A Tale of Two Brothers

National Aboriginal Day of Prayer,     June 25, 2017

Genesis 21:1-21

It is a tale of two brothers we are hearing today as our first reading.  Ishmael and Isaac, the two sons of Abraham.  Last week we read of the birth of Isaac, the long promised son of Abraham and Sarah, born to them in their old age.  It is a story of promise and fulfilment, of joy and laughter at the unexpected ways in which God’s faithfulness works its way out.

But Isaac is not Abraham’s only son.  Before Isaac there was Ishmael.  As Abraham and Sarah grew older, and the promised child did not come, they took things into their own hands.  Sarah sent her slave girl, Hagar, to her husband’s bed: “it may be that I shall obtain children by her”, she said.  And sure enough, Hagar became pregnant.  But Sarah soon realized that it isn’t as simple as her obtaining children by her slave.  Hagar may be her slave, her property, but she is also a person in her own right, and the child she has conceived is hers, not her mistress’s.  Hagar, we are told, looked with contempt on her mistress, and Sarah responded by treating her harshly, eventually driving her to run away into the desert.

There, by a spring of water in the wilderness, she encounters God face to face.  An angel appears to her with a promise: this child she is carrying will be the father of a great nation.  He will be a “wild ass of a man”, a man of the wilderness, who loves his freedom.  And with that promise Hagar is sent back to her mistress Sarah, strengthened by God’s blessing to bear Sarah’s jealousy.

But now, several years later, Ishmael is a lad, and his half-brother Isaac has been born.  Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her son, and again her jealousy is awakened.  She cannot bear to see her special boy growing up alongside this older brother who is not hers.  And so she prevails upon her husband to send Ishmael and Hagar away, this time for good.
And so Hagar finds herself once again in the wilderness.  When the water is gone she sits down and prepares to die.  But once more God appears to her by a spring of water, once more the promise is repeated.  Her eyes are opened, she sees the water and drinks, and survives to raise her child in the wilderness.  He becomes a great bowman, and flourishes in the desert.

What is going on here?  First of all, this is the story of a family, of intrigues and struggles, of hope and mistakes, of love and jealousy.  The book of Genesis is the original soap opera. “The Young and the Restless” has nothing on the twists and turns of Abraham’s family, as we follow them through four generations.  But it is a soap opera with a theological point.  It tells us these stories in order to tell us something about God: that this is where we encounter God, in the lives of ordinary men and women, with all their fallibility and pain, that is where God is to be found.  It was a radical and miraculous message when these stories were written down.  The core of the book of Genesis is one of the oldest parts of our Bible, written down from the oral tradition about 3000 years ago.  Its accomplishment is particularly remarkable when you compare it with the way in which ancient Middle Eastern people usually talked about the divine: by telling great cosmic myths about heros and gods, doing battle with the forces of chaos and darkness.  The radical message of Genesis is that God is not to be found in the myths of the heros, but in the very real stories of everyday human lives and relationships. It was a radical message then, it remains a radical message today.

I don’t know about you, but I have some vague memories of this story from my Sunday School days.  What I remember is that Isaac was the good child, whereas Ishmael was always a bit shady.  I don’t know whether this was explicitly taught to me, or whether that was simply the way my young mind made sense of the story, by moralizing it.  It was clear that Ishmael’s rough wildness was not something a child should aspire to, and the blended family was quite simply wrong in the world of suburbia I grew up in.  Now, coming back to the story as an adult, I realize there is so much in there I could not understand as a child.  It is a story about slavery of course.  It is a story about rape, let’s use the ugly word, because that is what we have to call it when a slave is sent to her master’s bed.  It is a story about jealousy, about sexuality and fertility as a means of power, particularly for Hagar who is otherwise so powerless.  But it is also a story of God’s grace, in a way that I could not understand as a child with my upbringing: that God does not just bless “proper” dad-mom-and two and a half kid families: God’s blessing is there in dysfunctional families, in blended families, in all kinds of families with all our mistakes and struggles.  That is a lesson the book of Genesis repeats time and time again.  What I could not see as a child was that this is a story, not of how Ishmael is cursed, but how he is blessed by God. 

