Gen 17:9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” 15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” 22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. (English Standard Version)
According to the Biblical story, God made a covenant with Abraham – spoken of in several places in Genesis – whereby God would be in a special manner his God, bless him greatly, and give to him and his offspring the land of Canaan. Genesis 15:18 said that this land would extend from the “river of Egypt” to the Euphrates – quite a sizable area. The vexing question, though, is: who are the offspring of Abraham to whom this portion of land was said to be given by God?
The traditional answer given by Jews and Christians is considered to be obvious: it was given to that line of offspring descending from Abraham’s son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Ishmael and the other children of Abraham are said to be excluded from this promise of land. This is based on verse 21 of Genesis 17 (quoted above): But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year; and on Genesis 21:12 – But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. This is understood to mean that God’s covenant is only with Isaac (not Ishmael or any other of Abraham’s children), and only the offspring of Isaac would be counted as Abraham’s offspring.
But is that traditional answer true? In a previous article – Do Jews Have a God-Given Right to “The Land of Canaan”? – I questioned whether one should accept the Biblical stories as historically accurate accounts. For the sake of this article, I am going to give Genesis “the benefit of the doubt” and assume that it is indeed a historically accurate account. If you read this 17th chapter of Genesis from the beginning, you’ll see that the promise God was making to Abraham – based on the command to walk before me and be blameless – was that He would confirm the covenant promises to Abraham and greatly increase the number of Abraham’s offspring. Abraham would become the father of many nations, and kings would come from his descendants (the “many nations”). God would establish His covenant with those “many nations” offspring, and give them that land of Canaan.
Now one would assume from this that the covenant – with its promise of the land of Canaan – was intended for all of those “many nations” descendants (so long as they also fulfilled the covenant requirement to walk in blamelessness before God). As a confirmation of the correctness of this assumption, God proceeded to give Abraham a covenant sign – circumcision – which was to be applied to all of his male descendants throughout their generations. In fact, the covenant – with its sign – was not only for those who were physically descended from Abraham, but also with all the servants who were purchased and therefore members of his household. As long as all of these “descendants” (whether direct or purchased slaves) continued to practice that sign of the covenant, they were included in the covenant promise of being God’s people and inheriting the land of Canaan.
As a result, verse 23 says that Abraham proceeded to obey God by circumcising Ishmael, every other male born in his household, and all of those who had been purchased with money. They all received the sign of the covenant, and all – including Ishmael – were included in that covenant.
Note that this was a year before the birth of Isaac. Ishmael was already included in this covenant before Isaac was even conceived. However, while God was making this covenant promise and requirement, He told Abraham that his wife Sarah would give birth to a son – to be named Isaac. Abraham, though, was 99 years old and Sarah was 89; and despite the fact of the greatness of Abraham’s faith and trust in God, this was more than he could believe it would seem. He fell on his face laughing at this idea, and asked God to just let Ishmael “live” before Him.
God patiently responded that Sarah would indeed give birth to a son – to be named Isaac – and God would establish His covenant with that son. Ishmael would be blessed with fruitfulness, and a great nation would spring from him; but I will establish my covenant with Isaac. And it’s with that little word “but” that the problem arises. Despite the very apparent previous inclusion of all of Abraham’s circumcised descendants (including Ishmael) in the covenant of promise, that one little word seems to suddenly place a huge restriction on who would inherit the promise. Doesn’t that seem a good bit strange?
It would indeed be very strange; but that’s not what the Genesis account tells us that God said. Despite the fact that the translators are almost unanimous in putting that word “but” in there, the correct translation is “and” or “also”! Young’s Literal Translation renders it: and My covenant I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah doth bear to thee at this appointed time in the next year.
A web site called “Ark of Salvation” has an article explaining and defending this rendering of “and” rather than “but”. This site is the same one I referred to in my article “Was Ishmael a ‘Wild Ass’ Man?” to show that Genesis 16:12 should be translated to read that Ishmael would be a “fruitful” man (rather than “wild” or “wild ass”), whose hand would be “with” (rather than “against”) everyone. In this particular article, he points out that the word “but” in Genesis 17:21 is a single letter – transliterated as ‘V’ in English letters – which is prefixed to the first word of the sentence. As the author says, The Hebrew prefix “V-“ (Vav) is defined by Langenscheidt’s Hebrew Dictionary as a conjunction meaning “and, and therefore, also, then, yet”. He comments that beginning Hebrew students are taught that this prefix “V” means “and”. This would be the clear and obvious meaning in Genesis 17 if Hebrew prejudice and arrogance had not twisted it in order to make themselves “God’s special people”.
