God fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah, and they bore a son they named Isaac. This chapter continues to open up a lot of the human customs of the time and the problems that arose from them in a fallen world. The purpose of the promise is to finally deal with these problems to create new relationships. That is, to call us to walk in the Spirit, meaning grace, instead of in the flesh, which is hostility.
First of all, there was polygamy and the rivalry this polygamy produced. The jealousy between Sarah and Hagar, passing onto their sons, made living together very difficult. The jealousy was over the matter of inheritance, a patriarchal system that was not designed by God in creation. Sarah and Hagar had no wealth of their own, but their fortune was tied to the good graces of their husband. This inheritance passed only to the “legitimate heir” through a properly married wife. This system left the women at the mercy of the husband and left illegitimate children with fewer prospects. Different forms of government have tried to fix these inequalities in human affairs over the millennia. Some have succeeded more than others, but the problem stems from our heart relationships with each other.
We see this jealousy and rivalry continue in the family through Jacob’s many wives and their children, especially when it comes to the way they dealt with Joseph: the dysfunctionality of human family and the inability of human customs of inheritance to bridge the relationship gaps ethically.
So Sarah says to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” This doesn’t mean God rejected Ishmael, but the statement acknowledges the existence of rivalry and the inability for them to live together in peace.
This is another of those classis statements from Genesis quoted by Paul in Galatians. In Galatians, Paul refers to Israel as the seed of the bondwoman. That is, many of the those stuck in their racial greed over their religious inheritance and temple wealth in Jeruslem, refused to share this inheritance in fraternity with the new gentile believers. The bondage was Israel’s racial superiority, their blindness to God’s purposes in raising Israel up to include the gentiles in his plan of eternal inheritance.
In Galatians, it wasn’t the law of the Jews (from the Torah) Paul was against. It was their unwillingness to share their faith inheritance with people not under that same law. They still wanted to throw “Ishmael” (the gentiles) out: they still wanted to follow Sarah and Hagar’s way of jealousy and exclusion. So Paul claimed Israel were then functioning as the seed of the flesh: according to racial sentiments, and not according to the grace plan of reconciliation.
We see in Genesis where circumcision came from and why. God was distinguishing Abraham’s election in a fallen world. As there was separation between the elect and the gentiles, with their inability to show love and mutual healing together in the revelation of God’s grace, there needed to be a marker between them. As Israel’s neighbours mixed more with the debauchery of paganism, circumcision became a marker of godliness for marriage and the sustaining of calling in his elect people, until his plan had won through the fallenness of human life into world renewal. Israel’s holiness and distinctiveness to protect the human project was by no means credible in the Old Testament, but it was the best the human family had in God’s salvation plan.
This is why circumcision is defunct in the new covenant. With renewed relationships between Jew and gentile, the marker between us is love and acceptance, not an outward marker of the flesh. Our inheritance is no longer designated by the flesh, but by a renewed heart and renewed relationships, which we purposely build following the example of the cross: passing on the same self-denial Christ gave to us, onto our neighbours, enemies and to all around us. This new way of life is our marker of election, of being God’s called out people to renew creation. The sign of the covenant is no longer in the flesh, but “by our love for one another all men shall know we are God’s people” – overcoming the rivalry of Sarah and Hagar with the same love God showed towards us when we were sinners. This is why God called Israel: to show his love to Israel as sinful people, so we in all our nations and racial groups would learn God’s ways and treat each other the same way. Circumcision that separates us is no longer required.
Paul’s point in Galatians was to build one new table of faith and mutual care, overcoming the separation, exclusion and hostility seen in these Old Testament stories, informing us why the gospel has come into our lives. We thought Paul was teaching us to reject Jews and their Torah, but he wasn’t. He was telling us to receive each other, with or without Torah, because this is the true Torah fulfilled in our new kind of faithfulness (faith). This is the faithfulness the cross reveals to us: Christ denied himself in order that he might reveal God’s loving forgiveness to us all. “I give a new commandment to you: that you love each other just as I have loved you.” The old commandant was to love neighbour as we love ourselves. This new commandment is to love others according to Christ’s self-giving love for us. He reaches out to include us all by his death.
This doesn’t mean there is no sin anymore, no gentile and Jewish debauchery in our selfish lives (no right and wrong), but it means we are included into transformation by faith, to become followers of Christ in laying down the self that builds injustice, offence, rivalry, and exclusion, if we agree. In grace, forgiveness, and free faith there is no self-righteousness, no racial or family boasting. While we thank God for cultural distinctives, we also count these as dung so we might serve and restore each other to true Torah: love and mutual inheritance, not self.