It has been several months since I addressed Islam on the blog (blog post Islam 15 dated May 25), so it is time to pick up the subject again. In this blog post, I intend to address the differences between Christianity and Islam with respect to Abraham, Isaac, and especially Ishmael. I will divide the material into two blog posts: first, I will explain the Bible’s teaching; and, in the next blog post (DV), I will contrast this with the teaching of Islam.
Isaac and Ishmael
We begin with what the Bible teaches on this subject, before we contrast this with the teaching of the Qur’an. God called Abraham, who at that time was named Abram, and his wife Sarah (or Sarai) out of Ur of the Chaldees in Genesis 12:1-2. Over the course of many years, God repeatedly promised a son to childless Abraham (and to his barren wife); indeed, God promised him numerous descendants, centered on a promised seed (Gen. 12:2, 7; 13:15; 15:4-6, 18; 17:1-7, 15-17, 21; 18:9-15; 21:1-8).
Notice two things about God’s promise to Abraham. First, God had a definite son in mind, a son whose father would be Abraham (“he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir” [Gen. 15:4]), and whose mother would be Sarah (“I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son” [Gen. 18:10]). Second, although Abraham did have other sons, namely Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), born when Abraham was 86 years old, and the sons of Keturah, born after the death of Sarah (Gen. 25:1-4), only Isaac was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one in whom God established his covenant:
And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him (Gen. 17:18-19).
But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year (Gen. 17:21).
… in Isaac shall thy seed be called (Gen. 21:12).
Ishmael, therefore, is not the promised son with whom God establishes his covenant. This is true for two reasons. First, Ishmael is not the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, but of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. Second, and more seriously, Ishmael is the product of the foolish and sinful impatience of Abraham and Sarah: instead of waiting for the promised miracle, the aged couple attempt to produce the promised child by a work of the flesh. This is unacceptable to God because God must receive the glory by fulfilling his promise in his time. The birth of a child in such a sinful manner leads to tension in Abraham’s household with the result that Hagar flees with the child from the wrath of Sarah (see Gen. 16:4-7).
After the birth of Isaac, who is the promised child, Ishmael, who is not the promised child, is cast out of the household because Sarah sees him mocking Isaac on the day that Isaac’s weaning is celebrated (Gen. 21:9). If Isaac was weaned at about two years of age, Ishmael was a teenager at the time. (Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born; Abraham was 99 years old when Ishmael was circumcised at thirteen years of age; Abraham was 100 years old at the birth of his son Isaac, which means that Ishmael was fourteen years old at the time; therefore, when Isaac was aged two, Ishmael was sixteen or so).
After Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s house, Genesis 21 describes how God miraculously supplied their needs in the wilderness, and relates God’s promise to Hagar to make of Ishmael “a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Ishmael grew up away from Abraham’s household (“in the wilderness of Paran”) and married an Egyptian. Later in Genesis 25, the Bible relates the generations of Ishmael as “twelve princes” (Gen. 25:12-17), and records Ishmael’s death at the age of 137 years (Gen. 25:17). The rest of the history of the Bible, however, focuses on Isaac’s, and not Ishmael’s, descendants: Jacob (Israel) and his children, through whom the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, came.
Therefore, while it is true that Ishmael was a son of Abraham, and even blessed by God (Gen. 27:20), although God did not bless Ishmael’s generations, Ishmael was not the promised seed. After Ishmael was cast out, Abraham had no further dealings with him (except that Ishmael was present at his father’s burial).
The Sacrifice of Isaac
This is important to remember when we consider the history recorded in Genesis 22. We do not know how much time elapsed between the expulsion of Ishmael (Gen. 21:10-13) and the sacrifice of Isaac, but the Bible does mention “many days” (Gen. 21:34). It is very likely that years, perhaps even decades, had passed before Abraham was put to the test to sacrifice Isaac. The Bible calls Isaac a “lad” (Gen. 22:5, 12), but the word so translated has a wide range of meaning. Certainly, Isaac was old enough to have a conversation with his father (Gen. 22:7-8) and old enough to carry a substantial amount of wood for the burnt offering (Gen. 22:6). He was not a two-year old or a toddler, but a teenager or older.