This story is not only about two brothers, though; it is also a story about two nations.  Ishmael and Isaac both share in the promise to Abraham to be the father of a great multitude.  Isaac is of course a patriarch of the Jews, and through him and his son Jacob the nation of Israel will arise.  And Ishmael is the father of the people of the desert, the Ishmaelites, from whom the tradition says the Arabs were descended.  Isaac was the ancestor of the people of the settled lands; Ishmael the patriarch of the people of the wilderness.  

And here again the story again resists moralizing.  The accepted propaganda version, of course, is that Isaac is the favoured son, the ancestor of the chosen people, whereas Ishmael is one cast out.  And yet it is not so simple.  Because the story is not just propaganda: it is nuanced and complex. It is quite explicit in going out of its way to tell of how God blessed Hagar, the slave woman, and her son Ishmael, and in this way it is more than a bit subversive.   This is a clue that the Islamic tradition would pick up and run with, as it speaks of Ishmael as a great prophet and the founder of Mecca.  But the roots of this tradition are already implicit in our Bible, in the special care that God shows not just to the chosen people, but to this other line as well.

What is particularly interesting to me today is that the lectionary, by a weird coincidence that is actually quite common, gives us this story on Aboriginal Day of Prayer.  This story of two brothers, and of two nations they symbolize, gives us an interesting lens to think about our own nation, and the relationship between our settler culture and our First Nations. 

Let me be clear: I do not mean to suggest that the First Nations are Ishmael in any direct sense.  That would be inexcusable on my part to attempt to define them in any way, to say who they are or try to fit them into any kind of mental box.  The Bible doesn’t work that way, either.  This story is about Isaac and Ishmael, and secondarily about the ancient Israelites and Ishmaelites; it is not some kind of coded prophesy for our own day.  

But the Bible works by telling stories that echo again in new contexts, that are repeated, but each time differently.  And so I think it is worthwhile to ask what clues this echo of the story of two nations might offer us at this stage in our national life.

This is a story that begins in jealousy, the private jealousy of Sarah, but it ends in the rivalry of two nations.  The story of the promise is primarily about Isaac.  Ishmael is defined over against Isaac throughout the story: he is the one rejected, sent away; he is the wild man of the wilderness, romanticized as being an expert with the bow, but also kept apart and below Isaac.

And that seems to me not unlike what we have done in the unhappy relationship of our nation.  We have assumed as something quite self-evident, without even having to argue for it, that our settler culture is the real history of Canada.  After all, it is the way it was taught to us in school: the history of Canada is a history of discovery and settlement, from Jacques Cartier on.  We have not claimed explicitly that we are the chosen people, it’s true (as, for example, some white churches in South Africa did); but we have taken it for granted.  And the First Nations have had the role of Ishmael thrust upon them: the ones who were rejected as the rest of us wrote our national story, left behind, turned into the other, pushed to the fringe, out into the wilderness where we romanticize their relationship with nature, without being truly challenged to learn from them.

If there are echos of our national story in this tale of two brothers, what might it teach us?  A reminder, first of all, that we are brothers, children of the one God in this place; that in itself should be a reason to draw together.  One does not have the impression that Isaac and Ishmael had much of a relationship; and that is sad. They came together to bury their father (that’s so often the way, isn’t it?), but the Bible tells us of no other meetings.  Their life history sent them down different paths.  And now, three thousand years later, their descendants are still at odds in the Holy Land.

But the story tells us also of God’s faithfulness to Ishmael; and this faithfulness subverts and undercuts the tale of Isaac’s special calling.  God is not the God of a single nation; and God’s blessing is to be found in those who have been marginalized by our national story.
And that should give us hope.  As we prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our nation, let us not be afraid to look beyond the propaganda of our national story, and see other stories, stories that we have thrust to one side in the past, but which can still bless us.  Let us seek reconciliation between our cultures, these two estranged brothers, that our next 150 years may be even better.