The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." (Genesis 21.17)
Compare and Contrast
I’ve been pondering the controversy around the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. As an American, denying any group’s freedom of religious expression and right to assemble is blasphemous to me. Every inch of our nation, coast-to-coast, is sacred ground baked with the blood of patriots. While the 9/11 site should be venerated for the lives lost there, the toll on that horrible day shrinks against millions of lives sacrificed so people of every race, creed, and color can live, learn, and worship where and as they choose within our borders. If Cordoba House—the center’s name—does not rise at its planned location, we’ve conceded every US soldier served, suffered, and died in vain.
But this firestorm sickens me for another, equally important reason. Cordoba House has been targeted because it’s a Muslim institution. This somehow brands it as a hotbed for extremists who commit atrocities in the name of Allah. With little nudging, the rhetoric digresses into a diatribe against Islam’s legitimacy as a faith and its adherents as people of faith. Now we’ve moved off the Bill of Rights to run roughshod over Scripture. Testing what anti-Arab zealots endorse as biblical fidelity against what the Bible actually teaches shows why attacking the people of Islam is especially wicked and dangerous. The Book of Genesis lays out the story of Hagar and Ishmael, inviting us to compare and contrast them with Sarah and Isaac. When we read it as it is (not what we want it to be), we may be shocked.
The Births of Two Nations
Most of us know the tale. To compensate for her infertility, Sarah offers Abraham an Egyptian slave, Hagar, as her surrogate. Hagar quickly conceives. This arouses resentment in Sarah, who begins to abuse her. Unable to bear it, Hagar runs away and God sends an angel to tell her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her,” adding, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” (Genesis 16.9-10) She obeys and gives birth to Ishmael. In retaliation for her mistreatment, Hagar becomes arrogant, deepening the rift between Sarah and her. Flash forward 14 years. Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and the tables turn again. Now that she has Isaac, she implores Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Genesis 21.11 tells us, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly.” In a tenderly rendered scene, he bids Hagar and Ishmael adieu, providing food and water for their desert travels. When the water runs out, Hagar lays Ishmael under a bush and walks away. “I cannot watch the boy die,” she sobs. (Genesis 21.15) Once again, God dispatches His angel. “What’s the matter, Hagar?” the angel asks. “Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries. Don’t leave him to die. He will father a great nation.” Hagar spots a well of water and replenishes her supply. Ishmael survives to become the father of all Arabic people—and hence the wellspring of Islam.
Foreseeing conflicts bound to result from the births of two nations, Scripture presents Jews and Arabs as a divided family and leaves it at that. Thereafter, their squabbles for regional dominance are not unlike antagonisms common to two-child households. One envies what the other has. One feels superior to the other. Since the Bible marries Israel’s history to God’s evolving relationship with humanity, the Jews have an inherent advantage as the only monotheistic people in the region. Ishmael’s side of the family doesn’t forsake idolatry until the seventh century (AD), when One God is revealed to Mohammed. This is a difficult purchase for a people steeped in polytheism, so much so Islam takes its name from the Arabic verb “to surrender.” In contrast, Israel’s memory of life prior to Abraham is vague at best—perhaps even tidied up in biblical accounts to suggest it always worshiped One God.
“Infidels” and “Heathens”
Both nations, Isaac and Ishmael’s, are born with promises of greatness God indubitably has honored. That Jews (and Christians) claim their inheritance sooner doesn’t negate the Arabs’ claim. The Bible could not be clearer on this. Consequently, denigration of one another’s beliefs has no scriptural foundation. While inability to comprehend God’s purpose goads us to act like jealous siblings, it can’t be disputed He ordained two nations all along, choosing Abraham as His conduit to bring both to life. Common heritage as “children of promise” erases any rationale for regarding one another as “infidels” and “heathens.” Is either unfaithful to the One Who promised greatness? No. Does either doubt His existence, supremacy, and benevolence? No. So why are we constantly at each other’s throat?
Neither nation can rest before proving it's God’s favorite. Nor is it probable either will ever rest, as it’s obvious He won’t choose between us. This is why Genesis establishes the genetic link between Isaac and Ishmael without further comment. Comparing and contrasting their stories uncovers no difference between them. Both sons share one father, who loves them and lives in harmony with their mothers. The mothers resent one another and turn abusive when God blesses them with sons. The tables keep turning until Hagar and Ishmael spin off. The Bible doesn’t pursue them because its focus rests on God’s covenant with the Jews, not because the Arab covenant is invalid. That God won’t allow Hagar to let her son die refutes any presumption He abandons Ishmael. There's no cause to believe His promise to Isaac’s side of the family cancels Ishmael’s promise.
Inscrutable Yet True
God vowed to make Ishmael a great nation and rescued him to honor His covenant. If we so much as suspect He had no intention of standing by His promise, we have no reason to believe anything He says. If He were like us, our suspicions might be justified. But He's not like us and there's no reason to believe His promises are as devious and unreliable as many of ours can be. Numbers 23.19 states, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” To dismiss a divine promise because it subverts our agenda confesses total absence of faith. Muslims who vilify non-Muslims as infidels are themselves infidels; they’re faithless to God’s will and plan. Jews and Christians who vilify non-Jews and non-Christians as heathens are themselves heathens; they don’t believe God’s Word.
God’s ways are inscrutable, yet His promises remain true. As an American, I can’t accept any rationale for blocking the Cordoba House construction near Ground Zero. But even if could, I couldn’t oppose the center’s right to be where it’s meant to be. The greatness of the people it celebrates and serves witnesses God’s covenant with Ishmael. I believe that because I believe God.
God has no intention of abandoning the great nation He promised to make of Ishmael. Christians who vilify Arabic people and Islam confess absence of faith in God’s word. (Giuseppe Bottani: Hagar and the Angel; c. 1776)