ABRAHAM AND ISHMAEL
Rembrandt's take on the Sacrifice of Isaac After many years Sarah still had not bore Abraham any children despite repeated promises by God that he would be the father of a great nation and have many descendants. Worried that she would never have a child, Sarah encouraged Abraham to have a relationship with Sarah's Egyptian slave Hagar. In the Middle East at that time it was a common custom for barren wives to encourage their husbands to procreate with slaves or concubines. According to a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet from Nuzi in 1400 B.C.: "If [the wife] does not bear [she] shall acquire a [slave girl] as a wife for [the husband]."
Still Sarah was unhappy with Hagar. She complained to Abraham that after Hagar “saw she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes.” Abraham told her, “Look, your slave girl is in your hands. Do to her whatever you think right.” Sarah cast out the pregnant Hagar who began a trek towards Egypt, but returned to Sarah’s side after God ordered her to do so.
When Abraham was 86, Hagar gave birth to a son, Ishmael, which means “God has heard.” According to Jewish and Christian scriptures, Ishmael was Abraham’s first son but was not the heir to God’s promise. The Koran, contrast doesn’t mention Hagar but calls Ishmael “an apostle (and) a prophet...He was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.”
Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah’org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;
Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington
Websites and Resources with Torah and Biblical Images: Bible in Pictures creationism.org/books ; Bible Picture gallery biblepicturegallery.com ; ebibleteacher ebibleteacher.com ; Bible-History.com bible-history.com ; Visual Bible Alive visualbiblealive.com ; Pictures from Bible lavistachurchofchrist.org ; Bible Pictures karenswhimsy.com/bible-pictures ; Blue Letter Images blueletterbible.org/images ; Biblical Images preceptaustin.org
Abraham, Sarah and Isaac
Abraham divided the last years of his life between Hebron and Beersheba. When Abraham was 99, God changed his name from Abram to Abraham and announced, “I will also give you from her [Sarah] a son.” Upon hearing this “Abraham flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, ‘To a hundred-year-old will a child be born, will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?”
Later Abraham met three strangers in the desert and gave them hospitality. He washed their feet and gave them curds and milk and a calf he cooked. This is viewed as precedent for the Muslim custom of hospitality. The strangers promised Abraham that despite her great age Sara would bear him a son. When Sarah was told she laughed, “After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old ?...Shall I really give birth, as old as I am.”
Finally at the age of 105, Sarah gave birth to her first son Isaac (meaning “he who laughs”) in Hebron. He was circumcised when he was eight days old and became the fulfillment and heir to God’s covenant with Abraham and ensured the Covenant would be passed down through his heirs.
Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael
Abraham Sends Hagar
and Ishmael Away Afterwards Isaac was born, Hagar and Ishmael were cast out by Sarah, who wanted to make sure that the younger Isaac became Abraham’s heir. Throughout the sections in Genesis about Abraham, Sarah demonstrates that she was no pushover and that she was a partner of Abraham. One rabbi told National Geographic she was the first great feminist.
God took Sarah’s side this time on the Hagar issue but promised to make a great nation out of Ishmael. He told Abraham “through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slave girl’s son, too I will make a nation, for he is your seed.” Arabs later embraced the reference to a “nation” to mean them and a reference to 12 sons to be 12 Arab tribes. Some trace the animosity between Jews and Muslims back to this legendary act.
Hagar and Ishmael moved to the desert, where they were protected by God. Genesis says little else about them other than that Ishmael “became a seasoned bowman.” According to Muslim, tradition, Hagar and Ishmael moved to Mecca, where they lived in a small house. Abraham came often to visit. Ishmael was buried next to the Kaaba.
In the 1970s, archaeologists working in Beersheba claimed they had found a well that could have been used by Hagar after she was banished into the desert. Later it was revealed that the well was dated only to the second century B.C.
Abraham Nearly Sacrifices His Son
In Beersheba, Abraham had a vision in which God told him to take Isaac “to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on the mountains,” meaning Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the precious heir to God’s promise. Abraham obeyed the first part of the order and took his son to Mount Moriah (later the site of Solomon’s Temple and the present-day Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.
