Ishmael and His Father
By Thomas Cosmades
Compressed by Cataclysmic Fear
How short the distance between faith and fear! The opposite of faith is not unbelief, but fear. Abram received God's covenant promise way back in Haran: "I will make you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). But in spite of the divine promise, his beloved Sarai's infertility was not miraculously cured. She remained a barren woman until Abram felt compelled to ask YAHWEH, "O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus" (15:2). Childlessness was an ongoing concern for Abram in his pilgrimage of faith. The same was true for Sarai, "Behold now the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her" (16:2).
Abram and Sarai came up with their own solution to their widely-known deprivation which God had meant to overcome supernaturally. Don't we all resort to some artificial solution when the march of faith seems to be blocked? Veering off the divine path appears to be the only way out. Doubt invades the mind, “Could it be that God may fail to meet my expectations?” even though the Scriptures plainly affirm that "perfect love casts out all fear" (I John 4:18). Both Abram and Sarai were in constant dread that they would pass from this world childless. But what about God's promises? Would they ever come true? The fear of being left without progeny was gripping them daily, causing distress in their soul.
Complicating God's Call
Flaws in the Patriarch's character extend further back. YAHWEH called him from Ur of the Chaldees to move to Canaan. Abram and his family obeyed the divine command. But alas! When they reached Haran, an important business and agricultural centre on the trade route of the Fertile Crescent, they decided to settle there (11:31). Abram and his family found this prosperous city of at least equal brilliance to the place they had left behind. On their way to the promised land, they took a detour and halted half way in a city not far from the Euphrates. Through this unhealthy decision Abram's spiritual journey also halted half way. True, his life had changed from idolatry to monotheism, but his life-style remained about the same as it had been in Ur. So it is with many who abandon Ur with the view of reaching Canaan.
Abram became involved in lucrative business enterprises in Haran, also known as the city of Nahor (24:10), until YAHWEH called him a second time: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (12:1). Many centuries later, the protomartyr (first martyr) Stephen declared to the Jewish leaders: "He departed from the land of the Chaldeans, and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into the land in which you are now living" (Acts 7:4).There are sometimes unnecessary, unfruitful interruptions in the journey of faith. Then suddenly the great Captain of our lives lovingly intervenes, removes, and stirs us to a more sublime purpose and goal.
When Abram finally entered the land of promise at seventy-five, he lifted his voice to YAHWEH and immediately started building altars to Him, the Pioneer and Perfector of his faith (12:7, 8). During the monotonous, static life in Haran — we don’t have any idea of how many years it was — he didn’t build a single altar. In the lives of those who by divine grace are guided out of the depravity of Ur there are always obstructions along the way to keep them from building altars and bearing fruit. Only when the God-promised land becomes a reality in one’s life can such practices genuinely take place.
Once in the land, Abram could joyfully sing the songs of praise to his great Redeemer, who came to him with a glowing prospect: "Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them... So shall your descendants be" (15:5). Then this stirring development: "And Abram believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (15:6).
The cardinal component of the Christian teaching 'justification by faith' (cf. Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38; James 2:23) came into full light in the land to which YAHWEH had destined Abram. Precisely at what point was the Patriarch justified? We do not know, but it comes to total clarity in the land. For every believer, genuine joy deriving from the truth 'justification by faith' will only be realised in its entirety in the land of promise. Some people departed from Ur at a certain point in time, but for various reasons were distracted somewhere along the way. They failed to enter into the wholesome delight of 'justification by faith' because of their insistence on settling in situations reminiscent of Haran. Such diversion may offer salvation ‘only as through fire’ (I Corinthians 3:15), but falls short of offering the steady flow of spiritual satisfaction available to all God’s children. Life in the land of Canaan is an abundantly rich discovery in all its aspects. Its essence is contrary to the enticement of the materially rich Haran.
There has been an erroneous teaching equating 'the land of promise' with heaven. One can ask, are there wars and conflicts in heaven? Canaan is certainly not the heaven to come, but heaven here and now where the redeemed person can enter in and delight in its numerous spiritual enrichments. Here is the ongoing battle of faith, where the believer is equipped with the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Here the person comes to the joyous realization of the ‘rest’ referred to by the writer to the Hebrews who had their own conflicts in their pilgrimage of faith (cf. Hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3; 8-11).
Discovering the Benefits of the New Land
Traversing Canaan is a delightful experience in the company of our Lord. It is not a venture of physical prosperity and daily comfort such as is the case in Haran. Conversely, it is a life where the sojourner puts up his tents as he moves along. He lives by faith in the Divine Provider; but against this he daily encounters various adversaries in the course of his journey. His life is one of productive service and effective testimony satisfying the Savior and gladdening his own heart.
