DTS Magazine

Vindicating Ishmael

THE NAME "MAVIA" DOES NOT STRIKE A CHORD WITH MANY OF US. Yet it is the name of a once-famous fourth-century woman who, as the Saracen queen, defeated the Arian Roman emperor Valens. The emperor was notorious for persecuting Christians who adhered to the Nicene Creed.

Mavia, having dealt deadly blows to the Roman armies in Phoenicia and Palestine, refused to stop the war until the emperor met one extraordinary condition: the installation of Moses, a pious Saracen desert monk, as bishop over her own people.

According to a fourth-century historian, Moses—when led before the Arian bishop Lucius for ordination—refused the hands “filled with blood” to be laid on him. He considered Lucius guilty of “barbarous savagery” against the saints. Moses then went to the Saracens and “led many to the knowledge of the truth, through his apostolic doctrines” accompanied by miracles.

It refreshes us to read stories of bravery that brighten dark periods of church history. Yet what makes this account more intriguing is that while historians called the Saracen Ishmaelites “barbarians,” biblical and extrabiblical accounts abound in examples of God’s grace at work among them. Sadly the name Ishmael does not flash bright pictures in the minds of most people today. Biased readings of the Bible’s Ishmael narratives have reinforced prejudice in that regard. Only a careful examination of such texts can surface elements that help the church better fulfill the gospel mandate among Arabs and the larger Muslim bloc, associated in some form with Ishmael.

God’s Intervention with Sarah

A close look at Sarah’s circumstances makes the reader of Genesis 16 sympathize with the patriarchal couple. Sarah’s divinely caused barrenness (Gen. 16:1–2) left her and Abraham wrestling with the choice to resort to cultural alternatives for securing a child (v. 2). Sarah, lacking a Bible, had to interpret her circumstances according to her understanding of God’s sovereignty. And since the Lord until then did not specify that Abraham’s promised seed would be from Sarah (as He did later—see 17:15), Sarah said to Abraham, “Behold [Yahweh] has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her” (16:2).

Sarah’s old age (v. 16; 17:17), and possibly dead womb, may have compelled her to give Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate wife (16:3). Though risky, this controversial cultural practice spread over two millennia. Four of Israel’s twelve tribes were born through maidservants (30:6, 17–18).

Interestingly the God who closed Sarah’s womb blessed Hagar directly with pregnancy. Hagar boasted in her new role as mother of Abraham’s firstborn and (secondary) wife of the patriarch (16:4). And Hagar’s elevated status automatically diminished the social distance separating her from her mistress. This weighed heavily on Sarah. Finally she burst into anger, blaming Abraham for his role in the matter (v. 5). Unfortunately Abraham handed Hagar over to her mistress, and Sarah “afflicted” Hagar, causing her to flee to the wilderness (v. 6).

God’s Intervention with Hagar

The Angel of Yahweh “found” the fugitive Hagar by a well in the wilderness and directed her to return to Abraham’s house (vv. 7–9), because Ishmael was to be nurtured under Abraham’s care and teaching (18:19). Yet Hagar’s affliction under slavery was intolerable. Thus the Lord compensated Hagar by making her the recipient of great promises (16:10–12).

God promised to multiply Hagar’s seed exceedingly (v. 10), making her the only woman recipient of such a promise in the Bible. Whether God’s pledge is part of the initial covenant with Abraham (13:16; 15:5) or an independent promise, Hagar became the beneficiary of a blessing bestowed only on those who find favor in God’s eyes. God then added particular statements related to her baby (vv. 11–12).

Hagar was to name her newborn Ishmael, which means “God listens.” This is a reminder that hearing the cries of the afflicted is a beautiful trait of God (v. 11). God promised Hagar that He would listen to her and her descendants in their unfavored social status.

