Notes on Genesis (ix)
‘Cast out this maidservant and her son’ (Gen. 21:10)
The significance of Abraham’s two sons has been understood differently by the Monotheistic religions. The status of the firstborn, Ishmael, and his mother, the handmaid Hagar, was undermined by the subsequent birth of Isaac to Abraham’s wife Sarah, who prevailed upon her husband to drive Hagar and her son away. They found their way into the wilderness, where an angel told them Ishmael would be made a great nation (Gen 21:18). By the time of Josephus the Arabs were thought to have descended from Ishmael, and they became known as Ishmaelites. Jerome mentions that they had come to be known as Saracens, and the fifth century historian Sozomen makes much of this descent from Abraham, claiming they had adopted the name Saracens to deceive people into thinking they took their origin from the similarly named Sarah! An understanding of the Arabs as being descended from Abraham’s firstborn Ishmael, and of Abraham as being a kind of proto-Muslim, is frequently expressed in the Qur’an.
Jewish undestanding, on the other hand, derives the descent of the Jews from Abraham via his second son, the legitimate Isaac. It is through him that Abraham’s seed will be derived, as great as the number of the stars (Gen 15:5); ‘Abraham is our father’ (John 8:39). The claim of both Muslims and Jews to descent from Abraham is a sign of their closeness, yet inevitable distance from each other.
Christianity is not particularly interested in descent by blood, and subordinates the literal meaning of the Old Testament to what it sees as something deeper. Hence St Paul sees Abraham’s two sons as having ‘allegorical’ significance (he uses the word at Gal 4:24). He believes they represent two covenants, the first of bondage and the second of freedom; ‘So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free’ (Gal 4:31). Inverting the literal sense of the story, he sees the Jewish people as being symbolized by Hagar, not Sarah, and feels free to interpret the story in the light of a concept important in the new covenant, that of freedom.
The Apostle may seem to have been playing fast and loose with Genesis, but his way of approaching the Old Testament has been retained by the Church; the Old is understood in the light of that which was to come. Hence the principle adopted by Fr Patrick Henry Reardon in his book on the Psalms: ‘All I have done here is to try to look at the Psalms through the lens of Christ, especially as contoured through the rest of the Bible and the liturgical worship of the Church. Whenever this or that verse of the Psalter is explicitly interpreted in the New Testament, this fact has determined my line of interpretation.’ (Christ in the Psalms) This principle can be applied beyond the Psalms.