This pathway of faithfulness is not lacking in hardships and vulnerability: "Now there was a famine in the land" (Genesis 12:10). Famine in the land must and will come. But YAHWEH can be depended upon to meet each need. What should be done when crises of famine appear in the land? Man’s Supplier and Sustainer reaches into every emergency: "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Psalm 16:11).
In spite of such assurance, going down to affluent Egypt in order to settle one’s anxieties is a very real temptation. "Come to me; I will offer you what your God cannot give!" is Egypt's constant lure (Isaiah 36:14-17). Abraham’s running to Egypt for nourishment was a sad sequel to the journey organized by none other than God himself. But our Father of Faith fell into this trap. Every person at one time or other has regressed to similar inversions and has borne the awful consequences. "Abram went to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land" (Genesis 12:10). Abraham probably had not yet grown to the stature of Habakkuk, a prophet who came onto the scene centuries later and jubilantly praised his God through his well-known song (cf. 3:17-19).
The consequences of such regression are shattering. Abram introduced his own wife as his sister — in reality she was his half-sister (Genesis 20:12) — paving the way to devastating consequences. Pharaoh’s household was afflicted with great plagues (12:17-20). Pharaoh chastised Abram: “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? (12:18). With these words Pharaoh sent Abram off, along with many rich gifts. Among the gifts was a young Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, who became Sarai’s maid. They took her with them on the long journey back to the land of promise. Outwardly, the girl adopted the religion of the covenant couple. It is regrettable that their lives did not attract her to total commitment to YAHWEH.
As was the case in Haran, Abram could not build a single altar in Egypt, or call on YAHWEH’s name. He came out very wealthy (13:2), but spiritually indigent. He had to travel from the Negev all the way to Bethel to be in God’s presence in the land which the LORD had given him. Blessing from God and spiritual fervor were his daily enjoyment once again, never mind that he had to live in tents as in his previous traversing of the land (13:18). Now he became recipient of heaven's bountiful supply of grace and mercy. He returned to the place where he had first built an altar when he came out of Haran, and there he called on the name of the LORD (13:4). He then moved on to Hebron where he built another altar to the LORD (13:18). Gradually he was approaching the climax of his altar-building journey, when he would raise the altar of unquestioning submission to YAHWEH. In return for his faith and obedience, YAHWEH provided a ram and Isaac was delivered from becoming a human sacrifice (cf. 22:9-14).
The pilgrim's life of faith began sparkling once again. He had to return to the promised land to receive God's full benediction and to discover that "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). "He causes His wonderful works to be remembered; He is gracious and merciful" (Psalm 111:4).
The Cost of Misunderstanding
Abram and Sarai were determinedly waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise, but it was kept back. Patience without total faith in God's irrevocable promise will wear thin. Ten long years elapsed in the land of Canaan (Genesis 16:3). God's promise remained unfulfilled. Fear gripped Abram that the first Hebrew might be the last! Had God really meant that their own offspring would become their genuine heir?
They were well acquainted with the pagan practice of surrogate motherhood (Genesis 30:3). A woman’s maid would be given to the husband as wife by proxy, and the infant born from the union would become the child of the couple, with all rights attached. Resorting to this heathen custom — in an age when familial-ethical principles of the New Testament were not yet known — albeit with good intentions, fell short of full exercise of faith. But most importantly, it overlooked the covenant promise of YAHWEH. This reality seems to have escaped both Abram’s and Sarai’s consideration. The consequences of surrogate motherhood were debilitating and devastating in the long run. "Abram and Sarai were people just like us!” subject to every temptation. We can compare them to the father of the sick child who cried to Jesus Christ: "I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).
When Hagar conceived — even before having her son — she looked with contempt on her mistress. Adventures in the pilgrimage with God, not springing from absolute commitment of faith sooner or later will invite contempt. Sarai, who in the first place offered her maid to Abram as wife by proxy (16:3), complained bitterly: "May the wrong done to me be on you... May the LORD judge between you and me!" (16:5). A family crisis was in the making. Sarai cast the course of her life into God's sovereign hand, a logical pattern to be followed by anyone in distress.
Attention should also be directed to Hagar's contemptuous behavior: A bond-woman, who suddenly became fruitful, thought she had conquered the Patriarch! She was audience for ten years to the persistent conversation of her master and mistress. Suddenly she was providing what they longed for. Pride and conceit gripped her unconverted heart. In her own eyes she became a natural problem-solver. The couple was to be blessed through her! She even considered herself more competent than her unproductive mistress (cf. Exodus 23:26; Leviticus 20:20, 21; Jeremiah 22:30). Until today, in the Middle East a woman's infertility is often misconstrued to be a sign of overall inadequacy.
