Who is the seed of Abraham in God's Covenant?
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
After reading a biblical novel about Hagar, I did a deep dive enquiring into the seed of Abraham, who are the children of Abraham, and who shares in the inheritance of God's covenant with Abraham.
The Egyptian Princess, A Story of Hagar by KD Holmberg, imagines Hagar as the Princess of Egypt and details the life of ancient royals. Hagar is educated and compassionate, receives visions and prophecies, and seeks the one, true God. After Abram lies and gives his wife, Sarai, to the Pharaoh, disasters come to Egypt. As Hagar seeks the cause of disasters, she finds the living God in her dreams, the God who calls her by name. But the penalty for allegiance to any god other than her father, the Pharaoh, is death. Will the God of Sarai also protect Hagar?
This novel lifts Hagar from being 'just a slave' to being a noble-born royal Princess of Egypt, freely choosing to give voice to her belief in the God of Sarai, knowing it would mean punishment. Instead of presenting her as a slave abused by both Abraham and Sarah, the novel presents Hagar as a faithful woman of valour, who humbles herself to become a handmaid in order to follow God.
Not only is this biblical fiction a great insight into ancient Egyptian culture and religion, but it also made me think more deeply about Hagar's son Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. Seeing Hagar as a noblewoman before she became Sarah's handmaid made me reflect on the descendants of Hagar (Ishmael) and Sarah (Isaac), and all seed of Abraham.
In my novel Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, I tell the story of Rena who was bent over for eighteen (based on Luke 13:10-17). Jesus not only heals her physically, but he also frees her from Satan's bondage and calls her a child of Abraham. This title makes her a full participant in God's covenant with Abraham, with full inheritance rights. Abraham is a key father of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In writing the study guide for Forgotten Followers, I explore ideas about the children of Abraham.
Who is the seed of Abraham in Christianity?
What does it mean to be the seed of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, the ancestors of Jews?
What does it mean to be the seed of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael, the ancestors of Arabs?
Who is included in God's covenant with Abraham?
1. Who is the Seed of Abraham in Christianity?
According to Christianity, the seed of Abraham refers specifically to the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the literal seed of Abraham through Sarah's son Isaac and through Judah (Matthew 1:1, Luke 3:23-38). God's covenant is established through the Messiah, Jesus, a descendant of Isaac and Judah.
Christians also see Jesus as the spiritual seed of Abraham, because everyone who trusts in Jesus is adopted into God’s covenant family and becomes a co-heir of God’s promises to Abraham (Ephesians 2:11-13, Romans 8:14-17, Hebrews 9:15 Galatians 3:7-9, 3:16-18, 3:26-29). Christians believe that through Jesus, all peoples, races, languages, and nations can be adopted into God’s family. We as Christians become Abraham's offspring; women and men believers are co-heirs of God's covenant with Abraham (Matthew 28:19-20, Revelations 5:9, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).
Just as Abraham “believed God, and was considered righteous,” those who believe God are the descendants of Abraham. Since all who believe would be considered righteous, God told Abraham, “All nations will be blessed through you" (Galatians 3:8 NIV).
Paul writes that we were slaves to the law, and for a time law acted as our guardian, but God sent Jesus to free us so we are no longer slaves to the law, but adopted into God's family, receiving God's Spirit in our hearts.
"So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir" (Galatians 4:7 NIV).
Paul uses the story of Hagar and Sarah as an allegory, telling the Galatians that believers are children of the free woman, Sarah, and not the slave woman, Hagar. Refusing to believe in Jesus means you remain a slave to legalism and a child of Hagar, the slave woman. Believing in Jesus means you are a child of Sarah, the free woman, with the full rights of sons to inherit God's promises (Galatians 4:21-31).
When Paul quotes Sarah asking Abraham to cast out Hagar's son, some think it endorses casting out descendants of Ishmael. But we know from Genesis that Sarah's quote is followed up with God reassuring Abraham that God would bless all of Abraham's seed. Paul is not literally telling descendants of Hagar to be slaves because Paul says that in Christ there is no longer slave or free:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28-29 NIV).
2. What does it mean to be the seed of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, the ancestors of Jews?
The seed of Abraham may also refer literally to all the descendants of Isaac, the ancestor of the Jews. Isaac was the son born to Sarah when she was beyond her child-bearing years, the miracle child born of God's promise.
