The Story Behind the little-known yet important Abrahamic covenant
with Hagar in Genesis chapter seventeen!
The Alternative Covenant
God’s Covenant With Hagar
Few Christians today realize that there are a people outside of the nation of Israel who were given wonderful divine promises of blessings in the Old Testament. These non-Israel recipients are the descendants of Hagar. The promises they received are enumerated in Genesis chapter 17, and are of tremendous import in world events of our own time.
Who is this Hagar and who are her descendants? We read about her in Genesis chapters 16 through 25. Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless, and since Sarah was beyond childbearing years, she gave her maid Hagar to Abraham as a concubine to produce descendants through whom he might pass on his inheritance. (Gen. 16) Hagar’s child from Abraham was named Ishmael, (“God will hear,”) who became the ancestor of the Arabic peoples of the world according to many biblical scholars.
The “WordIQ Dictionary” says, “In Islamic and Jewish tradition, Arabs are a Semitic people who trace their ancestry from Ismael, a son of the ancient patriarch Abraham and Hagar.” The same source tells us that the word “Arabic” derives from a Semitic root “meaning travelling around the land, that is, nomadic.”
The promises to Hagar’s descendants are found in the book of Genesis chapter 17, verse 20: “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.” Here is a five-fold blessing, which is a common characteristic of divine blessings in Scripture. It includes a special blessing, as well as fruitfulness, a large number of descendants, twelve princes, and a great nation.
The word, “princes,” in the text is the Hebrew word, nasiym, which means “exalted one, a king or a sheik” (Strong’s #5387) Although there are at present twenty-two nations in the “Arab League,” some of these are not ethnically distinct, but composed of immigrants from other Arab countries, as is the case with Palestine and Kuwait. Prophetically, twelve nations or kingdoms would derive from Ishmael, making his descendants a parallel anti-type to the twelve tribes of Israel. Author and theologian Mark G. Brett explains, “...the promise to Hagar is potentially the beginning of an alternative covenant...” (Genesis, p.72) This divine parallel “alternative covenant” with Hagar and her descendants seems to be largely ignored in modern theology, even though it was highly significant enough to be expounded upon in the New Testament.
Abraham’s Two Prophetic Sons
In Galatians chapter four, the Apostle Paul contrasts two women, Sarah and Hagar, and their (unnamed) sons, Isaac and Ishmael. He states, “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman....Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar...answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (vv. 22, 24-26)
Modern commentaries understand this passage as simply contrasting “physical Israel, the Jews” with “Spiritual Israel, the Church.” However, they evade the very significant fact that the Apostle Paul connects the unbelieving Jewish people with Hagar, not with Sarah. This uttlerly contradicts standard church teaching which claims that the Jewish people legally, prophetically, and exclusively represent all of Sarah’s progeny in the world today. Is Paul merely speaking in a Spiritual sense? It is standard prophetic usage that as a required “double witness” (Deut. 19:15) the Spiritual and the physical realms parallel one another, and are not contradictory. Is there an ancestral genetic link between Hagar/Ishmael and the modern Jewish people?
Abraham’s son Isaac was the father of Esau and Jacob. Esau was the father of the Edomites, a nation which was frequently at war with Israel. We read, “Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham's son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.” (Gen. 28:9) Esau married the daughter of Ishmael, so their descendants, the Edomites, were the direct progeny of Hagar. History informs us that the Edomites were later incorporated into the Jewish nation. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia states, “In 126 B.C.E. the Edomites...were completely subdued by John Hyrcanus, and were Judaized by forcible circumcision.” (iii:628) There is a direct physical connection between Hagar, Ishmael, and the Jewish people of today. Ironically, the Jewish people can therefore claim ancestry with both Sarah and Hagar.
This is a important point, for the Apostle Paul boldly proclaims in Galatians 4, verse 30, “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” Paul’s argument is that the unbelieving portion of the Jewish people are Hagar’s offspring, are cast out of the Abrahamic “household,” and are rejected as covenant recipients! The apostle no doubt was very aware of the Edomite section of Jewry’s direct physical descent from Hagar and Ishmael, and is referring to it in his argument.
This ties in precisely with the “Spiritual” theme: Paul is saying that by rejecting Christ, the Jewish people are associating themselves with their “Arabic” ancestors—the bondwoman Hagar and her son Ishmael—rather than with their Hebrew ancestors, believing Abraham and Sarah. (See also Paul’s similar argument in Galatians 3:16.)