While Abram was dedicated to the high principle of
monogamy, and the taking of Hagar was not a polygamist act, she with her
pagan background desired to be the second wife at home and understandably
the favored one! This stance is widespread until now. Sarai desired to
start a family, but the surrogate mother had figured out how to bring down
Sarai’s house. Sarai became vindictive, Abram powerless. They both wanted
to see Hagar back in her initial state, as a maid. But having tasted
freedom, she was about to pursue it en toto
Hagar, under Sarai’s harsh treatment, flees westward toward Egypt. She carries in her womb the son of Abram, the Patriarch once imbued with God's irrevocable promises. The angel of YAHWEH or YAHWEH Himself (Genesis 16:13) appears to her near a spring of water (21:19) — water being symbolic of salvation — and asks: "Where have you come from and where are you going?" (16:8). Note a similar question in her second encounter: "What is troubling you, Hagar?" (21:17).
Did Hagar really see the living LORD and survive? This is certainly one of the perplexing elements in the passage. Some interpreters are of the opinion that YAHWEH did reveal Himself to the Egyptian maid. But how? (regarding seeing the LORD, cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:11-23; Deuteronomy 5:4; 34:10; Judges 6:22; Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 20:35; Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; I Timothy 6:16; I John 4:12). Beerlahairoi is interpreted as 'well of the life of the seeing' or 'God is vision', which Hagar interpreted by exclaiming: "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" (16:13). According to certain commentators, the text of Hagar’s words is unclear. Was the theophany through the medium of a 'messenger' by the spring of water? (16:7, 11). Was it through the Son of God, who is ever extending to Hagar and her progeny His tender invitation to the living waters? As Hagar interpreted it, was it a direct encounter with YAHWEH? Proof of such an encounter is insufficient. Hagar's second encounter is with the angel of YAHWEH (21:17, 18).
While textual interpreters wrestle with linguistic difficulties, the importance placed on the event should capture our attention. YAHWEH’s entrance into covenant relationship with Abram is the principal event in the Old Testament. Due to the less than scrupulous commitment of the Patriarch and his wife to YAHWEH’s unalterable promise, and to Hagar's audacious exploitation of this human weakness, the LORD had to intervene. In unmitigated explicitness He clarified that His covenant was not through the yet unborn Ishmael. Hagar’s status would continue to be the same as before. Her son however would receive a certain recognition in the annals of human history because he was Abram's seed.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him, introducing Himself as El-Shaddai, and admonished the Patriarch to walk before Him and be blameless. At this point God reassured him of His covenant and His promise to multiply him exceedingly. Abram fell on his face before the LORD, and God said to him: “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:1-5).
God reiterated to Abraham that he would give him a son by Sarai who at this point he re-named ‘Sarah’. The re-naming of his wife was accompanied by a firm promise: ‘I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (17:16). Even after this reassurance Abraham earnestly cried to God, "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!" (17:18). God again intervened: “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac … I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” (17:16-21). Nevertheless, YAHWEH was going to honour Abraham’s sincere plea.
For Whom is the Promise of the Covenant?
Hagar is not Abraham's wife, but Sarah's maid. She will not return to a husband, but to a mistress; not to any special position in the family, but to total submission (16:8, 9). Afterward follows God's promise with the description of the child to be born: ISHMAEL, i.e., "El hears." Abraham simply reiterates this name at his birth (16:11, 15). Children named by either parent in Genesis constitute an interesting study (cf. 4:1, 25; 5:3; 38:3, 4).
“He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (16:12). The word referred to here is ‘pere’, i.e., 'free, intractable, untameable, insubordinate, animal' (cf. Job 39:5-8). It was a clear image of the once independent-minded unrestrained trader roving in the desert. "His hand will be against every man and every man's hand against him." No, Ishmael is not Abraham's promised son. If Hagar entertains such illusions, she is grossly mistaken. Her attitude needs to change. Instead of being a source of blessing to mankind, "He shall dwell over against all his kinsmen" (16:11, 12). His progeny will be greatly multiplied (16:10; 25:12-18), God will be with him; but he will be identified with a bow, i.e., weaponry (21:20). Being Abraham's son he will inherit a portion of blessing — as Esau did later — he will be father of twelve princes and become a great nation (cf. 17:20;25:12-16), "But I will establish my covenant with Isaac whom Sarah shall bear at this season next year" (17:21).
The Quranic claim to the quality, capacity and finality of Islam is nothing less than direct defiance of YAHWEH’s covenant pronouncement once made to Abraham. The intrusion and usurpation of the defiant religion launched by Ishmael's most prominent son testifies to his deep-seated grudge. It cries out that his people were cheated and short-changed by Isaac's progeny. In the very beginning of the new religion the grievance of the founder comes to light.