"And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. Genesis 17:19-21 KJV
God promises Abraham that he will establish his covenant with Sarah's son and most Christians and Jews believe this means that the seed of Abraham refers to descendants of Isaac and his son Jacob, who changed his name to Israel. This means that Jews inherit God's covenant with Abraham and are a people chosen and set apart. Many Christians agree that 'Abraham's seed' refers to Israel, and that God will bless those who bless Israel.
This passage also says that God will also make Ishmael the father of a great nation. An alternate view is that the seed of Abraham refers to all the descendants of Abraham, through Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. After Sarah’s death, Abraham married Keturah and had many children (Genesis 25:1-2). Read on to reflect on God's covenant belonging to all people, including descendants of Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael.
3. What does it mean to be the seed of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael, the ancestors of Arabs?
The seed of Abraham may refer to all of Abraham's descendants. It was before Abraham had any children that God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation:
"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:2-3 NRSVUE
When God says "I will make of you a great nation", is he talking only about the descendants of Sarah and Isaac (Israel and the Jews), or about all of Abraham's descendants? Are followers of God called to bless all of the nations descended from Abraham, and not only Israel?
Before Abraham has any children, God sees Abraham's faith and promises Abraham he will have countless descendants. The promise comes before either Ishmael or Isaac is born and says that Abraham will have many descendants:
"...no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness."Genesis 15:4-6 NRSVUE
"Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates" Genesis 15:18 KJV
God promises Abraham that his seed will inherit the land that has been called both Palestine and Israel. Could this mean the inheritance of the land is to be shared by all of Abraham's seed? Christians have often considered Ishmael, son of the bondwoman, an illegitimate son with no inheritance rights. However, the Bible says that Abraham took Hagar as his wife (Genesis 16:3), and both Ishmael and Isaac are called Abraham's sons (Genesis 25:9). In addition, according to the law of Moses says that if a man has two wives, both have a legitimate right to inherit, so [Abraham] must not give the rights of the firstborn [Ishmael] to another [Isaac].
"If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has (Deut. 21:15-17 NIV).
Hagar is the mother of Abraham's first-born son, Ishmael and she is the first person in scripture to give a name to God:
"She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” Genesis 16:13 NIV
God's messenger speaks directly to Hagar and promises that her descendants will be too numerous to count:
And the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Turn back unto thy mistress, and humble thyself under her hands;' and the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Multiplying I multiply thy seed, and it is not numbered from multitude;' and the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Behold thou [art] conceiving, and bearing a son, and hast called his name Ishmael, for Jehovah hath hearkened unto thine affliction; Genesis 16:9-11 (YLT - Young's LIteral Translation)
Before Abraham has any children, God promises to establish his covenant with all of Abraham's "seed":
As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. Genesis 17:4-7 KJV
The covenant is an agreement between God and Abraham, sealed by circumcision. Abraham circumcises himself and his firstborn son, Ishmael (Genesis 17:23-26), bringing the descendants of Ishmael into God's covenant family. Ishmael is an ancestor of many Arab tribes and an ancestor of Muhammad. Ishmael is considered an important patriarch and prophet of Islam and he is buried in Mecca.
Paul refers to circumcision as a physical, exterior sign showing Abraham's faith (Romans 4:11-13). Abraham's internal faith was shown by the outward sign of the covenant with Abraham: circumcision. Abraham's sons became part of the covenant when they were circumcised.
Christians believe that when Jesus came, he brought a new covenant: our internal faith is shown by the outward sign of baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). While only men could make a decision to be circumcised and be part of the covenant with Abraham, both men and women have the authority to make a decision to be baptized and be part of the new covenant with Jesus.
Abraham and Ishmael and the household were circumcised when Ishmael was thirteen (Genesus 17:23), and then God promises Abraham that Sarah will have a son:
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her and also give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Genesis 17:15-16 NRSVUE
When Isaac is weaned, Sarah tells Abraham to get rid of the slave woman and her son since Sarah does not want Hagar's son to share in the inheritance (Genesis 21:10). This inheritance could refer to land or it could refer to the spiritual inheritance of new life in Christ. God tells Abraham that all of Abraham's seed, including Ishmael and his descendants, will be "called/reckoned/considered righteous" through Isaac:
"in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed." Genesis 21:12-13 KJV
Later, God speaks directly to Hagar and affirms he will make Ishmael's descendants a great nation:
"God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation." Genesis 21:17-18 KJV
4. Who is included in God's covenant with Abraham?
God's covenant with Abraham's seed may mean:
a) Abraham's seed may mean Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, and all who believe in Jesus are adopted into Abraham's family. Christians believe we are included in Abraham's covenant not because of our ancestry or lineage but because of our faith and obedience. We are not elected or chosen by God because of the circumstances of our birth but because of our willingness to let God reign in our lives. Descendants of Isaac, descendants of Ishmael, Jews, Gentiles, those of mixed race and all races can be adopted into God's family with the full rights of sons.
