In the bible as in life, sometimes the best things come in small packages. Hidden between two boring genealogies in Genesis 25 is a three line mini-story that is one of my favorite moments in Genesis. Here it is:
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
The story is profound in its simplicity: Isaac and Ishmael, two half-brothers who did not get along, come together in peace to bury their father. It’s an amazing story of forgiveness that I think says a lot to us still today. Read on for more.
It takes a moment before you realize how amazing and beautiful this passage is. It was only four chapters ago that Isaac and Ishmael fought as brothers, but Isaac’s mother Sarah was having none of it and ordered her husband to cast Ishmael and his mother out to the desert. Abraham knew that God would keep them safe, but it was a terrible hardship for the pair and they both nearly died before they were rescued by an angel. Isaac, on the other hand, was nearly sacrificed by his father a chapter later, so it was a very stressful time.
But after all that hardship, the brothers came together to bury their father. Through their common grief, they found something uncommon: forgiveness and even a joint sense of purpose. This is remarkable when you consider just how challenging it is to be siblings in the Torah: Cain’s rivalry with Abel led to the first murder, Jacob’s and Esau’s will nearly lead to war, and Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Of all the prominent brothers, only Moses and Aaron were successful together, and look what they accomplished!
One of the Proverbs, traditionally written by Solomon, remarks on how difficult it is for brothers to reunite:
A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.
This passage has, of course, taken on new meaning in the conflict between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Where Jews and Christians embraced Isaac as one of their patriarchs, Muslims tie their history to Ishmael. In the Quran, it is Ishmael that is nearly sacrificed on the mountain, not Isaac. Like siblings in Genesis, the three Abrahamic faiths bicker and even come to violence, but there is so much more than connects them than separates them. Isaac and Ishmael, in the bible at least, came to a peace together. They saw in their father, Abraham, their shared history and perhaps even their shared joy.
As I live in an inter-faith household, this verse is even more precious to me. My parents are Christian and that is the culture that I grew up with. My wife and son are Jewish. I love aspects of both Judaism and Christianity, though my own relationship to God has become complex. I hope for a day when the familial bickering and violence between the faiths– especially with respect to Islam– subsides and we see these three faiths in the light of what they have in common instead of what they have different. It may be too much to ask yet, but this is why I hold this passage and this message so close to me.
The book of Hosea has a similar sentiment in the beginning of the second chapter. As Israel falls once again into sin and God readies another punishment, Hosea looks forward to a time when Israel can be united again, when the brother tribes repent and embrace each other as siblings:
“Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one.’
I love this story because I love to think that siblings can come together in common purpose, no matter how wide the gulf seems. If Isaac and Ishmael can do it, why can’t we?
Now, you don’t read this blog for the proselytizing, so here’s a few geeky things that I noticed while studying this story:
- This story happens a very long time after Isaac and Ishmael separated in Genesis 21: Isaac is now 75 and Ishmael is 89. It’s been more than a half century since their last recorded meeting in the bible.
- This story, and the death of Ishmael a few verses later, are out of chronological order. Abraham died when Jacob and Esau were 15, but the story of their birth is later in the chapter. But ending Abraham’s and Ishmael’s story here ties up the loose ends so that the story of Isaac, Jacob, and Esau can be told without interruption.
- Not all commentators see this passage as describing forgiveness. Rashi, for example, read in this that the brothers came together because Ishmael repented, recognizing Isaac as the favored son. Rashi was writing in 12th century France and only a few stones’ throw from Muslim Spain, so his view may have been colored by his own experience.
What are the ramifications of that peace? More when we talk about Ishmael’s children next time.