This post has some potentially graphic content.
I’ve been asked (in private and public) certain questions about the Abrahamic covenant. One question is If Abraham and his seed are to be blessed, and part of this blessing is The Land, then can we safely assume that all physical descendants of Abraham also receive the blessing? The question examines the promise of God and notes that its importance is in the physical and therefore Isaac (a physical descendant of Abraham) gets equal access to the promises as Ishmael (another physical descendant of Abraham) and by extension Esau (a son of Isaac).
A second question that comes up is if Abraham’s progeny is such because they believe God (by having a similar faith as Abraham— citing Gal 3:7 or Romans 4) then can’t we say that the promises of God aren’t for his physical ancestry at all but rather for his spiritual ancestors? Inheritance of the promises of God are not predicated on blood but on being a child of promise by employing faith (Gal 4:23) therefore the promises to Abraham are promises to us, the Church. They were promises to the physical descendants only so far as those physical descendants were believers. Since they don’t believe, they are therefore not covenanted.
Both of these views, ignoring what the text says, fall short. I’ll address the second first by examining Isaac and Ishmael, and then repeat the examination with Esau and Jacob.
Paul notes (Gal 4:22) that Abraham had two sons (in that part of the text—Abraham had more) one by a bondwoman and one by a free woman; but Ishmael was born “according to the flesh”. The question one must ask is what does Paul mean? How was Ishmael’s birth different from Isaac’s? Is Paul’s “flesh” a statement about physicality?
We know that Sarai was physically barren (Gen 11:30) and old (Gen 17:17; 18:11)—she couldn’t have biological children. As far as she knew her physical womb was finished (Gen 16:1; Rom 4:19). She also knew that this condition was the will of God (Gen 16:2). Since God had told Abram that he (Abram) would have descendants (Gen 15:18) from his own body (Gen 15:5) and said nothing about her having biological descendants, it was safe to assume this was his plan.
So she employed a common Ancient Near East technique of ensuring progeny for the head of household (and by extension herself).
If within two years she (the wife) has not provided him (the husband) with offspring, she will purchase a slave-woman, and after she (the slave) shall have provided him with a child by him, he/she may sell her wherever he/she pleases. —Law of Hammurabi
Abraham would have real intercourse with the actual servant, the actual servant would get physically pregnant and the promises of God would come to be because people brought them to be via common ancient Near East practice.
When God approaches Abraham again, He tells him that the promises would come to Abraham and they would come through Sarah (Gen 17:16) to which Abraham laughs (Gen 17:17) and puts Ishmael as a viable option: “Look at what we did, isn’t that good enough?” God rejects the option and underscores that the Covenant is predicated on his word, and appropriated through believing God (Gen 15:6).
No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
Now, looking backwards, how was this belief evidenced? Abraham, an old man, would have intercourse to have children—with Hagar was their way, but God’s way was with Sarai. Now, when God tells him that Ishmael wouldn’t be the means of promises, he persists in his faith and has intercourse with Sarah. He doesn’t know how she will have kids but he expects her barren womb will be productive with his own insemination because God said so: Isaac winds up being a child of faith (Gal 3:7).
The difference between Hagar and Sarai is not between having sex with Hagar and not-having sex with Sarai; it is between Man bringing about fulfillment of God’s promises via ingenuity and God’s way of bringing about fulfillment via his creative word and man trusting Him. Both ways employed actual sex, both ways consisted of actual biological progeny, both ways resulted in actual physical births. But only one way was the way God intended to establish his promises to Abram: miraculously, through Sarah, with Abraham’s own body used by faith.
It’s not that Isaac is the spiritual descendant of Abraham by faith (and now so are we); it’s that Isaac comes into being by Abraham believing God’s promises (Rom 4:9) and having sex with Sarah (Rom 4:21).
Now the other group that says the promises of God are purely physical, and therefore applies to both Ishmael and Isaac (and by extension Esau), misses God’s clear words quoted above. Mere physical ancestry to Abraham wasn’t the basis of being an inheritorof the covenant—it had to be physical ancestry through the channels God had authorized.
This is not to say that Ishmael doesn’t receive promises. (1) God will bless him, (2) and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly, (3)He shall become the father of twelve princes, and (4) God will make him a great nation (Gen 17:20; Gen 21:18), (6) He will be a wild donkey of a man, (7) his hand will be against everyone, (8) everyone’s hand will be against him, (9) and he will leave to the east of his brothers (Gen 16:12). We see him again at the death of Abraham, burying his father (Gen 25:9), and eventually we see him East of Egypt, going towards Assyria—in defiance of his relatives (Gen 25:13-18).
Jacob’s story underscores the importance of God’s way versus Man’s Way of bringing about the covenantal promises to Abraham. Esau was a twin of Jacob, a son of Isaac, and the firstborn. If anyone had the cultural (note, not physical)right to receive the inheritance of Isaac (and therefore the covenantal promises of God) it would be Esau.
And yet, God states to Rebekah:
Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples will be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger.
Now only part of this sorta’ happened in Rebekah’s life time: two people were separated from her body, but never two peoples (plural). Esau (the eldest) never served Jacob (the younger). In fact, Jacob cooked for Esau (a servile task—Gen 25:29), ran from Esau (a losers option), and eventually bowed to Esau (Gen 33).
Receiving the inheritance isn’t even on the basis of believing that you have the inheritance coming. Esau (and Jacob) really believed the inheritance was Esau’s to sell (Gen 25:31-32); Rebekah really believed that the inheritance belonged to Jacob and not Esau (Gen 27); Esau (and Isaac) really believed (hoped?) that the inheritance was given to Jacob and not Esau (Gen 27:38)
Nor are they both partakers in the same inheritance because of their physical heritage. When asked, Isaac says that the inheritance has been given over to Jacob, but Esau’s promises are: (1) Esau shall live away from fertile soil, (2) shall live by the sword, (3) shall serve his brother, (4) when Esau is restless he will break his brother’s yoke.
The cultural norm is reversed because God said so before they were born. Rebekah believed it and apparently Isaac did not. Man’s way came to the fore by accepting the cultural norm and even by evoking a nice ceremony of camaraderie to convey the covenant to Esau (Gen 27)—but it fails. It isn’t some weird magic that’s going on that ensures Jacob receives the covenant and Esau doesn’t—it’s that when Isaac realizes who he blessed, he knows that what God said came to be. God’s word was being brought about and Isaac’s ceremony, cultural norms, and desires could do nothing about changing that (Gen 27:37).
So in conclusion, Abraham’s descendants are not his descendants merely because they have his same faith in God’s promises. Melchizedek seemed to have faith but he’s never listed as a descendant of Abraham (Gen 14:19,20); indeed, Esau may have had the same faith later in life (Gen 33:9) even if during his soup incident he was Godless (Heb 12:16). Nor are Abraham’s descendants those that are merely born from him: something Ishmael, Esau and Midian make clear. The descendants are the progeny which come from Abraham’s loins and on whom God’s promises have been established.
God’s word (the things he says) stands.