Interwoven Narratives and Archetypes
In the studies to this point, I have skipped a number of sections, which I mean to return to at this point. From Genesis 15 to 22 the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise and birth of Isaac is interwoven with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. These interwoven stories are intended to be read in parallel, recognizing correspondences and contrasts between their characters and their roles and destinies.
The same thing holds here as with the stories of Abraham and Lot, Esau and Jacob, or Joseph and Judah. These characters are not mere ciphers for moral lessons, nor bare accounts of the actions of historical personages, but are figures who encapsulate the identities and destinies of peoples. Throughout, Genesis is a book of archetypes, a fact that a surface reading of the text all too frequently misses. These archetypes cast a long shadow over all subsequent history. Genesis isn’t a book that chronicles the sort of origins that are swiftly left behind: rather, the identities, patterns, symbols, and sources of Genesis persist through time.
Reading throughout the New Testament, we will see that the same types and symbols are in operation, a point that this particular study should well illustrate.
Abram and Sarai and Hagar’s Exodus
In Genesis 15, Abram receives the promise that one from his own body will be his heir. Sarai, however, was barren and had borne no children. Seeking to resolve this problem, Sarai offered Abram Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, as a surrogate mother (although it is worth noticing that 16:3 says that Hagar was given to Abram ‘to be his wife’). The story of Genesis 16 is deeply redolent of the Fall narrative. The woman (Sarai) offers her husband something (or in this case someone – Hagar) that is desirable to obtain a good end (getting offspring). The husband heeds his wife’s voice (cf. 3:17). The woman takes and gives to her husband, who eats (or in this case has sex with). There is then the opening of eyes, as Sarai becomes despised in Hagar’s eyes (v.4), a revelation of shame or nakedness (‘when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes’ – v.5), judgment, followed by expulsion or departure from the ‘garden’ (as Hagar flees from her harsh mistress).
The inversions of the narrative of Genesis 16 continue, as we see Abram and Sarai, not only in the roles of Adam and Eve at the Fall, but Sarai playing the part of Pharaoh to Hagar’s Moses/Israel. Sarai ‘afflicted’ Hagar (v.6). The only previous use of the verb is in the preceding chapter, where YHWH declares to Abram that his descendants will be ‘afflicted’ in a land that isn’t their own (15:13). The Angel of YHWH then meets with Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, asking her what she is doing, telling her to return to her mistress Sarai.
The Angel of YHWH declares to Hagar that he will multiply her descendants beyond count (this is the only occasion such a promise is given to a woman). The promise given to Abram in the previous chapter (15:5) is given to Hagar personally. Hagar receives her own ‘annunciation’, taking a form practically identical to that which Mary’s will take (16:11; cf. Luke 1:31). She will bear a son, who will be named for the fact that YHWH hears (v.11). She calls the name of YHWH ‘You-Are-The-God-Who-Sees’ and refers to the fact that she has ‘seen the back’ of YHWH (v.13). The well is then called Beer Lahai Roi (v.14).
YHWH hearing the affliction of the oppressed woman should recall the beginning of the book of Exodus, which is focused on expectant mothers and Israel as a woman groaning in birth, whose cry goes up to YHWH. Hagar is the Egyptian whose oppression at the hands of ‘Israelites’ is heard and seen by YHWH (cf. Exodus 3:7). Like Moses she flees from the face of an oppressor and sits down by a well (16:7; Exodus 2:15). Like Moses, Hagar has an encounter with the Angel of YHWH in the wilderness, who tells her to return. Like Moses, the encounter with the Angel of YHWH involves a naming of YHWH, here by Hagar (v.13), in Exodus a self-identification by YHWH himself (Exodus 3:13-14). Like Moses, she sees the back of YHWH (cf. Exodus 33:17-23).
James Jordan suggests that Abraham’s life is structured as a chiasm and that the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael’s birth lies at its very heart. The fact that 16:16 connects the very midpoint of Abraham’s life (cf. 25:7) with Hagar’s bearing of Ishmael to him is important to notice. Hagar and Ishmael’s story isn’t incidental to the larger plot but is an integral and central feature of its fabric.
