Ishmael and Isaac – born of the flesh, born of the Spirit

If the strife between Arab and Jew began with Ishmael and Isaac, then reconciliation begins there too. Scripture speaks of the brothers’ separation but also mentions their reunion at Abraham’s grave.

“And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied. And he was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham bought from the sons of Heth” (Genesis 25:7-10).

Ishmael being rejected in favour of Isaac does not establish an ethnic exclusivity or hereditary divine right of the Jews. Rather it distinguishes at the outset – at the very commencement of God’s redemptive plan through Abraham – between the Lord’s doings in response to His promise, and that which man achieves by his own means in the natural way. “[Abraham’s] son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise” (Galatians 4:23).

The heritage of the flesh and natural ability of man shall never achieve the purposes of God.

The apostle Paul explains that Isaac’s election signifies – paradoxically – an absolute rejection of ethnicity as the basis for redemption. “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9: 7-8). Abraham achieved righteousness by trusting in the promises of God (Genesis 15:6).

God’s promise to Abraham is inclusive from the start. The redemption of ‘all nations’ is its very heart and purpose. “I shall bless you  … I shall make your name great and you shall be a blessing” and “through you all nations of the earth shall be blessed.” [1]

The promise is not only to Abraham (and his line), but rather through them – to all nations, peoples, tribes and tongues of man. Abraham’s greatness is found in the privilege of being the vehicle or instrument of God’s purpose, rather than its exclusive beneficiary. The exclusion of Ishmael in Genesis 21:12 – “through Isaac shall your Seed be reckoned” – is an exclusion from the line and vehicle of promise,[2] and not from the benefits of the promise which, by virtue of God’s word, must realize universally once the promise is fulfilled. The promise is indeed fulfilled by Jesus Messiah through the line of Isaac [3] so that Ishmael assuredly shares in its benefits.

Concerning the Gospel, the apostle Paul writes: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’”. [4]

Further, in his letter to the Ephesians: “this mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise …”. [5]

In these writings the apostle Paul simply confirms the LORD God’s original intent in His promise to Abraham, as the prophets also did before him: “’Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the LORD. ‘Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people’” (Zechariah 2:10-11).


The apostle Paul reveals the nature and content of the blessing: “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Galatians 3:14).

The precise promise to Abraham from Genesis 12 onward is thus the Holy Spirit which flows forth anew into every soul that is cleansed through the forgiveness of sins and reconciled with God on account of the Cross. It is this and nothing less that the Lord God has always intended – first for Abraham and then through Abraham’s line for all peoples.

Throughout their prophetic ministries both John the Baptist and then the Lord Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The time was at hand, they proclaimed, for man to be restored into the Reign of God. The unity of Spirit and purpose between Adam and God at creation, lost through willful disobedience, was being reestablished. Only by receipt of God’s Spirit can man submit to the perfect will of God, and the catastrophic consequences that flow from man’s disobedience and alienation from God, averted. Through the work of the Cross, His Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Man’s authority over the earth and all creation, given in Genesis 1:27 and affirmed in Psalm 8, was never revoked.

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8).

Even now, Man continues to rule as intended, but in disharmony with God and His Word. Every ideology and philosophy, every construct of good and evil, and every model for the perfection of the world and society, if not founded on the word of God is inherently destructive. It is the root cause of all misery, suffering, distress and disappointment of man, and through him also that of the rest of creation over which he was made to rule. The whole created universe which is presently groaning as in the pains of childbirth, “waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19).

The restoration of man to the Kingdom of God enables the perfection of God to flow through him into the rest of creation and brings everything into a glorious unity with God.

“As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs” (Psalm 84:6).  “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38-39).

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;  and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of
the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest”
(Isaiah 11:6-8).

The Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of Sonship’ or ‘adoption’ by which fallen man is restored under God’s authority, not in the model of “master and slave” but rather in that of “Father and son” – of which the Lord Jesus serves as the ideal and prototype – the firstborn among many brothers, leading many sons to glory.[6]

The Holy Spirit is promised to men and women of faith in every generation.

“‘… God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (Acts 2:36-39).

The Lord God rules all who submit to His Spirit. The Kingdom of God comes ‘within us,’ [7]  in its formative stage. The healings and miracles that flowed through Jesus and his disciples, and continue through the ministry of the church even today, prefigure ‘the restoration of all things’ after the Day of Judgment, when the Kingdom of God shall be an all pervading reality. At the resurrection of the dead, the new heavens and new earth become the eternal possession of all who have received the Kingdom within.