On Mount Moriah, Abraham erected an altar. He tied up Isaac and placed him on a pile of wood. Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, according to Genesis 22:4, God sent an angel to tell Abraham: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad and do nothing to him. Now I know thou fearest God...Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.” Instead of Isaac a ram was grabbed from a nearby thicket and offered to God as a sacrifice.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
Christians tend to see the idea of a sacrificial son as a hint of what will happen later with Jesus; Jews tend to view the event as a parable of the suffering of the chosen people. The story of Abraham and his son also shows that human sacrifice was a real possibility in Biblical times. Jewish scholar Isaac Elchanan of New York's Yeshia University told Time, "Why did God test Abraham? So the world would know that if anyone tells you, "I am committing murder in the name of God, he's a liar."
The sacrifice has been topic of discussion among intellectuals and scholars and even pop singers. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Though Abraham aroused my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” Bob Dylan wrote: “Abe says, ‘Where do you want the killin’ done? God says, Out on Highway 61.'”
Muslim Perspective of Abraham’s Near Sacrifice of His Son
Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness Muslims tend to see the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son as a test of obedience. To commemorate the event all Muslims who can afford to must sacrifice a sheep, goat, camel or cow in memory of the great sacrifice and Abraham's submission to the will of God.
Muslims believe that Ishmael not Isaac was nearly sacrificed. The Koran mentions the sacrifice but doesn’t mention which son or the place it took place. According to Sura 37:102, 112, Abraham said, “Oh my son! I see in a vision that I offer thee in sacrifice. When Abraham showed his willingness to comply, God promised another son, Isaac.” Because Isaac was mentioned here, Muslim scholars a few decades after Mohammed’s death reasoned that the son who was nearly sacrificed had to be Ishmael. Many Muslims believe the aborted sacrifice took place in Mecca.
In the Koranic version of the sacrifice, Abraham tell his son of God’s plan and his son replies: “O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.” The Korean then says “they has both surrendered.” After the aborted sacrifice is over Allah tells Abraham. “Lo. I have appointed thee a leader for mankind.”
Muslims believe Abraham and Ishmael were commanded by God to build the Kaaba—the most revered object in Islami. The Koran states that “Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House. The “House” is the Kaaba. Abraham and Ishmael dug it from the sands in the desert. See the Kaaba Under Muslims and Islam.
Abraham's and Sarah’s Death
Burial of Sarah After Abraham returned from Jerusalem, he settled in Beersheba. Sarah died in Qiryat Arba, near Hebron, at the age of 127. Abraham buried her in Hebron in the cave of Machpelah, which he bought for 400 shekels from a Hittite who took advantage of his grievous state and overcharged him. Abraham never owned a piece of land in his entire life until he bought the cave. As a nomad he never needed a place to live but according to one scholar "the dead require a permanent resting place."
Afterwards Abraham took a new wife, Keturah, who gave him six more children, some with Arabic names. He also found a wife—Rebecca from Nahor near Haran in northern Mesopotamia—for Isaac. Abraham died at the age of 175. Isaac and Ishmael reunited to bury him in Machpelah next to Sarah. Later, Isaac and his wife Rebekah (Rebecca), and the their son Jacob and his wife Leah were buried there too. Ishmael is regarded as the patriarch of the Arabs. He is believed to be buried somewhere else. Many say in Mecca, next to the Kaaba.
The is little archaeological evidence to back up the claims that the tombs that exist today in Hebron that are called the Tombs of the Patriarchs are the real tombs of Abraham and his family. The tombs in Hebron have never been excavated but archaeologists believe they date many centuries after Abraham's death. The claim they are the tombs of Abraham and his family are based on tradition.
Ibrahimi Mosque was built over Machpelah cave in the 13th century and has been in continuous use since then. For a long time Muslims prevented Jews from entering. They were allowed to pray at the entrance but not go inside. After the Seven Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Hebron, Israeli authorities allowed Jews to enter the complex. The time and locations of the Jewish prayers was initially restricted to avoid conflicts with Muslims.
Cave of the Patriarchs
Cave of the Patriarchs The Cave of the Patriarchs (south of Jerusalem in Hebron) is a walled shrine-mosque-mausoleum complex built around the cave, where and his family are buried. Within the complex are the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham and his immediate descendants are regarded as the ancient patriarch of Islam, the first patriarchs of Judaism and ancestors of Jesus) and important women in their lives: 1) Abraham, 2) Sarah (Abraham’s wife), 3) Isaac (Abraham and Sara’s son), 4) Rebecca (Isaac’s wife), 5) Jacob (Isaac and Rebecca’s son), 6) Leah (Jacob’s wife). Just outside the complex is the Tomb of Joseph.
