Ishmael, the Older Brother
She [Sarah] said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son; for that slave woman’s son will never share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” . . . God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . . God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. . . . The angel of the Lord also said . . . : “He will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Genesis 21:10, 17a, 20; 16:11a, 12c
Followers of the Muslim religion — at least those of Arab extraction — believe that they are descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham the patriarch. Islamic tradition even teaches that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the son whom Abraham nearly sacrificed on the mountaintop.
It is easy to see how such ideas could arise. The Jewish people, both those of Bible times and those living today, have undeniable ethnic ties with many speakers of Arabic in the Middle East. Both groups are correctly referred to as Semitic peoples. (An interesting aside: When someone expresses negative feelings toward Arabs, should this be labeled as anti-Semitism?)
Furthermore, those who follow the Jewish faith and those who follow the Islamic faith are both equally strong in stating their belief that there is only one God.
Given these reasons for closeness, then, does it not seem strange that Jews and Arabs have seemingly been at dagger points as long as anyone can remember? In our own time we hear about conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but that is only a modern manifestation of an age-old enmity.
According to the Bible, this sharp dissension between similar peoples goes all the way back to Father Abraham. In his yearning to have an heir, Abraham had a son with his wife’s maidservant, Hagar. Then at last the divine promise was fulfilled, and Abraham’s wife Sarah also had a son.
One day when Isaac was still a child and Ishmael the older brother was but a youth, something happened between the two of them. Differing translations of the Scriptures suggest that Ishmael may have been mocking Isaac, or making fun of him, or perhaps merely playing with him.
Whatever it was, Sarah would have none of it. Ishmael and his mother must be sent off at once into the desert. There they might have died of thirst, had not God heard Ishmael’s cry.
This Bible-based poetic meditation offers an imaginative insight into how Ishmael himself might have viewed his life — past, present, and future.
I never meant to hurt my little brother.
I only teased him, as a boy will do.
But jealousy seized hold of my stepmother.
She said, “One son’s enough; no room for two!”
I think my father loved me, yet he spurned me;
he sent me from the home I’d always known.
The searing sunlight of the desert burned me;
by sharp and sand-filled winds my hair was blown.
I’d never had to face such harsh conditions;
my life had been an easy one till then.
In trackless sand, you always face decisions:
this way, or that, or turning back again.
My strength gave out — no water left for drinking.
I stumbled toward a bush that offered shade.
My hopes for sheer survival started shrinking;
my dreams of better days began to fade.
And then somehow . . . I seemed to hear my father:
He’d built an altar, calling on the Name.
I cried out, sobbing, “Lord God of my father,
O give me water in this desert flame!”
The Lord God of my father heard me crying;
He showed the way to find a desert well.
The place I’d thought would be a place of dying
turned out to be a home and not a hell.
The burning desert, far from any other —
that’s where I hunt, that’s where I live, you see.
I’d like to be more friendly with my brother, . . .
but that, it seems, can never come to be.
O Father-God of us all, send peace and true brotherhood upon Your troubled earth! Amen.
Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas