Is prophecy being fulfilled by Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Ishmael sharing the promised land?

Q. I’d always thought of the promise of the land to Abraham as applying to his descendants through Issac. But now I notice that this promise, “To your offspring I will give this land,” comes prior to the birth of either of his sons, Ishmael or Issac. I also notice that when God later makes the conditional covenant of circumcision and reiterates the promise of the land, Abraham asks that God would bless Ishmael: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” In response, God reiterates that he will establish his everlasting covenant with Issac and his descendants, but then adds, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” My thought is that since the land that had been promised is now being shared by the descendants of Issac and Ishmael, perhaps the promise of land has already been completely fulfilled. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

You are not alone in reflecting on this promise and wondering how God wanted it to be fulfilled. The New Testament authors have much to say about this, and I would turn to them to help answer your question.

The author of the book of Hebrews, for example, comments on something very significant along these lines that he finds in Psalm 95. He quotes from the psalm, beginning with “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” and ending with the place where God says of the disobedient exodus generation, “I declared on oath in my anger,They shall never enter my rest.'” The author then argues that the opportunity for members of God’s covenant community to “enter his rest” (that is, to settle in the promised land) must still be open: “If Joshua had given them rest” (that is, if the conquest and occupation of the land of Canaan had fulfilled the promise), “God would not have spoken later about another day.” But “God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today,’ . . . when a long time later he spoke through David.”

So in the understanding of this inspired Scriptural author, the opportunity to “enter God’s rest,” that is, to settle down in the promised land, is perpetually open to all who trust God by faith: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” (I don’t have the space to develop this theme here, but the author of Hebrews is echoing the close connection that the Old Testament draws between Sabbath rest and the settlement of the land. To give just one example, in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.“)

This is just one of the many passages in which the New Testament understands the promises to Abraham to be fulfilled in a spiritual sense, not a literal one, and to all of his spiritual descendants, not just his physical ones. Paul explains to the Galatians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He tells the Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

We see this same understanding in the book of Revelation, where a vision that’s initially of a finite number of people of a single ethnicity (“144,000 from all the tribes of Israel“) opens up to embrace “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” (See my discussion of this passage in this post.) This is the fulfillment of another of the promises that God makes to Abraham in Genesis, “You will be the father of many nations.” Paul cites this promise in Romans right after saying, “He is the father of us all.”

This, too, is a spiritual fulfillment, as Abraham is not the physical ancestor of these “many nations” (though the nations themselves are literal enough). As such, it helps us understand how the promise about the land also needs to be fulfilled more spiritually. It wouldn’t be possible to fit “every nation, tribe, people and language” into the small land of Israel! So the promise that Abraham’s offspring would possess this land is now fulfilled as those who place their faith in Jesus through the new covenant enter God’s spiritual “rest”—a life settled in God that is characterized by security, trust, dependence, and co-operative activity to advance his purposes in the world to reach out to every nation.

So then what about the land within the borders of the present state of Israel? My belief is that under the New Covenant, God’s purposes for the physical descendants of Abraham are the same as God’s purposes for every other group on earth. God wants to draw them into that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language who follow and worship Jesus as the one who brought all of God’s saving purposes throughout human history to their culmination.

This means, in my view, that the modern state of Israel should seek to fulfill God’s purposes for itself the way any other nation should: by providing the same full rights and privileges, including rights of property and land ownership, and expecting the same civic responsibilities and contributions, from all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, background, language, or religion. I believe that it is in the context of such equality and freedom that people have the best opportunity to hear and understand the good news about Jesus and to respond to it honestly, without threats or rewards.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you continue to reflect on God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfillment.

An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)
An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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