Isaac And Ishmael, Then And Now

Perspective by Jack Kelley

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”(Genesis 15:1-4)

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.(Genesis 16:1-4, 15)

Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (Genesis 21:1-3)

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”(Genesis 21:9-13)

Abraham was 75 years old when God called him, about 80 when God promised him a son, 86 when Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:16) and 100 at the time of Isaac’s birth. (Gen. 21:5) This made Ishmael 14 years older than Isaac, and about 16 or 17 when Isaac was weaned. When he made fun of Isaac, Sarah demanded that Abraham get rid of him.

That snapshot seems to set the tone for our understanding of Ishmael. God had told Hagar that her son would be a “wild ass” of a man with his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him. (Gen. 16:12) He was bigger, stronger, and older than his helpless baby brother, and yet he thought it sport to mock him.

We can imagine that the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar had its effect on Ishmael and served to frame his view of Isaac from the beginning. And it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to believe that Ishmael was told repeatedly that Isaac was God’s choice to become Abraham’s heir although Ishmael was the first born and, at least in his opinion, the rightful heir. When Ishmael and Hagar were sent away to fend for themselves the sense of abandonment likely made it difficult for Ishmael to trust anyone for a long time. I can almost hear him thinking that his life was a mistake, and wishing he had never been born. No wonder he didn’t get along with anyone.

This feeling of being an unworthy outcast matured into a resentment so strong that it permeated Ishmael’s very soul and from that day to this, the descendants of Ishmael have stood against the descendants of Isaac. His anger had given the devil a foothold that grew into a stronghold so powerful that it has lasted through all the generations since. All this happened because Abraham and Sarah grew impatient with God and tried to fulfill His promise on their own.

Once More, With Feeling

A generation later, Esau felt similarly disenfranchised by Jacob’s manipulation of Isaac. This was the case even though Jacob only received that which he had earlier purchased from Esau, who in a moment of extreme hunger traded his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew as though it was a mere trinket. Esau was so angry with his father, who refused to reverse the transaction, that he did the one thing that he knew would hurt Isaac the most. He married Malhalath, a daughter of Ishmael. (Gen. 28:8-9) How he and Ishmael must have railed against Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in two consecutive generations had humiliated them in the matter of their presumed inheritance. Each recounting of the events added bricks and mortar to the stronghold the devil was building in their minds.

It had been God’s plan all along for His promise to Abraham to be fulfilled through Isaac in Jacob. When Sarah took matters into her own hand after waiting impatiently for six years to give her husband an heir, God promised to make Ishmael’s descendants into a great nation with 12 rulers just as he had in mind for Jacob. “But,” He said, “My covenant I will establish with Isaac.” (Gen. 17:20-21)

And Esau’s descendants were given land east of the Jordan River that the Israelites were not allowed to take as their own. (Deut. 2:4-6) But Ishmael didn’t inherit the covenant position and Esau didn’t get the Promised Land, and to them what they received, though generous, probably seemed like 2nd best. Far from encouraging them to forgive and forget, their anger was further inflamed.

The land given to Esau became known as Edom because of its spectacular red rock mountains and, until their rebellion against God, Esau’s descendants thrived there. The final straw came when the Edomites took advantage of God’s punishment of Israel during the Babylonian wars. Thinking to finally get the coveted Promised Land, they sided with Nebuchadnezzar and cut off the Jews’ escape from the Babylonian armies, ambushing the fleeing Israelites and looting their homes. (Obadiah 1:10-14) As a result, Edom was destroyed and the Nabateans, another of Ishmael’s descendants, took their land.

We’ll Return After This Break

During Israel’s 1900 year absence from the world scene, the sons of Ishmael grew into the family of nations that God had promised, but the hostility remained even though the Promised Land was seemingly theirs for the taking. When Mohammed, a descendant of Ishmael’s, failed to convert the Jews in the region to his new religion, he declared war against them and the ancient hostility was born anew. All the old feelings of resentment were re-kindled, and even though the armies of Islam embarked upon an era of conquest that eventually took them all the way to eastern France, they maintained a special hostility toward the Jews.

And then the unimaginable happened. For the third time they were required to step aside in favor of the sons of Israel. God was bringing His people back to the land He had promised to Abraham so long ago. Never mind that the land had been pretty much abandoned for much of the preceding 1900 years, it had been Muslim land and now it was being given back to their sworn enemies, the Jews. It violated their sense of ownership, tainted though it was, and it violated the promise of their religion. Mohammed himself had told them that any land conquered in the name of Allah would never be lost again to the infidels.

Of course by now the majority of  Mohammed’s followers weren’t sons of Ishmael, but Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, to use their Biblical names. But their historical hatred of the Jews had been kept alive through the religion they all shared in common. And most of the returning Jews weren’t of the original 12 tribes but the descendants of Europeans who had converted to Judaism over the centuries. Only a remnant of today’s Jews can trace their ancestry to Jacob’s 12 sons. But it’s that remnant that validates Israel’s claim under the Abrahamic covenant in God’s eyes.

Therefore, the wars of today aren’t between Ishmaelites and Israelites, but between Muslims and Jews. The family feud has become a battle of religions. Will the God of the Jews prevail, or will it be the god of Islam—for they are not one and the same. The God who inhabits eternity created the land and gave it to Abraham in an everlasting covenant. The god of this world had taken it as his own and refuses to give it up. It’s the most hotly contested piece of real estate in the entire universe, and the contest has both its origin and its resolution in the spiritual realm, not in the assembly halls of human governments.

So now we’ve come full circle. Ishmael, represented by the Muslims, is older, bigger, and stronger, but Isaac, represented by the Jews, is still the child of the promise. And as we’ll soon see, what God has promised, He performs. Against all odds, Ishmael will once again be driven away, and God will use the occasion to re-instate His ancient covenant with the children of Israel, biological or not. It’s another giant signpost that the End of the Age is upon us. You can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah.