Nadia Bolz-Weber, of The Sarcastic Lutheran blog, recently gave a sermon on her visit to the grave of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac in Israel. She found the security meant to keep the land in the hands of Israeli Jews, and not Palestinians (Muslim or Christian) a sad sign of how we place emphasis on places and things as a points of permanence when we shouldn’t look anywhere other than the God of Abraham.
I find it particularly sad reading this chapter because in verse 9, we learn that Isaac and Ishmael together buried Abraham after his death. There’s something tremendously touching in that – even after everything, even though he’d be burying him next to the woman who literally drove he and his mother into the wilderness to die, Ishmael wanted to be there to bury his father. You can read between the lines that they were very close.
In fact, in my continuing research on all the various un-elaborated-upon episodes that crop up in Genesis, some midrash tried to link Hagar to Keturah, the second wife Abraham takes in his lonely 40 years as a widower. This midrash tried to argue that Keturah was another name for Hagar, that Abraham found her and made an honest wife out of her, with all the prestige that would entail, and that’s why Ishmael was around when Abraham died.
I don’t buy it, and again it’s the math. Isaac was 40 when he was married to Rebekah (v 20) and Ishmael was about 14 years older than him, and regardless of how young Hagar was when she became Abraham’s concubine, 54 years later she wasn’t going to be able to have six sons. I suppose you could argue that God blessed her with six miraculous births, maybe as a compensation for all the hardships she went through, but in that case I’d rather God have given her a good husband who would take care of her and not care that she was a former concubine.
The age thing continues to get to me. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born, Isaac gets married at 40, then has his children at 60, which means Abraham was still alive at the time, because he died at 175. And yet the birth of Esau and Isaac is told after the burial of Abraham? Is the editorial mistake in the ordering of stories, or is it in the ages of the characters?
Anyway, back to Ishmael. We get a rundown of his descendants who “settle from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria” (v 18). If you recall from Genesis 2, Havilah is the unidentified region that most people place in Yemen, whereas Shur seems to be somewhere in the Sinai peninsula, since Hagar flees there (16:7) and the Israelites wander there in Exodus 15:22. Take out your map, and that’s the Red Sea coast of Arabia, aka the Hejaz or Hiyaz, the homeland of Arabs and later Islam. In fact, Muslims claim that either Nebaioth or Keder (v 13) is the ancestor of the Quraysh tribe, the one Muhammad was born into.
But Ishmael passes out of the Bible with the note that he lived to be 137, which isn’t bad.
At the same time, the story does not shift to Isaac, as you might expect, but instead almost immediately to his sons, Esau and Jacob. I was pretty familiar with the story of how, pre-birth, God chose Jacob over Esau, since it’s usually an argument raised for predestination (Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated). I also knew the story of Esau selling his birthright because he’s hungry. How jerkass-y this is on Jacob’s part depends on how seriously you take his “I am about to die” in verse 32. If it’s hyperbole, then yes, you can argue that Esau “despised” his birthright (or “took lightly” in Japanese, the same option they took with Hagar’s attitude towards Sarah. If it’s not, then Jacob is basically denying food to his brother in order to get his birthright.
Jacob and Esau are interesting in another way, of course, because of how thoroughly they are portrayed as opposites. Esau is a hunter, “a man of the field,” while Jacob is a quiet man, “living in tents.” Esau is loved by his father because he’s got a weakness for game, which Jacob is beloved by his mother because… well, because he stays in tents, which is where the women stay. So Jacob is being portrayed as the slightly more feminine and physically weak of the two. Maybe this is intended to explain why he resorts to trickery and bribery to get ahead in life? Jacob doesn’t die until the end of Genesis, and having read all of the book I can say he gets the most in-depth character development.
One last observation, this on a difference between the NRSV and the NCT. When both Abraham and Ishmael die, the NRSV says that they were “gathered to their people,” which could potentially be interpreted as “their people gathered to bury them.” But the Japanese opts for the phrase senzon no retsu ni kuwaerareta, or “he was added/gathered to the line of his ancestors,” making it more explicit that “his people” are the dead. The idea of going to one’s ancestors after one dies is one that the Japanese could very much relate to, since it’s one of their main visions of the afterlife at this point.
The Japanese: metoru “to marry” (v 1), ijuu saseru “to make emigrate,” (v 6), kuwaerareru “to add to, to gather” (v 8) sonraku “villages”, shukueichi “encampments” (v 16), michisuji “route” (v 18), masashiku “certainly” (v 24), takumi-na “skillful,” odayaka-na “quiet, calm” (v 27), koubutsu “favorite food” (v 28), nimono “boiled and seasoned food” (v 29), kenri “right, privilege” (v 31).
I am now halfway through the book of Genesis. Oh boy, this is going to take a long time to finish…