While the angel said “[Yahweh] has heard your misery” (16:11), we see further development of God’s “hearing” in the verse that follows. Abraham’s firstborn was predicted to be “a wild donkey of a man” (v. 12). Many have mistaken this prediction as a negative description. But we must harmonize its correct meaning in the context of God’s comfort and listening. Names of animals are not, by themselves, insults. Five of Jacob’s children bore such descriptions (Gen. 49). The animal used in the imagery determines whether the context is negative. That the “wild donkey” is envied as a freely roaming animal in the desert is clarified in Bedouin literature and in the Bible (cf. Job 39:5–8; Jer. 2:24; Hos. 8:9). Thus the prediction describes the nomadism that characterized Ishmael and his line in history.

Yet Ishmael’s love of freedom would result in perpetual struggle (Gen. 16:12). Constant roaming of Bedouin tribes, having no established legal system, would put them in a state of conflict with each other and against outsiders. Thus an enslaved and helpless Hagar, fleeing from the harsh subjection of her mistress, receives the promise of a son who will be free and strong as a nomad in the desert. Such free living has resulted throughout history in the survival until today of nomadic Arabs related to Abraham.

The third oracle in the Hagar narrative is also often misunderstood. The text says that Hagar’s son “shall dwell al-pené all his brethren” (v. 12). Contextual evidence favors a geographical rendering of the expression al-pené against negative renderings (cf. the NIV and NRSV). Ishmael shall dwell “in the presence of all his brethren.” (The KJV is preferable here.) This oracle plays on the motif of “presence.” Having been pushed away from “the presence” of Sarah (v. 8), Hagar finds her condition is reversed in the promise of a son who will always be inside the Abrahamic circle and will dwell “in the presence” of all his brethren. The prediction was that Ishmael would not inherit Abraham’s estate reserved for Isaac (17:19), yet he would continue under the Abrahamic blessings as a circumcised child of Abraham and inherit land from God (vv. 20–23).

The proximity serves a double purpose. First, it would be a challenge before Isaac’s descendants, reminding them that faith and not mere blood relationship is the way to enjoy the Abrahamic promised blessings. Second and most importantly, the proximity would present a potential within the line of Ishmael for conversion through the testimony of Israel (Jer. 12:16).

God’s Plan for Ishmael’s Offspring

This latter purpose—Ishmael’s conversion through the testimony of “his brother”—is more in tune with the heart of God who is eager to bless His children. In fact biblical figures related to Ishmael surface on and off in Scripture as believers in the God of Abraham. Job, Agur, Lemuel, and probably “the magi” are just a few examples of His grace working among Ishmael’s children in biblical history (Job 1:3; Prov. 30–31; Matt. 2).

Thousands of Arabs who lived and died for Christ in early church history were recipients of God’s grace. Still today, thousands are coming to the Savior in the Arab and Muslim world. The same texts that present evidence for restoration of a Jewish remnant (Isa. 60:1–5) predict the restoration of a larger remnant among the Arabian children of Abraham (vv. 6–7).

The desert has the inherent propensity to yield two extremes. It can produce the toughest elements, but it may also yield spiritual giants. In a post-9/11 world preoccupied mostly with “the tough,” the church must not forget that there are saints in the making, living “in the presence” of people to whom God entrusted the sanctifying message of the gospel. 

In his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line, Dr. Maalouf uncovers long-standing misconceptions clouding Western thinking about Arab people. In the foreword DTS Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies, Dr. Eugene  Merrill, writes, “Maalouf displays profound exegetical and theological skills that enable his readers to view Ishmael and his descendants in a new light. He does not gloss over the sins and shortcomings of his people, nor does he take sides in the struggles between Jew and Arab in the modern world. He does, however, make clear the profoundly important role that the Arab has played in biblical times and since, and he displays his burden, like that of Paul, that his own Arab people might be saved.” 

An Arab Christian scholar from Lebanon, Dr. Tony Maalouf (ThM, 1993; PhD, 1998) serves as assistant dean in the School of Evangelism and Missions and associate professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition he serves as an adjunct faculty member in Dallas Seminary’s Bible Exposition department.
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