The story of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, has puzzled believers and non-believers alike for centuries. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: God chose Isaac over Ishmael because Isaac was the son promised to Abraham through his wife Sarah, while Ishmael was born to Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant.
In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the biblical narrative to understand the reasoning and significance behind God’s preference for Isaac to carry on Abraham’s lineage rather than his firstborn, Ishmael.
We will examine key factors like the different mothers of the two sons, the covenants God made with Abraham, and how this choice went on to shape history.
The Different Mothers of Isaac and Ishmael
Sarah was Abraham’s Wife
Sarah was Abraham’s wife and the mother of Isaac according to the Bible. Sarah was originally known as Sarai before God changed her name. She was unable to conceive a child with Abraham for many years. However, God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation, with as many descendants as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).
When Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him and told him that Sarah would give birth to a son named Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19). One year later, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90, Sarah miraculously gave birth to Isaac as God had promised (Genesis 21:1-7).
Sarah’s miraculous conception and birth of Isaac in her old age demonstrated God’s power and fulfilled His covenant with Abraham. As Abraham’s wife, Sarah was the mother through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled.
Isaac would go on to become the father of Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel. The nation of Israel traces its lineage back to Isaac as the child of promise.
Hagar was Sarah’s Maidservant
Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. After years of infertility, Sarah suggested to Abraham that he have a child with Hagar, following a common custom of the time (Genesis 16:1-3). When Hagar became pregnant, tension arose between her and Sarah.
Hagar attempted to flee but was told by an angel to return and submit to Sarah. She gave birth to Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-15).
Later, after the miraculous birth of Isaac, conflict arose again between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac and demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:8-10). This greatly distressed Abraham, but God told him to listen to Sarah because Isaac was the son of promise.
So Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away with provisions (Genesis 21:11-14).
God also promised to make Ishmael into a great nation (Genesis 21:18). Ishmael went on to become the father of the Arab nations. However, it was through Isaac, the son of promise, that God’s covenant with Abraham was fulfilled.
As Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar bore Abraham’s first son Ishmael, but did not bear the son of the covenant.
God’s Covenants with Abraham
The Covenant to Make Abraham a Great Nation
God first made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, promising to make him into a great nation, bless him, make his name great, and that through him all families of the earth would be blessed. This unilateral covenant was graciously given by God to Abraham when He called him to leave his homeland and go to the land that God would show him.
God later reinforced this covenant in Genesis 15, promising Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham believed God even though he had no children at the time. His faith in God’s promise was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
This covenant pointed to the coming Messiah who would provide a blessing for all peoples.
The Covenant of Circumcision
God established an additional covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, changing his name from Abram to Abraham. God promised to give Abraham a son through his wife Sarah, from whom kings and nations would come.
As a sign of this everlasting covenant, all males were to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth.
This covenant provided further revelation on how God’s promise to make Abraham a great nation would come about. Circumcision was an outward sign of belonging to God’s chosen people through Abraham. It distinguished Abraham’s descendants from the world around them.
While Ishmael did undergo circumcision (Genesis 17:25), the covenant promise of nations and kings was made specifically in regard to Isaac and his descendants (Genesis 17:19-21). So God’s covenant blessings were established with Isaac as the heir.
God’s Promise of an Heir Through Sarah
Sarah was Barren at First
In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was unable to bear children for many years after their marriage (Genesis 11:30). At the time, childlessness was seen as a sign of divine disfavor or a curse.
Yet God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation (Genesis 12:2). This seeming contradiction led to a crisis of faith for Abraham and Sarah.
Though deeply disappointed, Sarah did not lose hope in God’s promise. She selflessly allowed her husband to have a child with her handmaiden, Hagar, who bore Ishmael (Genesis 16:1-4). Still, this was not the son God had promised would establish Abraham’s lineage.
God Promised a Son Through Sarah Specifically
When Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was far past the age of childbearing, God appeared to Abraham and promised again that Sarah herself would bear him a son. God told Abraham to name his son Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19).
Though Abraham and Sarah initially reacted with disbelief, God reiterated his promise, and within the year Sarah miraculously conceived and bore Isaac in her old age (Genesis 21:1-3).
God chose to fulfill his covenant through a child born to Sarah despite her barrenness and advanced age. This demonstrated that Isaac’s birth was an act of divine providence, not mere human endeavor. God used the impossible circumstances of Isaac’s birth to reveal his power and sovereignty.
Though Abraham cared for Ishmael, Isaac was the son of the covenant through whom God’s promises would be established. As promised, Isaac went on to father Jacob, whose 12 sons became the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Thus God used Isaac’s line to fulfill his covenant to make Abraham into a great nation.