Naturally the sons of the covenant had their God, their body of doctrine, their law, their prophet, their holy city and holy ordinances. While their temple had long before been demolished, at the founding of the new religion (A.D. 622), they were very much a special people with their unique religion. They enjoyed their gathering centers (synagogues) throughout the Diaspora, especially in the Middle East and the Arab peninsula. The bulk of business enterprises were under their control. Conversely, Ishmael's sons were left as 'a wild ass of a man' in the desert, though by no means an uncivilised people. Great centers such as Mecca, Medina and Sana had their impact throughout Arabia. However, no interconnection existed among them. Their disunity was scandalous; their centers of idolatry were in constant rivalry. This tells us a little about the current dispute among the various Arab groups.
Until then no one had been found to bring the tribes of Arabia together. That dream could come to fruition only through a binding religion. But this religion had to be fortified with all the tenets of an affiliation which reached back to Abraham. Then came the founder, Ishmael's illustrious descendant. He was the right person to meet the needs of centuries. He both founded and elevated the new religion to the status of a universally espoused creed. The martial-political-cultural outlook attracted people of diverse extractions under the banner of the crescent.
Hagar returned to her mistress and master, in whose house she bore her son. The boy was circumcised the same day that Abraham and his household were. However, Hagar’s and Ishmael’s rebound was not to be permanent. Hagar was to depart for good from the covenant house along with her son (21:8-21), to the wilderness of Paran. She will not return again to the fold of Abraham until the final consummation. At the apex of history the peerless Son of Isaac will sit on the throne of David and "at his name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10). The granite-like unyieldedness and stubbornness of Ishmael’s progeny will then melt like snow in the heat of the Arabian desert.
Abraham was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born (16:16). He was right in the land of promise. If only he had fully understood lessons from the successes and failures of his spiritual journey until that time. Moving forward with God is a highly demanding spiritual discipline for every believer: "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians. 3:14). God in his love did not retract His covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. "All the promises of God find their 'yes' in Him" (II Corinthians 1:20). "For the gifts and call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29).
Opinions vary concerning Abraham’s prayer regarding Ishmael. While Calvin believes that in Abraham's thinking Ishmael could be the son of promise, other commentators interpret it as an intercession of anxiety. Abraham probably worried that Ishmael would be entirely left out of all promised benefits. However, God had other plans. In this connection a striking comparison between YAHWEH’s promise of the land to the seed of Abraham through Isaac and the promises regarding Ishmael and his seed are worth surveying:
Divine promises made to Abraham in relation to Isaac and his progeny: Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 15:7,18; 17:8; 26:3,4; 28:13,14; 48:4; 50:24; Exodus 6:8; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:10; 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Judges 2:1; I Chronicles 16:15-18; Acts. 7:5, 7.
Divine promises made to Abraham's son Ishmael and his progeny: Genesis 16:10; 17:20; 21:13, 18; 25:16-18; 16:12.
Abraham was a true family head, a tender father toward his first-born, a man who desired his children to be fairly treated. So he wrestled with YAHWEH, seeking a just share for Ishmael. However, having had no past experience, he could not foresee the ensuing magnitude of conflicts based on one covenant with two contesting participants. In a way it was a misguided prayer which God answered within certain limits. The Apostle Paul would later illuminate everyone concerning YAHWEH’s singular covenant (cf. Galatians 4:22-27).
A Wild Ass of a Man outside the Covenant
The sons of Ishmael neither accepted the divine verdict nor acknowledged Isaac as the only heir of the covenant promises. They have remained belligerent and contentious throughout history. Ishmael never bowed to Isaac's pre-eminence in the divine economy. Jealousy and vindictiveness occupy his thinking because he sees God’s verdict as unjust. To the sons of Ishmael Jews are only Jews and Christians, infidels. Both are to be relegated to a lower position. Their lives, property and worship centers can only be spared by Ishmael's kind tolerance. He is a wild ass of a man, dwelling over against all his kinsmen.
A crucial question comes to mind: Do some of our uncalculated prayers invite response with undesirable consequences? Abraham's prayer can be mentioned as a case in point. Ishmael lived and prospered. He became the father of twelve princes and the fountainhead of a very peculiar religion which has caused immense devastation to the two mainstreams issuing from Isaac. Truly, Ishmael became an expert with the bow. Consider the Islamic onslaught all the way to Tours in the heart of Europe (732). The Ottoman armies twice surrounded Vienna (1529, 1683). All these invasions were done in the name of Allah. The often condemned folly of the Crusades with its shameful excesses directs the attention of the keen historian to the ferocity of the spirit of fateh (conquest), under the banner of the crescent. This is the dominating thrust in the psyche of Islam. How it gloats over its long history of successes, while being honored with the title of the third monotheistic religion on the world scene! Great multitudes emanating from the twelve princes and many others proliferate every corner of God's earth, vociferously rejecting the call of Isaac's promised Son, "Come unto me!"