When the statement in Genesis17:21 is read as “and” or “also”, it takes on an entirely different meaning than if it’s read “but”. The meaning in context then comes to this: God told Abraham that He was so pleased with him that it simply wasn’t sufficient that He was going to provide Abraham offspring through Ishmael; he was also going to give him another son whom God would also make to be very fruitful, and with whom He would also establish His covenant. [Compare this to what the LORD said to his servant (the messiah) in Isaiah 49:6 – he (the LORD) says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The idea is the same in what God is reported to have said to Abraham.] Ishmael was already obviously included in the covenant, but God was going to add to that blessing by establishing His covenant with another son also. Verses 20 and 21 would then read: As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 And I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year. Or if one insists on keeping the word “but” in the translation, it would read But also I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.
Some people maintain that it was certainly a very great blessing God bestowed on Hagar and Ishmael – making a great nation to come from them – but this was entirely separate from establishing His covenant. The covenant was a far greater blessing than just causing a huge number of descendants to come from them.
My response is that, on the contrary, the promise of fruitfulness and their descendants becoming a great nation (or nations) is precisely what the covenant was all about. Notice that in verses 15 and 16, this is precisely the promise that is made regarding Sarah and Isaac (which verse 21 defines as meaning God would establish His covenant with Isaac): And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” When God says he will make Ishmael fruitful, and cause a great nation to descend from him, that is the definition of establishing His covenant with Ishmael. (And the fact that Ishmael’s offspring would become a great nation necessarily implies that they would have a land to inhabit. And what would that land be other than at least a part of the promised land which would extend from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates – a land promised to the “many nations” offspring of Abraham?)
When verse 19 says: “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son…”, that was not a negation of Abraham’s request that Ishmael would “live” before God (as the context makes very clear); rather if there is any negation involved at all, it is negating Abraham’s denial that he and Sarah could possibly conceive a child at their advanced ages. In fact, the word rendered “nay, but” is probably not a negative at all. The KJV renders it “indeed” (And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed…); and the NIV renders it “yes, but” (Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son…). The Hebrew word appears 7 times in the Bible, and in the KJV is rendered “verily” 3 times; “indeed” twice; and “nevertheless” twice. In response to Abraham’s incredulity, God was telling him that His promise of a son through Sarah would indeed come to pass – without at all denying that Ishmael also would have God’s covenant blessing.
So verse 21 is not saying “but I will exclusively establish my covenant with Isaac”; rather it is saying “in addition, I will also establish my covenant with Isaac”.
This same idea of additional blessing, rather than exclusivity of blessing, can be seen in the passage in Genesis 21:12 and 13: (12) But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. (13) And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” Here’s how Young’s Literal Translation renders these verses: (12) and God saith unto Abraham, `Let it not be wrong in thine eyes because of the youth, and because of thy handmaid: all that Sarah saith unto thee–hearken to her voice, for in Isaac is a seed called to thee. (13) As to the son of the handmaid also, for a nation I set him, because he is thy seed.’ When Sarah jealously insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be “cast out” from the household, Abraham was understandably very distressed. But God is said to have reassured Abraham. Abraham could safely do what Sarah requested, because God Himself guaranteed that Hagar and Ishmael would be safe, and would in fact thrive. Isaac would indeed bear offspring for Abraham; but Ishmael also was Abraham’s offspring, and God was going to fulfill His previously made promise and see to it that Ishmael survived to have a large family which would eventually become a great nation. Abraham’s offspring would be “called” from both of those sons.
That is the story as it is presented in the Hebrew Scripture. If it is a historically accurate account, then the “Israelites” don’t have a leg to stand on in arrogating to themselves sole “ownership” of the land of Canaan, and sole (or even primary) inheritance of God’s covenant with Abraham. The land belongs to all of Abraham’s descendants (including those from Ishmael) who keep God’s covenant requirements. If the story is not historically accurate, but is instead either false or allegory, then obviously again the “Israelites” don’t have any legitimate right to claim the “Abrahamic covenant” and the land as their own. The covenant is for all who follow in the steps of Abraham’s faith, and the “land” is allegorically interpreted as the “heavenly” inheritance.
It is certainly true that the Hebrew people twisted and distorted this Abrahamic covenant to make it theirs exclusively; and this distorted interpretation was reflected later in the writings of the prophets and in the “New Testament” writers (Paul for instance). But it is high time that this misuse of “sacred Scripture” should be corrected. The Qur’an points out in a number of passages that the Jewish people tended to pull verses out of context and distort their meanings. This is one example of such abuse. The Christian apostle Paul (who was himself Jewish, of course, and of the “strictest” sect of the Jews: the Pharisees) was naturally imbued with this distorted belief from childhood, and it is reflected in his argumentation. In Romans 9, when he was arguing that God’s blessing does not come to anyone simply based on his/her physical descent (a very true principle), he used Isaac and Ishmael as one of his proofs. God supposedly sovereignly excluded Ishmael from His covenant even though Ishmael was physically a son of Abraham. Because this was the commonly accepted interpretation of this Biblical incident among the Jews, they would have to accede to Paul’s reasoning from it. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the particular text was wrong, although the principle he was seeking to establish was correct. This is a proof that God is able to bring forth good out of evil! 🙂