Saturday, June 13, 2009

Genesis 17: Abraham, Ishmael, and the One-State Solution

As another president wades into the murky waters of the Israeli/Palestinian land dispute—and “murky waters” seems an exercise in drastic understatement—some commentators have taken the opportunity to recall the Biblical roots of the split between the Arab Muslims and Israeli Jews.

It all begins (quite literally, I suppose) in Genesis. Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac—the first by the maidservant Hagar, the second by his wife Sarah. In the history of religions, Muslims trace their lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael, Jews through Isaac.

For Jews and Christians—and more generally, for the Bible—Isaac is the preferred son. It is his lineage that the narrative follows and his line through which the divine covenant will persist. As God confirms, “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (17:21).

However, even in the Hebrew text, Ishmael is no black sheep. It bears remembering that he too receives a blessing directly from God: “As for Ishmael […] I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (17:20). And his mother, Hagar, actually receives two direct revelations from the Lord—or theophanies. No small thing for a woman in the Bible text, or for any character, for that matter. (By contrast, Joseph never gets a direct call from God.)

Charlotte Gordon explores the contemporary relevance of this double blessing in a recent piece in Religion Dispatches, and coyly suggests that it is the Lord who first proposes the much-ballyhooed “two-state solution.” (Thanks to Martyn Oliver for drawing my attention to Gordon’s piece on his blog.)

However, Gordon’s line of thinking only takes us so far—to a certain equality between Ishmael and Isaac and, by extension, Arabs and Israelis. I’d like to complicate matters a bit, however, by posing the question: Whom does Abraham like more?

The knee-jerk response is, of course, Isaac. The faithful Abraham, we presume, must take God’s cue and prefer his second, “legitimate” son to his first, right? Well, the text actually suggests otherwise.

In chapter 17, God appears to Abraham and announces the thing we think he’s been waiting for: his own son by his own wife. “I will give you a son by her,” say the Lord, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations.” Abraham, upon hearing the news, actually does something unexpected; he laughs. Usually, it is Sarah whom we remember laughing at the birth announcement. However, Abraham does so first, busting out at the notion of his 90 year-old wife having a child.

But his next utterance is more telling: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” Abraham, it seems, is perfectly satisfied with the son he already has. Not concerned with our own—or perhaps medieval—notions of legitimacy, Abraham hopes that his “bastard” son will pick up the covenantal love.

Later on, once both sons are born, there is predictable tension between Hagar and Sarah. So much so that Sarah pulls rank and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be turned out. But the text is revealing; Sarah, not a little cattily, complains to her husband, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Wow! And remember, it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham get with this “slave woman” in the first place.

But the following line tells more: “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son” (21: 11). Notice – his son, one son. And I don’t think there’s any other way to read this passage than as referring to Ishmael. And the singular case is notable, too … as if the narrator is tacitly suggesting that for Abraham, there is only one son, his son, Ishmael.

Nonetheless, Sarah’s will is done, and the slave and the boy are cast out, but with divine protection. (Notice that here, as with Rebekah later, God’s choice confirms the woman’s choice. Sarah backs Isaac and gets her way, just as Rebekah will back Jacob—against her husband Isaac’s wishes—and prevail.)

Of course, it is God’s will that counts, and the divine preference for Isaac will also prevail. However, given Allah’s eventual championing of Ishmael in the Qur'an, the gods cancel each other out. And perhaps Abraham is the arbiter whose choice will tip the scales.

And Abraham, even in the Hebrew Bible, would choose Ishmael. So now what do we do with the two-state solution?


  1. Along these lines, I'm always intrigued by God's command at the beginning of the akedah story, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go..." (Gen. 22.2). First, it seems inaccurate, and, second, what about that little clause "whom you love"? On the first issue, Abraham must be thinking, "Huh? What about the other one?" But maybe God is imposing a kind of epistemological fiat on the here this: for all intents and purposes, Isaac _is_ your only son now, and now you have to sacrifice him. "Whom you love" is even more interesting: I read this as, again, something as a command, and also something of a reminder. As in, "You know, the son you love (hint, hint...even though I know you have the deeper connection with the other one."

    The whole line of inquiry leads to a difficult challenge for our reading of the binding episode: If Abe favored Ishmael and privileged Isaac only because of an external imperative, then isn't the drama of the episode somewhat deflated? No wonder, maybe, Abe's actions in Gen. 22 are so mechanical...

  2. Of course, "now here this" is supposed to be "now _hear_ this."

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  4. Absolutely, Brad--"mechanical" is the word. Though I sometimes go even farther when teaching Genesis 22. Perhaps we can understand Abraham's (otherwise inexplicable, Kierkegaard notwithstanding) willingness to sacrifice Isaac in terms of his preference for Ishmael. Kill the new--get back the old.

  5. Actually, some versions have 21:11 as saying Abraham was greatly distressed especially on account of his son Ishmael. However, I don't know if I would put so much stock in the reference just to Ishmael in that line - surely we wouldn't expect Abraham to be distressed for Isaac's sake?


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