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Isaac and Ishmael:
Brothers in Conflict

by Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M.

The saddest and most tragic conflicts take place among family members. The Bible tells the story of several such conflicts. Perhaps the best-known is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). The story of Joseph and his brothers shows how difficult it is to achieve genuine reconciliation after such conflicts (Genesis 37; 45; 50:15-21). Moses' brother and sister turned against him because he married the "wrong kind" of woman (Numbers 12). David's family disintegrated after his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-20; 1 Kgs 1-2). Jesus' ministry caused friction in his family (Mark 3:21; John 7:5).

The most heart-rending story is that of Abraham and his family. Abraham's story begins with a promise that God would make of him "a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). Sarah, Abraham's wife, was unable to bear children. Her sterility led Sarah to conclude that the fulfillment of the promise would not come through her. She took the initiative in finding a solution. Following a custom of the day, Sarah presented Hagar, her Egyptian servant, to Abraham as his second wife (Gn 16:3). Abraham went along with Sarah's plan and married Hagar, who gave Abraham his first child: a son named Ishmael.

The Whole Story

The stories about Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 and 21 make them prominent figures in the story of Abraham's family. They receive almost as much attention as Sarah and Isaac, the child she eventually bore Abraham (Gn 21:1-3). Unfortunately, these stories have not always received the attention they deserve—perhaps because their principal characters are women. Abraham is strangely passive in these narratives, and Ishmael and Isaac are just children.

Although Sarah's action of presenting Abraham with Hagar has been described as "generous," it introduced serious tenisons into Abraham's household—tensions that neither Sarah nor Hagar was able to handle very well. When Hagar became pregnant, she claimed a new, higher status in Abraham's household—something Sarah resented. Sarah complained to Abraham, blaming him for allowing a delicate situation to disintegrate. Abraham refused to accept any responsibility in the matter and left the resolution of the dispute to Sarah. Again Sarah acted decisively, but this time to Hagar's detriment. Without attempting any sort of reconciliation, Sarah simply expelled her pregnant servant from Abraham's household (Gn 16:4-6). Fleeing to her native Egypt, Hagar spoke with a "messenger" from God, who urged her to return to Abraham's household and accept a status subordinate to Sarah. The messenger promised that she would have descendants beyond calculation and asserted that her unborn child would be a boy whom she was to name Ishmael. Hagar realized that she had encountered God in human form, calling God El-roi, "the God who sees me" (Gn 16:7-13).

Hagar took the advice of the messenger and returned to Abraham's household, accepting Sarah's terms. As the messenger promised, Hagar gave birth to a son whom Abraham named Ishmael—the very name that the messenger gave the child (Gn 16:11, 15). But Hagar looked forward to a future when her descendants would be free to carve out their own destiny in freedom. She heard the promises that God made and she was able to bide her time, waiting for the fulfillment of those promises, a fulfillment that might not come in her lifetime, but a fulfillment that would allow her children to live without the burdens of being "outsiders" with a status subordinate to Abraham's "real" family.

Growing Boys

Genesis takes up the story of Hagar again after 14 years have passed. Evidently Hagar and her son, Ishmael, were able to accept their subordinate status in Abraham's family. A new element of tension emerged when Sarah surprisingly conceived in her old age. She gave Abraham his second son, Isaac. His birth introduced a new complication in Abraham's household. This time it concerned the matter of inheritance. Now that she had a son, Sarah was determined to exclude Ishmael from any share in his father's wealth. Sarah wanted to ensure that she—and not Hagar—would control the inheritance that would pass from Abraham to his children, so she determined to eliminate her rival.

Sarah waited for the right time to make her move. She chose to force the issue at the celebration of Isaac's weaning that took place on his third birthday. No doubt the custom of celebrating a child's weaning originated to mark its crossing a very high hurdle. The infant mortality rate in antiquity meant that most children did not survive to their third birthday. Isaac did, and this boded well for his future and the future of Abraham's family. Of course, the patriarch was in great spirits. However, his mood changed abruptly once Sarah insisted that he choose between his two sons. Though Abraham felt uneasy about sending his elder son away, he acquiesced since the survival of Isaac to age three made it more likely that he would live to maturity. Abraham was confident that he would have his heir. The patriarch accepted Sarah's decision to send Hagar and Ishmael away because he apparently had a dream in which he heard God using Sarah's own words urging the explusion of her rival and her son (Gn 21:12-14a). The two "outsiders" were sent off into the Negev desert, but their water supply soon ran out. Again a "messenger" of God came to their rescue. The "messenger" led them to a well where they were able to find water and repeated the promise that Ishmael will be the ancestor of a great nation (Gn 21:15-21).

Losing a Son

This story of Hagar's second expulsion (Gn 21:1-21) is usually described as a doublet of the expulsion story in Genesis 16. It should, however, be seen as the parallel to the more well-known story of the sacrifice of Isaac that follows in Chapter 22. Abraham is faced with the prospect of losing a son. In Genesis 21, it is Sarah who insists that he forsake his firstborn son, Ishmael; in Genesis 22, it is God who insists that he sacrifice his son Isaac, the child with whom God was to make a covenant (Gn 17:19). In both instances, Abraham finds it impossible to disobey, since he believes that God has commanded that he forsake first Ishmael and then Isaac. In both stories, Abraham rises "early in the morning" to carry out what he takes as a divine command. He knows that his obedience will mean the death of his sons. Still, he obeys, placing the life of his children in God's hands. Ishmael cried out in the agony caused by thirst. Isaac questions his father about the animal for sacrifice. In both stories a "messenger" from God saves the lives of the two boys.

