Two Boys, Two Mountains, Two Covenants
In our modern or postmodern world, the narratives of the Old Testament frequently slip from a vibrant canvas of deep theological truth into shallow “stories” from which believers draw immediate and sometimes superficial applications. We see the trees but miss the forest.
Obviously, there are historical events and consequences related to Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, but those are more side eﬀects than the heart of Moses’ message. At the core of the Ishmael-Isaac accounts is the most concise and detailed teaching in the Old Testament about man and his relationship to God. In the book of Genesis, God unpacks for the ﬁrst time the faith dynamic in written form.
The apostle Paul understood this narrative to be the most crucial and foundational teaching about faith living. In Galatians 4:22–30, he called the two sons “symbolic” (v. 24). The New American Standard Bible says that “allegorically,”1 the sons represent two types of arrangements or covenants between God and man: the Abrahamic Covenant represented by Isaac and Mount Moriah, and the Mosaic Covenant represented by Ishmael and Mount Sinai.
Understanding the difference between the Abrahamic Covenant, which is unconditional and illustrates our salvation, and the Mosaic Covenant, which is conditional and deals with our worship, is the starting place for understanding our dual responsibilities toward God (salvation) and man (worship).
In the first 11 chapters of Genesis, Moses—who wrote the first five books of the Bible—strategically identified key “righteous” men, such as Enoch and Noah, but did not say how these men attained that status in God’s eyes. What kind of righteousness did they possess, and how did they acquire it?
It is not until Genesis 15:6 that we see men are declared righteous by faith alone: “And he believed in the Lᴏʀᴅ, and He accounted it to him [Abraham] for righteousness.” That passage is anchored in a narrative that begins in chapter 12, where God introduces the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant:
Now the Lᴏʀᴅ had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (vv. 1–3).
At the core of the covenant is God’s continuing promise of a “seed” that will crush the head of the serpent, Satan (3:15).
The births and lives of Ishmael and Isaac are intricately and inseparably intertwined in the process of unpacking the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant.
As the narrative unfolds, these sons of Abraham, through no fault or doing of their own, come to epitomize two distinct and totally incompatible approaches to pleasing God. Paul was clear in Romans 4 that Abraham was a man of unfailing faith. He believed God, but in the early going he was a little confused about his role. Childless, he believed God would deliver a seed; but, like many believers today, he struggled to identify exactly how he was to participate in the process. He probably had told his family and servants about the amazing promise God had given him.
Abraham’s ﬁrst attempt to help God produce a seed centered on his servant Eliezer. Uncertain he would obtain an heir since his wife was barren, Abraham took some small liberties. He had made Eliezer his heir.
God’s response was swift and clear. He demonstrated via a unilateral sacrifice (Gen. 15:12–21) that He alone was responsible for fulfilling this promise. When He reaffirmed the covenant, he revealed the Israelites would spend 400 years in captivity under a Gentile power (Egypt). That fact corresponds nicely with the fact that Eliezer was technically a Gentile and not a part of the nation Abraham would father.
More years passed, and the elderly Sarah encouraged her husband to find this “seed” through her handmaiden Hagar. The plan seemed to work when Ishmael was conceived; but this method, too, was unacceptable to God.
When God reaffirmed the covenant, He included the rite of circumcision. This scarring of the flesh was meant to be a constant reminder to Abraham and all his descendants that God’s promises cannot be accomplished through human effort. Thus Ishmael comes to represent the futility of works as a way of accessing or advancing God’s promises. All of Abraham’s well-intentioned efforts only complicated his life and the lives of his descendants.
Isaac was the seed of promise. He was born well after the usual age for women to conceive. But God was not finished with Abraham yet. While Isaac was still young, God commanded Abraham to take this special, one-of-a-kind child whom he loved so dearly to Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. Scripture is clear that this child was the one through whom all nations would be blessed.
One would think Abraham would immediately conclude God was punishing him or asking for the unbearable. Yet Abraham did not. He understood. God prepared him for this challenge by reaffirming Isaac’s status; and Abraham demonstrated himself to be a living, breathing man of faith. He counted it all joy that God would count him worthy to participate in such a test. There was no wavering in his faith. He knew Isaac would father a nation and that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the sea.
The text says Abraham “rose early in the morning” (22:3). The Hebrew connotes anticipation, not fear.
Abraham did not know how God would work out His plan, but he was looking forward to the experience. There are many men of faith in the Old Testament as recounted for us in Hebrews 11; but whenever New Testament writers reached for a foundational example for believers to follow, they often pointed to Abraham.
The lives of Ishmael and Isaac are not so much about outcomes as they are about process. At ﬁrst Abraham thought achieving the goal (a child) was the important thing. But he learned that the path was the goal. For grace to remain grace, unconditional covenants must remain untainted by human eﬀort. This was the lesson Moses was trying to communicate to the generation that journeyed from Mount Sinai.
The Mosaic Covenant, represented by Mount Sinai, was a different type of covenant. It was designed for worship (loving God) and fellowship (loving our neighbor). It was a covenant of blessings and cursings. But it was the land of promise that loomed before them.
The task ahead may have looked as impossible to the Israelites as the idea of having a son seemed to Abraham. The choice was between trusting God and trusting their own ingenuity.
Times have changed, but the journey has not. Each day is ﬁlled with opportunity, and each day we need to make the choice to trust God.
Mount Sinai’s conditionality shows us our weakness. Mount Moriah’s unconditionality offers us God’s strength. Faith in the unconditional promises of God is the victory that overcomes all human shortcomings.
- Paul used the Greek word allegoreo in this passage. Though the English word allegory is derived from it, the Greek word has a broader semantic range. Philo and other first-century writers used it to refer to the lesson or primary teaching in a given passage. Paul was not asserting that this was a secondary meaning. Rather, he was claiming the teaching about covenants was primary.