Ishmael as the First Isaac
In Genesis 17 YHWH gives circumcision, the sign of the covenant, and a new name to Abraham. He promises that Abraham will have a child through Sarah and that this child will be the one with whom he establishes his covenant. Abraham expresses his desire that Ishmael would live before YHWH, but YHWH says that Isaac will be the promised seed, not Ishmael. Nevertheless, Abraham’s desire for Ishmael has been regarded by YHWH: Ishmael is blessed and will be fruitful and multiply. The promises made concerning Ishmael are significant as they so closely mirror the blessings received by Isaac and his descendants. Ishmael will become a great nation and will beget ‘twelve princes’ (v.20), a clear parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Ishmael is circumcised (17:26) and becomes a bearer of the covenant vocation. This vocation will pass to Isaac in time and Ishmael will no longer be at the centre of the picture, just as Abraham will retreat to the sidelines when Isaac comes of age. Only with Jacob and his twelve sons will we see the covenant vocation become shared by all of the heirs. However, until Isaac comes on the scene, Ishmael is a covenant-bearer.
Jordan’s treatment of the parallels between Ishmael and Isaac is very insightful. Ishmael and his mother are cast out when Sarah sees Ishmael ‘isaac-ing’ at the feast of Isaac’s weaning (21:8-9). The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is designed to clarify Isaac’s place as the true heir of the covenant vocation, because Ishmael is too like him. Abraham’s ‘sacrifice’ of Ishmael closely parallels his later ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, both accounts beginning with the command of YHWH (21:10-12; 22:2). Jordan writes:
Abraham arises early in the morning.
Ishmael’s mother takes him into another land, from Beersheba.
The boy comes to the point of death.
Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.
Hagar “opens her eyes and sees” the well of water.
God promises to be with the boy.
He marries a foreign woman.
Abraham arises early in the morning.
Isaac’s father takes him into another land, from Beersheba.
The boy comes to the point of death.
Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.
Abraham “lifts up his eyes and sees” the ram.
God promises to be with the boy.
Isaac marries a foreign woman (Genesis 24).
Note that the words “lad” and “son” permeate both stories. Hagar is told to grasp Ishmael by the hand, and Abraham is told to stay his hand against Isaac. Abraham calls the place “God sees,” which is what Hagar called the place God where God met her earlier (22:14; 16:13). Also, a “donkey” transports Abraham and Isaac, and Ishmael is a “wild donkey”; though the Hebrew words are different, the presence of a donkey helps further the connection between Ishmael and Isaac. More pregnantly: Ishmael is left under a bush, while Isaac’s substitute ram is found in a bush. Thus, Ishmael under a bush becomes Isaac on the wood of the altar, becomes the ram in the bush, becomes Jesus on the cross.
Jordan proceeds to argue that Ishmael’s story also manifests an exodus pattern:
Hagar carries bread on her shoulder.
She goes into the wilderness.
She wanders there.
There is no water there.
She and Ishmael almost die there.
They cry, but it is not said they cry to God.
God hears their cry.
Yahweh appears to her there and provides water.
Yahweh assures them of His love.
Ishmael marries with an Egyptian, but lives in Paran.
Israel carries bread on their shoulders (Exodus 12:34).
They go into the wilderness.
They wander there.
There is no water there.
They almost die there.
They cry, but seldom to Yahweh.
God hears their cry.
Yahweh appears to them and provides water.
Yahweh makes covenant with them at Sinai.
Israel “marries” with the Egyptian mixed multitude, but lives in Paran, a staging ground for the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 10:12; 13:3 & 26.)
These connections all point in the direction of Hagar and Ishmael having far more important a role to play in the Genesis narrative and in biblical typology more generally than is commonly acknowledged. While these passages and the blessings upon Ishmael within them are commonly read as YHWH’s provision of a severance package for Hagar, I want to present a case for the claim that they mark out Ishmael and Hagar as prominent characters and archetypes in the sacred drama. This claim will be given greater weight as we study the place that the figures of Hagar and Ishmael occupy within the later biblical narrative.
