Ishmael, the Sacrifice of Abraham

Elizabeth Kubota (December 12, 2003)


The tragedy of strained relations between Islamic and Judeo-Christian countries is a part of everyday life in 2003. One need only pick up a newspaper or check the news story of the day via television, radio, or internet to learn of the latest violent attack by a suicide bomber or  military retaliation on such an  attack. The terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by countries that are predominantly Islamic with the counter attacks coming from a well-armed Israel, supported by US arms sales as well as US silence.  Arecent CNN talk show byline queried, “Are we at war with Islam?” One does sometimes wonder.  

Israel has long held a policy of counter attack to deal with terrorists harbored by governments of  neighboring countries. Following 9/11, the United States government adopted this policy. As part of this new policy the US military went after terrorists in Afghanistan and destroyed the country’s infrastructure as well as innocent civilians in the process. In early 2003, Iraq was attacked for the same reasons, with the same resulting damage. Terrorism directed against Iraqis and Coalition forces as well as military retaliation by Coalition forces  continues to make the headlines in occupied Iraq. The cycle of violence continues.

To say the cause of political friction in the Middle East is due to religious differences is too simplistic as well as unduly inflammatory. Other things come into play, such as protection of US interests involving energy production, and even control of the water supply by Israel and its neighboring countries. However, to say the violence has nothing to do with religious differences denies the past 4,000 years of history.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, three of the world’s great religions, have their roots as well their “holiest places” in the Middle East. All three religions revere Abraham as a common ancestor. Yet all three have had bloody interchanges throughout history. How and why did Abraham’s children become such a dysfunctional family? Where is God in this “family feud?” Finding answers to these theological questions that could help provide a peaceful future are important for all. Conflicts surrounding this “family of God” involve more people and places than were involved even 50 years ago. For example, currently there are more Muslims living in the United States than Methodists (Geisler and Saleeb, 2001).1

The Story of Ishmael

One must wonder what event or events provided such fertile ground for violence and bad feelings to thrive?  If one were to name a common cultural denominator in the Middle East that seems to express the polarization of the Islamic world against the Judeo-Christian world, it is the story of Ishmael.  Understanding the “status” of the two oldest sons of Abraham 4,000 years ago may even shed light on some of the differences between Jew and Arab of the present time ( Francona, 2000).2  Born in Ur, or present day Iraq, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, set out for the area now known as Israel and the West Bank, the area of the Palestinian Authority. Upon moving to Egypt they acquired a slave, Hagar.  Since Sarah and Abraham were unable to have a child, Sarah insisted that Abraham have a child with her slave, Hagar. Sarah would raise the child, who would be Abraham’s heir.  The child born from this arrangement was Ishmael. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael moved to what is present day Saudi Arabia. Abraham and Ishmael built a shrine, the Ka’aba, which is the holiest site of Islam. An unexpected complication for this family was God causing Sarah to become pregnant in her old age.  Isaac, the child of Sarah and Abraham, whom Jews and Christians consider the heir of God’s covenant with Abraham, was born. Subsequently Sarah insisted Abraham force Hagar and Ishmael from their household (Francona, 2000) .3

Abraham’s heir-Ishmael or Isaac?

The birth circumstances of Ishmael and Isaac must be examined to determine who is considered the rightful heir of Abraham. Ishmael, the first born, is Abraham’s son by an Egyptian slave while Isaac, the second son, has a much clearer claim, being born to Abraham’s legal wife, Sarah. Terminology in the Jewish Torah and the Arab histories causes more confusion. The Torah refers to Hagar as a slave. However, Arab scholars disagree that the text refers to Hagar as a “slave.” Arabs show sensitivity to this reference, as the circumstances of Ishmael’s birth to Hagar imply that he was the illegitimate child of a slave girl. Jews have used this to cite that the Arabs are inferior to the descendants of  Isaac, the legitimate son. These circumstances led to the Jewish law establishing Jewish  nationality through the mother instead of the father ( Francona, 2000).4

Isaac’s birthright cited in Jewish texts was the covenant between God and Abraham which gave Abraham’s descendants the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. Murals of these boundaries appear in some Israeli official buildings. This fuels Arab fears of Israel’s wish to increase their territory  to the Biblical record (Francona, 2000).5