The Cave of the Patriarchs is known to Muslims as the Noble Enclosure of the Friend and is regarded as forth holiest Muslim site after Mecca, Medina and Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. It is known to Jews as the Cave of Machpelah or the Tomb of the Patriarchs and is considered the second holiest Jewish site after the Western Wall. Before the 1960s no one but Muslims were allowed to enter the complex. For 700 years, Jews were permitted only to pray outside the structure on the seventh stone step leading to the complex.
Concealing the cave is the Ibraham Mosque whose foundations lie on a fortress-like sanctuary built around 20 A.D. during the reign of the Roman King Herod's with addition made over the centuries by Byzantine Christians and several Muslim dynasties. In the center of the Mosque are six red-and-white striped cenotaphs—symbolic tombs—that represent the real graves which are in the cave below the mosque. They and the pillars date back to the 9th century.
The cenotaphs look like small stone huts. The one that belong to Abraham and Sarah are locked behind a silver padlock and gate. Crusaders purportedly found Abraham's bones in it in A.D. 1119, but this fact can not be verified since no archeologist are allowed in the cave. There is a grate over a small aperture into the cave but all you can see is an oil lamp below.
Ibrahimi Mosque is laid out in rectangle with the tombs of Abraham and Sarah in the middle and the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca on one side and the tombs of Leah and Jacob on the other. On the Isaac and Rebecca side is a Muslim prayer area. On the Jacob and Leah side is a Jewish prayer area and a synagogue for Jewish worship. The mosque is decorated with quotations from the Koran. Two thick stone minarets dominate the structure. They are often manned by Israeli soldiers.
Christian Recognition of Abraham
Many Christians believe that Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac predicted the Resurrection. Jesus referred to Abraham but Paul, in Epistles, is credited with making him a central figure in Christianity, holding held him up as an example of the rewards of faith. Paul also argued that Abraham showed that it was not imperative to be Jewish to receive God’s grace because he predated Jewish law and was not technically a Jew himself. Some Christians went a step farther and argued that Abraham made the Jews obsolete and relegated them to a kind of subhuman status.
But Paul said covenant between God and the Jews was irrevocable and described Christianity as an olive branch grafted onto the tree of Judaism. One Biblical scholar told Time, “If the covenant between God and the children of Abraham dies the branch withers with the roots.”
Both Catholics and Protestants recognize the importance of Abraham. Roman Catholics pay homage to Abraham in mass: “Look with favor on these offering and accept them as once you accepted...the sacrifice of Abraham.” Protestants honor him in the children’s song: “Father Abraham had many sons? And I am one of them and so are you....”
Muslim Recognition of Abraham
Cenotaph_of_Abraham Muslims portray Abraham as the first man to fully surrender himself to God and claim that Mohammed’s primary goal was to restore Abraham’s faith. Each of the five repetitions of the daily prayer ends with a tribute to Abraham. The Kaaba and many of the central rituals of the hajj are associated with him. Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is commemorated in the second biggest Muslim holiday.
Muslims arguably have Abraham elevated Abraham to a higher status than Jews or Christians because their religion is so fervently monotheistic. Some Muslims go as far as claiming that Abraham and his god belong the Muslims alone. A religious adviser to Yasser Arafat told Time: “The people who supported Abraham believed in one God and only one God, and that was the Muslims. Only the Muslims.”
Muslims argue that Abraham’s heritage is based on faith not lineage. If the Jews did in fact have a Covenant with God, some of them argue, that promise was broken when they worshiped the golden calf in the Bible’s Exodus. They say that Islam is the true religion of Abraham. The Koran tells Muslims who are proselytized by Jews or Christians to respond: “Nay...[we follow] the religion of Abraham.” See the Muslim Take on Abraham Above.
Conflicts Between Muslims and Jews Over Abraham
Abraham's tomb Scriptural battles between Muslims and Jews broken out over Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. In the Talmud, Abraham is depicted as a Hebrew-speaking follower of Moses law and Ishmael is reduced to bit part in the story. Medieval Jewish scholars went a step further and called him a “thief” whom “everyone hated.” Muslim scholars responded by saying that Jews had “dishonestly and slanderously” introduced Isaac to the story.
Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham: A Journey in the Heart of Three Faith , wrote in this way Abraham became “as much of a force for fanaticism as he is for moderation.” Muslims and Jews “tossed out what they wanted to ignore, ginned up what they wanted to stress and ended up with a symbol of their uniqueness that looked more like a mirror image of their fantasies than a reflection of the original story.”
The Cave of the Patriarchs has seen more than its share of violence. Jewish militants have thrown acid on Muslim prayer rugs and Muslims have thrown stones at Jews as they entered the complex to pray. A major massacre took place there in 1994 that left 29 dead and 130 injured.
The Interfaith movements has tried since the 1800s to debunk these arguments and bring Muslims, Jews and Christians together with Abraham as a symbol of their unity. Politicians such as Anwar Sadat and Kofi Annan have evoked Abraham as a symbol of peace.
Meeting of Isaac and Rebekah Jacob is the second son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham and the founder of Israel. Chapters 17 through 22 of Genesis describe Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Abraham's son Isaac. In Chapter 25, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a some stew. The stew given to Esau was made from red lentils. He most likely went along with the deal because he had just killed King Nimrod of Babel and thought he was going to be executed.
Shechem, were Jacob grazed his sheep, was occupied during his time. Tablets from Nuzi also indicate it was customary for males to sell their birthright to their brothers, as Esau did to Jacob. In one case a brother agreed to exchange his inheritance for "three sheep immediately from his brother Tupkitilla."
Jacob was something of a trickster. In Chapter 27 of Genesis he impersonated Esau by donning a goatskin so he could receive from Isaac, who was blind and dying, a blessing intended for Esau as the oldest son. Later he fled to his uncle’s house to escape Esau’s rage. One the way he had a vison of a ladder with angels going up and down it. Then God spoke to him and told him that the land he was lying on would be his forever.
Jacob is perhaps best known for his ladder. But close scrutiny of the original Hebrew indicates the ladder was more like a ramp found on a Mesopotamian ziggurat. In Chapter 32, Jacob gets into a wrestling with an angel who knocks Isaac’s hip out of joint and renames him Israel. "Israel" mean "he who struggles with God.” Later it came mean the homeland of the Jewish people and the place in which the Jewish people hope to return to.
Jacob and his sons are described as the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. They were forced by famine to leave Canaan and move to Egypt, where the Israelites are enslaved, paving the way for their Exodus under Moses 400 years later. In Chapter 47-50 of Genesis, the 12 tribes of Israel enter Egypt, Jacob and Joseph die, and the Exodus is prophesied.
Jacob and Esau Meet Joseph was Jacob's favorite son. He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and reached a high political office in Egypt through his great wisdom. Chapters 37 through 50 in Genesis describe Joseph and his adventures in Egypt. In Chapter 41, he interprets the Pharaoh's dreams and becomes a powerful man. In Chapters 43-46, he is reunited with his father and brothers after they come to Egypt in search of food.
In the 17th century B.C., when Joseph rose to power in Egypt, Lower Egypt was ruled by a Semitic people called the Hykos. Jacob is perhaps best known for his of coat many colors. But close scrutiny of the original Hebrew indicates the coat was more likely an “ornamental tunic.”
In Chapter 37, Joseph is sold into slavery for 20 silver shekels. According to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool, this matches the going price for a slave in Mesopotamia in the 18th century B.C.
In Chapter 47, Joseph tell his people "when the harvests come, you shall give a fifth to the Pharaohs.” Egyptian record from that time show that peasants were required to pay a 20 percent tax on their crops. The style of warfare, the form of contracts and treaties and the laws of inheritance mentioned in the Bible are also consistent with historical record.
Tablets from Elba mention Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau) and Sa-u-lum (Saul) but they could have easily been people with the same names as the biblical figures. These texts also mention a king named Erbium who ruled around 2,300 BC and bears an uncanny resemblance to Eber from the Book of Genesis who was the great-great grandson of Noah and the great-great-great-great grandfather of Abraham. Some scholars suggest that Biblical reference in the Elba tablets are overstated because the divine name yahweh (Jehovah) is not mentioned once in them.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011