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The Muslim Question Revisited (5)


Christians often contend that God’s favor now rests upon Jews (the descendants of Isaac), instead of Arabs (the descendants of Ishmael), and they based their conclusions on the Bible. But as we saw in Parts 1-4 of this series, the very Bible that Christians quote also reveals many unexpected twists and turns that are often overlooked.

So let’s keep digging.

When Abraham finally discovered that God’s primary promise would be fulfilled through Sarah and Isaac, rather than through Hagar and Ishmael, he blurted out in anguish before the Lord, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18) God’s response to this fatherly plea must be fully considered. If we note only half of His response, we’ll end up with a half-truth. Someone once said, “Beware of half-truths. You may end up with the wrong half!” In the light of this excellent counsel, let’s take a close look at God’s full response to Abraham’s inquiry, which includes a prophecy about Ishmael.

That response is recorded in Genesis 17:19-21. First, as we’ve already noted, the Lord did indeed clarify that His primary promise would flow through Sarah, not Hagar (verse 19). He also reiterated the same truth in verse 21. That settles it, right? Well, not exactly, because sandwiched right in the middle of these two Isaac-pronouncements are some key statements about Ishmael too, which must not be ignored.

See for yourself:

Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him (verse 19). And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation (verse 20). But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (verse 21). Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham (verse 22).

Did you catch that? Even though God’s primary promise was to be fulfilled through Sarah and Isaac, Ishmael wasn’t rejected. First of all, God told Abraham, “I have heard you.” Heard what? The answer is: his plea that Ishmael might live before Him. The world famous Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, interprets this to mean, “kept in covenant with him.”1 In other words, Ishmael would still be under the Lord’s special care, and neither would he be categorically excluded from covenantal blessings. Next, God said, “Behold, I have blessed him…” Does this sound like an unequivocal rejection notice? Hardly. Surprisingly, Ishmael would not be cursed, but blessed . Additionally, the Lord Himself personally promised to make Hagar’s son “fruitful,” to “multiply him exceedingly,” to bring forth “twelve princes” out of him (more on this later), and even to “make him a great nation.”

Quite a mouthful of promises, don’t you think?

Now let’s fast forward to Genesis 21. By this time, much to Sarah and Abraham’s delight, Isaac had arrived, yet past tensions between the two moms continued simmering, until they finally reached the boiling point. On one particularly fateful occasion, “Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned” (Genesis 21:8). Unfortunately, jealousy surged through Ishmael veins and his “wild” side surfaced toward his apparent rival – right during the feast! When “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing” (verse 9), she was incensed. “Kick them out!” (see verse 10) she essentially pleaded with Abraham, “this is too much for me to take!”

What a dilemma for the old man. The record states: “And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son” (verse 11). Abraham loved both Ishmael and Isaac (may God help us to love their descendants too), and he was at a loss what to do.

Then God spoke to him. “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called” (verse 12, emphasis added). Ah, that’s it Steve! you may be thinking, Don’t you see it? The promise flows through Isaac, not Ishmael! If these are your thoughts, don’t worry, yes, I see it, and I believe it.

But the question remains, what about Ishmael?

Notice God’s answer. In the very next verse He told Abraham, “Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed” (verse 13). Here the Lord not only repeats His previous promise that He would “make a nation” out of Ishmael, but He also specifically states that He Himself will do it. “I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman,” said the Lord, “because he is your seed.” This tells us that even though Ishmael was born the wrong way (by works, not faith), the Lord still recognized him, and had a plan for him, for Abraham’s sake.

Obeying God’s command to respect Sarah’s plea, “Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water; and putting it on her [Hagar’s] shoulder, he gave it and the boy to Hagar, and sent her away. Then she departed and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba” (verse 14). Poor Hagar! Once again she found herself in the wilderness; but this time, there was no turning back.

Soon the bread-and-water provision Abraham had mercifully handed to the disinherited mother and child was used up, and the situation appeared hopeless. “And the water in the skin was used up, and she placed the boy under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down across from him at a distance of about a bowshot; for she said to herself, ‘Let me not see the death of the boy.’ So she sat opposite him, and lifted her voice and wept” (verses 15, 16).

This is it, Hagar thought, we’re going to die.

And they would have. But God had other plans.

In Part 6 we will discover not only that the Bible says the Lord opened Hagar’s eyes and showed her water in the wilderness (Genesis 21:19), but that water represented His gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ.

May God open our eyes to His plans for both Jews and Arabs.

To be continued…


  1. Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Ge 17:15). Peabody: Hendrickson.

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