Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Isaac and Ishmael:
Brothers in Conflict
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 deserveperhaps
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 householdtensions that neither Sarah
nor Hagar was able to handle very well. When Hagar became pregnant,
she claimed a new, higher status in Abraham's householdsomething
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 Ishmaelthe
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.
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 sheand not
Hagarwould 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 familyhis wives Sarah
and Hagar and his sons Isaac and Ishmaelis 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 Galatiansthe 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?