Ishmael, whose life was spared by God due to the request to do so by Hagar, became the father of the Muslim nation. Consequently, Abraham is the thread that connects three of the worlds great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Abraham died in Hebron, now known as Al-Khalil, on the West Bank. Arabs, Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians revere Abraham’s tomb ( Francona, 2000).6 

Christian and Jewish Commentary on the Ishmael Story

The study of Christian biblical commentaries and rabbinical commentaries on the Ishmael story provides other viewpoints than those expressed by Francona on the interpretation of this narrative. Some points to be considered are:

  1. Do Christian or Jewish commentaries interpret Hagar’s being a slave making her and Ishmael, and thus those descended from Ishmael, inferior to Jews and Christians?
  2. What birthrights for Ishmael and Isaac are recognized in Muslim, Jewish and Christian commentaries?
  3. What did Sarah see Ishmael do that was terrible enough for Sarah to insist upon the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael?
  4. Is the biblical message one of Ishmael’s expulsion or of God’s justice and care for oppressed people?

I. Brueggemann

Does Ishmael have a birthright?

The conflict between the two sons, two mothers and the ambiguous father is filled with complexity ( Brueggemann, 1982).7  Although Isaac is the chosen heir, Ishmael has some rights as well as the oldest son of Abraham. For his part, Abraham does not seem ready to drive Ishmael out. God, who agrees that Abraham must listen to Sarah and be rid of Ishmael and Hagar, reassures Abraham that Ishmael will be taken care of by God.

God’s promise to Hagar

Upon the request of Hagar, God not only saves Ishmael’s life in the desert, but promises that the descendants of Ishmael will make a great nation (Brueggemann, 1982).8 Brueggemann says this narrative tells the “canonical” story of Isaac as the “child of promise.” The text is also clear that Ishmael is not to be “dismissed” by the family (Brueggemann, 1982). 9 However, one cannot deny from reading the story that it seemed Ishmael was not only dismissed from his family but his life was jeopardized by his family, as he would have died in the desert without God’s intervention in providing water.

II. Cotter

God acts on behalf of the oppressed in his promise to Hagar.

Cotter (Cotter, 2003) 10 sees a foreshadowing of God answering Hagar’s cries in the desert to save Ishmael in the meaning of Ishmael’s name: “God hears.” Cotter also sees meaning in the name Hagar gives to the being-whether angel or God- she has encountered in the desert: “God Who Sees Me.” Cotter says Hagar probably felt God alone “saw her,” as she was just an instrument in the creation of a son to others. Contrary to viewing Hagar as “just a slave  girl,” Cotter says God honored Hagar forever by making her, through her son Ishmael,  the mother of  a nation. Until this desert encounter with  Hagar, Abraham  alone was promised to be progenitor of  nations. Other parallels Cotter sees include that, like Israel, Hagar followed an Exodus  toward freedom. Hagar, like Moses, saw God. Cotter suggests the reason is because “God is justice,” ( Cotter, 2003) 11 in the Ishmael story. Cotter says Hagar stands for those that hold special concern for God, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow (Cotter, 2003).12

The above commentary indicates God held a special bond with Hagar and Ishmael, regardless of their dismissal from their earthly family. In God’s view, according to Cotter, Hagar and Ishmael were honored for all time, just as Abraham and Isaac were so honored.  However, that honor does not change the way the story goes. Hagar and Ishmael were driven into the desert without adequate water. Abraham would have known that their chances of survival were not good. 

III. Alders

Understanding the term “to mock”

Alders’ commentary on the Ishmael story includes an emphatic “yes” to the age-old question of whether what Sarah saw happen between Ishmael and Isaac was “playing” or whether what Sarah saw was Ishmael “mocking” Isaac ( Adlers, 1981).13 Adlers asserts that translation of the word in question is “to mock.” He bases this on other usages of this word in Genesis. In 19: 4, it is the word used in description of the reaction from Lot’s sons-in-laws when they were told of Sodom’s destruction. It also is used in this manner in Genesis 39 :14 and 17, when Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of “making sport” of her. He also cites usage in Exodus 32:6, for the Israelis when they worshipped the golden calf and in Judges 16:26, when the Philistines made a blind Samson “perform” for them (Adlers, 1981).14

Adlers’ acknowledgement that biblical scholars do not share his certainty concerning the meaning of the translation of what Ishmael did to Isaac should be remembered in interpretation of this story.  Adlers includes:

Some people have even suggested that whatever Ishmael did in his mocking sport was agan in origin and involved something that was very improper for the people of God. It is even possible that he made fun of the promises of God with respect to Isaac, thereby expressing his disdain for these promises. In that case we would have the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” of which Paul speaks in Galatians 4:29. This mockery of Isaac by Ishmael would then be veiled as a preview of the persecution of the church by the hostile world, of the seed of the covenant by those who stood outside of that covenant (Adlers, 1983).” 15

In Adlers’ theology not only has Ishmael “mocked” Isaac, with the meaning of “mocked” being quite a severe act,  but into the future Ishmael has “mocked” the Christian church. The story of Abraham’s dysfunctional family, if one follows Adlers, has now alienated from each other not only the non-Jewish descendants of Ishmael and the Jewish descendants of Isaac, but Ishmael’s non-Judeo Christian descendants from Isaac’s Judeo-Christian descendants.

Adlers agrees with Brueggemann and Cotter that God intervened, providing water in the desert as well as making good on the promise to Hagar and Ishmael that Ishmael would be progenitor of a great nation.

IV. Darr and the Critical, Rabbinical and Feminist Perspective

How can Jewish history begin with a domestic quarrel between a rich elderly mistress and her young servant? – Elie Wiesel (Darr, 1991)16

We need further understanding of the term “to mock”

Critical Perspective-Von Rad

Darr asks, “What did Ishmael do that Sarah would (cast them out) treat them in such fashion?” She lets Von Rad answer this question: “ What Ishmael did need not be anything evil at all. The picture of the two boys playing together on equal footing is quite enough to bring the jealous mother to a firm conclusion: Ishmael must go!” (Darr, 1991)17

Rabbinical Perspective

Darr says the rabbis sought a more severe reason for Sarah insisting on Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion.  Midrash Rabbah presents the opinion of rabbis that have compared the meaning of the word “to mock” and then use this comparison to further “illuminate” the meaning of the Ishmael passage and Sarah’s drastic request for action.18

R. Simeon b. Yohai tells of R. Akiba lecturing of the phrase “to mock” or “making sport” as meaning no less than immorality. In rabbinical teaching this means that Sarah saw Ishmael “ravish maidens, seduce married women, and dishonor them (Darr, 1991).”19 R. Ishmael taught the meaning of the phrase in question referred to idolatry and meant that Sarah had seen Ishmael “build altars, catch locusts, and sacrifice them (Darr, 1991).”20 R. Eleazar said of the term that it refers to bloodshed. R. Azariah went on to say that “Ishmael said to Isaac, ‘Let us go and see our portions in the field;’ then Ishmael would take a bow and arrows and shoot them in Isaac’s direction, whilst pretending to be playing. This term sport [mockery] refers to inheritance. For when our father Isaac was born all rejoiced, whereupon Ishmael said to them, “You are fools, for I am the firstborn and I receive a double portion (Darr, 1991).”21

It is difficult to look at the rabbinical  interpretation and not see the anger that must have existed between descendants of Ishmael and descendants of Isaac.

Hagar - a special person in the eyes of God: Darr and the Feminist Perspective

Darr cites recent biblical scholarship that speaks of Hagar as an important person, the “first woman in the Bible to be visited by a heavenly messenger, the only woman to receive a promise of innumerable descendants from God, and the only individual in scripture to name God (Darr, 1991).”22

Has the biblical message been misjudged?

