good man and a good father to both his children. And certainly there was some sort of contact that went unrecorded by the Scriptural account, because Ishmael was at Abraham’s funeral. He wasn’t conpletely cut off, never to be heard from again.
At any rate, Ishmael and Hagar set off. They enter the desert region around Beersheba and run out of water. Ishmael gets weak. He’s a teenager, remember. He’s not going to have the same endurance as an adult. Maybe, too, he was being the responsible one and taking care of his mother by letting her get most of the water. But in the end, he’s almost dead from thirst.
Hagar lays him down and moves away from him, thinking that this is the end and not able to watch her son die.
But then God intervenes in Ishmael’s life, saving him and his mother for the second time. God references the boy’s name, saying that He has heard the boy crying. As we saw last time, God’s hearing is always connected with God’s acting. As it is written: “And if we know that He hears us, then we know that we have what we ask of Him”. There is suddenly a spring of water. Ishmael is saved, and his mother with him.
Furthermore, we’re told that God was with the boy as he grew up. God was not done with Ishmael. As shown by God’s rescue of him from death, He continued to care and provide for both of Abraham’s sons.
I cannot believe that God intends us to reject Ishmael’s descendents as part of showing love to Isaac’s. Yet I’ve heard “If Ishmael hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t have an Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East” more times than I can count. It’s true; we wouldn’t. But we might have something worse instead. For all their current conflicts, at least Israel and Ishmael are brothers. They share Abraham, and understand each other on a level that would probably not be the case with an Elamite-Israeli conflict, or a conflict with remnants of the Hittites, or anyone else. And as I said before, for a long time in history when Christians were inflicting horrible persecutions on the Jews, one of the safest places to be a Jew was under a Muslim ruler.
Ishmael was a partaker of his father Abraham’s covenant. That was not changed by his leaving Abraham’s household, as shown by the fact that God was with him. That covenant would be transmitted through Isaac to Jacob and his sons, to Moses and David, and would come to fruition with Jesus the promised Messiah. But Christ died for Ishmael and his descendents as surely as He died for Isaac and his.
Let’s not get so caught up in loving Isaac that we lose sight of that.