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.

3 comments

  • John – I’ve enjoyed reading the “Notes on Genesis” series immensely. Thanks for putting this material up on your blog – Helen and I hope the series continues to expand.

    Regarding – Notes on Genesis (ix): Prior to reading your post, I was aware that the three Monotheistic religions interpreted the story of Abraham’s two sons differently, but I wasn’t sure why. Thanks for providing a succinct summary of their points of view.

    Cheers – Vasilios

  • Meryl McLeod

    This is rather puzzling – not sure if the problem is Paul being misguided or the correct interpretation (yours).
    I looked up the New English Bible to see what difference that made. To start with, Paul doesn’t say Abraham’s having 2 sons is of allegorical significance, but that ‘This is an allegory.’Which sounds more deliberate. Then that the covenant representing slavery comes from Mt. Sinai… ‘a mountain in Arabia and it represents the Jerusalem of today, for she and her children are in slavery’. This sounds rather arbitrary – why should a mountain in Arabia stand for Jerusalem in chains?

    Paul proceeds to say that the descendants of Ishmael persecuted those of Isaac, then and now. And then that the latter must get rid of the former, for ‘the son of the slave shall not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son… our mother is the free woman. Christ set us free, to be free men. Stand firm, then, and refuse to be tied to the yoke of slavery again.’ In other words, the Jews were in fact slaves, in the past if not now. And if not now, it is because the promise of the heavenly spiritual home takes precedence over the harsh reality of their ‘natural’ home – which comes about, Paul says, because ‘Christ set us free’.

    • Thank you for your comments, Meryl. It would take a fair while to respond adequately. But in brief: my rendering of Gal 4:24 was a paraphrase of the version in the Orthodox Study Bible, which I generally follow, as being closer to the original than the New English Bible; I didn’t quote it directly here because it oddly avoids the word ‘allegorical’, a form of which is present in the Greek. I think a mountain in Arabia can stand for Jerusalem in chains because the mountain St Paul has in mind is Sinai, where the Law that he believes enslaves the Jews was delivered to Moses (he develops this theme in the following passage.) Persecution answers to the Apostle’s own experience: from being a Jew persecuting Christians he became a Christian persecuted by Jews (Acts 23:12f is astonishing.) Enslavement to the law has ended for ‘Christ set us free;’ as He said, ‘the truth shall set you free,’ and He is the Truth.
      I hope these comments, made on a screen which allows me to read only six lines at once, make some sense!

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