In contrast to this tender invitation of the One who came to offer his life in order to redeem mankind from sin, the religion from Arabia comes with defiant insolence. A case in point is the truculent call to prayer, repeated five times each day throughout the world. Anyone interested in being informed about it should examine its content. It is a vitriolic attack on the Triune God, thoroughly jettisoning the Person of his dear Son. It is not appropriate to repeat its translation here.
Against this impudent claim, the New Testament sets the records straight: "And not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but through Isaac shall your descendants be named" (Romans 9:7). The Edomites, Ishmaelites (Note Esau's taking Ishmael's daughter Basemath as one of his wives, (36:3), the children from Keturah (25:1-4) are only on the fringes of the patriarchal blessing. "Abraham gave all he had to Isaac" (25:5). This explanation ought to answer many mystifying questions regarding Ishmael and the other children who hailed from the Patriarch's lineage. Now the only way to be included into Abraham's lineage is by sharing his faith (15:6), εκ πίστεως Αβραάμ i.e. justification by the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:11, 16). Faith is God’s bestowal on anyone.
YAHWEH awarded Abram the new name Abraham when he reiterated His covenant with him (17:4, 5), and gave circumcision as the sign of the covenant (17:10, 11). The bestowal of the new name was on the same occasion as the introduction of the institution of circumcision and the giving of the land to Abraham's people. All these were sealed with the outward rite of circumcision.
Inspired by YAHWEH’s covenant promise, King Hezekiah could later speak and act with the same concept to the people of Judah: "Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the LORD, the God of Israel" (II Chronicles 29:10). The beneficiaries of YAHWEH’s covenant can only respond by faithfully keeping His covenant.
Circumcision: A Sign
God said to Abraham, "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations" (17:10). This rite was set as an external witness to the patriarchal covenant. While a known practice among the Western Semites, it was unknown among those dwelling around the Euphrates; hence Abram's family did not practice it. The Philistines, not an autochthonous (having their origin in the land) people, are often referred to as uncircumcised. Sacrifice was inspired by the need for atonement, circumcision by the consciousness of the impurity of the heart. According to Delitzsch, it was a rite initiatory to marriage in ancient practice.
Contrary to human traditions and rituals, circumcision was given by God to Abraham as a distinct sign of the covenant. God’s covenant people were to be distinguished from all other folks with this particular symbol on the body. It denoted the purification of the people by whom the divine promise was to find its fulfilment. It was a sign placed upon the foreskin and signified the fact that depravity had come especially in the propagation of mankind. It was a seal of man's call to a new life. It symbolised a renewed and nobler nature. In it the progeny was to be sanctified and receive the same distinctive mark of those who preceded them.
Circumcision made Abraham the father of a new seed. Moses put it in the law; Joshua made it absolutely imperative (Exodus 4:24, 25; Leviticus 12:3; Joshua 5:2). To despise and break it meant breaking the covenant: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14). In the divine economy God said to Abraham, "Behold, my covenant is with you" (17:4), i.e. "Its enactment is my part. Your part is very simple: You shall keep my covenant" (17:9).
The Covenant is an arrangement initiated by the One who is forever unrivalled. It is not a common agreement with mutual responsibility. It originates with the LORD, and is perpetuated solely by Him. The covenant with Noah was not an agreement, but God's own act of grace (9:11). The blood of the new covenant (Matthew 26:27, 28) was not an act of agreement, but Christ's own act of grace (cf. Genesis 15:18; 17:2).
The LORD sealed His covenant with the change of the Patriarch’s name and the promise that he would be the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:5; 13:16). According to Calvin, Abraham is not called the father of many nations because his seed would be separated into many nations, but rather because the different nations would be united in the Patriarch (18:18).
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant, signifying repentance and mortification, a seal of confirmation of the divine promise. It was to be done on the eighth day because it was believed that on that day the child was separated and purified from the sustenance of its embryonic state to that of an independent person. This way he became partaker in the covenant. Later, medical research pointed out that blood clotting is at its best on the child's eighth day.
Since Abraham's household was to be blessed under the aegis of the covenant, every single male became subject to the same rite. At their circumcision Abraham was ninety-nine and Ishmael thirteen. The Muslims adhere to the custom of circumcising their boys without setting a particular age limit. The feast on the occasion of a boy's circumcision is one of the family's social and religious highlights.
Islam has no concept whatsoever of the salvation-covenant, founded on the blood of sacrifice in both the Old and New Testaments. In no place does it make claim to the covenant of love and grace. This basic truth is totally alien to the Islamic body of teaching. Muslims are a people out of touch with God's covenant which was made with the great Patriarch. They reject the concept of God’s eternal Fatherhood, so they remain orphans on God's earth, running from one religious practice to another.
