Will the Real Ishmael Please Stand Up?

A Tale of Two Identities

By Hal West

This is a brief story about a man who has two identities, or should I say a people who have two identities, or would it be better to say a people who actually have one real identity and one false identity.  Who is this man?   Or who are these people?

If a person goes back to early Biblical times in Genesis he will read about a  man named Abraham.  This man is well-known for being the Father of not only the nation of Israel, but also the father of all of the Arab tribes that ever existed.  In Genesis 17:5-6 he was given a promise, “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.”

We are told that this Abraham had two sons.  One was from a concubine named Hagar.  His name was Ishmael and he was conceived out of an act of desperation and lack of faith.  The story goes that Abraham was 86 years old and had no sons, yet God had made the above promise to him.  So Abraham thought he would help God out and went in with his concubine and conceived his first son.  He named him Ishmael or “God will hear.”

Although this was not the son of the promise of Genesis 17:5-6 he did become the father of many nations. “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,” Genesis 17:20.

The other son of Abraham and Sarah of course was Isaac to whom it is said, “But My  covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year,” Genesis 17:21.

Looking at the history  of the middle east in light of these scripture passages one could easily  conclude that the Arab states of today are descended from Ishmael and the State of Israel today is descended from Isaac.  So when prominent theologians say that the United States must support Israel in all that she does in light of Genesis 12:3 “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” they would say that they are referring to the children of the promise to Abraham and Isaac and if we do not support Israel, then we will be accursed.

But there is more to this story than the simple narrative of the Old Testament.

The apostle Paul talks about the Old Testament system (or Old Covenant) as being a shadow or type of the realities of the New Covenant.  Note these passages of Scripture —

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”  Colossians 2:16-17

“Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.  For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.  For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:  Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.”  Hebrews 8:1-5

Hebrews plainly states that the entire law was merely a shadow of the reality of Christ and His New Covenant Kingdom,

The law is only a shadow of  the good things that are coming– not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.  If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.  But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:  “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me;  with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.  Then I said, `Here I am- it is written about me in the scroll- I have come to do your will, O God.”  Hebrews 10:1

So we come to the reality in the New Testament of the story of Isaac and Ishmael of the Old.  Read very carefully lest you fail to understand.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman”  Galatians 4:22

Here is the beginning of Paul’s picture.  In Verse 24 Paul says that these two sons serve as an allegory.

Smith’s Bible Dictionary recognizes and allegory as “a figure of speech which has been defined by Bishop Marsh, in accordance with its etymology, as “a representation of one thing which is intended to excite the representation of another thing;” the first representation being consistent with itself, but requiring, or being capable of admitting, a moral and spiritual interpretation over and above its literal sense.”

The Eastern writers of the Old and New Testament used allegorical or figurative language quite often.  Paul explains the allegory in the verses that follow verse 22.

In verse 23 it says that Ishmael was “born after the flesh” and Isaac was born “by promise” and they represent the two covenants.   I emphasize the two covenants lest someone thinks there be more than two.  So what are the two?  It says one is from Mount Sinai which is of bondage and is Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.

Interestingly it then says that “Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children,” verse 25.  That was the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time which was actually representative of the entire Jewish nation or actually her religious system. Interestingly that nation was in bondage to its religious system and that system was the law established by Moses on Mount Sinai!!

What is the other covenant then than that of the heavenly or New Jerusalem spoken of throughout scripture and especially established in the book of Revelation.  Paul speaking to the church says “she is our mother,” verse 26 (NASB).  Verse 27 is a quote from Isaiah 54:1 and is a promise that the Gentiles will partake of the promises of the heavenly Jerusalem.  And then he tells the church at Galatia that they are like Isaac, not Ishmael and are children of the promise.  Hallellujah!  The good news in not just for the Jews.

But then Paul does an interesting thing.  Read carefully.  He says that he who was born according to the flesh would persecute he who was born according to the spirit.  In much of the New Testament who was persecuting the church?  Was it the Romans?  No, not until the end when Nero blamed the Christians for the fires of Rome.  Was it the unbelieving Jews.  Absolutely.  They rejected the Messiah and killed him, they persecuted Paul and tried over and over to kill him.  And they tried to destroy the entire church.  Read about it in the Gospels, in Acts, in the letters of Paul and John, and especially once again in Revelation.