The Births of Ishmael and Isaac
The story of Ishmael and Isaac begins with Abraham and his wife Sarah. For many years, Abraham and Sarah were unable to have children. As they grew older, they began to despair that they would never have an heir.
Seeking to find a solution, Sarah offered her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a second wife. This practice was acceptable at the time. Abraham agreed and took Hagar as his wife. When Hagar conceived, Sarah became jealous and treated her harshly. To escape, Hagar fled into the wilderness.
There, an angel of the Lord found Hagar and told her to return and submit to Sarah. The angel also said her son would be called Ishmael, meaning “God hears,” because the Lord had heard Hagar’s affliction (Genesis 16:1-16).
Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old.
As prophesied, his name signified that God had heard Hagar’s cry. For more than a decade, Ishmael was Abraham’s only son.
When Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90, the Lord appeared to Abraham and promised that Sarah would have a son.
Despite their old age, Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac. His name meant “he laughs,” reflecting the disbelief and then joy Abraham and Sarah felt at having a child so late in life (Genesis 17:15-19, 21:1-7).
God had promised Abraham that through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). As the firstborn son, Ishmael seemed destined to be the heir through whom this blessing would come.
However, God specified that Isaac would be the son of the covenant through whom Abraham’s descendants would be counted (Genesis 17:19-21, 21:12).
This divine choice of Isaac over Ishmael would lead to great conflict in the generations that followed.
The descendants of Isaac became the Israelites, while Ishmael’s descendants were the Arabic peoples. The familial rivalry that began with Sarah’s animosity toward Hagar never fully dissipated. It continued between Isaac and Ishmael and echoes through history in the strained relationship between Arabs and Jews.
Despite these future tensions, Abraham loved both his sons.
When Isaac was born, Ishmael was about 14 years old. The two boys grew up together in Abraham’s household. When the time came to wean Isaac, Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah’s anger burned against Ishmael, so she insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away (Genesis 21:8-21).
This greatly distressed Abraham, but God comforted him with the assurance that Ishmael would become the father of a great nation. So Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness of Beersheba with provisions.
There, God heard the voice of the lad and provided water to save the exhausted and despairing Hagar and Ishmael.
Ishmael grew up in the wilderness, became a skilled archer, and married an Egyptian woman. Meanwhile, Isaac remained the son of the covenant and inherited God’s promises.
Still, God blessed Ishmael as well, multiplying his descendants into the 12 tribes of Arabia. The roots of the strife between Arabs and Jews go back to the conflict between two brothers who were both sons of Abraham.
How God’s Choice Shaped History
The Israelites and Arabs as Descendants
God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael as the son through whom He would fulfill His covenant promises has had monumental historical implications. Isaac’s descendants through Jacob became the 12 tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people.
Ishmael’s descendants through his 12 sons became the Arabs and Muslims who today number over 1.8 billion people.
The ancestral tensions between Isaac and Ishmael have continued between their descendants until today. The conflict between Arabs and Jews over control of the land of Israel/Palestine is rooted in the idea that both groups see the land as rightfully theirs based on God’s promises to their forefathers Isaac and Ishmael.
Modern Impacts of Ancestral Tensions
Here are some key ways that the ancient choice of Isaac over Ishmael continues to impact the modern world:
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a dispute between Isaac’s and Ishmael’s descendants over who has the stronger claim to the Holy Land. Efforts to broker lasting peace have so far proven elusive.
- Most Arabs and Muslims view the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 as an unjust seizure of land promised to Ishmael’s descendants. Israel cites the biblical promise of the land to Isaac’s descendants.
- Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorist groups use the idea of offense against Ishmael’s inheritance as a recruiting tool to justify attacks on Israel and the West.
- Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel see God’s choice of Isaac as evidence that Israel still has a divine right to the land. This shapes United States foreign policy.
- Centuries of intergenerational animosity make reconciliation between Arabs and Jews challenging. But there are also inspiring cases of overcoming the past through forgiveness.
In the complex geopolitics of the Middle East today, we still see the ancient rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael playing out in the relations between their descendants. But with openness and goodwill, there is always hope for improved understanding and a more just peace for all sides.
In the biblical narrative, God chose Isaac over Ishmael to carry on Abraham’s covenant despite the latter being the elder son. This choice was rooted in God’s promise to give Abraham an heir through his wife Sarah specifically.
While both sons were blessed and became forefathers of great nations, the preferential treatment of Isaac went on to shape relations between these groups across history.