Furthermore, there is a common belief among Muslims that Abraham was asked by Allah to offer his son Ishmael. While he was ready to sacrifice him at Kaaba (Mecca), Allah provided the ram. However, the emphasis of God having given the life-sustaining blood upon the altar to make atonement for souls (Leviticus 17:11) is totally absent from Islamic dogma. As a matter of fact, Islam opposes substitutionary death.
The notion that Ishmael was to be the sacrifice is confined to the realm of Islamic tradition. In the Sura Saffat (Ranks) 37, verses 101-107, 'a gentle boy' is mentioned without reference to any name, and no location is indicated. In fact, in verses 112 and 113 the Quran reads, "We gave him Isaac whom we made a saintly prophet." The Muslim commentator Al-Tabari makes a striking remark in his Jami 'Al Bayan’: "There is no doubt that the boy Abraham took to sacrifice was Isaac." While Islam has elevated Ishmael to the status of prophet, there is no room for him in the record of human-religious history such as there is for Isaac, the second Patriarch. Ishmael's circumcision was only a fringe benefit which was passed on to his progeny. Islam in its outlook is far away from redeeming grace.
In the ultimate evaluation Paul takes issue with the external nature of circumcision (Philippians 3:2) and also introduces the New Testament emphasis, "Circumcised with a circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11-15). Moses in remarkable meekness says, "I am of uncircumcised lips" (Exodus 6:12, 30). Jeremiah calls his addressees, "of uncircumcised ears" (Jeremiah 6:10), and then proceeds to refer to their hearts as being uncircumcised (9:26).
The sons of Ishmael, like those of Isaac, while very scrupulous about the rite of circumcision, remain uncircumcised in heart, ears and lips. Externalism in their respective religions constitutes the paramount snare to their comprehending soteriological (pertaining to salvation) verities. Ishmael's sons and daughters must be patiently reminded of the cardinal truth of the New Testament summarised in Romans 2:25-29. It needs to be done with the evidence of circumcised lips, ears and heart. The authentication of the redeemed life is not circumcision, but conversion, and sanctification by God’s Holy Spirit.
Grace Surpassing Human Innovations
Following prolonged anticipation, Abraham and Sarah saw the fulfilment of God's covenant promise. They named him Yitzhak (he laughs). There was plenty of laughter in the family and among friends, especially when the child was weaned and a great feast was arranged by the happy father. Weaning is at three years of age according to II Maccabees 7:27. Isaac may have been a little older. An unfounded Jewish tradition places this feast at the age of accountability, which is thirteen. If this were the case, Ishmael would have been a young man of twenty-seven. We hesitate to submit ourselves to this interpretation.
Hagar and Ishmael — members of the same household — were naturally present at the feast. At Sarah's pregnancy the roof fell in upon mother and son. Ishmael, adversely influenced by his jealous mother, entertained similar feelings toward his young brother. He developed a cynical stance toward Sarah, whose eyes were constantly on her slave girl and her son. The writer of Genesis introduces an interesting play on words by employing the verb Yetsaheq ‘he laughed’ (21:9). The name of Ishmael is not even mentioned in this section. He is simply referred to as 'the son of the slave woman' and 'the lad'.
Ishmael was the naturally-born son; Isaac the supernaturally born one. The natural always laughs at and ridicules the supernatural. Goliath will invariably mock David. Islam will inexorably spurn the supernatural act of redemptive reconciliation. Anyone familiar with Middle Eastern practices knows a person or stance that is disliked or disapproved becomes an object of derision. Along with the truth of atonement, other cardinal beliefs such as the Trinity, eternal Fatherhood-Sonship, enfleshment and the Lord's Table are only a few of the particulars often rejected with an air of mockery and condescension by the conservative Muslim.
The New Testament deals succinctly with the quandary: "As at that time, he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now" (Galatians 4:29). Exactly as the angel of YAHWEH had told Hagar: "He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him..." (Genesis 16:12). It is further stated in the New Testament: "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (I Corinthians 2:14). How befitting is Isaiah's song of praise to Sarah and her progeny! (Isaiah chapter 54).
Ishmael laughed because he could not comprehend the course of events. The strange development stupefied him. Those who surrendered Jesus to the cross also laughed profusely. Ishmael did not laugh on that single occasion only. It is not clear if the mockery was particularly on the day of the feast. His laugh was loaded with unbelief, envy, conceit, etc. Apparently Ishmael daily taunted little Isaac: "This sibling! Father of nations! What a joke!" Actually he was mocking the child of the Covenant. He was deriding YAHWEH’s immutable purpose. No wonder the emblem of the New Covenant — the Cross — is the cardinal stumbling block and object of scoffing to the followers of the new religion. Sarah had to deal with this odious situation within her household: "Cast out this slave woman with her son" (Genesis 21:10). In the given circumstances of our time, the true believer would say: “Take every thought captive to obey Christ" (II Corinthians. 10:5).