Hagar and Ishmael in Biblical Typology
I have already remarked upon the parallels between Moses and Hagar. Both Moses and Hagar experience two key exoduses into the wilderness in their lives, the first alone and the second with a child or ‘children’. Neither enters into the promise themselves: Hagar and her seed have to give way to Sarah and Isaac and Moses never enters into the Promised Land. Both are associated with wells and water in the wilderness, being the ones who provide water to thirsty children (Genesis 21:19). The story of the Israelites under Moses in the wilderness of Shur following the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 15:22; cf. Genesis 16:7), lacking water and crying out, a tree, the opening of eyes, and the provision of the water for the children at Marah (Exodus 15:22-26) recalls that of Hagar and Ishmael, for instance.
We also see echoes of Hagar and Ishmael in the story of Elijah. Peter Leithart comments on the narrative of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:
The ‘lad’ left at Beersheba is reminiscent of Ishmael (Genesis 21), as is the appearance of the angel to Elijah later in the wilderness, the angel that provides food in the desert, as the angel did for Ishmael and Hagar. There are clearly other allusions to the Ishmael story as well. Elijah sits under a ‘broom tree,’ a species mentioned elsewhere only in Psalm 120:4 and Job 30:4. In Psalm 120, the broom tree is associated with the tents of Kedar, and Kedar is one of the sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13). Ishmael is placed under a bush in the desert, and Elijah sits under a tree in the desert. An angel appears to Hagar, as an angel appears to Elijah, offering food and refreshment. Ishmael is near death and is rescued from death, and Elijah is desiring to die, but is raised up.
These parallels can be filled out further. In both stories we see a weak man, his oppressing wife, and a persecuted prophet/ess figure (the startling immediacy of Hagar’s encounters with YHWH suggests that she might be regarded as a prophetess), who flees to the wilderness. This pattern will give support to a further connection that we shall draw presently.
Ishmael and Isaac are two goats (cf. Leviticus 16). If Ishmael is the goat sent into the wilderness (a connection suggested by Michael Sadgrove’s recent book, Lost Sons, although I would demur from his more Girardian reading), then Isaac is the goat to be prepared for the sin offering (although both goats were sin offerings in a sense – Numbers 29:11), which is what the covenant vocation entails. Allusions to the two goats of the Day of Atonement are also found in the narrative of Esau and Jacob.
The shadow of Ishmael also rests over the Parable of the Lost Son. Ishmael is the son who departs from his father, only to return at the end (cf. Genesis 25:9). Ishmael may here be related with the Gentile God-fearers, who entered into the kingdom, while the subjects of the kingdom were cast out (Matthew 8:11-12).
Finally, we see Hagar in the women in the wilderness in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, the woman that flees into the wilderness, where she is provided for by God, is a new Hagar figure. Like Ishmael, the children of the woman of Revelation 12 experience enmity with the serpent (12:17). The woman and the children whose place is in the wilderness are an image of the Church, but also an antitype of Hagar and Ishmael (the Revelation 12 woman is both Sarah and Hagar). The harlot on the waters in the wilderness in Revelation 17:3 is the false Hagar.
John the Baptist as Hagar/Ishmael
The parallels already noted between Hagar/Ishmael and Moses and Elijah suggest a further parallel, perhaps the most illuminating of all: John the Baptist as a new Ishmael. In Luke’s gospel we see two women – Elizabeth and Mary – promised children through angelic visitation. The first case involves an unbelieving father (Luke 1:20). Elizabeth’s child, John, grows up in the wilderness. We would have to be rather tone deaf to fail to see echoes of Ishmael in the description of John’s childhood:
So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. – Genesis 21:20
So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel. – Luke 1:80
John the Baptist is particularly associated with Elijah in Scripture (e.g. Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17; Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8 – note also the relationship between Ahab/Jezebel/Elijah and Herod/Herodias/John) and further connections exist with Moses. All of these figures are forerunners – Moses of the entrance into and conquest of the land, Elijah of the more fruitful ministry of Elisha within the land, John the Baptist of Jesus’ ministry. All are associated with the wilderness and dry places. All are providers of water – Moses provides water for the children of Israel on several occasions, Elijah prays for the end of the drought, John the Baptist is the one who baptizes in the wilderness (Mark 1:4). Hagar/Ishmael are also associated with the provision of water in the wilderness. Like Ishmael, Moses, Elijah, and John are wild, solitary figures, dwelling among their brethren, but rejected by most of them. They are associated with desert beasts – Ishmael with a wild donkey, John and Elijah with camels.
