Friday, September 23, 2005

In Which I Reveal My Geeky Historical/Theological Tendencies

Do you ever have those weeks that seem to have a theme? Like every encounter you have is linked to the same basic idea? I am having such a week, and it always makes me wonder if there's something I'm supposed to learn from the experience.

First, I am trying to renew a habit I used to have of reading from my "One Year Bible" every morning during my bus ride. (The editors of this particular version have arranged an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm, and some Proverbs for each day, and if you stay current you can read the whole Bible in a year. It's not so much that I want to read the whole Bible -- I skip over the begats pretty darn quickly! -- it's just that I used to be more faithful about reading, and this gives me a little more structure and helps me keep up with it more.) Anyway, having just started I am still in Genesis in the Old Testament readings, and my readings this week included Genesis 16 and Genesis 21, which include the births of Abraham's two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.

Now, excuse me for a moment while I wax historical. If you're already familiar with all this, my apologies. Although God promises to "make nations" out of both boys, in the Hebrew Bible Isaac is obviously the favored son. His mother is Sarah, Abraham's wife, while Ishmael's mother is an Egyptian slave woman named Hagar. Ishmael is prophesied to be "a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers."

God does also promise to bless Ishmael, but it is with Isaac that he will "establish his covenant." Ishmael is the father of many Arab/Islamic nations. Isaac's descendants formed ancient Israel.

OK, so I'm reading these stories, and as always, I ponder how much of our current Jewish/Christian/Muslim animosity has its roots in things that happened so long ago. Then, while browsing, I came across this item. There's lots of food for thought, but what jumped out at me was the story about God asking Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, then sparing him at the last minute.

As Snopes points out, this is the exact story the Hebrew Bible tells about Isaac. Hmmm. I didn't know that. So I wonder, what was Abraham's relationship with his sons really like? Is it possible that, aside from the normal sibling rivalry, things were actually pretty peaceful in those tents? I think there are scholars now who think that tensions were high between the Israelites and their neighbors by the time Moses started writing down the first books of the Old Testament. Did that climate lead him to exaggerate some of the stories about Isaac and Ishmael? Did he (intentionally or unintentionally) make it sound like their children were predestined to hate each other, when really that's not what God wanted? Did he fan into an inferno a fire that was just struggling to start? (I am not familiar enough with the Koran to speak to its origins, but maybe something similar happened there?) And if so, what consequences are we still suffering today because for thousands of years, we have all accepted as incontrovertible fact the premise that we were born to be enemies?

With all these ramblings going on in the back of my brain, I boarded the bus this morning, and took a seat near the back next to a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf. I opened my Bible and began to read, then I glanced aside and noticed that she was reading the Koran.

So, Isaac, Ishmael, today on a number 17 bus bound for downtown Minneapolis, two inheritors of your history sat side by side and read from the texts we each hold holy. We didn't speak, we didn't fight, we didn't even really make eye contact. I'm not sure what it means, or if it means anything at all, but I came away feeling hopeful anyway.

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