The request to relinquish his own son was hard on Abraham, until YAHWEH verified it (21:12). Total obedience was required. He rose early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar. He put it on her shoulder and sent her along with Ishmael to the desert. This resolve is strikingly symbolic of the natural-human origin of Islam. Lacking the element of the supernatural — the essence of the Old and New Testaments — in its perception and execution, the third main religion of mankind rests entirely on mundane concepts.
For a moment visualise the young mother trying to make her way in the scorching desert of Arabia with a heavy load of water in the skin and a sack full of bread. This picture depicts three striking similarities in Islam, born through the ingenuity of man. First, the load placed on poor Hagar's shoulders was burdensome. A person adhering to this religion is unceasingly compelled to carry its dogmas and obligations. And the sad truth is clearly obvious. There is no ingredient of justification, reconciliation, sanctification, glorification, or eschatological restoration in its content. It is simply a religion which must be carried daily, year-in, year-out, in life's arduous journey. Any religion with physical perspectives places a heavy burden on the natural person. The daily, monthly, annually performed religious compliances are a case in point.
Any devoted Muslim is bound inexorably to the burdens of his carefully and meticulously designed religion: the five pillars, the string of beads with ninety-nine names of Allah always to be recited, the dogma of KISMET (fate) are inscribed on the person's brow along with numerous other burdens and traditional obligations. Against these the pronouncement of the inspired Word comes in clear-cut language: "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; we esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4). Further, the loving assurance of a heavenly Father is confirmed: "You have seen...how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself" (Exodus 19:4). He then extends this amazing comfort: "Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone did lead him" (Deuteronomy 32:11, 12).
YAHWEH’s company of the redeemed through His matchless grace will extol Him through endless aeons, for His taking away burdens and liberating them from onerous sin with its awful consequence. Throughout the earthly pilgrimage He carries and nourishes His own. He grants abundant grace for holy living, effective serving and inner renewing. The individual does not carry his religion, but the bountiful divine provision offers ample stamina for the long pilgrimage with an assured destination.
Second, the load placed on poor Hagar's shoulders turned stale and stagnant. Again, visualise the slave girl carrying the supply of water and bread in the scorching desert of Arabia. Who would like to drink stale water from a parched skin infested with parasitic organisms? Can this quench anybody's thirst? And what about the bread, totally dried in the heat of the desert? Which set of strong teeth can crush it? Stagnant and unappetising! The stale nature of Islam and all other naturally innovated religions speak of morose origins and stagnancy in every area. With no element of the supernatural or relation to the divine Covenant, the possibility of a renewed life is entirely blocked. In the meantime the yearning heart continues to cry.
Man's universal need is not for a stale, but for a regenerating faith which anticipates a Savior from heaven, “who will change these lowly bodies to be like His glorious body" (Philippians 3:21). Armed with these assurances, how can faith in the life-saving, soul-renewing Christ be allowed to grow stale? Sadly, there are many with stale adherence whose loyalty has lost all enjoyment or excitement. The faith which brings healthy, wholesome advance is the paramount necessity. The type of attachment that the thirsty, hungry soul longs for is set forth by the prophet: "They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
Third, the load placed on poor Hagar's shoulders was exhaustible: "When the water in the skin was gone..." (21:15). A religion which has its source of supply in human sufficiency will sooner or later be depleted. The bread and water from Abraham’s personal resources were exhaustible. They ran out, leaving the needy mother and son in desperate need. Religious resources not emanating from the eternal bounty of YAHWEH leave the adherent at the end of the road without any supply. Many pious followers of Islam will find themselves lacking that bread of which the Lord Jesus Christ said, "If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever" (John 6:51). Islam's fundamental dogma of KISMET will fall short of carrying its follower to the heavenly banquet. To the Muslim, pilgrimage from earth to heaven is not as expedient as the perennial Hajj. Conversely, the certainty of reaching heaven depends on divine provision alone. This emanates from the body of God's Lamb who was slain for the sin of every person. In our time, the false notion that one will achieve paradise by becoming a human bomb and mercilessly murder a vast number of people as well as wreaking immeasurable destruction is Satan’s master treachery. Religious fanatics everywhere are passionate to execute this heinous crime.
At the end of the road Hagar laid her teenage son under one of the bushes. She disconsolately sat down some distance away. There was no more provision from Abraham or any other earthly source. Ishmael wept bitterly; she moaned inconsolably. This is truly a heart-rending picture of fellow human beings, young and old, daily perishing in a world of physical famine brought on by war and natural disasters. But it will be an injustice to stop with these calamities; consider the tragic condition of those in spiritual famishment. This can only be satisfied by the Christ-supplied bread and water.