Darr raises the question of whether the biblical message of the Hagar and Ishmael story has been misjudged. She presents the opinion of Tamez (Darr, 1991),23 “ that these narratives are included in the canon to show that the oppressed are also God’s children, co-creators of history. God does not leave them to perish in the desert without leaving a trace. They must live to be a part of history, and struggle to be the subjects of it (Darr, 1991).”24

Islamic Commentary on Ishmael, the sacrifice of Abraham

I. Zahid

It is an undeniable fact that Ishmael was the first son of Abraham (peace be on them). He was the one who was put to the test of sacrifice. The event is celebrated yearly by Muslims all over the world and serves as the biggest holiday of the year. The festive event is called Eidul-Adha. Millions of Muslims go for Hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah. Several hundred thousand oats, lambs, and cows are sacrificed to commemorate the trial of Abraham and Ishmael. Part of the meat is shared with relatives, friends and the poor. (Zahid, 2003)25

Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that the love Abraham had for God is clearly evident in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his oldest son. It is at this point that Muslims disagree with the Hebrew Bible account in which Isaac is identified as the child to be  sacrificed. Muslims believe the oldest son that narrowly missed being sacrificed by Abraham was Ishmael, as the above quotation on Hajj to Makkah explained.

II. Peters

According to Islamic scholars the Quran speaks of the era of Abraham and Ishmael at Mecca and of their  building of “the Ka’aba, the sacred House (Quran 5:100),” also known as “this ancient House (Quran 22:29).” No mention is made of Sarah, Hagar, or the extended accounts found in the Hebrew Bible of their births. Muslim scholars have supplemented the story of Abraham’s two families with differing versions.  In Muslim tradition there was much more interest in how Abraham and Ishmael made it from Palestine to Mecca and  built the Ka’aba at Mecca (Peters, 1994).26 However, the trip to Mecca was said by Muhajid and other scholars to be in response to Sarah and God’s demand for the expulsion of  Hagar and Ishmael (Peters, 1994).27  According to these scholars the angel Gabriel accompanied Abraham to Mecca and confirmed the exact spot where Abraham was to construct the Ka’aba. Abraham then told Hagar and Ishmael to go to al-Hajir, a space at the northwest face of the Ka’aba, to find shelter, and he left them there. The Quran records Abraham as saying, “ My Lord, I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near Your Holy House…that they may be thankful.” (Quran 14:37).Abraham then traveled back to his family in Syria and left Hagar and Ishmael at the House ( Peters, 1994).28 This version presents Abraham in a much more caring light concerning the details of the expulsion of the two than the Hebrew Bible version. In the biblical account Abraham merely provides water and food then forces Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, possibly to die.

III. Ghoniem and Saifullah

The Sacrifice of Abraham: Isaac or Ishmael? Muhammad Ghoniem and M S M Saifullah

These Islamic scholars have presented a paper entitled, “The Sacrifice of Abraham: Isaac or Ishmael ?” on the web site Islamic Awareness, in which they refute the claim of Christians that Isaac was the child Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice. They cite the most relevant passage concerning this issue in the Quran as being from verse 37:99 to verse 37:109, with 37:113 including the whole argument.29

99. He said: “I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me.”
100. “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!”
101. So we gave him the good news of a forbearing son.
102. Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I have seen in a vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!” (The son) said: “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allah so wills, one of the steadfast!”
103. So when they had both submitted (to Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice),
104. We called out to him “O Abraham!…”
105. “Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right.
106. For this was a clear trial-
107. And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice:
108. And We left for him among generations (to come) in later times:
109. “Peace and salutation to Abraham!”
110. Thus do we reward those who do right.
111. For he was one of Our believing Servants.
112. And We gave him the good news of Isaac-a prophet-one of the Righteous.
113. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to themselves.

According to these scholars the first argument made by those who believe Isaac was the son nearly sacrificed is that in the Quran it is Isaac’s name that was associated with glad tidings. They point out that Ishmael’s name was never linked with good news or glad tidings. The argument lies in verse 37:112, “And We gave him the good news of Isaac-a prophet-one of the righteous.” In addition, verse 51:28, is said to refer to Isaac, not Ishmael: “They said, “Fear not,” and they gave him glad tidings of a son endowed with knowledge.”

