Embracing Difference: Reconciliation of Isaac and Ishmael

In our time of religious and ethnic conflict, the call of our text is to see the blessings of our brothers and sisters of different faiths. We need to hear each other’s stories, honor each other’s blessings and come together in shared commitment.

Is religion a force for good or evil?

It is both. At its best, religion teaches us morality, and links us to community and fellow human. At it worst, religion is narrow and a source of hatred.

Religion that proclaims itself to be the sole source of Truth (“I am right, and you are wrong”) is always a source of evil. Such religion turns those who disagree with their version of faith into Other – a non-human whose life holds no value. This type of religion needs to be categorically rejected. In fact, when we open up our shared sacred text we find a much different view of how we are to deal with people who are different.

Religion rooted in sacred text embraces that people of different faiths and cultures can be godly. They are uniquely gifted and are to be embraced as brothers and sisters. This morning I want to look at story of one of the first divisions in humanity – Isaac and Ishmael, and study this text of origin, which in fact affirms the blessings of those who are different.

It is a story that is often misunderstood. For those who do not read the Torah carefully – Isaac replaces Ishmael, and Isaac will bear the covenant into the future. But this is not the story of one nation displacing another. As we peel away the layers of a complex and subtle text we discover another story altogether. Building on the analysis of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the book, Not in God’s Name, we see a different narrative that has profound implications in our world.

Let’s do a quick review of what I am talking about, which begins in this morning’s portion. Abram and Sarai are infertile. Sarai suggests Abram have a child with his maidservant Hagar. When Hagar becomes pregnant, she lords it over Sarai who is angry and lashes out. Hagar runs away and God’s angel tells her to return to Sarai – for God has special plans for Hagar and Ishmael. But when Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac, she demands that Abraham send away Hagar and Ishmael. As Ishmael is about to die from dehydration, God opens Hagar’s eyes, revealing life saving water. The birth rite goes through Isaac, who is seen as the ancestor of the Jewish people. The expelled child, who does not carry on the covenant and is seen as the ancestor of the Muslims is Ishmael.

On the surface, it is a dangerous story of division and rejection of Ishmael. When we look carefully at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, we note the extraordinary length to which the text goes to insist that God will bless Ishmael. It is not as simple as Isaac who triumphs, and Ishmael who is rejected. Go back to the line in this morning’s portion where Hagar runs away in verse 10 – “Hirba hir’beh et zarecha – I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” That promise that is made to Hagar is the exact same promise made to Abraham about his offspring in Genesis 15:15  – that his children will be too numerous to count. Hagar and Ishmael will be just as blessed as Abraham and Isaac.

And what does God tell Abraham about Ishmael? This is right after God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child – 17:20 “As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. Again the language is suggestive. The promise of ‘twelve rulers’ reminds us of Jacob’s twelve sons, each of whom become a tribe. The phrase ‘a great nation’ echoes God’s promise to Abraham at the beginning of the chapter (12:2). Even though Isaac will continue the covenant, Ishmael will be no less great, perhaps greater. Certainly he will have a share in Abraham’s blessing.

And when Sarah demands that Abraham send Ishmael away, God says, “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” God recognizes that Ishmael remains Abraham’s son and will be blessed accordingly. And as Ishmael lies dying, as God opens Hagar eyes to the water before her, God promises, “I will make him into a great nation.”

God does not reject Hagar or Ishmael. God saves them and repeats what was promised to Abraham – that Ishmael would become a great nation. This is not a story of choice and rejection at all. Isaac has been chosen for a specific destiny, but Ishmael has not been rejected – certainly not by God.

As we delve deeper into the story, we see that the word used to describe Sarah’s treatment of Hagar after Hagar becomes pregnant is the Hebrew word Ina –she afflicted her. The English translation in this text, she treated her harshly is not accurate. The Hebrew is the exact same word to describe how the Egyptians treated the Jews. Sarah is not treated as a heroine in this narrative. When we see Hagar and Ishmael near death, the text focuses on them and directs our sympathy toward their plight. The story is saturated with emotion connecting us to Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar weeps, and we feel the pathos. The text pulls us toward them.

None of this is what we expect, or the simple way most people understand the text. Most would say the hero is Isaac. He is chosen – but in the story our sympathies are pulled to Ishmael and Hagar. We learn he will be blessed, that God hears his tears and is ‘with him’ as he grows up. The masterstroke of the text is that despite the covenant going through Isaac, we enter Hagar and Ishmael’s world. We feel for them. We weep with them, as does God! God hears their tears, comforts them, saves them from death and gives them Divine blessing. Ishmael means ‘he whom God has heard.’

And what happens at the end of the story? When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael come together again to bury him. The story beneath the story is one of reconciliation and embrace as brothers. The Midrash has Abraham visiting Ishmael and continuing to love and support him. On the surface the story of Isaac and Ishmael is about sibling rivalry and the displacement of the elder by the younger. Beneath the surface is just the opposite. Isaac does not displace Ishmael. To be sure, he will have a different destiny. But he too is a beloved son of Abraham, blessed by his father and God. He becomes a great nation. God is ‘with him’ as he grows up. The half brothers stand together at their father’s grave. There is no hostility or conflict.

So where does that leave us today?  With faith that brothers can live together in peace. In our time of religious and ethnic conflict, the call of our text is to see the blessings of our brothers and sisters of different faiths. We need to hear each other’s stories, honor each other’s blessings and come together in shared commitment.

And to those of any faith – Judaism, Islam, Christianity or any other faith – who says, “Only my faith is true,” we respond that is not the message of our sacred shared text. The book for Genesis is a stunning rejection of dehumanization, demonization and division of humanity into the all-good and the all-bad. It is that division of the world into all good or all bad that leads to violence in God’s name. We reject that narrative. God’s reply to those who do violence in God’s name is that we are meant to love and bless those who are different. God embraces diversity and demands that morality be extended to every human. We won’t change the terrorist – we might change those who the terrorist reaches out to in order to influence and radicalize. There are many who are not terrorists with whom we can forge alliance, connection and mutual rejection of the evil done in religion’s name.

So what am I asking? I am asking us to be ambassadors of a religion that embraces the world in its diversity. I am asking us to reject the language of hatred that divides us – especially during violent times. I am asking us to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best – a faith that unites humanity by seeing the sanctity of every life, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, and the commandment to pursue peace. I’m asking us to know people of different faiths and cultures and embrace our common humanity. To quote Rabbi Sacks: “Today God is calling us…to live as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoring God’s name by honoring humankind.”  May we embrace this call.