At least one out of every five people in the world is a son or daughter of Hagar and Ishmael. Jesus Christ makes His supremacy abundantly clear: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father but by me" (John 14:6). The person refusing this changeless verity is forlorn in the desolate wilderness. He lacks both bread and water for the inner life now and for all eternity. When a person discovers this great treasure, he can joyfully sing: "Thou hast put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). After their hopeless state joy burst forth. YAHWEH heard Hagar's and Ishmael's lament. "The LORD protects the simple. When I was brought low, He saved me" (Psalm 116:6).
The bulk of Ishmael's offspring all around the planet are not cognizant of the inadequacy of bread and water issuing from natural sources. The consequence of such ignorance is more perilous than Hagar's and Ishmael's despondent condition in the wilderness. The two lifted their voices and cried. Deep in he inscrutable chambers of the heart there is an inexorable agony, a cry of distress heard by the Almighty alone. Children of the Covenant blessing are commanded by the Lord to heed this universal sigh. Through the conviction brought by the Holy Spirit they are commanded to willingly respond.
God's angel appeared to assist: "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is" (21:17). Following the renewed assurance that He would make Ishmael a great nation, He opened the maid's eyes to see the well of water. She ran to the spring and filled the skin. Both mother and son drank to their full content out of the bountiful supernatural supply. Unquestionably, this is one of the most beautiful incidents in sacred history.
Water is symbolic of salvation: "Ho, everyone who
thirsts. Come to the waters. He who has no money, come, buy and eat"
(Isaiah 55:1, 2). The psalmist lifts his heart cry: "As a hart longs for
flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God! My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God"
Jesus said to the spiritually thirsty Samaritan woman: "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him, will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13, 14). And on another occasion He reaffirmed that he is the generous provider of water: "He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38).
Jesus verified repeatedly, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst... I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh". (John 6:35, 48, 51). The illustrious Old Testament evangelist boldly witnesses: "The LORD the LORD (YAH YAHWEH) is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation. With joy you will draw waters from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:2, 3). How we wish the followers of Islam could shout with the corresponding certainty of the New Testament evangelist: “Then He showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1).
Blessed are the Peacemakers
The disturbing prophecy about Ishmael was, "He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen" (Genesis 16:12). Another statement substantiates: "God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow" (Genesis 21:20). These are hard prophecies, not often referred to, as a general reticence prevails everywhere about what one can say concerning Islam and what he shouldn’t say. Many are of the opinion that keeping silent is the safest course to take.
Fourteen hundred years have elapsed since the inception of this religion in Arabia. Its impact and force are at its apex in these perilous times. Politico-military confrontation between Muslim and Jew has been ongoing for the past sixty years. In our time religious terrorism is the chief concern of nations and societies. Radical jihadism propelled chiefly by Al-Qaeda is the primary imperilment of this precarious age. While many Islamic governments feel that they are also threatened by its merciless incursion, those who carry it out with resolve justify their bloody operation to age-long grievance.
Once it was jihad by conquering armies; now it is by young men and women consumed by the teaching of their religion. Those executing it point to the source of their inspiration—their holy book. We ought to be candid about the fact of Islamic teaching: everyone who does not embrace its principles is not a true adherent of Allah. According to this view, humanity is divided into two; the faithful ones (them) and the infidels. The extreme interpretation of this religion—promulgated by its founder-─insists that there can be only one acceptable form of government: that dictated by sharia law. The unabashed pursuit of radical jihadists aims to bring the whole of mankind under the strict rule of sharia.
Ishmael remained on friendly terms with Isaac (Genesis 25:9). While we wish the same for the descendants of these two men, their relationship did not become a precedent-setting reciprocity. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). Looking back to Genesis, we see Abraham as the first peacemaker when he reached a settlement between himself and his nephew Lot (Genesis 13:8). The Patriarch could detect the ingathering storm regarding the interaction of the descendants of these sons. But he could not do anything to pave the way for their peaceful co-existence throughout the ages.
"Abraham rejoiced that he was to see the day of Christ; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). He rejoiced over the day of the Son who came and preached peace to the ones who were far off and peace to those who were near. Abraham earnestly prayed, “Oh that Ishmael might live in your sight!” (Genesis 17:18).
The Apostle Paul cried out for his own Jewish people: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). Both lines emanating from the two sons are in continuous unbelief and unending conflict. Those who have recognized Abraham’s illustrious Son and made peace with their God through His atoning blood are recipients of the blessing extended to Abraham. Christ makes horizontal peace as well as vertical. “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near… But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:17, 13).
The heart-cry of true Christians everywhere should be: Oh that the sons of Ishmael, the sons of Isaac and all others may drink the water of life and live forever. This freely-given water is Christ himself.
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