42. Genesis 16:11-12, 17:1-8 and 17:15-21
III. A. 2. continued
f) The Exclusion of Ishmael (Genesis 17:15-21)
Ishmael was dear to Abram, as dear as any son is to his father. Ishmael had been Abram’s only son for thirteen years and Abram had grown devoted to him. “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” was not mainly the wavering thought that God might not come through on this promise of a child through Sarai, it was more an expression of love for Ishmael. God had been promising him a son with Sarah for more than twenty years and now it seemed too late, but that was not the point any more. Abram had decided that it didn’t matter to him. Whether or not Sarai had a son, he had Ishmael and that was enough. He was content with the way things were.
But God refused him. The Covenant, which was God’s primary objective, would not go to Ishmael. Thus God answered, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.”
The Covenant was not the only sign of God’s favor to be had, not the only blessing God could bestow. Because of His love of Abram, all whom Abram loved came under His favor. There were reasons Ishmael had to be excluded from the Covenant, but he need not be excluded from everything. We must stress that Ishmael and his descendants were not excluded from the blessings and the favor and the love of God. They were to become a great nation; they were to be given land (earlier, to Hagar, the angel had said that they would live to the east of their brothers). It is important to understand God’s commitment to the descendants of Ishmael, who included the Arab people, though His work among them has been different from the work He has done among the Jews. To be excluded from the Covenant meant (and still means) to be excluded from the stream of self-revelation that God was giving to the world and that culminated in the Messiah. But they were not to be left with nothing at all; God gave Himself to the Arabs, albeit not in the same way.
We must be clear on the reason God excluded Ishmael from the Covenant. Normally no child is excluded in a Covenant, and so the exclusion of Ishmael demands some explanation. From what Paul would say later in the book of Galatians as well as in the context of Genesis, the issue was the question of who would fulfill God’s promises. It was critical for what God was revealing to make it clear that only God could fulfill His promises, that no human effort could do it. For this reason alone the child that was born to Abram through his own efforts with Hagar had to be excluded. It had nothing to do with Ishmael’s worthiness, nor with Isaac’s. It was an allegorical necessity. Abram’s children, Abram’s whole life, were arranged as symbols to carry the revelation. Ishmael’s existence pointed to man’s effort to establish God’s purposes and even today the descendants of Ishmael bear this burden, the horrible burden, of believing that they must accomplish God’s purposes on earth for Him. It eats them from the inside.
But why should Ishmael, and indeed his descendants even to the present day, be commanded to bear the sign of a Covenant from which they were excluded? We can’t give a complete answer to the question. There is a sense in which circumcision is a witness to them against themselves, against their new religion, against their own prophet who stood outside the stream of revelation that began with Abram. There are only a few hints about the ultimate role of the Jewish people in the unfolding of God’s purposes, and there are even fewer hints about the role of the Arab people. All we can say is that they are beloved by God for the sake of their father Abraham, and that they will play their appointed role at the appointed time.
There is important theological meaning in the sign being applied to Ishmael, that it was applied to him when he was thirteen years old and certainly old enough to choose for himself whether he wanted it or not. Normally the sign was applied to eight day old infants who could not choose for themselves, and similarly Ishmael was given no choice. The meaning of signs, their revelatory purpose, is a spiritual truth which may or may not be accomplished at the time they are given. In other words, it does not matter if the one who is circumcised is “circumcised in his heart” or not; the sign has the same validity and the same meaning regardless. There would be many in the Messiah’s day who bore the sign of the Covenant, but not the reality of the Covenant, as both Paul and the Messiah would point out. The same can be said of the signs Christians use, baptism and the eucharist. The human part is to use and respect the signs as they are given; it is God’s part to make the signs real.
In all of these details God emphasized two points: that the Covenant relationship arises from God choosing us, not us choosing God; and that His blessings extend beyond the boundaries of the Covenant. The Covenant is critical to His redemption of creation, obviously; the Covenant is what the entire Bible is about, it is the context of the Messiah’s work, it is the mystery that was hidden in God through all the ages but has now been made manifest in the final age. Nevertheless, the Covenant has never been the only thing that God was doing.
The Covenant people, from the very beginning, included what was probably a fair variety of ethnic groups. Circumcision was applied to Abram’s entire male household, which included many hundreds of slaves and servants and mercenaries and their children. All of these people were included in the Covenant relationship with God simply because they were in relationship with Abram. Though the servants of Abraham’s household are seldom mentioned individually, they were nonetheless an integral part of the community. The word for “household” in the Bible specifically included such servants. It may seem strange that the son Ishmael was out while the children of slaves were in, but it becomes more intelligible if the revelatory purpose is kept in mind.
Muslims have been taught that there were distortions in the Hebrew Scriptures and that God’s Covenant passed to Ishmael rather than Isaac, but history proves them wrong. For the next 2000 years it was exclusively the descendants of Isaac to whom God revealed Himself and not to the descendants of Ishmael. It is manifestly true, simply from subsequent history, that the Jews received the Covenant of Revelation: Moses and then Joshua and then David and then Solomon and then Elijah and then Isaiah and the Jeremiah and so on until the Messiah. But to the descendants of Ishmael, as to the rest of the world, God was silent; they had no prophets and no revelation. The prophet claimed by the descendants of Ishmael was not to come for nearly three thousand years and even then he came as an outsider to the stream of revelation that God had carefully built up over those millennia.
The meaning of Mohammed was to turn the hearts of the Arab people from many gods to worship the One God. It is true that the Muslims do not know the one God in the same way we do. The Muslims as well as the Jews have misunderstood the Messiah. While the Muslims do not have the insight into the nature of God that the Messiah and the prophets of Israel brought, still they do have something, and they do have something that is true. Mixed in with the revelation that Mohammed brought them there is a barrier to their recognizing the Messiah, a veil that covers their eyes, just as there is a veil that has prevented the Jews from recognizing their Messiah. In both cases, it is God’s purposes that are being fulfilled, purposes that we do not know, but that are as good as only He can be. Both of these peoples have been singled out as people who are under God’s particular favor because of their father Abram and the day will surely come when all veils are removed.
g) The Covenant Name (Genesis 16:11-12, 17:1-8 and 17:15-16)
When a conquering king acquired a new land, it was common for him to give the defeated king a new name to embody his new identity as a subject of the conqueror. This will happen several times in the rest of the Scripture when the people of Israel are taken captive, and it was naturally part of the process of God establishing a new covenant with Abram. There are a few significant differences in this covenant and the covenants in the world that we would do well to notice.
First, of course, Ishmael had already received a covenant name. He had been born a year or two after the ritual establishing the covenant was performed. Ishmael was given a covenant name just as Isaac would be given one, but Ishmael’s was the first one given. The giving of a covenant name indicates a particular and special standing before God, a particular relationship to God. Though not ultimately part of this covenant, Ishmael nonetheless had a special relationship of his own to God that was distinct from the relationship of the rest of the Gentiles. Ishmael means “God hears” and it was not given for nothing; God does not make commitments like this without meaning them. God hears, He still hears, the children of Ishmael.
At this point then God changed Abram to Abraham, from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude”. It was central to the Covenant that Abraham was to be not just a father but the father of many nations. Ultimately, this is the reason that the birth of Ishmael was not enough. Ishmael alone was to be the father of a dozen princes and a great nation, but it was not sufficient that Abram have a son and a lot of descendants. The goal of the Covenant was that Abram would be Abraham, the father of many nations, indeed the father of all nations, not simply the father of his descendants but the father of all descendants. This goal could only be achieved by making his Covenant descendants more than biological ones. This goal could only be achieved by making his Covenant descendants a product of God’s promise and not a natural product of cause and effect. Christians interpret this passage as referring to all those who believe in the Messiah, so that by the miracle of rising from the dead, by an act beyond all possibility of natural causes, Abraham becomes spiritual father of people from literally every nation on earth. American Christians, African Christians, Chinese Christians, all of us count Abraham as our father, the one whose faith we share.