It is on this glorious State – achieved by the redemptive work on the Cross –and not on a divisive and exclusive ethnic homeland – achieved by political Zionism – that Abraham fixed his hope. It is the heavenly city “whose builder and architect is God” [8] that is the shared inheritance of the descendants of Abraham – Ishmael and Isaac alike – who receive Abraham’s blessing by faith. And of countless others with them.


The promised son of Abraham in the first generation typifies and prefigures his promised son in the fourteenth generation. It is Messiah and not Isaac who is ultimately the Son of Promise and the Seed through whom the blessing is obtained for all nations.

“And in your Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed …” (Genesis 22:18).

Both Isaac and Jesus are born miraculously – Isaac to establish the line to redemption, and Jesus to conclude it. Isaac is born of Sarah after the ways of women had ceased upon her,[9] and Jesus of a chaste maiden before she knew a man.

Isaac ascends Mount Moriah with the wood on his back – as Jesus does some 2000 years later. Without wife or child at the time, Isaac stands for the entire nation yet to be born from him. The ram is similarly provided as a substitute not for Isaac alone, but for the entire nation of Israel which would later come from him. After Isaac’s obedience, father Abraham sends to the land of Aram for a suitable bride for his son, and mother to the great nation that would stem from him.

The miraculous birth of Isaac is followed by that of Messiah. The miraculous birth of Messiah is followed by the supernatural birth of all God’s children.

“Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’  Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:3-7).

Messiah Jesus is the sole progenitor of the spiritual nation that is born from above. The church is spiritually the bride of Christ through whom the children of God are raised. Those who are ‘born again’ of the promised Holy Spirit are the children of Promise and the true heirs.

“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (Galatians 4:28-31).

It remains one of the greatest tragedies of history that Jews who understood the birthright as flowing from an heredity of the flesh, found themselves spiritually fulfilling the typology of Ishmael, being in the position of the elder son born by natural descent, envious, mocking, and persecuting the family of Messiah – the sons of promise born from above.

In the same way Arabs who regard the Jews as cast off and rejected by God, and suppose themselves to be substituted as natural heirs through Ishmael in their place, will neither see nor enter into the Kingdom of God.

It is at Abraham’s grave that the brothers are reconciled. Jews and Arabs are likewise reconciled who bury everything that pertains to their flesh, whether pride in natural virtue or human pedigree; who accept the verdict that flesh gives birth to flesh and counts for nothing, and humbly accept Messiah Jesus as the Seed of Promise through whom Abraham’s blessing is obtained.

Their kinship is no longer with Abraham through natural descent, but with the God of Abraham though faith in His Word and the new birth which is of the Spirit. Those who accept the way of the Cross obtain a shared identity beyond race and ethnicity as the redeemed children of God.


The belief from Genesis 16:12 that the Arab is predestined by divine providence to a role of violence and aggression, must be addressed.

The prophetic word, “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 brother,” does not preclude the Arab’s prospects of redemption. It merely proves its necessity.

The natural disposition of the Arab, his heredity according to the flesh, is hardly different to that of the Levites:  “Simeon and Levi are brothers – their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce and their fury, so cruel!” (Genesis 49: 5-7).

Moses inherited the disposition of his father Levi and killed a man in his anger.

In every person the sinful disposition is inherited through natural descent and manifest in one way or another. In transforming the natural man into the Spiritual, in breaking the hereditary curses and restoring man unto His own image, the Lord God is glorified.

If we exclude the Arab on the grounds of Genesis 16, we deny the very power and purpose of redemption – the same power and purpose by which we ourselves have been sanctified, restored and renewed.

“For God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and God has chosen the base things of the world, and things which are despised, and things which are not, in order to bring to nothing things that are; so that no flesh should glory in His presence”  (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

[1] Genesis 12:2 and 18:18.

[2] I.e. from the lineage of Messiah.

[3] “And in your Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18).

[4] Galatians 3:8.

[5] Ephesians 3:6.

[6]  Romans 8:29, Hebrews 2:10.

[7]  Luke 17:21.

[8]  Hebrews 11:10.

[9] Genesis 18:11; Compare with Qur’an, surah 51: 29, “But his wife came forward (laughing) aloud: she smote her forehead and said: ‘A barren old woman!’”