Children of Abraham?Essays, Meditations — By M. Morford on July 1, 2012 at 5:02 am
One of the common questions of Bible trivia games is ‘How many sons (or children) did Abraham have?’
Most Christians – and Jews – would say one – or possibly two; Isaac as the son of Sarah (and the son of the promise) and Ishmael, son of Hagar (with his own promise and blessing, Genesis 17:20, 21).
But the answer, according to the Bible is ‘many’ (Genesis 17:5, Joshua 24:3).
The implication is that those of us who follow any of the three religions that find their source in Abraham (about half of the world’s population is Jewish, Christian or Muslim) can consider ourselves ‘Children of Abraham’.
Philosophically, of course, if we claim Abraham’s belief system (monotheism) we can call ourselves children of his promise.
But the Bible, as always, is vastly more complicated.
Most discussions of the literal sons of Abraham devolve into philosophical, religious or political divisiveness; which usually means that what could have been a good conversation gets derailed or ends to no one’s satisfaction. But if we look a little closer, we see that the Bible’s story is far more complicated – and interesting.
Genesis 25:1-4, for example, notes without comment, Abraham’s second wife, Keturah, and names several additional children. The literal children are in fact ‘many’ – and not defined by gender.
Isaac is clearly Abraham’s favorite (and aside from Ishmael, presumably the eldest) and inherits Abraham’s estate (Genesis 25:5). Isaac is also the favorite among most Jews and Christians.
I have studied many books and commentaries on Abraham and the promised child, but few, if any, have pointed out the obvious fact that, yes, Abraham had ‘many’ children, but it was Sarah that only had one: Isaac.
Most of us have had lazy if not distorted and deceptive teaching in this area. If we are to call ourselves Children of Abraham, we should have a clearer sense of who he is – and who we are as we follow his legacy.
For example we are usually taught that Ishmael was exiled, like Cain, to the desert, and never heard from again. A closer look at the Biblical account reveals, as always, a much richer story; Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father (Genesis 25:9).
In other words, Ishmael and Isaac, as brothers, stayed in contact with each other and upheld family honor by coming together to bury their father.
This is the story of much more than two sons of two separate mothers from different races, classes and, eventually, two religious traditions – this is the story of one family, and its destiny, united by Abraham, and the Bible emphasizes this by the reunion of Isaac and Ishmael.
Abraham, in typical Middle-Eastern tradition, had more than one wife – and several concubines (Genesis 25:6). Hagar, mother of Ishmael, was Sarah’s servant, and had essentially no status or rights – even over her own body.
With apologies to the ardent defenders of ‘Biblical marriage’ – you won’t find the ‘one-man, one-woman’ model in the Old Testament very often, if at all. Adam and Eve are usually the core examples for monogamy – much better than Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, or David or Solomon or any of the kings, prophets or essentially any male from the Old Testament
In fact, Hebrew tradition speaks of Lilith, the first mate of Adam, who, for whatever reason, did not work out. The two creation stories (Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:18-22) make much more sense if you factor in Lilith.
And we tend to ‘forget’ that Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister.
In-family marriages were very common – Isaac married his first cousin (Genesis 28:5) and his son, Jacob married two of his cousins (and had two concubines, Genesis 30:3,9). Nahor, Abraham’s brother, married his own niece (Lot’s sister) (Genesis 11:29, 22:20). And Isaac’s other son, Esau, married Ishmael’s daughter – among many others (Genesis 28:9).
You have to love a sanitized word like ‘concubine’. We would now, in polite company use the word mistress – but sex slave might be a more accurate term.
I love the Bible for stories like this; we tend to imagine that tangled families are a modern invention. But we tend to ‘forget’ that the Bible still matters because it shows us people much (perhaps too much) like ourselves. There are no enlightened individuals, no flawless families or ideal communities, no idealized kings or kingdoms, or even perfect churches.
There is, however, a thriving Christian industry which sells us a full catalog of solutions and strategies for living the ideal Christian life or having the ideal family or career. I hope everyone has a family they are proud of and a satisfying life, but I certainly have never seen a model for it in the Bible. In fact I don’t even believe that is what the Bible is for.
Could it even be possible that the Bible is all about Abraham’s message that God, in essence, is good, and intends good, for us – all of us – no matter what our family or relationship history?
And the Bible is clear that this faith is what makes one a ‘child of Abraham’. And, in spite of dismal and sometimes horrifying headlines, there are in fact ‘many’ children of Abraham’s promise. We just don’t always recognize them.