Ishmael and Esau

Question
Did Ishmael and/or Esau go to heaven? Romans 9 seems to put them in the non-elect category. But in Genesis, God seems favorable towards Ishmael (Gen. 21:16ff) and Esau seems repentant (Gen. 33). How do we fit all this together?
Answer
Hebrews 12:15-16 states that Esau was a godless man who fell short of God's grace. This paints a pretty dark picture of him. Hebrews 12:17 speaks of Esau's repentance, but also says that it was not genuine. Whether or not this was the repentance of Genesis 33, however, is not stated (I suspect it refers to the Gen. 27 episode, where we see Esau cry for a blessing). Further, Paul speaks of God's rejection of Esau as an example of the way God predestines the reprobate to hell (Rom. 9:10ff.), in effect stating that Esau was not saved.

Paul does not treat Ishmael quite as harshly, simply appealing to Isaac as a child of promise, but not condemning Ishmael (Rom. 9:6ff.). Still, Paul's point in Romans 9:6-7 seems to be that Ishmael and Esau were not true children of Abraham. On the heels of Romans 4, it would appear that he means that Ishmael and Esau were at least typological of unbelievers.

Now, just because one is typological of unbelievers does not mean one cannot be saved. For example, it is certainly possible that Adam is in heaven even though he is also typological of unbelievers in certain ways (e.g. Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). After all, he is also typological of Christ (Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:45).

At the same time, the point that Paul draws from the fact that Isaac was blessed and Ishmael was not is that Ishmael was excluded from the covenant community that became Israel (in the next generation). Since Paul is trying to define what we might call "true Israel," it seems that he is strongly implying that Ishmael was not saved. As you have noted, Paul's statements seem to cause tension with the Genesis account. How do we remain faithful to the original meaning of Genesis while at the same time reconciling it to Paul's assessment, and that of the author of Hebrews?

First, it is important to remember that Genesis does not specifically tell us the eternal fate of either Esau or Ishmael. We have to formulate our best onjectures based on the data available to us. Second, Paul and the author of Hebrews had the same data available to them, and they seem to have drawn relatively strong conclusions. Third, Paul and the author of Hebrews commented authoritatively on the Genesis account. Fourth, Paul is not explicit in his discussion of Ishmael, which might throw some shadow over strong conclusions regarding Ishmael based on Romans 9.

The questions in my mind are: What did Paul and the author of Hebrews see in Genesis that we might have missed? What method of interpretation did they employ that led them to their conclusions? I think that we are obligated to look for the things they found, and to conform our interpretation to theirs. As we look at Genesis with Esau in mind, we see first that Esau is in fact godless and faithless, as the author of Hebrews points out. Regardless of what Esau does later, it is clear at least that he sells his birthright. I would suggest that any man who is able to think coherently enough to sell his birthright and to feed himself after so doing is not really on the brink of death (Gen. 25:31-34). Even Moses comments that this constituted despising the birthright. Noting that a birthright included the eldest son's right to inherit a double portion of his father's estate, Esau threw away a potential fortune for the sake of a meal. That he subsequently tried to usurp that same birthright (which then belonged to Jacob) from Jacob by asking Isaac to bless him (Esau) rather than to bless Jacob - this constituted the attempted theft of Jacob's birthright (Gen. 27). In addition to selling his own inheritance and tyring to steal his brother's inheritance, Esau plotted Jacob's murder (Gen. 27:41), which I think we would have to consider evil. If Esau later relented of his desire to murder Jacob, it was not sufficient to restore Esau; it only served to mitigate Esau's evil. Moreover, given Jacob's hesitancy to be around Esau in Genesis 33, one might question Esau's sincerity even in that chapter. After all, Jacob is the hero of the story, and if he didn't trust Esau, we probably shouldn't either.

It seems to me that both Paul and the author of Hebrews saw in Esau a readiness to cast aside God's covenant blessings (by selling the birthright, Esau sold covenant headship over God's people). Esau wasn't just giving up wealth - he was giving up God's special favor. This was a favor that Jacob and his descendants (such as Moses and Israel who followed him from Egypt, i.e. the original audience) should have highly valued. Moses valued this favor even above the blessings of the Promised Land (Exod. 33:14-15). From the perspective of Moses and his original audience, Esau did the unthinkable: he went back to Egypt, so to speak (even his inheritance/curse in Genesis 27:39-40 is reminiscent of life in Egypt: slavery away from "dew of heaven" [cf. Deut. 11:10-12]). This crime is horrible, and Esau's subsequent behavior in Genesis 33 does not sufficiently demonstrate repentance for this sin (especially if we are not to trust his motives there).

With regard to Ishmael, Genesis is more kind. God indicates that Ishmael was to be a blessing to Hagar and that he would have many descendants (Gen. 16:10-12). This blessing of descendants was similar to God's covenant with Abraham, though God did not actually covenant with Hagar or Ishmael in Genesis 16, making the blessing less certain. In any event, when Esau matured he left the covenant community to build his own community. Moses called this an act of "defiance of all his relatives" (Gen. 25:18). It would seem that in the end Ishmael too abandoned the covenant community, the community of God's special favor within which was to be found the blessing of salvation (cf. Gal. 3:8). While we might tend to overlook small details such as Moses' comment in Genesis 25:18, this would seem to be the best evidence to which Paul might appeal in order establish his case that Ishmael was not a true child of Abraham.

In summary, I think Paul and the author of Hebrews saw Ishmael and Esau as reprobate because Ishmael and Esau rejected God and his covenant community, and thereby rejected the covenant blessings even including salvation. Rather than looking at the ebb and flow of Ishmael's and Esau's behavior, they looked for significant key indicators that pointed to the attitudes these men held toward God and his people. These attitudes were more indicative of Ishmael's and Esau's hearts than were things like their potential to sire great nations, or their "patience" with their estranged brothers. After all, even the wicked love their children and do some good (Matt. 5:46-47); abandonment of God and his community is a much better indicator of reprobation (1 John 2:19).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.