By Gwen Sayler—
To say that we live in anxious times is an understatement. Harsh rhetoric fills our airways, and violent actions our news—often pitting one religion against another or elevating one religion above others. How are we called to respond?
Scriptural stories of sibling relationships and rivalries offer helpful resources in our quest to be faithful to our calling in our time. Rivalry leading to violence is not new. It begins with Cain killing his brother, Abel, and continues throughout the Bible.
Typically, the rivals are siblings, and the issue at stake is the assumed scarcity of blessing. What does God’s choice of one sibling as bearer of the covenant promised to Abraham mean for other siblings?
Of the many stories, we might be wise to start with the story of the two half-brothers—and their mothers—whose descendants are still the focus of heated rhetoric and violence to this day.
Sarah and Hagar
Most of us probably remember the story of the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac (Genesis 21). Born to Abraham and Sarah during Sarah’s post-menopausal years, Isaac is the bearer of the covenant of blessing that God made with Abraham.
What some of us may not remember is that while Isaac was Sarah’s only son, he was Abraham’s second son. Frustrated by her many years of infertility, Sarah orders Abraham to impregnate her Egyptian slave, Hagar. According to ancient law, a matriarch could use a slave as a surrogate mother, with the matriarch claiming as her own the child born to the slave and the matriarch’s husband. Much to Hagar’s dismay, this is what Sarah does. Abraham names the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” At birth, he becomes the legal son of Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham loves Ishmael and is quite willing to have him inherit the promised blessings of the covenant. God, however, reiterates that Sarah will bear a son who will inherit the covenant promises God made with Abraham. At this news, Abraham and Sarah laugh. As we know, God keeps God’s promises, and in her old age, Sarah bears her son, Isaac, whose name means “laughter.” The covenant promises pass through Isaac, who takes his place as ancestor of the Jewish people.
Meanwhile, Sarah, resenting Ishmael once Isaac is born, demands that he and his mother be expelled into the desert to die. When Abraham protests, God tells him to obey Sarah, promising Abraham that God will make a great nation of Ishmael’s descendants. Plunged into the desert without adequate resources to survive in its harsh environment, Hagar waits to die as Ishmael cries in hunger.
God intervenes with water and food. Mother and son survive and thrive in the desert region. True to God’s promise, Ishmael takes his place as ancestor of the Arab people (Genesis 21).
Responding to the rift
Although the story itself is more about rivalry between mothers than between sons, what makes it so significant in our time is the ongoing sibling rivalry between the communities that trace their ancestry to the two sons of Abraham. Islam traces its lineage to Ishmael, while Judaism and Christianity trace theirs to Isaac. How each of these religions is called to relate to its siblings is a matter of debate. Is God’s salvific covenant relationship limited to one sibling at the expense of others? Responses to this question run the spectrum from “yes” to “no” to variations of “maybe.”
Perhaps returning to the conclusion of the story of Abraham, Sarah and their two sons can be helpful. After Sarah dies and is buried by Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael settle in the wilderness, and Hagar gets an Egyptian wife for Ishmael. Meanwhile, Isaac remains with Abraham, who sends a servant to find him a wife. Abraham re-marries and has more children. When Abraham dies, his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together to bury him. Isaac moves to dwell in the desert area near where the angel had told Hagar that her son’s name would be Ishmael (Genesis 24-25).
Note the lack of rivalry in the relationship between the sons. True, the blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham pass only through Isaac. But Isaac’s election as bearer of the promise does not mean Ishmael’s rejection by God. He, too, receives a covenant, different from Isaac’s but fitted to his personality. The same dynamic will hold true in the stories of Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. Does this mean that rivalry between the sibling religions tracing their lineage to Abraham is unnecessary?
Can it be that God chooses to relate to people different from us in covenants different than the covenant through which God relates to us? How scarce or expansive is God’s blessing? These hard questions are important to ponder as we think about rivalries in our relationships—those near to us and those more distant as well.
Dr. Gwen Sayler is Professor of Bible at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and a proud member of the Valpo Lutheran Deaconess Class of ’71.
This article is excerpted from the April 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.