Posted January 24, 2020
In the last blog post on this subject, we studied the Bible’s teaching on Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, and we took note of the significance of the sacrifice of Isaac for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thousands of years after the book of Genesis was written, Mohammed wrote the Qur’an (c. 609-632 AD), which makes very different claims about Abraham, Isaac, and (especially) Ishmael.
Ishmael the Prophet
First, in Islam, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are revered prophets:
Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus (Joshua), and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them; and we bow to Allah” (Surah 2:136).
We have sent thee inspiration, as we sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him. We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus (Joshua), Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David we gave the Psalms (Surah 4:163).
Also mention in the Book (the story of) Ishmael: he was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was a messenger (and) a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord (Surah 19:54-55).
Notice that Ishmael is equal in his status of prophet with the other prophets, although the Bible nowhere indicates that Ishmael was a prophet. In fact, the Bible barely recognizes Ishmael as a believer. (Theologians are divided on whether Ishmael was an elect child of God or a reprobate, a discussion of which would distract us from the main point of this article).
The Sacrifice of Ishmael
Second, most Muslims teach that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but Ishmael. (Although Ishmael is not named in the pertinent passages of the Qur’an, most Muslims believe that the Bible is wrong when it teaches that Isaac is the subject of Genesis 22). Two passages of the Qur’an are relevant at this point:
He [Abraham] said, “I will go to my Lord. He will surely guide me!” “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So we gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear. Then, when the son reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said, “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!” (The son) said, “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou wilt find me, if Allah so wills, one practicing patience and constancy!” So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), we called out to him, “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial. And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And we left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right, for he was one of our believing servants. And we gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet, one of the righteous. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to their own souls (Surah 37:99-113)
Surah 37 does not give the name of the “righteous son” for whom Abraham prayed. Most Muslims assume that the son is Ishmael, but that is an interpretation, not what the text explicitly teaches. The Qur’an presents Abraham and his son (supposedly, Ishmael) as cooperating in the sacrifice: Abraham tells his son (supposedly, Ishmael) about the vision, and (supposedly) Ishmael agrees to be sacrificed. In the Bible, Isaac seems not to know what is going to happen, at least not until they reach the top of the mountain: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). In both accounts (Gen. 22 and Surah 37) the sacrifice does not take place and Abraham’s son is ransomed (see Genesis 22:13, where a ram in a thicket is sacrificed). The Qur’an’s account specifies that the son to be sacrificed will have reached “the age of serious work,” which would make him a young teenager or older.
The son in Surah 37 could be Isaac, not Ishmael. Nothing in Surah 37 demands that we identify the son as Ishmael. In Surah 37:101, for example, God announces “good news” concerning a son, but the same expression, “good news,” is used of Isaac in Surah 37:112. Could not the “good news” of Surah 37:101 and 112 be the same “good news,” i.e., the “good news” of Isaac? (In the Bible, God does not announce good news concerning Ishmael, for Ishmael is not the promised child).
Abraham and Sarah also receive “good news” (or “glad tidings”) in Surah 51, where the reference is surely to Isaac, not Ishmael (the parallels with Genesis 18 are clear):
They [the angelic messengers] said, “Fear not,” and gave him glad tidings of a son endowed with knowledge. But his wife came forward (laughing) aloud: she smote her forehead and said: “A barren old woman!” They said, “Even so has thy Lord spoken, and He is full of wisdom and knowledge” (Surah 51:28-30).
The angels’ announcement, Sarah’s unbelieving laughter, and the reference (in Surah 51:31-37) to the angelic messengers’ errand to Sodom are clear parallels with Genesis 18, where the reference is to Isaac, not Ishmael. In both Surah 37 and 51, the Qur’an references “good news” or “glad tidings” concerning the birth of a son: that son is Isaac, not Ishmael.
One Muslim apologist seeks to discredit the Biblical account of Ishmael’s expulsion in Genesis 21, for if Ishmael was not cast out, then he could certainly qualify as the son who was sacrificed. (This would also contradict the apostle Paul in Galatians 4). His main objection to the story is that Ishmael is presented as a child in Genesis 21, whereas we know that he was a teenager (considered an adult in that day). The Hebrew word translated “child” (Gen. 21:14-20), however, is not specific to young children: the word is used of Joseph (who was seventeen years old) in Genesis 37:30, Naomi’s adult sons in Ruth 1:5; and Rehoboam’s immature advisors in I Kings 12:10. It is also not unusual for Ishmael not yet to have been married, since Isaac did not marry until he was forty years old (Gen. 25:20). Esau was also forty years old when he married his first wife, Judith (Gen. 26:34). Therefore, to insist that Ishmael should have been married in his teens is mere conjecture.
