This week’s lectionary reading is one of the most fascinating passages in the book of Genesis, maybe even one of the most important passages for our modern world. It is the story of Isaac and Ishmael, brothers who would never get to know each other. This story is not something often preached about, because the ramifications of the story challenge many modern Christian understandings.
What happens when families destroy themselves? This is something that could've been very real for Abraham and his family. Now, today we would look at something like what happens in this passage, and many moral and other red flags may arise. But in the time of Abraham, it was common practice for a family to have an indentured servant or slave. It was also common practice for a man to have relations with a slave. This had a couple purposes, the least of which was the importance of procreating by any means possible.
Books have been written about this passage, and I could write on and on about its many different aspects. But I won't bore you with all of those details. Today I want to focus on one of the most important aspects of this passage, and that's the blessing given to Ishmael.
The blessing that Ishmael is given is interesting in that it is a complete parallel with the blessing that is given to Isaac. One of the things lost in the translation from Hebrew to English is the way that the Hebrew writers make parallels between passages. With these parallels, they suggest sameness or difference, so you know how exactly how to read the given message. The fact that the Hebrew writers make a complete parallel suggests that the blessing which Ishmael is given is exactly the same as that given to Isaac.
The ramifications of this are powerful. It suggests that there is more than one way to God, and that there are multiple chosen peoples. In today’s context, not only do Muslims consider themselves to be descendants of Ishmael, fully blessed by God, but that blessing is a reminder that they worship the exact same God that we worship.
Think how big a difference that makes in terms of how we interact with people of the Islamic religion. If we see each other as enemies, then we will always belittle and berate each other, but if we see each other as brothers and sisters in faith, then we approach it very differently. Instead of moving to the extremes and holding our ground for being right, we are called to listen, talk and build relationships. Not to convince each other that our way is the way, but to learn each faith’s unique witness to God, so that we can better understand God and grow in our faith in new ways.
If there's one thing we have learned in the Bible, it's that God is always surprising us. Every time that we think we have the answer, we find something new, something challenging. This passage is challenging because it addresses a fundamental issue for many Christians who cite the passage in the New Testament where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The problem again is that the Greek, in which the New Testament was written, does not always translate clearly into English. In fact, many scholars say a more appropriate translation of Jesus’ statement is to say, “I am your way, your truth, and your life.” Is this the writer remembering the story of Ishmael? Some scholars make that suggestion. Regardless, it presents an important principle that the reformers remind us about: God is bigger than any of us can ever imagine, and so we are to humble ourselves in our faith, and accept that there are multiple ways to God that are blessed by God. Thus, we are called to be in relationship with each other, and not to judge.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen