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No. 117: Call Me Ishmael, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 117
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons May, 1999

Meditations by James B. Jordan

Ishmael is the narrator of Melville’s fantasy-romance Moby Dick. Melville takes up the traditional view of Ishmael as a wayward son of Abraham, driven out solely because of the Divine "caprice" of election, an angry man with his hand raised against all other men. He is a fitting "anti-hero," or at least "anti-character," in a book full of inversions.

Melville objected to calling Moby Dick a novel. He knew that the persons on board the Pequod are anything but real people — they are symbols much more than characters — and that the situation he describes is fantastic. Moby Dick is a fantasy-narrative like Homer’s Odyssey and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Ahab, carrying the name of Israel’s wicked king, is an anti-Christ. Like Jacob (Israel), Ahab has the messianic foot-wound, but he has no interest in submitting to God. Rather, he wants to kill God, the "vengeful," "predestinating," and capitalized White Whale. The whiteness of the whale is both the whiteness of God’s holy throne and the whiteness of leprosy. The long exposition of how to kill a whale in the many chapters on whaling is a kind of anti-Leviticus: Instead of rituals showing us how to kill ourselves and submit to God, Melville gives us a long survey of the rites by which to act titanically and kill "god." The White Whale wins in the end, but only because He is all-powerful, not because He is good or fair. Ahab, his "Satan"-like ship, and his crew of pagans and estranged New Englanders is drowned in the ancient flood.

Ahab rages against New England’s Calvinistic God, the God of Melville’s rejected Dutch Reformed upbringing. The Antichrist Ahab had lain "like dead for three days and nights" in his great crisis, and now "resurrected" he gathers his anti-church with anti-rituals and leads them in an attempt to kill the "god" who put him through his "crucifixion." Ishmael is part of this anti-church.

Melville thus takes up a traditional understanding of Ishmael as the rejected and "unregenerate" son of Abraham. It is largely Calvin’s own view. For Calvin is very unsure about the promises Yahweh made to Hagar and Ishmael. He strongly suspects they were only temporal promises, implying nothing about eternal salvation.

Calvin was wrong.

The Lost Son

Jesus provided a better understanding, for those with ears to hear. That Calvin missed it is not to be counted against him — no man can catch everything in the Bible. Moreover, even some of you readers may not be persuaded by these meditations. Like Calvin, you may remain "unsure."

Jesus tells of the Lost Son, often mistermed the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15. To be sure, the Father in the parable is God Himself, but Abram (Exalted Father) — Abraham (Father of Many) — is a human image of God’s fatherhood. And Abraham had two sons. One became a Gentile, while the other was called to carry the messianic seed. I submit that any Jew listening to Jesus’ parable would think not only of God and His two sons, Israelite and Gentile, but also of father Abraham and his two sons.

To be sure, in the parable it is the younger son who departs, and Ishmael was the older of Abraham’s sons. But in Genesis, in every case the older and younger switch places: Cain and Abel/Seth, Japheth and Shem, Haran/Lot and Abram, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Joseph/Judah, Zerah and Perez, Manasseh and Ephraim. Thus, Ishmael becomes the younger son. (Along these same lines, the byplay of Jew and Gentile, switching places so that it is Godly Gentiles who lead Israel to salvation, is found in Romans 11.)

To be sure, Ishmael did not ask to leave his father, but like the prodigal, Ishmael did return to him in the end, helping Isaac bury Abraham (Genesis 25:9).

[The death and resurrection of Melville’s "Ishmael" at the end of Moby Dick is perhaps based on the fact that the Biblical Ishmael eventually did return to Abraham. Melville, like Ahab, is quite sure that he hates the "Calvinistic" "Old Testament" God of his upbringing, but he is not sure he wants to follow Ahab all the way. Perhaps the "kindler, gentler" God of the "New Testament," followed by "Ishmael," is all right. Perhaps. Melville leaves it open. A good essay on this, by the way, though perhaps too positive toward Melville, is James Bair’s "Ishmael’s New Testament: Salvation in Moby Dick," which I found on the internet at: ]

And to be sure, while the Bible never tells us that Ishmael and his seed ruined their lives with gamblers and prostitutes, this is exactly the kind of thing Jesus’ contemporaries ascribed to Ishmael. Apart from Jewish myths, it remains that Ishmael is the Gentile son, and he did leave, and he did return. As the Father grieved to see the prodigal son leave home, so Abraham grieved to send Ishmael away. [A discussion of the Jewish myths about the evil of Hagar and Ishmael can be found in Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians. Word Biblical Commentary 41 (Waco: Word, 1999), pp. 200-206.]

The God-Fearer

Ishmael, like Isaac, was Abraham’s son. Like Isaac, he was circumcised. For him, as for Isaac, were the promises of God.

Paul, writing of the fact that not all the descendants of Israel are the "seed" of Abraham, tells us that the children of the flesh are not children of God, but only the children of promise are. He then writes, "and this is a word of promise: `At this time I shall come, and Sarah shall have a son’" (Romans 9:9) — "a promise," not "the only promise." Indeed, the covenant of circumcision, which was applied to Ishmael, is full of promises, promises that applied to Ishmael as his "flesh" was cut off in circumcision (Genesis 17). Ishmael was not the child received by a promise, but he was a child to whom the promises applied. He was not "of the flesh," for his flesh was cut off. In a secondary but very real way, Ishmael was indeed a child of the promises given through circumcision.

To discuss the difference between election to eternal life and God’s passing by some sinners and leaving them to their own damnation, Paul moves from Ishmael & Isaac to Esau & Jacob. Esau, not Ishmael, is the example of the sinner left in his sins. As regards eternal life, Ishmael was as elect as Isaac, but as regards service, Ishmael was not chosen to carry the messianic seed and to serve as priest to the nations. On only one occasion, in Judges 8:24 (cp. Psalm 83:6) do we find some Ishmaelites as enemies of Israel. We recall that some of the Midianites (likewise sons of Abraham) were also enemies of Israel, while Jethro’s branch of the Midianites were God-fearers. By way of contrast, Esau-Edom-Idumea are always enemies of Israel, and large oracles are directed against them. Contrary to Jewish fables, the Bible does not present Hagar, Ishmael, or the Ishmaelites as enemies of Israel; in fact, the Bible says very little about them.

Thus, Ishmael is a type of the Gentile God-fearers we find throughout the history of Israel and into the book of Acts. As we shall see later, however, this is only half of the story.

In Genesis 21:20, we read "And God was with the lad," speaking of Ishmael. Two sentences later, we read that the Gentiles Abimelech and Phicol tell Abraham, "God is with you." The connection of these two phrases, which encapsulate the same meaning as "Immanuel, God with us," cannot be overlooked. As God was with Abraham, so God was with Ishmael. Chopping up the meaning of this most pregnant phrase into "temporal blessings" and "eternal blessings" displays an unfortunate bit of non-covenantal, nature/grace thinking. Rather, as Ishmael departed from Abraham into a strange land, the God of Abraham was with him. In the same way, the Gentile Abimelech wants the God of Abraham to be with him also.

The Seed of the Woman

In Romans, Paul speaks of the faith Abraham possessed before he was circumcised. In this way, Paul argues, Abraham is "father" of all those who believe without being circumcised, to wit, the Gentile God-fearers (Romans 4:10-13). Ishmael was born during the time of this, Abraham’s "God-fearing Gentile" faith. Ishmael was then circumcised, and for a time appeared to be the Law-carrying Seed, but then was sent back out to live among the uncircumcised. Thus, Ishmael becomes a type of the uncircumcised God-fearer.

Paul equates circumcision with being under the Law (Romans 4; Galatians 3). It was not to the circumcised that God promised the world to come, but to those who put their faith in the promises made before circumcision (and Sinai) came. And even after he was circumcised, Abraham did not find life by trusting in the circumcision (the Law), but by trusting in the promises of the God who brings life out of death (Romans 4:16-25). Thus, whether circumcised and under the Sinaitic death-dealing Law, or uncircumcised and free of it, the true sons of Abraham live by faith in the promises, Paul argues.

Were the promises made to Ishmael? Most assuredly, and not merely "temporal" ones. Genesis 16, which records the birth of Ishmael, is a chapter of promises. This chapter is full of allusions to Genesis 2-3. Abram and Sarai are parallel to Adam and Eve. God gave promises to Adam, which he passed on to Eve, who had not been present to hear them. The same is true of Abram and Sarai. Eve, not being awed by hearing God’s original promise/threat, was tricked into seizing the temporarily forbidden fruit, which God would have given to Adam and Eve had they persevered in faith and learned patience. Similarly, Sarai "jumps the gun" and seeks to find the blessing prematurely. Like Adam with Eve, Abram is all too willing to go along with his wife — like the forbidden fruit, Hagar was doubtless a delight to the eyes, good for food (sex), and desirable to make one wise (glorious) — and as the fiirst sin was mainly Adam’s, so the sin here is mainly Abram’s (16:5).

Sarai and Abram sought glory before its time. Sarai expected the child of Hagar to be born "on her knee" and thus to be hers (16:2). But when Hagar conceived, she denied Sarai her child. Seeking glory, Sarai found shame (16:4). This is exactly what happened with Adam and Eve. They ate the fruit, and did indeed become more "like God," but found only shame.

The chastened Sarai now acts like God in punishing the rebellious Hagar; and as God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden, so Hagar flees from the "garden" of Abram’s covenantal household. But she comes to another "garden" (16:7), and there God meets with her and gives her promises and covenantal blessings. It is the "Angel of Yahweh" who appears to Hagar, as "Yahweh God" appeared to Adam and Eve.

Hagar is told to submit to Sarai as Eve had been told to submit to Adam, in spite of Sarai’s and Adam’s sins (16:9; 3:16b). She is told that she will have a son, and Yahweh uses language that is picked up by Gabriel later on, as that angel speaks to Mary:

Genesis 16:11 –

Behold, you are with child,

And you will bear a son,

And you will call his name "God hears."

Luke 1:31 –

Behold, you will conceive in your womb,

And you will bear a son,

And you will call his name "Savior."

The birth of Ishmael prophesies the birth of the Messiah in a larger way as well. Fitzmyer points out that the following sequence of events is found in the births of Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-13), Isaac (Genesis 17:1-21; 18:1-15), Samson (Judges 13:3-20), John the Forerunner (Luke 1:11-20), and Jesus (Luke 1:26-37): "(a) the appearance of an angel (or the Lord) to someone (mother or father); (b) fear on the part of the person confronted by the heavenly figure; (c) the heavenly message (often with stereotyped details); (d) an objection expressed by the person confronted or a request for a sign; and (e) the giving of some sign or reassurance." [Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke. Anchor Bible 28 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), p. 318.] These parallels hardly accord with the notion that Ishmael was no more than a biological son of Abram who received merely temporal promises.

Yahweh makes prophetic promises regarding Ishmael ("God hears"): "He will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him." This is often taken to indicate some kind of violent temper on the part of Ishmael, but it does not have that meaning in context. First, the "donkey" is an unclean animal, and signifies the Gentiles in later Biblical symbolism. The statement that Ishmael will live at enmity with others is from Genesis 3:15, where the righteous seed are set at enmity with the Satanic.

(to be concluded)