Paul is saying that the persecution of the early church (by the Jewish establishment) is no different than the way Ishmael treated Isaac. At the time Isaac was born, Ishmael would have been thirteen or fourteen years old. Until Isaac, Ishmael had been Abraham’s heir, the one who would inherit all the riches and possessions of a very wealthy man (for God had generously prospered Abraham). All that changed with this promised, legitimate heir. At the time Isaac was born, Ishmael began to scorn and mock him. In doing so, he scorned and mocked Abraham. In doing so, Ishmael mocked God’s promise.
Let’s be sympathetic: it wasn’t Ishmael’s fault that he was born to a slave with whom Abraham had sex. He was an innocent child, and a child to whom God made a different promise to prosper and provide. Yet, when he grew older, Ishmael chose to act on the natural feelings of jealousy that would seem to have naturally occurred. God had predicted to Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, that “he will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
That hostility began when Ishmael saw how his father treated his infant half-brother. Perhaps it had been growing before: surely Ishmael would have grown up hearing the stories God’s promise, from which he was excluded. And of how Sarah had abused Hagar for years, physically and emotionally. No matter when it began, the boy Ishmael would have had a choice: act in repentant humility or act out in sinful anger. Ishmael chose the latter. Sin is a choice. It isn’t natural.
Years later, Paul uses the story to illustrate the irony of how the people of Judaism had become like Ishmael, mocking God’s promise that was kept by Jesus. The Jews of Paul’s time strove to viciously crush the new church. It was their choice.
Tell me: could the story of this dysfunctional family be told in our own families today? Rewrite the names and you could find the story in a Netflix movie. Or maybe one by Marvel. The covenant God made with Abraham (to bless the world through him) was fulfilled only through Isaac, yet we are (and should be) sympathetic to Ishmael. We are descended from Abraham as bastard children outside the promise (and God’s covenant). Like Ishmael, we choose sins. Yet God covenants with us as well, promising us eternal life through Abraham’s truest descendant, Jesus, who the Jews of then and now reject. Who will we choose? He already chose us.
For further reading: Genesis 16:12, Genesis 21:9-10, Galatians 4:30
Lord, all praise to You for the story of Ishmael and Isaac.
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