In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, whom God calls Abraham’s “only son” (vv. 2, 16), as a burnt offering. To this the Muslim objects, “Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Abraham had another son, his firstborn, Ishmael.” (In fact, as we shall see, Muslims generally believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was sacrificed some years before Isaac was even born!). Nevertheless, Isaac is rightly called Abraham’s only son for two reasons. First, Isaac was the only son left in Abraham’s household. Ishmael, although he was still alive, lived away from Abraham. Therefore, it was obvious to Abraham that, when God spoke of his “only son,” de did not have Ishmael in mind. God did not tell Abraham to seek out Ishmael and sacrifice him. (Ishmael would have been a married man by then with children of his own living in the wilderness). In fact, Abraham might well have been relieved if that had been God’s meaning, for then he could have sacrificed Ishmael and spared Isaac (whom he loved). Second, and more importantly, Isaac, not Ishmael, was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one through whom Christ should come. That is what made God’s command so painful, and that is why it was such a difficult trial for the aged patriarch:
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen. 22:2).
This is also the New Testament perspective of Isaac. In Romans 9 the apostle Paul explains that God’s promise to save “Israel” does not mean the salvation of every single Israelite, for “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:8). Therefore, to use Paul’s language, Ishmael, or his descendants, did not count. In verse 7, the apostle writes, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall they seed be called.” Therefore, God did not call Ishmael, or, at least de did not call Ishmael’s descendants, to salvation. This is good news for the Gentiles because physical descent from Abraham neither guarantees salvation nor excludes a person from salvation. The issue is not, “Are you a physical descendant of Abraham?” but “Are you in Christ?” And, praise be to God, one can be “in Christ” even if one has no Jewish blood whatsoever, for the Gentiles are included in the salvation of Christ!
In Galatians 3, Paul identifies the “seed of Abraham” not as Ishmael, not even as Isaac, but as Jesus Christ: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Since Christ is Abraham’s seed, all those who are “in Christ” (whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free) are also Abraham’s seed: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In chapter 4, Paul contrasts Ishmael and Isaac—Ishmael, the son of the “bondwoman” (slave), is “born after the flesh” (Gal. 4:23), while Isaac, the son of the “freewoman” (Sarah), is “by promise” (Gal. 4:23). The one “born after the flesh” (Ishmael) persecuted the one “born after the Spirit” (Isaac), which, says Paul, is still the case today—unregenerate, unbelieving people (even unregenerate, unbelieving, religious people) persecute God’s regenerate, believing children (see Gal. 4:29). Therefore, concludes Paul, the Galatians (Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, Christians in all ages) “as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (Gal. 4:28).
The Significance of the Sacrifice
Given the importance of Isaac—and not Ishmael—as the promised son through whom the Messiah, Jesus Christ, came, the writer to the Hebrews writes the following about the events in Genesis 22:
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promise offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called, accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure (Heb. 11:17-19).
Isaac was not merely the beloved son of a doting father, the son of his old age. Isaac was much more significant—in Isaac Abraham had all the promises of salvation. In Isaac Abraham saw Jesus Christ! When he laid Isaac on the altar, he sacrificed (and showed himself willing to sacrifice) all hope of salvation, and he prefigured what God himself would do in giving his Son on the cross for the sins of his people. The main difference is, of course, that for Jesus there was no substitute. A voice cried from heaven to spare Isaac, but no voice cried from heaven to spare Jesus. Instead, Jesus willingly bore the wrath and curse of God against the sins of his people on the cross, the punishment that Abraham, Isaac, and all of God’s people deserve to bear.
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall say anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us (Rom. 8:31-34).
Next time, DV, we shall examine what Muslims believe about Abraham and his sons—they believe that Abraham sacrificed Ishmael, and not Isaac!
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland.