By Elysia McColley
We have looked quite extensively at Ishmael, his mother Hagar, and the Ishmaelites to show how immensely and uniquely blessed they were. They were the first to see the pre-incarnate Christ and had descendants mentioned in His genealogy. However, there are some disconcerting passages in the New Testament that do seem to suggest otherwise, particularly in Galatians 4:21-31. Paul wrote here about Hagar and Sarah to demonstrate that we are descendants of Sarah, who was free, rather than of Hagar, who was a slave. In verse 30, he quoted what Sarah said when she demanded that Abraham cast Hagar out: “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.” What are we to make of Paul’s words?
In trying to unpack a difficult text like this one, context is everything. Not only the textual context surrounding this particular verse, but the wider context about Hagar and what she represents. We have already looked at how one promise that Jesus gave to Hagar about her son was that he would be free, and he was. But what happened to Hagar?
We can’t know for sure, but there is a Jewish Mishnah, or oral tradition, that after Sarah died, Abraham married Hagar. In Genesis 25:1, we see that following the death of Sarah, he took another wife, Keturah. The name “Keturah” means “perfume” or “incense”, and one idea behind this tradition is that Hagar’s prayers and good deeds done in faith rose up before God as incense. She later married Abraham and became known as Keturah. Again, we don’t know for sure, but this idea has been present in Jewish thought since at least Medieval times (via the rabbi known as Rashi), if not before.
We shouldn’t assume that when Paul wrote those verses, he was writing with animosity towards Hagar. He understood that the gospel was for all nations, not just the Jews, and led the effort to spread the message of Jesus throughout the entire Roman Empire. In Galatians 4:24 and 28, he clearly said, “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar…Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.”
Paul clearly said that he was being figurative; he was using Sarah and Hagar as an analogy to illustrate that we are under grace, not the law that was delivered at Mount Sinai. If he was being literal, he would not have referred to Hagar as representing Mount Sinai; the children of Sarah through Isaac were the ones who were literally present at Mount Sinai when God gave the law!
Sadly, many Christians use this passage to justify less-than-loving views towards the descendants of Ishmael. However, using it to try to show that those who claim to be descended from Ishmael, particularly Muslims, are less-deserving of grace or somehow less-loved by God is an aberration and not remotely what Paul intended.
Let’s move on from Ishmael now and look more into how Jesus would approach Muslims, or, for that matter, anyone else of a different faith.