Opposition to the above argument can be explained by these two points:30

1. Well known is that Abraham’s first child, Ishmael, was not born until Abraham was over 80 years old. This would have been a joyous surprise to Abraham, news of “glad tidings.” The following birth of Isaac would have only been of equal or less joy to Abraham, as there would have been no “surprise factor” in the birth of Isaac.

2. Muslims firmly believe that the sacrificed son was “steadfast in the Quran.” In the Quran, Ishmael’s name, not Isaac’s, can be found in association with patience and steadfastness. The scholars cite from the Quran, verse 21:85 as support of this argument: “And (remember) Ishmael, Idris, and Zulkifl, all (men) of constancy and patience.”

IV. Ibn Kathir

Great Quranic commentator, as told by Ghoniem and Saifullah

Kathir adds two more arguments for the case that Ishmael is the sacrifice.31

  1. The Bible says Abraham’s only son ( in some versions, Abraham’s firstborn son)is the sacrificed. This does not fit the situation of Isaac.
  2. The Quran said the good news of Isaac was that he would produce progeny.

Therefore, God cannot order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac before the promise is fulfilled.

Once more, according to the Quran, Isaac cannot be the sacrificed.

The Muslim scholars, Ghoniem and Saifullah, include in their paper a passage from “Encyclopedia Judaica” (Ghoniem and Saifullah, 2003): 32

In the tale of binding (Surah 37:99-110) Muhammad identified the son who was to be sacrificed as Ishmael and, indeed, the opinion of the traditionalists were also divided on this subject. It is related that a renowned traditionalist of Jewish origin, from the Qurayza tribe, and another Jewish scholar, who converted to Islam, told that Caliph Omar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-2) that the Jews were well informed that  (Ishmael ) was the  one who was bound, but they concealed this out of jealousy. The Muslim legend also adds details of Hajar ( Hagar), the mother of Ismail (Ishmael). After Abraham drove her out and her son out, she wandered between the hills of al-Safa and Al-Marwa ( in the vicinity of Mecca) in search for water. At that time the waters of the spring Zemzem began to flow. Her acts became the basis for the hallowed custom of Muslims during the Hajj.

Whether the sacrificed was to have been Ishmael or Isaac has been argued for centuries and will probably continue be argued for centuries to come.  This information is important to understand as just one more piece in the puzzle of how Abraham’s family became so dysfunctional that we continue to struggle with that dysfunction today.

The Crusades-in 2001?

In the days immediately following 9/11 and the announcement by the United States that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists had carried out the terrible attacks via hijacked civilian aircraft in Pennsylvania, Washington, D. C., and New York City, President Bush made an unforgettable, as well as unforgivable, comment as he tried to build support for new U.S. policy concerning retaliation against terrorist attacks. Bush said he planned a new campaign against international terrorism that would not be a war against Islam. On the contrary, he hoped for support from several Muslim states, including Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Unfortunately Bush called this campaign a “Crusade,” undoubtedly alienating potential Muslim allies. To truly understand the significance to Islamic countries of the leader of a predominantly Christian, well-armed country making such a remark one should know something of the history of the Crusades.

Karen Armstrong, in her book, Holy War, the Crusades and Their Impact on the World Today, believes better understanding of the history of the era of the Crusades would provide better understanding of the alienation against the West in the Middle East (Armstrong, 2001).33 Armstrong, who is British, spent some time in Israel in 1983 researching and making a television series about early Christianity. At first surprised and hurt, Armstrong sought to understand the resentment she felt as a “Westerner,” from both Jew and Arab in the Holy Land.  Her conclusion was that ill feelings from the Crusades of almost a millennium ago still haunted the landscape.  She felt constantly confronted by the Crusades as she came across churches, castles and whole cities built by the Crusaders. Almost 1,000 years ago a barbarous Europe sent thousands of Christians to the Middle East, as Pope Urban II on November 25, 1095, at the Council of Claremont, summoned the First Crusade. Urban called for a “holy war,” a term that many of the present time would probably attribute to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, not a pope of 1095. Urban’s “holy war” was to be against Islam. The Seljuk Turks, according to Urban, were a Central Asian, barbarian Muslim group that had conquered Anatolia in Asia Minor (which is modern Turkey), taking it away from the Christian empire of Byzantium ( Armstrong, 2001).34 It was his urgings that inspired the knights of Europe to stop fighting each other and fight for God. Urban called the Turks. “an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation that has neither directed its heart nor entrusted its spirit to God (Armstrong, 2001).”35  Urban’s plan was for the Christian warriors to “kill these godless monsters, exterminate this vile race from our lands,” as a Christian duty. Once Asia Minor had been purged of the Muslim Turks, the knights were to storm the holy city of Jerusalem, liberating it from the “infidels,” so that the tomb of Christ would not be in the hands of Islam ( Armstrong, 2001).36