The Book of Genesis, then, is concerned for both of Abraham's sons. It does not ignore the fate of the child who would not become the one with whom God would make a covenant. Still, over the millennia, readers have focused on Genesis 22. The story of Isaac's submission has become a cornerstone of Jewish spirituality, while Christian readers have found in Isaac a type of Christ who obediently submitted to death. The Book of Genesis, however, tells the story of another of Abraham's sons, the one he did lose.

Interpreting the Story

The focus on Ishmael's destiny to be the ancestor of a great people shows that one dimension of the story was ethnographic, i.e., it was designed to explain both the similarities and dissimilarities of two peoples who lived in proximity to one another. The Israelites were to recognize that the Bedouin who lived in the desert to the south of Judah were, like them, "descendants of Abraham." Though the Israelites and Ishmaelites shared a common ancestor, their ultimate destinies were not to be the same. God favored the descendants of Isaac. It was through them then that God's promises to Abraham would find fulfillment. The Ishmaelites, like their ancestor, were free to control their own destiny, free from the oppression of people like Abraham and Sarah. It was Sarah's fears and Abraham's passivity that led to the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Their descendants, however, will be able to determine their future. Hagar was an outsider, an Egyptian, and Sarah and Abraham treated her and hers as such. They never even refer to her or her child by name. The desert home of the Ishmaelites offers them a freedom they never had in Abraham's home.

Paul uses a rabbinic-like allegory on the story of Ishmael and Isaac to emphasize that physical descent from Abraham is not decisive. Both Isaac and Ishmael were children of Abraham, yet Isaac is preferred because he was a child of the promise, "born according to the Spirit" (Galatians 4:21-31). Paul concludes that like Isaac those who believe in Christ are "children of the promise." The Apostle also states that those who live under the Law are slaves like Hagar, who corresponds to the earthly Jerusalem, while Christians, who are free from the Law, are children of the heavenly Jerusalem. He makes much the same point in Romans 9:7-9 where he notes that "it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise..." like Isaac.

In Galatians 4:29 Paul alludes to Genesis 21:9 when he remarks that "he who was born according to the flesh (Ishmael) persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit (Isaac)...." The Hebrew verb in Genesis 21:9 that Paul construes to mean "persecuted" does have both a positive and negative connotation. The King James version translates it as "mocked" while most modern English versions render it as "played" (NAB, RSV, JB). The Book of Genesis offers no hint at all of any animosity that Ishmael had toward his brother Isaac. On the contrary, Genesis displays a positive attitude toward Ishmael for the most part. It portrays him as one on whom God's blessing was to come (Gn 17:20; 21:18). Like Jacob, he had twelve sons (Gn 25:12-17), fulfilling the divine promise that he would have innumerable descendants who will become a great nation (Gn 16:10; 21:18). The "messenger" of God protected him (Gn 21:15-21), though he was an outcast prone to violence (Gn 16:12). After their separation, when Isaac was a toddler and Ishmael was a teenager, the two brothers peacefully came together when their father died some seventy years later (Gn 25:9). Ishmael lived to the age of 127 (Gn 25:9, 17), another sign of God's approval. Ishmael's descendants never appear to be in conflict with those of Isaac. One of David's sisters married an Ishmaelite (1 Chr 2:17) and an Ishmaelite and a Hagrite were administrators in David's court (1 Chr 27:30-31).

The story of Abraham's family—his wives Sarah and Hagar and his sons Isaac and Ishmael—is not a happy one. It is sad and tragic. Abraham did nothing to keep peace in his family but simply acquiesced as one wife expelled the other and her child. Hagar stands for all women exploited, abused, rejected. She is the alien without rights, the woman who faces her pregnancy alone, the wife divorced for the sake of another woman, the homeless woman, the welfare mother, the woman who lives for others, works for others, serves others and then finds herself abandoned. How do people of faith respond to the Hagars in their midst?

At the very least, this sad story summons its readers to examine their familial relationships to find what needs healing and reconciliation. It also challenges believers to broaden their horizons toward those outside the Christian community. Hagar and Ishmael are "outsiders," yet God appears to Hagar, speaks with her, protects her child, makes promises to her that mirror those made to Abraham (Gn 16:10-11). Christians ought to read this story against the backdrop of another text from Galatians—the text that speaks of the barriers between people that Christ has demolished: "...there is neither slave nor free...you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

While the Genesis story envisions the eventual freedom of Ishmael's descendants, it is a celebration above all of God's freedom. God's loving care extends to people outside the boundaries of "the people of God." In fact, God's actions reverse the exclusion brought about by Sarah's fears and Abraham's passivity. Likewise, God's mercy and love extend beyond the confines of the Christian communtiy. Arabs trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Ishmael. Have God's promises to Hagar and Ishmael been fulfilled in their Arab descendants? Has Islam become the way they find a continuing relationship with the God of their ancestors?

Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M., is a professor of Old Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Since 1991 he has served as editor of The Bible Today, a monthly publication of The Liturgical Press.

Next: Josephus (by Etienne Nodet)


Living the Scriptures  

How has reading the tragic story of Ishmael and Hagar, the two "outsiders" who were expelled from Abraham's household, affected your attitude toward "outsiders"? Identify "outsiders" that you encounter and examine how you treat them.



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