Ishmael: Blessed But Not Chosen

I know that there is a dispute among Jews, Christians and Muslims as to who is the chosen line of Abraham. For Jews and Christians, the claim is that it is through Isaac that covenantal blessings flow. For those of Islamic faith, they claim it is Ismael.

But what does the Word of God say? Any time there is a dispute about theological differences, we must come back to the authority for our beliefs to be shaped. In fact, the Word of God says that when God was giving Abraham the sign of the covenant, namely circumcision, that Abraham asked God that the covenant would be placed on Ishmael. Genesis 17:17-18 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!

Abraham knows the difficulty that it will be for he and Sarah to have a child. This is what brought about his impatience in the first place, leading him to sleep with Hagar, which gave him Ishmael. This is one of those points where we see the Father of all who truly believe  (Galatians 3:7), falling short in trusting God. Remember that God had told Abraham that he would be blessed and a father of many nations. Abraham got impatient, and took matters into his own hands.

Yet, the covenantal blessings are not to be upon Ishmael, but Isaac, whom Sarah will give birth to. When Abraham asks God to allow Ishmael to be the one in which those covenantal blessings flow, God rejects his request. Genesis 17:19 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.”

God says no. He will not have His chosen people come from a union that was conceived in sin. He wants His line to come from those He has chosen. The people of God are always His work, not man’s work. Therefore He tells Abraham that it will be through Sarah that the covenantal blessings will spring forth. It is through this line that the Messiah will come and redeem the chosen throughout the world. God will not have fallen man adding to His plan of redemption. Even though Abraham was a friend of God, it is God’s work that brings about this redemption and Isaac.

That is part of the beauty of this redemptive event. God is showing that when it comes to His will and plan, He can work through a couple that are far past the age of childbearing. Genesis 18:11-12 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.[a] 12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

The idea of the phrase, passed the age of childbearing, actually comes from a Hebrew idiom meaning: the manner of women. That referred to a woman’s menstrual cycle. The text is telling us that Sarah no longer had the ability to have children. A miracle will have to be performed in order for her to have children. God will have to take something that is dead and make it alive. He will have to bring her womb to life again for her to have a child (probably Abraham too). This is what God does when it comes to our redemption. At every point, we are saved by Him, whether that is His plan to bring us the Savior, or working in our lives to get us to the point of belief. He is in the habit of taking that which is dead and giving it life (Ephesian 2:1ff).

He is the One that gave Sarah and Abraham the ability to have Isaac. Again, it is His plan that will be carried out in His way, not Abraham’s supplemental plan. God has a purpose and a plan for His chosen at all stages, and no, mankind cannot thwart that plan.

As for Ismael, he will be blessed. God tells Abraham this. Genesis 17:20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. He is blessed because he is Abraham’s son. God does that as a favor to Abraham. The man will grow and twelve princes will come from him, and he will be a great nation.

Lest you put too much on this, as Muslims do, God immediately reiterates the fact that His covenant is with Isaac, not Ishmael. Genesis 17:21 But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”

Also note, that when God initially tells Abraham of the coming child, He says that Sarah will be the mother of kings and many nations. Genesis 17:16 And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.” Whereas Ismael will father twelve princes and one nation, Sarah will be the mother of many nations and many kings, showing covenantal supremacy in God’s election of them.

Why is This Important?

For several reasons. First, we need to recognize that the claim by Muslims concerning Ishmael is wrong. While Ishmael is blessed, he is not of the chosen line of God. It is through the line of Isaac that the covenant blessings pass. No amount of revisionist history by Mohamed can change that. This is what God’s word says and we need to rest upon it. I point this out for a very important reason: as Christians, we need to know this truth and not be duped who say that Islam is a true religion of God as well. Just as the Samaritans were rejected because of their revisionist history, so too are those who are Islamic. In our day, we must stress that God worked through history to bring us Jesus Christ and He is the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12). No other religion will do, not Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., etc., etc.

Second, this shows us that those outside of covenantal blessings are not completely ignored by God. He may not extend His eternal blessings to them by bringing them into the covenant, but He still blesses them in life. Ishmael was blessed by God. He had his good things in life. While he may or may not have believed, his offspring were not of the covenant. They eventually departed (Genesis 21:8ff), the covenant-keeping community. And there is no salvation apart from the covenant-keeping community. (That is another way of saying “the church.”)

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5 thoughts on “Ishmael: Blessed But Not Chosen

  1. Judy Truex

    Timothy,

    You have done an excellent job of explaining the covenantal blessings of Isaac & Ishmael. The Muslims find this difficult to believe or understand. You either believe the Bible , that every word is true , that it is written for our benefit and understanding. I thank you so much for taking your time and effort to hopefully give those who believe otherwise, the facts according to scripture.

    God Bless you,
    Judy

    1. Pastor Timothy Post author

      Thanks Judy. I really enjoyed writing this piece. The more we study God’s covenants towards us, the more we understand about Him.
      Blessings
      Timothy

  2. Conrad

    With respect, I disagree with your understanding of the story of Ishmael and the lesson we are to take from it.

    I do not think that Abraham and Sarah were disobeying or displaying lack of faith in God when they arranged for Abraham to marry Hagar and father Ishmael. PERHAPS by this act they were displaying a lack of faith, but I doubt this for several reasons.

