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No. 118: Call Me Ishmael, Part 2

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 118
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons June, 1999

Meditations by James B. Jordan

Anyone seeking to reverse the meaning of this promise needs to come to grips not only with the phrase "God was with the lad" later on, but also with Hagar’s response in 16:13. She worships Yahweh, putting her trust in Him and obeying Him. In fact, Hagar is at the center of this narrative, and it parallels God’s appearances to Moses and to Elijah at Sinai/Horeb. Like Moses, Hagar sees the "back side" of Yahweh (16:13; Exodus 33:23). Like Elijah, God asks her what she is doing in this place, and then sends her back (16:8; 1 Kings 19:9). These rather striking parallels provide additional evidence that Yahweh’s promises to Hagar are covenantal and positive, not merely neutral.

The text is telling us that at this point in time, Ishmael is the "seed of the woman." Yes, in a few years he will be set aside in favor of another seed, but Abraham was also set aside for Isaac, and Isaac for Jacob, etc., down to Jesus. Indeed, after Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, Abraham was no longer the carrier of the seed-line. He married again, and his sons were uncircumcised God-fearers — as we see in Godly Jethro later on, who led Israel in worship, but in whose sheikhdom circumcision was not practised (Genesis 25:2; Exodus 2:16; 4:24-26; 18:5-12). Isaac also drops out of view once Jacob leaves home and marries. Isaac no longer carries the burden; Jacob does. Only when we come to Jacob and his sons does the theme broaden to embrace a community of people who corporately carry the burden of being the seed-people. (The household of Abram, circumcised all, also carried the burden, and that household was transferred to Isaac and then to Jacob, becoming part of the nation of tribes while in Egypt.)

Note well, Ishmael was the seed, but Ishmael went back to being a God-fearer when Isaac appeared on the scene. Later on, in Galatians 4, Paul will argue that Israel was the seed, but that Israel was set aside when Jesus appeared. True Israelites, Paul consistently argues, rejoice that their priestly task of living under the death-dealing aspect of the Law has ended, and that Jesus has fulfilled their task for them. True Israelites rejoice to become, like Ishmael, God-fearing believers, free from the Law.

The First Israelite

God’s first law to Adam was: "Disobey Me and you will die." The death penalty is at the heart of the death-dealing Sinaitic Law. Considered as "Law," the death-dealing aspect is the center of the overall Sinaitic revelation, a revelation that also promised life as well. Death is at the chiastic center of the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23; 22:18-20). Killing animals as substitutes occupies the first part of Leviticus. Bearing the symbolic death of uncleanness on behalf of the nations occupies the second part of Leviticus. Death for abominations is found in the third part. And so forth. (See our essay on the Third Word in Rite Reasons 60.) The bloody pain of circumcision is the signal that a person is moving into the position of bearing death for others, a sign of Israel as the priestly nation. After the circumcision and death of Jesus on the cross, under the death-dealing Law, there was no longer any place for a death-bearing priestly nation. The work of Israel was finished. The lives of Abraham, of Ishmael, and of Isaac reveal this sequence or pattern of events. For a time they bore the mark of circumcision as those who carried the death penalty, but when a substitute was brought in, they were able to give up this priestly burden.

Ishmael was the first Jew, the first Israelite, the first son of Abraham to come under the Law (circumcision). For an accurate picture of Ishmael we must read the Abraham narrative a bit more carefully than is often done. As I showed in the chart in Biblical Horizons No. 110, the birth of Ishmael is at the center both of the Abraham narrative in Genesis, and of Abraham’s life. Abraham lived to be 175, and Ishmael was born when he was 86. These facts alone show us the centrality of Ishmael to the story of Abraham.

Ishmael as the first Israel undergoes the same history as Israel, in a microcosm. He moves through that history first, and thus his life is a sign to Israel. We see this in Genesis 21, the only other Ishmael story in Genesis.

When Isaac was weaned, and moved from his mother’s tents to his father’s, it was time for Ishmael to step aside. Ishmael "laughed," and the question that laughter provoked was this: Who is the true Laughter

(Isaac)? (Genesis 21:9 — Ishmael was literally "isaacing"). The converted Hagar did not wish to leave Abraham’s household, but she had to. The story that follows is a typological foreshadowing of two events: the sacrifice of Isaac in the next chapter of Genesis, and the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Notice:

Abraham arises early in the morning.

Ishmael’s mother takes him into another land, from Beersheba.

The boy comes to the point of death.

Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.

Hagar "opens her eyes and sees" the well of water.

God promises to be with the boy.

He marries a foreign woman.

Abraham arises early in the morning.

Isaac’s father takes him into another land, from Beersheba.

The boy comes to the point of death.

Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.

Abraham "lifts up his eyes and sees" the ram.

God promises to be with the boy.

Isaac marries a foreign woman (Genesis 24).

Note that the words "lad" and "son" permeate both stories. Hagar is told to grasp Ishmael by the hand, and Abraham is told to stay his hand against Isaac. Abraham calls the place "God sees," which is what Hagar called the place God where God met her earlier (22:14; 16:13). Also, a "donkey" transports Abraham and Isaac, and Ishmael is a "wild donkey"; though the Hebrew words are different, the presence of a donkey helps further the connection between Ishmael and Isaac. More pregnantly: Ishmael is left under a bush, while Isaac’s substitute ram is found in a bush. Thus, Ishmael under a bush becomes Isaac on the wood of the altar, becomes the ram in the bush, becomes Jesus on the cross.

