The Separation of Isaac and Ishmael: A Short Essay
I believe there is an interesting parallel that can be drawn from the story of the separation of Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis 21. The calling for a separation of a family seems contrary to Judeo-Christian values, and seems to run opposite the idea of familial reconciliation also taught in the scriptures. So we must ask, why is story this here?
Certainly we know that many historical events from the Hebrew scriptures occurred not just for reasons in their own time; but as examples, symbolically and otherwise, of how future events would come about as well. I believe this separation of Ishmael and Isaac illustrates such a point.
So we have a call for separation, endorsed by God, which appears to be related to inheritance. Isaac, in several ways, represents Jesus; He was the son whose birth was a miracle, he was the promised one, he was to be sacrificed by his father. More generally speaking, the children of Abraham, in the New Testament writings, represent those who believe by faith: an over-arching attribute of Abraham’s story.
Ishmael, on the other hand, was the son of the flesh; Abraham and Sarah had the promise of a son that would come, but they sought out their own means to have a child through another woman, their servant Hagar. (Incidentally, polygamy does exist in the bible but is never specifically endorsed by God.) And we see that here in Genesis 21, Ishmael is cut off from the great inheritance that was reserved all along for Isaac.
I have heard some say that Isaac represents followers of Christ, and that Ishmael represents the Jew who does not believe Jesus as Messiah; And while I cannot say there is no parallel in this view, it seems rather short-sighted. I think the defining difference between Ishmael and Isaac is that one son was a promise who came through the appointed vessel (Sarah) by faith, through no doing of their own; and the other came as a resort of a sort of fleshly desire to have a child, and possibly bring about God’s promise on their own humanistic terms.
In light of that understanding, I do not see a picture of Christian vs. Jew. Rather I see it as a picture of a separation of the children of God from the world (i.e. to be in the world and not of the world). I cannot deduce that the separation is defined in terms of believers of God separating themselves from unbelievers – as we see, Jesus ate and drank with the sinners and tax collectors; He said it was the sick that needed a doctor.
The reality is that the children of this world do not share the same inheritance as the children of God in the end. However this does not mean those who do not believe get nothing, but likely means they get their pleasure now and only now, as they do not have a portion in the World to Come.
Questions to think about:
Is there any significance that God keeps His promise to Abraham through both the legitimate and illegitimate son (to make them both a great nation?) What could this mean for the saved and unsaved today? What promise is being kept by God for the unbeliever, even if the inheritance is ultimately not shared in the end? Worldly goods and pleasures? Abundance in this life, albeit temporary?