In our last study, we spoke of that great man of faith, Abraham. Time did not allow us to look at all the many details of events in his life, but in studying another person in the Bible and the Qur’an we will at the same time have another look at Abraham. This other person is Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.
For Muslims, the existence of this first son suggests that there is an error in the biblical account of the order that God gives to Abraham to sacrifice his son. You see, according to the Bible, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (Genesis 22:2). Now Isaac has an older brother who alone, before Isaac came into the world, could have been an “only son” of the patriarch Abraham. Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs. When Muslims observe the feast of Tabaski, they commemorate the sacrifice, not of Isaac but of Ishmael.
The biblical book of Genesis was written by the prophet Moses more than two thousand years before the birth of Muhammad. Since Moses was much closer in time to the actual events, it would seem he was in a better position to know Abraham’s history. But if there is a contradiction in his writings, would we not say that someone may have changed the text and that the version which we have is corrupted? Or is there an explanation that makes it possible to understand why Isaac, who had an older brother, was called by God “the only son” of Abraham?
In speaking of Abraham, we saw that he one day said to God, “You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” The Lord responded to him that it would not be his servant but: “…one who comes from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:3,4). He simply had to be patient and wait until God fulfilled his promise. Unfortunately, at some point Abraham listened to the suggestion of his wife, Sarai (Sarah), who apparently thought that it was necessary for them to help God in doing what He had promised. We read from the first verse in Genesis 16:
“Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, ‘Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.’ And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant.” (Genesis 16:1-4)
This suggestion by Sarai may seem strange to us, but archaeologists have recovered writings from the time and country of origin of Abraham and Sarah which describe this custom allowing a barren woman to give to her husband a servant who might bear children in the name of the legitimate wife. (This is the same custom that the two wives of Jacob followed some time later.)
But things did not happen as Sarah had wanted. The Bible says:
“When she [Hagar] realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and ever since she saw that she was pregnant, she has treated me with contempt. May the Lord judge between me and you.’ Abram replied to Sarai, ‘Here, your slave is in your hands; do whatever you want with her.’ Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.” (Genesis 16:4-6)
Again, the story may seem a little strange to us. Isn’t Sarah unfair in accusing her husband? Actually, according to the law of that time, the handmaid became the responsibility of the husband, who was therefore supposed to correct her lack of respect toward Sarah. As with most polygamists, Abraham surely must have had conflicting emotions—love for the wife of his youth but also tenderness toward one who was carrying his child in her womb. We see that the disadvantages of polygamy showed themselves quickly in Abraham’s home.
Let us continue with the story in Genesis. Hagar had fled into the desert:
“The Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. He said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She replied, ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘You must go back to your mistress and submit to her mistreatment.’ The Angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to her: ‘You have conceived and will have a son. You will name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your cry of affliction. This man will be like a wild donkey.’” (Genesis 16:7-12)
As we will see, the child carried by Hagar was not the one of which God had spoken to Abram. Nevertheless, God cared about Hagar and promised that her son would become the father of a great people. In saying that he would be a wild donkey, God consoled Hagar. This is because the wild donkey is an animal which keeps its independence, which is not controlled by men. Hagar was a slave and oppressed by her mistress, but this would not be her son’s fate. So Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah and had a baby boy. Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave him this son.
The Birth of the Promised Son
Thirteen years later, the Lord appeared to Abram and renewed his promise, saying:
“‘As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations… I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations… To you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan… As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah will be her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’
Abraham fell facedown. Then he laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?’ So Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!’
But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.’” (Genesis 17:4, 6-8, 15-21).
We see here that God was not against Ishmael, but he was not the child that God had promised and he was not part of the plan that God had to bless the world through a descendant of Abraham. According to God’s promise, Sarah would become pregnant and bring into the world a son, Isaac. When the child had grown old enough to be weaned, there was a celebration. On this occasion, Sarah saw Ishmael teasing his little half-brother. So she told Abraham:
“‘Drive out this slave with her son, for the son of this slave will not be a coheir with my son Isaac!’ Now this was a very difficult thing for Abraham because of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be concerned about the boy and your slave. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her, because your offspring will be traced through Isaac. But I will also make a nation of the slave’s son because he is your offspring.’” (Genesis 21:10-13).
The next day, Abraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael. This did not mean that Abraham would not see Ishmael again until his death. According to Genesis 25, when Abraham died, he left all his belongings to Isaac but he had previously provided Ishmael with gifts. The Bible also specifies that Isaac and Ismael both buried their father, but that Ismael and his descendants settled away from the other descendants of Abraham, outside the Promised Land.
Considering all this history, we see why God called Isaac “an only son” of Abraham. He was the only child of Sarah—the legal wife, the only child that God had promised, the only heir of Abraham, and the only who was part of the agreement God had with his servant. So the word translated as “only” means “the only one of its kind” which correctly describes Isaac.
In the epistle to the Galatians, a book in the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses Ishmael’s story to illustrate the difference between the old covenant which God made with the people of Israel during the time of Moses, and the new covenant under which we live today. The Christians in the province of Galatia, as it happened, were listening to Jewish false teachers who persuaded some of them to be circumcised and to obey the regulations of the Jewish law given to Moses at Mount Sinai. During Paul’s time, the capital of those who followed this Mosaic Law was the city of Jerusalem, where the temple was located. At this time, there were followers of the Mosaic Law who were persecuting Christians and trying to prevent the preaching of the Gospel. So Paul wrote this:
“Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. But the one by the slave was born according to the impulse of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things are illustrations, for the women represent the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother… Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as then the child born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. But what does the Scripture say? Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman. Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:21-26, 28-31)
Paul follows his idea by urging his readers not to return to the old law. In Christ, they were free of this “slavery” to the Jewish law with its ceremonies, its numerous rules about food, its holy days, its animal sacrifices every day, etc. He goes so far as to say, “You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). This lesson is still useful in our time, for there are many who believe in Jesus but justify their religious practices by appealing to the old Jewish Law—whether it is the use of instrumental music or dancing in the worship of God, the existence of a class of priests within the people of God, the requirement of paying the tithe or keeping the Sabbath, or the ban on eating certain meats. He tells them that the inheritance of God is for those who are “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Born According to the Promise
Ishmael is not at all presented in the Bible as a man who is unrighteous or unworthy. He was simply not the child that God had promised to Abraham… not the son who would receive the father’s inheritance or be the ancestor of Jesus, the one by whom God intended to offer His blessing to the whole world.
Like Ishmael and Isaac, we don’t choose the role we play in the plans of God, the One who is all-powerful and sovereign. But today God offers us the possibility of becoming “heirs according to the promise”, sons and daughters of Abraham, and heirs of eternal blessings. By what means? By faith and baptism, obedience to the gospel. Let’s conclude with these words from Galatians 3:26-29:
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”