There are (at least) two stories within the Scriptures that share a pattern of events and a set of language. The centerpiece of this set of stories is the binding (Akedah) of Isaac in Genesis 22.
- Abraham is told to go (Genesis 22:1)
- Isaac is called the “unique son through who Abraham loves” (Genesis 22:
- Abraham goes early in the morning (Genesis 22:3)
- Abraham journeys through the desert (Genesis 22:
- Abraham approaches the place and prepares to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:9-10)
- God calls from Heaven and stops him (Genesis 22:11-12)
- God shows Abraham the ram which will substitute for his son (Genesis 22:13)
- God promises to bless Abraham (Genesis 22:15)
While it might not pop out when you first read the story of Ishmael and Hagar, the stories are actually very similar.
- Abraham is told to put Hagar out of the camp (Genesis 21:12)
- Abraham is told Isaac is the child through whom the promises will be fulfilled (Genesis 21:13)
- Abraham rises early in the morning to obey (Genesis 21:14)
- Hagar wanders in the desert (Genesis 21:15)
- Hagar lies down in a separate place to let Ishmael die (Genesis 21:15)
- God calls from heaven to rescue Ishmael (Genesis 21:17)
- God shows Hagar a well from which to give Ishmael a drink (Genesis 21:19)
- God promises to make Ishmael into a great nation (Genesis 21:18)
It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as just coincidence, but I strongly believe that coincidence is not a Kosher word. Let’s examine what Abraham knew in both cases:
- That God has promised to make both of his sons into great nations.
- That God has promised to carry the land and blessings promises through a specific son.
In effect, in both cases, God has told Abraham two seemingly contradictory things. In the case of Ishmael, God has told Abraham that He will make Ishmael into a great nation. At the same time, God has told Abraham to send Ishmael out into the desert, a completely inhospitable place, with the most likely result being Ishmael’s death. In the case of Isaac, God has told Abraham that it is through this son that Abraham’s lineage will be counted, the promises of land will be fulfilled, and the promise of blessing to the world will be fulfilled. And yet, God is telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
How can Abraham reconcile these apparently contradictory commandments? By letting go. Abraham, in both cases, must trust God to fulfill His promises in His own way. The contradictions appear real in Abraham’s experience, but Abraham must learn to trust God more than he trusts his experiences.
The one primary difference between the two stories is the order of the blessings. In the case of Ishmael, the promise to Hagar that the child will become a great nation is repeated before God provides the means of saving the child. In the case of Isaac, the promise is only repeated after the means of saving the child are provided. Why the difference?
In the case of Isaac, the promise was for blessing, land, and seed. These three are the basis of an eternal nation with an eternal King. These promises are based on faith, rather than a simple blood relationship, and hence the faith must be shown to the world (tested) before the promise is affirmed. In the case of Ishmael, the promise is for prominence, along with a temporary kingdom. No blessings would accrue to the entire world through the fulfillment of these promises. Hence, these promises are based on position, or kinship, rather than faith.