Much has been made in the past 50 years of the Muslim word, “jihad,” as it describes a “holy war.” Armstrong’s book puts the whole concept of a holy war in a new perspective.  In response to Urban’s plea, in the spring of 1096, an army of 60,000 marched for the East. In autumn of the same year an additional army of 100,000 followed, also accompanied by noncombatant pilgrims. People from all classes of society were inspired to sew crosses on their clothing and march to the land where Jesus died and “save the world.” Armstrong says: “It was a devotional pilgrimage at the same time as it was a war of extermination.”37  Children of Ishmael and Isaac were both sacrificed. Not only were Muslims killed in July of 1099 when the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, but Jews were also killed. An estimated 40,000 Muslims and Jews died in this tragedy.  According to Armstrong, the Crusades fostered anti-semitism in Europe and Islam became known as the “irreconcilable enemy of Western civilization” into the present (Armstrong, 2001).38  The Crusades, just as the violence happening in the Middle East today, were anything but “holy.”

Ishmael according to a former Muslim / present UMC pastor 

As part of research for this project, my United Methodist pastor, the Reverend Benjamin Abrahams, who was raised in Ghana as the son of a Muslim iman, was interviewed concerning the problems presented by the Ishmael story.  Rev. Abrahams, who considers himself a mystic theologian, said, “What God chose is good.  In Hosea, God even used a prostitute. Sarah stood for two covenants: observing the law and Isaac as the father of nations.  Hagar stood for the covenant of Ishmael as the father of a nation. When the case has been laid out, one must come back to the word “covenant.” God’s covenants are not undermined by the birth of Isaac or Ishmael. God makes no distinction between Sarah and Hagar or Isaac and Ishmael. Look at Galatians 3:28: ‘ There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ All are equal. God has unified us as one. For Muslims, God is one. Islam means “submit.”

Theological analysis of the Ishmael story

The title chosen for this paper, “Ishmael, the Sacrifice of Abraham,” reflects what is seen in the narrative as well as in the history of Islam.  Whether the people in this biblical story actually existed or it is just a mythical story of the Hebrew faith is unimportant. That theological conclusions have been drawn from it for three of the world’s great religions that are having an impact on current events is important. It is with that understanding I wish to analyze the Ishmael story.

Hagar and Ishmael

First and foremost, it is offensive and demeaning to Hagar and all people that have been enslaved, as well as their descendants, to refer to her as “just a  slave girl,” as if that were some character flaw Hagar needed to correct. No one wants to be a slave. Shouldn’t Sarah and Abraham be the ones to bear the responsibility and any sense of wrong doing having to do with Hagar’s slave status?  Any commentary that cites Hagar’s slave status as making her, Ishmael, or their descendants inferior to anyone would make me highly suspect of the motive as well as offended.

Hagar was allowed to stay in Abraham and Sarah’s household as long as she was useful, very much like a brood mare. After all, it was Sarah’s idea for Hagar to serve as the vessel for Abraham’s child. Hagar was treated as less than human.  At least an apology is well overdue.

“To mock”

Adlers’ commentary on the meaning of “to mock” was amazing. To seek out other passages that used this word seems quite scholarly.  To use it to say that Ishmael, 4,000 years ago, had “mocked” the Christian church seems to be quite a stretch. Where is the logic in this conclusion? At the time Ishmael was to have lived the Christian church was still 2,000 years from happening!

