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Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims

Was Ishmael a “Mistake”? The Bible and Abraham’s First Son

Evangelical Christians share a love for God’s Word, the Bible. I started this website in order to help my fellow Evangelicals to apply biblical teaching to our relationships with Muslims in our lives, and in our world. So this week, I want to comment on a well-known passage (often misinterpreted!) from the Bible about the foundations of the Arab peoples.

A “traditional Christian” reading of Genesis 16 holds that Sarah and Abraham (their names in Genesis 16 are Sarai and Abram, but their names get changed in Genesis 17) acted “unfaithfully” improperly by arranging for Abram to have a child through Hagar, instead of “waiting on God” to act in His time. Later on, God performs a miracle to allow Sarah to conceive. This leads to family strife, however, since Hagar’s son Ishmael is older than Sarah’s son Isaac. Isaac, of course, becomes the ancestor of the Israelites while Ishmael is a father of the Arabs. (Contrary to popular belief, “Arab” does not refer to a race, but rather refers to a group of peoples with similar ethnicity.) Therefore, the reasoning goes, Sarah and Abraham lacked faith, making a mistake that has resulted in the grief between Arabs and Jews today.

This almost certainly is not what the author of Genesis is trying to teach! The idea of Abraham as the great example of faith comes from the New Testament, especially Hebrews 11:8-19, Romans 4, and Galatians 3-4, among others. The New Testament does not mention any of the instances in which Abraham’s faith is less than exemplary, as in Genesis 12 and 20. But Genesis itself rarely mentions Abraham’s faith, instead concentrating more on his relationships with those around him, and, even more important, the drama concerning his heirs.

While God promises physical heirs to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15, He says nothing at all about the identity of the woman through whom Abram will have a son (take a look at 15:4 in particular). Sarah (and Abraham) deduce that they have a responsibility to do their part in producing heirs. In Genesis, women are expected to bear children, to the extent that women arrange bed partners for their husbands when they can no longer “produce.” For Sarai and Abram, customary marital relations just were not doing the trick, and Sarah has become aware that she is just too old. Since the promise came to Abraham alone, and not Sarah, why assume that Yahweh intended to keep His promise through Abram’s wife?  It seems reasonable to try with another woman, especially as Abram apparently is still virile enough to father children.

Sarah acts with remarkable humility. Most women, then as now, would not want their husband to take a second sexual partner. (Two out of two of my current and past wives have confirmed this with me.) But Sarah makes a great personal sacrifice in order to try to accomplish God’s will. As a result, God eventually rewards her by giving her a “miracle” child of her very own. (This reward to faithful women is a regular theme in the OT: see Exodus 1:21 and 1 Samuel 2:21 for other examples).

The above reading of Genesis 16 has several advantages over the traditional “negative” view of Sarah and Abraham. First, the reality is that neither God nor the author of Genesis ever criticizes Abraham or Sarah for Abraham’s relations with Hagar. Instead, the couple eventually receives a miraculous son. We should be very cautious about criticizing the actions of biblical characters when the text itself does not do so. We must accept biblical values for what they are, without reading our 21st century American values into the Bible.

Second, while modern readers sometimes look to the Ishmael/ Isaac issues as the start of larger problems between Jews and Arabs, Genesis teaches that the two enjoyed a peaceful coexistence. God is continually gracious to Hagar, does miracles on her behalf, and makes great promises to her and her son (Genesis 17:18-22, 21:17-20). And in Genesis 25:7-10, Ishmael and Isaac come together one last time, to bury their father Abraham. Isaac is favored in Genesis, but God never expresses displeasure at Ishmael’s existence, instead going out of His way to bless him.  (Looking to the Bible to support an emphasis on Jewish/ Arab hostilities is rather illogical in any case, since, historically, whether over the last 100 years or the last 1,000 years, the Jewish people have suffered far worse from “Christian” peoples than from Arabs.)

Third, one of the interesting features of Genesis is that, while the culture of the time gives preference to the first-born, the first-born almost never becomes the favored one of Yahweh. Esau is Isaac’s oldest son, but Jacob is favored. Reuben is Jacob’s oldest, but Judah is favored. Zerah is Judah’s oldest, but Perez is favored (Gen 38:27-30; Ruth 4:18-22). And, in Gen 48:17-20, Manasseh is older, but Ephraim is favored. The Isaac/ Ishmael situation follows this pattern: Ishmael is oldest, but Isaac is favored. I’ve never read anyone suggest that Isaac and Rebekah sinned by having Esau first, or that Jacob was not supposed to have Reuben before having Judah.  We thus should be very cautious about concluding that Ishmael’s birth was somehow outside of God’s plan.

In the 21st century, we may feel compelled to distrust Arabs for a variety of reasons (although I hope that you will read my first post on the San Bernardino Shootings about “fear”). Most Arabs are Muslim (although most Muslims are NOT Arab), and Arabs tend to rival Jews in the Middle East. But we Christians cannot use the Bible to support our distrust. God’s creation of the Arab race is a positive biblical development.

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2016 by .
The Text in Context

Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts

Mark Biddle

Mostly on the Bible

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