Ishmael and the Kaaba
Third, Abraham is supposed to have journeyed to Mecca, where he and his son, Ishmael, (not Isaac) established the Kaaba, which is a stone structure in the center of Islam’s most holy mosque. To this mosque, every Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage at least once in his life, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The devout Muslim faces this Kaaba when he prays five times a day.
We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify my House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer) … And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: for thou art the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing” (Surah 2:125, 127).
While Surah 2 does not specify the location of the house of worship that Abraham and Ishmael supposedly built, Surah 3:96 makes reference to Bakka (or Makkah), which is (probably) Mecca in Saudi Arabia: “The first house (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka (Makkah), full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings” (Surah 3:96). Another passage mandates pilgrimage to this “sacred house”:
Behold, we gave the site to Abraham, of the (sacred) House, (saying), “Associate not anything (in worship) with me; and sanctify my house for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways” (Surah 22:26-27).
If Abraham and Ishmael made a journey to Mecca to build a sacred house, the Bible is silent about it. In fact, such a journey is impossible to reconcile with the book of Genesis. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (modern day Iraq) and commanded him to dwell in the land of Canaan. The Bible records two forays outside of the Promised Land, both of which were examples of Abraham’s spiritual weakness, not his faith. In Genesis 12:10, Abraham travelled without divine sanction to Egypt to escape a famine. In Egypt, Abraham sinned grievously by deceiving the Egyptians about his wife. In Genesis 20:1-2, again without divine sanction, Abraham journeyed to the land of Gerar, where he committed the same sin. Clearly, it was God’s will that Abraham remain in the land of Canaan as a pilgrim and stranger.
The distance between Ur and Jerusalem is approximately 2,900 km (or 1,800 miles). Since God commanded Abraham to dwell in Canaan, not to leave that land, the land that God promised to give him and his seed, why would Abraham leave Canaan in order to travel some 1,700 km (or 1,055 miles) southwards to Mecca in order to set up the “house of God,” and then return to live out his days in Canaan? Why would he do that when the Bible clearly teaches that Abraham erected altars in Canaan and when eventually God mandates his house to be built in Jerusalem, not in Mecca? (In the New Testament, of course, there is no fixed place for the worship of God: “The hour cometh,” said Jesus, “when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” [John 4:21]).
The Word of God is clear—God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (and out of idolatry) and commanded him to sojourn in Canaan, which, apart from two brief departures from the land, he did. In Canaan, God promised Abraham a son, a son who would not be born as a result of the efforts of either Abraham or Sarah, but as a result of a miracle. Abraham believed God’s promise:
And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God: and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:19-22).
Ishmael was born as the carnal seed, not as the spiritual seed of promise. Therefore, when Ishmael expressed his enmity against Isaac, he had to be sent away, lest he share in Isaac’s inheritance: “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). With Ishmael gone, Abraham was tested to the limit, for God commanded him to sacrifice his only (remaining) and his only (truly legitimate) son, the child of the promise, even Isaac, the one through whom God would realize his promise of salvation for all nations. Abraham, having sustained the examination of his faith, was strengthened, and Isaac went on to be the one through whom Jesus Christ would come.
And all those who believe in Jesus Christ, as he is set forth in the gospel, are the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and they partake of all the spiritual blessings of salvation that are found in Christ alone.
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14).
One final point: the Muslim will object that the Qur’an is true and that the Bible (Genesis, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, etc.) has been corrupted. Nevertheless, to corrupt the Bible in this way would require a corruption of the entire text of the Old Testament, for God is consistently called “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob” and never “the God of Ishmael.” In addition, for a Muslim to believe that the text of the Bible is hopelessly and irretrievably corrupt requires him to reject the Qur’an, for the Qur’an teaches that Allah gave the law and the gospel and even encourages the reader to find the truth in those sources:
It is he who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and he sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and he sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong)(Surah 3:3).
Let the people of the gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better) than those that rebel. To thee we sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee (Surah 5:47-48).
If Allah sent the law (including the book of Genesis) and the gospel (the four gospels accounts were written centuries before Mohammed’s birth), and “guarded [them] in safety,” how could they be corrupt—how could they be corrupt already in Mohammed’s day (c. 609-632)? And if they were (already) corrupt, how could the people of the gospel “judge by what Allah hath revealed therein”? If, on the other hand, the (alleged) corruption took place later, we have plenty of ancient manuscript sources of the text of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which date to centuries before Mohammed. Either way, the Qur’an compels the reader to consult the Bible for truth!
That is what we urge the reader of this blog to do—seek in the Bible, which is the word of God, for the truth concerning Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, and, most importantly, Jesus Christ!
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.
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.