Then God took the unusual step of giving Sarai a covenant name as well: Sarah, “princess”. Sarai already meant princess; the change was that she was now designated as a princess whom God Himself, and not men, had appointed as princess. She had the noble title “sister-wife”, and she had been named princess by her father Terah, but now she had been crowned Princess by God. It was the fulfillment of her destiny.
But it was a male dominated world, and any attention or particular honor given to women in these accounts is significant. There are two important reasons God Most High gave Sarah her new name, that I can discern. First, it indicated that He was not making the covenant with Abraham alone, but with Abraham/Sarah the couple. Heretofore God had had no direct dealing with Sarah, but now He made it clear that she was not to play a merely secondary role in the Covenant, as if she were just another member of Abraham’s household. She was not included in the Covenant merely as Abraham’s wife but as co-founder. The Covenant and the promises were given to the descendants of Abraham-and-Sarah, and not to the descendants of Abraham and any other woman. Whoever did not belong to the couple, Abraham+Sarah, were not involved in this Covenant. The point of His silence, of His waiting, of much of what He had done with Abraham and Sarah was to bring them to the point where their only hope of receiving anything was through His hand. Sarah’s long suffering and waiting was as much a part of God’s purpose as Abraham’s was. This is also why, though the other sons of Abraham would be excluded from the Covenant, all the servants of the household would be included because they belonged to Abraham/Sarah.
Another reason Sarah was given a Covenant name was to compensate for circumcision being appointed as the sign of the Covenant. Because circumcision was an exclusively male sign, the impression could have been given that women were not fully members of the Covenant, that they did not have the same standing in God’s grace that men had. To counter this false impression, Sarah was given a covenant name equally with Abraham, a name corresponding to his name. She was not Sarah the assistant of Abraham, Sarah the servant of Abraham, Sarah the junior partner; she was Sarah, the Princess.
The child who would continue the Covenant into another generation, the child who would carry the revelation that nothing was impossible for God, that God would always keep His promises even when they were no longer possible, and that no human effort could avail to accomplish His purpose, this child was to be named Isaac, meaning “he laughs”. The foolishness of God is indeed wiser than man’s wisdom. At times the foolishness of God looks like skilled recklessness – a sort of divine Jackie Chan. Isaac, by his name, would be a continual reminder to Abraham of his doubt, and the folly of doubting, and of the joke God had played on him, waiting until it was too late and then pulling the rabbit out of the hat. Doubting God’s ability or willingness to do the good that He promises is the ultimate in folly, and it is right that we laugh at our doubts. Imagine that! For a moment I actually thought God would fail me. How silly I was and am!
The Covenant of Revelation was given through several appearances to Abraham over the course of more than two decades, so it is worthwhile collecting all the terms of this covenant together into a single list:
- God promised to be faithful to Abraham, to be his God and the God of his children forever (17:7,8);
- God promised to make Abraham a blessing to all nations on earth (12:1-3);
- God promised to give Abraham descendants who were like the stars in glory (15:5 and 17:4-6);
- God gave Abraham and Sarah new identities, the Father of a Multitude and the Princess (17:5, 15);
- God gave circumcision of the sign of their relationship (17:10);
- God promised to give Abraham all of that land as his inheritance (12:7, 13:15, 15:18, and 17:8)
What stands out in this covenant is the way God gave Himself to Abram and his descendants. He had never done such a thing before. The central promise in this covenant, though not repeated as often as the other promises, was contained in Genesis 17:7 “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” God chose Abraham and promised Abraham that he and all his descendants forever would worship Him as their God. God promised to be their God period, with no condition on their behavior, no provision that they had to worship Him. Whether they kept Him as their God or no, He would keep Himself as their God. It all depended on God’s promise and commitment to Abraham. If it depends on God, then it does not depend on us, all or nothing.