Most importantly, all of these figures have to give way to the heirs. Ishmael goes into the wilderness so that Isaac can inherit unchallenged; Moses dies in the wilderness so that Israel can enter into the land; Elijah has to leave so that Elisha can continue his ministry; John has to decrease so that Christ may increase. In the figure of John the Baptist, elements of the vocation of Ishmael come into clearer focus. Ishmael is to be the one who prepares the way for the promised seed and who willingly surrenders his place for the sake of the one in whom all will receive the inheritance. Far from being struck off the rolls of God’s purposes, Ishmael’s role has a dignity not commonly acknowledged.
In the sacrifice of the two sons, both of the sons have a part to play. Ishmael is the one who prepares the way in the wilderness. He is the one who provides a home for Isaac (Genesis 24:62; 25:11), the one whose territory is the ‘staging ground’ for the conquest of the land, the one whose ministry is to prepare the way of the seed, forging the pattern before him. He is the one associated with Sinai (cf. Galatians 4:25), much as Moses and Elijah. If his glory will be outshone by a greater glory, it is to his eternal blessing that he allows it to be so.
Hagar/Ishmael in Galatians
In Galatians 4:21-31 we find the Apostle Paul outlining an allegory, one which will make considerably more sense in light of what we have observed about Hagar/Ishmael so far.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written:
“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
The reason that Hagar and Ishmael can be used to illustrate the Jews is that they were indeed the first “Jews.” Every Israelite was like Ishmael in that he started out uncircumcised and then was circumcised on the eighth day, as Ishmael was at the age of thirteen. Like Ishmael and Abraham, Israel took upon themselves the burden of circumcision after they had lived for a time as uncircumcised. The fact that Ishmael was relieved of that burden when Isaac took it up was a message to Israel that they would be relieved of it when the Messiah took it up.
Hagar and Ishmael made an exodus into the wilderness, but came only as far as Paran. This is the truth also about Israel. Though they entered the promised land in a physical sense, they did not really enter it. As Paul writes in Hebrews, “If Joshua had really given them rest, there would not remain a greater Day in which the rest would be entered” (Hebrews 4).
As Ishmael was to Israel, so Israel was to Jesus.
Ishmael was born into the faith of Abraham, came under the Law (circumcision), and heard the promise, but the promise was not to him directly but to a replacement: Isaac. Just so, Israel was the seed of Abraham, came under the Law, and heard the promise but the promise was not to them directly but to a replacement: Jesus.
The circumcised Ishmael initially contested with Isaac to be the true heir of the promise. Just so, the Circumcision was contesting with Jesus and His people to be the true heirs of the promise.
Ishmael needed to be cast out that Isaac’s role might be clarified. Just so, Israel needed to be cast out that Jesus’ role might be clarified.
Ishmael was delivered from being under the yoke of circumcision, and became a God-fearer. Just so, Israel should accept being delivered from the yoke of the Law, considered as a death-dealing burden, and become God-fearers.
Hagar/Ishmael figures can go one of two ways. Either they can, like Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist, prepare the way for the entrance into the promise, but then allow their wilderness ministries to be succeeded by one in which the land is entered, or they can obstruct and oppose the heirs, as the Judaizers of Paul’s day. Indeed, Paul as the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles may seem to connect his own ministry with that of Moses (Romans 9:3; cf. Exodus 32:32) and Elijah (Romans 11:1-5; Galatians 1:17; cf. Galatians 4:25; 1 Kings 19:8, 15), and also, by extension, with that of a righteous Ishmael.
In Hagar and Ishmael we see the forerunners who prepare the way for the people of God in the wilderness, undergoing an incomplete Exodus. Although they come first, they do not enter into the promise for themselves, but only as the true heir comes are they also brought in. As they submit themselves to the divine purpose, and decrease so that the true heir might increase, we see them raised to a place of high honour.