It is also interesting to note that the prophecy states, “For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate [i.e. Sarah’s dispersed Hebrew descendants] hath many more children than she which hath an husband [Hagar, representing the Arabic peoples].” (v. 27) If so, the Israelites must be much greater in number than the four hundred million population of the modern Arabic countries. It is clear that the fourteen million or so Jews in our world today cannot by themselves constitute all of Israel. Sarah’s descendants were to number “many more” than the Arabic progeny of Hagar, yet Jews represent only about 3 percent of the number of Arabs! Where are all the rest of Abraham’s “many more” descendants?
Abraham’s Many Nations
One author claims, “...the narrative in Genesis has thus far demonstrated that at least the Moabite, Ammonite, and Ishmaelite nations have been blessed through Abraham...” (Brett, p.72) Some theologians do claim that the “many nations” descended from Abraham (Gen. 17:5) are his non-covenantal descendants, but Hagar’s “alternative covenant” itself clearly states that the Abrahamic covenant proceeds only through the chosen line of Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. Scripture records, “And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Gen. 17:18, NIV) The implication is, of course, that Ishmael and his descendants were not included in the Abrahamic blessing. This is emphasized in verse 21, after Ishmael’s blessings are enumerated. God says, “But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.” The Abrahamic covenant would not be established with any nation or people who were not descended from Isaac.
The Apostle Paul concurs with this in Galatians chapter four, which we quoted above, “...the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” (v. 30) This was demonstrated in Genesis 21 when Hagar was cast out of Abraham’s house without any form of proper inheritance, being given only some bread and a single bottle of water. (21:14) This incident shows without question that Hagar’s descendants did not participate in the rewards of the Abrahamic covenant. As a result, the Arabic nations cannot constitute the “many nations” (Gen. 17:5) and “company of nations” (Gen. 35:11) prophecied to come from Abraham, as some have erroneously suggested.
Dr. Brett agrees in saying, “Hagar’s son will become a ‘great nation’, but outside the covenant with Sarah’s son.” (ibid. p.63) Yet if the Arabic peoples and nations are not the “nation and company of nations” promised to Abraham, then who is? What nations comprise them in our world today? Interestingly, Dr. A.S. Herbert, in his study of Genesis (p.120), points out that Edom itself also had a twelve-tribe confederacy, but although this may appear to constitute another parallel “alternative covenant,” Edom will not inherit Israel’s promises!
Could in fact Abraham’s physical descendants, through the chosen line of Isaac and Jacob, constitute a “company of nations” who are also Christian, somewhere in our world today just as prophecy states? Mainstream scholars refuse to even consider the possibility. For example, Dr. Brett states, “Now that Abraham and Sarah are set to become the father and mother of many nations, it is no longer possible to restrict this covenantal promise to the people of Israel.” (ibid. p.63) Yet the prophecy says exactly that! Israel herself was to become “many nations!” Otherwise, the promise was actually not to Abraham’s covenantal descendants at all, which would make it a false prophecy. Dr. Brett even admits, “the rewards of the covenant are exclusive,” so much so that no one outside of the royal line of the covenant could inherit them, including “daughters who are not even mentioned.” (ibid. p.82)
The late Biblical scholar, W.H. (Howard) Bennett spent a lifetime researching the question of Abraham’s covenant descendants and wrote two excellent books proving the Israelite origin of many Western Christian peoples. We invite you to order these from us and help to spread the good news of the Bible covenants with others as well! See a review of these books on our British-Israel books page.
Summary: An Alternative Covenant?
Read again the five-fold blessing given to Hagar and her descendants and notice that all five points are also found in the covenant given to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis chapters 17 & 35. This “alternative covenant” parallels the true Abrahamic covenant so closely as to make it hard for many people to know the difference. A synonym for “alternative” is “substitute.” There is a substitute people who in many ways parallel the covenant people of God. Since the Jews have ancestry from Hagar as Scripture attests, could the modern Israeli state be the “great nation” promised to Hagar? These issues point up the most important fact that the Jewish people need salvation which can only come from Jesus Christ, and that it is only through believing in Him that they can claim kinship with Abraham and Sarah through faith.