This incident also foreshadows the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Note:

Hagar carries bread on her shoulder.

She goes into the wilderness.

She wanders there.

There is no water there.

She and Ishmael almost die there.

They cry, but it is not said they cry to God.

God hears their cry.

Yahweh appears to her there and provides water.

Yahweh assures them of His love.

Ishmael marries with an Egyptian, but lives in Paran. Israel carries bread on their shoulders (Exodus 12:34).

They go into the wilderness.

They wander there.

There is no water there.

They almost die there.

They cry, but seldom to Yahweh.

God hears their cry.

Yahweh appears to them and provides water.

Yahweh makes covenant with them at Sinai.

Israel "marries" with the Egyptian mixed multitude, but lives in Paran, a staging ground for the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 10:12; 13:3 & 26.)

We note that, driven out by Saul, David in his exodus also goes into the wilderness of Paran (1 Samuel 25:1).

Ishmael as Allegory

All of this is background for Paul’s "allegory" in Galatians 4:21-31. It is sometimes assumed that Paul merely reaches in the grab-bag of the Scriptures to find a narrative that he can turn into an illustrative story. This is a specious way to view the text. Paul’s "allegory" is fully grounded in the Biblical revelation that we have been considering. The "allegory" is just an extended type or foreshadowing, but one that is not apparent until after the fulfilling events take place (unlike a "type," which has a prophetic element). (This has nothing to do with false allegorization, which involves seeking parallels between Biblical events and non-Biblical ideas, such as the Alexandrian school of exegesis in the early church practised.)

The reason that Hagar and Ishmael can be used to illustrate the Jews is that they were indeed the first "Jews." Every Israelite was like Ishmael in that he started out uncircumcised and then was circumcised on the eighth day, as Ishmael was at the age of thirteen. Like Ishmael and Abraham, Israel took upon themselves the burden of circumcision after they had lived for a time as uncircumcised. The fact that Ishmael was relieved of that burden when Isaac took it up was a message to Israel that they would be relieved of it when the Messiah took it up.

Hagar and Ishmael made an exodus into the wilderness, but came only as far as Paran. This is the truth also about Israel. Though they entered the promised land in a physical sense, they did not really enter it. As Paul writes in Hebrews, "If Joshua had really given them rest, there would not remain a greater Day in which the rest would be entered" (Hebrews 4).

As Ishmael was to Israel, so Israel was to Jesus.

Ishmael was born into the faith of Abraham, came under the Law (circumcision), and heard the promise, but the promise was not to him directly but to a replacement: Isaac. Just so, Israel was the seed of Abraham, came under the Law, and heard the promise but the promise was not to them directly but to a replacement: Jesus.

The circumcised Ishmael initially contested with Isaac to be the true heir of the promise. Just so, the Circumcision was contesting with Jesus and His people to be the true heirs of the promise.

Ishmael needed to be cast out that Isaac’s role might be clarified. Just so, Israel needed to be cast out that Jesus’ role might be clarified.

Ishmael was delivered from being under the yoke of circumcision, and became a God-fearer. Just so, Israel should accept being delivered from the yoke of the Law, considered as a death-dealing burden, and become God-fearers.

And here is the promise implied in Paul’s "allegory": God met with Ishmael and Ishmael heard God, and became a God-fearer, receiving the promise in a different way. Just so, Israel would hear the Gospel and become God-fearers, receiving the promise in a different way. This is what Romans 11 predicts: that before the end of the Apostolic Age, "all Israel" would be saved. (On the timing of Romans 11, see my monograph The Future of Israel Reconsidered, available from Biblical Horizons .)

[Postcript: The allegory is related to Revelation 12:14-17. The Woman who gave birth to the Son is taken into the wilderness to be protected from the Dragon. The Dragon pours out the defiling water of false (Judaizing) doctrine to try and corrupt her, but God protects her as the Apostles fight the Judaizers with the true cleansing water of truth. Then the Dragon moves out and attacks the other part of the Woman’s Seed, the Gentile part of the Church, by raising up the Roman Beast. Thus, the Woman in the wilderness and the children with her are the Jewish believers, driven out in Acts 8 after Satan began putting them to death in Acts 7.

[The Woman in Revelation 12 is the entire First Creation church, from Eve to Mary, including Hagar. It is Hagar's experience that is alluded to in 12:14-16. Paul has said that the Jews are Hagar and Ishmael. They are the original household of Abraham, after which came Sarah and Isaac. The converted Jews, like Hagar and Ishmael, flee into the wilderness. The original Hagar found that the "old water" of Abraham ran out, and could not find any new water until God provided it. This is an allegory of the gospel: The water of the Old Creation kingdom is running out, and people must seek the new water of the New Creation. In a similar way, the Hagar-Woman of Revelation 12 has left the old water. Satan offers counterfeit new water, flowing from his Wormwood occupation of Herod's Temple (Revelation 8:10-11). The false unconverted Jews drink up this evil water, and by implication, God provides new water, from the New Jerusalem, for the Hagar-Woman and her Ishmael-child in the wilderness.]