Historically, cultures have treated Ishmael and Isaac as quarreling brothers, separating them as though they were mutually exclusive from one another. While religious cultures have bought into this misguided characterization of them, the biblical text offers an alternative view of the brothers separated in conflict but reunited in death.
Ishmael was born into a conflicted situation, with Sarah seeking to rip him from Hagar’s arms in order to make him her own. Listen closely to Sarah’s words to Abraham, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl (Hagar); it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). Sarah is not just a woman seeking a son for her husband; she is a barren woman wanting a child for herself, willing to obtain (Hebrew – banah, meaning to construct or fortify) a child by taking him from the arms of the birth mother. The text does not indict nor acquit her, it simply states the actions of a desperate woman.
Even before Isaac was born, Sarah and Hagar were at odds. Once with child, a pregnant Hagar looked at Sarah with contempt (16:5). This angered Sarah, sending her to Abraham to complain. Withdrawing from his responsibility or not understanding the dire predicament he was facing, Abraham instructs Sarah to do as she pleases with her slave (16:6). Sarah treats her harshly, sending Hagar fleeing towards her home in Egypt. However, an angel of the Lord intercedes and informs Hagar her son would also prosper as Abraham’s son. Hagar returns.
The great conflict that separated the brothers occurred when Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac. There is a lot of conjecture as to what the term “mocking” means, but what can be assured is that Sarah did not approve. What tips us off that this was a conflict between Sarah and Hagar is the fact Ishmael’s name is not used by Sarah. She calls him, “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” She pleads with Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael, a certain death sentence for most single mothers wandering the wilderness. In the end, after being reassured by Yahweh that his eldest son would be blessed, Abraham exiles them, sending them east into the wilderness. Yahweh keeps his promise, saving Ishmael from a certain death and saving Hagar from having to watch her son perish in the desert heat.
What are we to ascertain by a careful reading of this account? The separation of two brothers is a direct result of the actions of others. Biblical evidence does not support the commonly held belief that a great rift existed between Ishmael and Isaac. They were separated because others chose to separate them. And here is the greater moment that we all need to frame in our minds and remember in our hearts; when Abraham dies, the two estranged brothers reunite and bury their father (25:7-9). This is a very powerful image. Two brothers separated by sin, brought back together by the death of and love for their father.
It is this final image of two brothers I hold tightly as I reflect on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. For multiple millenniums, different cultures have quarreled over whom God favors more. Let us never forget that the brothers were separated not by their own sin, but by the sins of others projecting their prejudices and selfishness upon them. Let us never forget that love for their father brought them back together. Let us never forget that if we wish to seek an eternal peace for our post-9/11 world, we too should set down our sinful ways and permit the love of our Father to bring us together.