b) Abraham's seed may mean the children of Sarah, the free woman, and Isaac, the child of the promise, the Israelites. God extended his covenant with Abraham because of Abraham's faith. Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness, and then God offered the covenant, which was sealed by circumcision. Most Christians are accustomed to thinking of Israel as the nation chosen and set apart, descendants of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah.
c) Abraham's seed may mean the children of Hagar and Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael and all the descendants of Abraham. What if God's covenant is with all of the seed of Abraham?
Plot Holes in the Biblical Account:
Did it ever bother you that Sarah, a woman of God, abused her handmaid and wanted to cast her out? Did it rub you the wrong way that the great religious patriarch, Abraham, took Hagar (without regard to her consent) and impregnated her (Genesis 16:2-6)? Was it upsetting to read that God's messenger told Hagar to return to Sarah and subject herself to harsh abuse (Genesis 16:9-16)? How did it feel when Sarah is quoted as saying she wanted to get rid of that slave woman and her son (Genesis 21:10)? Is it plausible that God would bless Sarah's jealousy? Was Abraham following God's will when he sent away his legal wife, Hagar, and his firstborn son, Ishmael (Genesis 21:8-21)? Or was it against God's will as written in the law of Moses (Deut. 21:15-17)? These pieces of the story do not seem consistent with a God who loves the people he created, and who honours people who are faithfully following God's way. It is against God's character to show favouritism or partiality (See Galatians 2:6, Gal. 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Ephesians 2:19, 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 1 Corinthians 12:13, Acts 10:34-35, Romans 2:11, Romans 3:22, John 3:16-17).
The biblical account also shows some confusion as to the sequence of events. Ishmael is called a child or a lad when Hagar is cast out into the desert. Hagar carries Ishmael as well as water on her shoulder and puts the small child under a bush (Genesis 21:14-16). Was it because Ishmael was a baby that God speaks to Hagar and not to Ishmael to promise the great nation (Genesis 21:17-18)?
Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and he was 100 when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5) and Hagar and Ishmael were cast out on the day Isaac was weaned, likely when Isaac was about three (Genesis 21:8). This means that Ishmael would have been about 16, no longer a small child to be carried on Hagar's shoulder or placed to rest under a bush.
Lastly, the biblical account calls Isaac Abraham's only son and says God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the father of the Jews.
"He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2
If Hagar was Abraham's wife and Ishmael was Abraham's legitimate firstborn son, then there was never a time when Abraham's only son was Isaac. The Christian Bible portrays God being complicit in Sarah's abuse of Hagar and Abraham's disobedience to the law of Moses. The Bible downplays Ishmael's participation in God's covenant with Abraham, Ishmael's circumcision and inheritance rights. It shows agreement with casting out Hagar and Ishmael and seems to focus on God's covenant through Isaac and the Jews.
An Alternate Historic Account
As Christians, we believe the Bible, but how would it impact our outlook if we looked at the stories from another perspective? Looking at non-Biblical texts can increase our understanding, empathy, and respect. An alternate version of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar is available in an equally ancient text, the Qur'an. The Qur'an portrays Ishmael as the child Abraham is asked to sacrifice. Muslims believe that prior to Isaac's birth, God called Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son, Ishmael, the father of the Arabs.
In addition, it portrays the characters Sarah as faithful, kind, and moral. Hagar does not flaunt her fertility. Ishmael does not taunt Isaac. Sarah is not abusive. Abraham does not abandon Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. God does not condone favouritism to one son over another. Muslims believe that before Isaac was born, God told Abraham to take Hagar and her baby Ishmael to live in a desert place (now called Mecca). Hagar and Abraham did this to follow God's command, knowing that God would not forsake Hagar or her baby in the desert. When Hagar ran out of water, she ran back and forth between two hills in search of water until an angel made water gush out of the earth for them.
I wonder if it is possible that God wanted all of the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to share in the inheritance of God's covenant with Abraham. For those of us who are adopted into God's covenant through faith, it may be hard to relate to those born into God's covenant by blood. It is my hope that all the children of Abraham can learn to share the inheritance of God's covenant with Abraham, as well as share the inheritance of the New Covenant through Jesus.