Just remember that in Revelation  11:8 Babylon is identified as the city in which Jesus was crucified.  In Revelation 16:6; 17:1-6; 18:20, 24, we are told that Babylon the great was drunk with the blood of the prophets.  In Matthew 23:32-36 Jesus said that Jerusalem was guilty of “all the blood shed on earth.”   Then he said that Jerusalem was about to be judged for killing the prophets, “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

The people of Jerusalem of that day or of that generation were going to suffer the soon coming judgment.  They were Babylon the great city of Revelation.  What the church 150 years ago understood but has today forgotten is that this judgment did take place as the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in A.D. 67 and for three and a half years watched the Jews destroy themselves in the city of Jerusalem.  Because of their pride and stubbornness and idolatry their temple was destroyed along with the whole legal sacrificial system of the Old Covenant never to be revived again.  True Judaism as seen in scripture was utterly destroyed.

Getting back to Galatians 4: 30 the call is to “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the freewoman.”  So if Jerusalem was identified with Hagar, then the Jews were the sons of the bondwoman who were to be cast out.  Jesus accomplished this in A.D. 70 just like he promised.  Read all about it in the writings of Josephus.  And as Paul says to the church in Galatians 4:31 “So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.”

Folks, “the son of the freewoman” is the church that is identified with the promise given to Abraham through Isaac.  It is the Jews that are identified with Hagar through Ishmael, not the Arabs.  And we need to be about our Savior’s business which is to love our enemies, Matt. 5:44.

John said in 1 John 4:20-21 “If someone says, “‘I love God,'” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.   And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” A careful reading will reveal that the brother about whom John was speaking was their Jewish brothers who were at that time persecuting the church.

It is a truth that a Christian should love all people whether enemies or friends.  It is also a truth that today most Christians hate the Arabs and love the “Jews.”  We should love them all as the only way that any of them will come to salvation is through the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Just remember that there are true Christian brothers in both groups.

Hal received a question on his article; here is his response:

Dear Mr. West:

Hello, I have a question re your article “Will the Real Ishmael Please Stand Up?”

God said he would make Ishamel the father over 12 tribes. Isaac was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. If Jerusalem and the Jews are identified with Ishamel as they do appear to be, who are the Jews descended from Isaac? I hope my confusion is clear and would appreciate your thoughts! Thank you!


Lubbock, TX

Hal answers:


I am sorry it took me so long to respond to your question. Lots going on this time of year.

I hope I understand your question. The Bible says that Ishmael was to beget 12 princes and God was going to make him a great nation (Gen. 17:20). We find the fulfillment of this in Gen. 25:12-16. This is purely a physical or natural fulfillment But Paul in Galatians 4 is not really speaking of Ishmael and his descendents or a natural fulfillment. He never mentions Ishmael by name but his mother Hagar who according to the allegory is Mt. Sinai in Arabia.

What would a Jew of Paul’s time think of when Mt. Sinai is mentioned. It is the place where God expressed his “conditional” covenant to Moses and Moses to the people, ‘Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” Ex. 19:4-6.

The people answered even before they knew what God would have them do in obedience to the covenant “All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.” (Ex. 19:8).

It is also the place where God wrote his commandments on tablets of stone and even before Moses came down off the mountain the people had broken the covenant making a calf of gold and worshipping it. Had it not been for Moses’ intercession God would have destroyed them all at that time and started over (still fulfilling the original Abrahamic covenant as Moses was a direct descendant of Abraham).

The terms of that covenant were never again ratified with that people. From that time on Israel, the physical nation committed disobedience upon disobedience. Without going into a long explanation of the original blood covenant and then the inferior substitute covenant God made with his people, they became the children of bondage in the allegory. God destroyed them in 70 A.D.

So what about Isaac and his descendents. Well Paul says is that this is an allegory of two covenants. Hagar is Mt. Sinai which is Jerusalem as it was in Paul’s day. Read Matthew 23 to see what Jesus thought of the Jewish legal system of the time and what He was going to do with them of that generation.

But what does Paul say about Isaac. “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.” (Gal 4:28) We (those in Christ and part of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of heaven) are not bound to the law (Mt. Sinai, Hagar, the old Jerusalem). We are of the new covenant, the everlasting covenant. We are not bound, we are free. We are not 12 tribes but we are from all the nations of the earth including Jews who have come to know Christ through His blood sacrifice, including Arabs who have come to know Christ through His blood sacrifice, etc., but only those who have come to know Jesus through His blood sacrifice, His resurrection and His ascension. Hagar and her son Ishmael were physical realities of the Old Testament, we along with Isaac are spiritual realities of the new for first comes the physical (natural) and then the spiritual. (1 Cor. 15:46). It is through us (members of the Kingdom) that God has fulfilled and continues to fulfill his original everlasting Abrahamic covenant.

I hope this helps.

In Christ,

Hal West


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