If Adlers was shocking, the rabbinical commentaries were alarming. “To mock” was construed to mean Ishmael had no morals, ravished women, sacrificed crickets in a pagan manner, and schemed to kill Isaac. There seems to be no constructive reason for these opinions unless it was to excuse Sarah’s jealousy and heartlessness.

Birthrights and Covenants

The symmetry of the covenant represented by Isaac and the covenant represented by Ishmael is quite beautiful. Israel as well as the Christian church will descend from Isaac. Islam will descend from Ishmael. Each son has been blessed by God according to their birthright.  Each has been valued by God. There is still a tragic separation in this story which continues into the present in the form of violence in the Middle East. Surely God must weep over the hatred and killing. This situation is an example of how God provided something very special for  humans, who “made it their own” in a completely different way than God intended.

Ishmael, the Sacrificed

The disagreements over whether Ishmael or Isaac was the son nearly sacrificed by Abraham have been given much attention over the centuries. Besides innumerable books written on the subject, a search of the web, “Ishmael, son of Abraham,” will produce 2,300 matching sites on this issue. There are countless commentaries by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars, all with differing opinions and arguments on which son was nearly sacrificed.

My humble opinion is that Ishmael was the sacrifice of Abraham, not due to evidence, commentaries, or arguments, but because he was sent away. Ishmael was deprived of his father, his brother, and his opportunity to be a valued member of his family.  He could have died in the desert were it not for divine intervention without God’s concern for all peoples, especially oppressed peoples.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims need to find ways to work together to stabilize the tensions in the Middle East.  All involved need to stop the argument of who was sacrificed and spend that energy trying to resolve the differences that are causing so many in the present to be sacrificed.

1 An attempt is made in this book to present and evaluate the claims of orthodox Islam from the Christian viewpoint, with one author being Muslim and the other Christian. ( Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam, the Crescent in the Light of the Cross [ Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001], 9 ).

2 Commentary by Rick Francona. 2000. Francona, BA MS, Lt. Col. USAF (ret), is an acknowledged Middle East expert and speaker as well as NBC Middle East analyst. ( accessed 10 November 2003).

3 Ibid., 2.

4  Ibid.

5  Ibid., 1.

6  Ibid.

7 This volume on Genesis is from a series of commentaries by the biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann.    

   ( Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, Genesis [ Atlanta: John Knox Books, 1982], 183).

8 Ibid., 183.

9  Ibid..

10 A book of criticism and interpretation  on Genesis, using the NRSV Catholic version of the Bible, copyright by the order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN. ( David W.Cotter, O.S.B., editor, Genesis,

Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry [ Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003],105-106.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 This volume is from a larger collection, Bible Student’s Commentary, originally published under the Dutch title, Korte Verklaring Der Heilige Schrift , translated by William Heynen .( G.Ch. Adlers, Bible Student’s Commentary, Genesis, Volume II [ Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981], 35-39.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 36.

16 This book explores critical, rabbinical, and feminist perspectives on four women of the Hebrew Bible: Sarah, Hagar, Ruth, and Esther.  ( Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious Than Jewels [ Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster / John Knox Books, 1991 ], 134.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 143.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 147.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 44: Sacrifice Ishmael. The Gospel of Barnabas. An Islamic Perspective and Commentary by Ishaq Zahid. ( accessed 10 November 2003).

26 This text contains a wealth of information on Islamic tradition and theology, the Quran, the prophet Mohammed, the Law, Muslim community, worship of God, saints and mystics. (F.E. Peters, A Reader on Classical Islam [ Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994 ], 258.

27 Ibid. 16-17.

28 Ibid.

29 Islamic Awareness. The Sacrifice of Abraham. 2003. Commentary by Islamic scholars Muhammad Ghoniem & M S M Saifullah.http://www.Islamic

( accessed 3 December 2003).

30 Ibid.,5.

31 Ibid.,6.

32 Ibid.

33 This book is written by Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, B. Litt. at Oxford, has worked as a freelance writer and journalist as well as producing documentaries on religious subjects. She currently teaches at Leo  Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. She was awarded the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. ( Karen Armstrong, Holy War, The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World [ New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2001 ], iii.

34 Ibid., 4.

35 Ibid., 3.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., ix.

38 Ibid., 5.