Covenant Inclusion and Greatness in Genesis

God called Abram and promised to make him a great nation with a great name.

The LORD said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

Worldly greatness, however, is not central to the covenant. Abraham and Hagar’s son Ishmael is excluded from God’s covenant people, but God promises to make him a great nation anyway.

So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you!” But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” (Genesis 17:18-21)

Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac will carry God’s covenant promise, and God’s chosen people will be his descendants. Isaac will the covenantal heir through whom God will fulfill his purposes in the world. Both Isaac and Ishmael, however, will be the father of great nations. God’s covenant, it seems, is not primarily a path to greatness. The covenant is about something else.

In fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, God will bless Ishmael and his offspring. Like Isaac’s son Jacob, Ishmael will be father of twelve tribes. Ishmael and his descendants will live, for a time, outside God’s covenant with Abraham. Then, in the fullness of time, when all things were accomplished, God brought the covenant he made with Abraham to its climax. The Father sent his Son into the world, incarnate of Isaac’s descendant Mary, to bring 2000 years of covenantal history to perfection in the messiah Jesus. Following his death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand, the Lord Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the church as a down payment of the kingdom of the age to come. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit made himself manifest in the world, people from all over the world heard the gospel being proclaimed in their own languages. The last ethnic group to be mentioned in Acts 2:11 is “Arabs”, generally from the same region in which the ancient descendants of Ishmael were thought to have settled. Now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, all who unite themselves to Christ Jesus are grafted into God’s covenant people as sons and daughters of Abraham – and that includes the sons and daughters of Ishmael.

In Romans 9, the apostle Paul reflect on God’s election of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. He then quotes the prophet Hosea in celebration that those not chosen are now among the chosen ones.

I will call Not my People, my People,
and she who is Unloved, Beloved.
And it will be in the place where they were told,
you are not my people,
there they will be called sons of the living God.

Thanks be to God!