Posts Tagged ‘ishmael’

Abraham Study: Ishmael and Isaac

June 29, 2017

I am a couple of weeks behind with the Abraham Study, so let’s catch up. Two weeks ago the chapter was about Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. Last week the chapter was about Isaac, the son that Abraham had with Sarah, his wife.

As the story goes, God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah; but they are old and Sarah gets impatient. They have recently lived in Egypt and acquired an Egyptian woman to serve Sarah, and Sarah decides that it is through Hagar that the son will be born. She seems to imagine that Hagar will give birth and just turn the baby over to Sarah to raise. Abraham is uncertain but when Hagar goes to him he sleeps with her and becomes pregnant.

This is where Sarah’s plan goes awry. Hagar now has status over Sarah because of her pregnancy, and the story indicates that she taunts Sarah with it. So Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away. Again Abraham is uncertain but does as Sarah asks. Hagar is sent into the desert, where God tells her to return. She goes back and Ishmael is born. Thus, he is the first born son.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac, the second son, is born. Conflict arises once again between Sarah/ Isaac and Hagar/ Ishmael and Sarah once again demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham is uncertain once again, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

It’s interesting to note that here the Jewish scriptures, known by Jews and Christians, have one story, but there are other stories about what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Of course the Christian tradition has the story that Hagar and Ishmael are sent away into the desert, where they nearly die of thirst. But God hears their cries and gives them water and then promises that Ishmael will be father of a great nation.

The other story is quite different– Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and settles them there and even revisits them later. In this version there is a continuing relationship between Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael.

How does this story and our understanding of Ishmael as firstborn son inform our understanding of Abraham? To begin with, it seems likely that Abraham has some real affection for Ishmael because he is the first born son. At that time birth order was quite important, and the eldest was the heir of the father. The story implies that Abraham was born because Sarah went against God’s intent and that Isaac was intended as heir to God’s covenant with Abraham rather than Ishmael (the Jewish/ Christian traditional reading. One way or another Hagar and Ishmael are taken care of by God.

At this point I find Abraham to be a rather ambiguous character. On the one hand he seems to have this one-to-one relationship with God; on the other hand, when Sarah tells him to send Hagar away he does it. Regretfully, perhaps, but he does it. This seems to be at odds with his reputation as a man of great faith who took up stakes and moved his family at God’s behest.

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael in the Jewish/ Christian scriptures. At one point Joseph is given to “the Ishmaelites” by his brothers. Islamic tradition views Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Over time the Ishmaelites became associated with the term “Arab”. ┬áIn Islamic tradition Ishmael seems to be seen as the link to Abraham and, as first son, a reason that Islam should be considered the ‘true’ or ‘primary’ religion; he is at least a partial source of division particularly between Jews and Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.

For notes Bill Lindsay’s notes on the chapter about Isaac, click here.

 

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