    (1) the text of Genesis does not explicitly say that Abraham and Sarah doubted God so I am hesitant to think that they were. Moreover, my doubt is increased by the fact that (2) while God tells Abraham that his servant Eliezer will not be his heir as he will have a son, the first four times (Genesis 12: 1-3, 12:7, 13:14-7, 15:1-21) God makes his covenant promise to Abraham He does not specify who will be the mother of Abraham’s son and given (3) that we know from numerous extrabiblical sources that it was an accepted cultural practice in the Near East for a woman who was infertile to claim as her own (Sarah herself makes this claim at Genesis at 16:2) it does not seem to me to be a lack of faith on the part of Abraham and Sarah to think that perhaps the promised son would come from a woman other than Sarah.

    I think it is worth noting just how special Ishmael is. On four separate occasions God Himself or the angel of God prophecy that Ishmael will be a great nation (Genesis 16:8-12, 17:20, 21:13, and 21:17-18). After the the great flood, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are the only non-Jews in Genesis who interact with God and upon whom God pours out His blessings. Ishmael, like Isaac, and unlike any other human in Genesis, is named by God BEFORE his birth and his mother faithfully obeys God when He commands her to return to Sarah (Genesis 16:9).

    Isaac is very, very special yes. But so is Ishmael.

    Starting at Genesis 11:10 there is an eight-generation long list of the male descendents of Shem, son Noah, the penultimate descendent being Terah. Neither Shem nor Terah nor any of the men between them are recorded as having any interaction with God. Terah is listed as having three sons: Nahor, Haran, and Abram. Haran’s descendents are mentioned in Genesis 11 and Nahor’s mentioned later in Genesis 22. Like their ancestors, however, neither Haran nor Nahor, nor their descendents have any interaction with God.

    (You might think that the story of Lot, son of Haran, is an exception to this as in Genesis 19 as he interacts with two of God’s angels who save him from the destruction God brings to Sodom and Gemorrah. However, the story of Lot in Genesis 19 is preceded by Genesis 18 where Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gemorrah if there are at least ten righteous people. God’s concern with Lot is mediated via Abraham. So too, it is not God that directly interacts with Lot but two angelic intermediaries and their interaction seems indicative not of a particular concern with Lot as it is indicative of a general concern with righteous individuals and those closely related to them e.g. witness the concern the angels have for Lot’s entire family at Genesis 19:12, incontrast God’s concern with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, AND Ishmael and Hagar is by name)

    At Genesis 25 we are informed that after the death of Sarah, Abraham marries a new wife–Keturah and she bore him six sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. We are then further informed that two of these sons, Jokshan and Midian, had sons of their own. However, like Abraham’s brothers and their sons, the sons and grandsons of Abraham and Keturah have no interaction with God in Genesis and no prophecy is made about their future.

    Jacob, son of Isaac, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, repeatedly interacts with God and their are divine prophecies made about him. Jacob’s brother Esau has no interactions with God or angels of God in Genesis and the only prophecy about Esau in Genesis is at 25:23 where it is specified that he shall serve his brother Jacob.

    My interpretation of the Ishmael story: while the Jews, the descendents of Abraham via Isaac, are preeminently God’s people, the people He has chosen and loves above all others, this does not mean that He does not pay attention to other peoples.

  3. Conrad

    Oh and also it’s worth point out that you are Muslims DO NOT think that covental blessings flow from Ishmael not Isaac.

    The Qur’an is explicit that BOTH Isaac and Ishmael were righteous men who were prophets of God.

    The real dispute between Muslism on oneside and Jews and Christians on the other is not who received the covental blessings (educated Muslims think BOTH Isaac and Ishmael received the blessings of God equally, but they acknowledge that God did send more prophets to the Jews than any other people and that this started with Isaac), the dispute is over who God commanded Abraham to sacrifice. The Bible is explicit that it was Isaac that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, the Qur’an doesn’t say.

    Interestingly, in the early days of Islam, there was actually a debate among Muslim scholars who the identity of the sacrificial victim was (http://www.amazon.com/Prophets-Quran-Introduction-Exegesis-Comparative/dp/0826449573) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_of_Isaac#Muslim_views

    I have an Afghan-American Muslim friend who told me that while he was taught in mosque growing up that Ishmael was the one God commanded Abraham to sacrifice (something I definitely think is incorrect) he also said that he would be perfectly fine/wouldn’t shake his Islamic belief in the slightest if he learned that it was actually Isaac who was the sacrificial victim. His reasoning was that, unless you were an ARAB Muslim i.e. look to Ishmael as an ancestor, it really doesn’t matter who God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, all that matters is that Abraham was willing to go through with it.

  4. Asif

    Genesis 17:9-14 : These verses clarify the covenant directed to all descendants of Abraham and has a sign/token associated with it, i.e. circumcision.
    Genesis 17:19 : Here the covenant directed to Isaac and his descendants.
    Genesis 17:21 : Here God repeats the covenant in favor of Isaac, with the emphasizing word “but”.
    But, again, Genesis 17:9-14 clarifies the generality of the covenant!
    The Quran does not explicitly mention (by name) the son who was to be sacrificed.
    But how does one reconcile Genesis 22:2, “… take your only son … (Isaac) …” to offer as sacrifice. But Abraham already had a son earlier from Hagar, i.e. Ishmael. In case one considers Hagar as a concubine and hence devalues Ishmael as a “son” as much as Isaac as a “son”, then one needs to consider Genesis 16:3, where Hagar was given by Sarah to be Abraham’s a “wife”.
    And what exactly does the “covenant” consist of, in addition to circumcision?

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