Reconciliation through Abraham

“Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” —Genesis 25:8,9, Revised Standard Version

RECENTLY AN ARTICLE appeared in the news media entitled, “A Biblical Call for Reconciliation in the Middle East.” It was based on our theme text from Genesis, which tells of the death of Abraham and how his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together to bury him. The article said, “In the difficult Middle East peace effort, control of the West Bank city of Hebron has emerged as a particular challenge. Hundreds of Jewish settlers live in enclaves there, amidst tens of thousands of Palestinians. The Israeli government has delayed pulling out its army, angering the Palestinian authority.

“What has always given Hebron a special status is its religious significance to both Jews and Muslims. The Bible identifies it as the burial place of Abraham, regarded as a patriarch by both faiths. Jews trace their descent through Isaac, born to Abraham and Sarah, while Muslims trace theirs through Ishmael, born to Abraham and Hagar.

“In this link, some have wondered lately whether there might be a religious basis, a Biblical call to reconciliation, to spur the negotiations.

“One person wrestling with this idea is Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a Manhattan lawyer with an international practice, the son of Holocaust survivors and a very early participant in the peace effort. In December 1988, Mr. Rosensaft was one of five American Jews who met with Yasir Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in Stockholm. Not long thereafter, Mr. Arafat promised that the P.L.O. ‘accepted Israel as a state’.

“In an interview, Mr. Rosensaft, speaking of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, said, ‘Whether you say they were written by God or inspired by God, the traditional view is that no word in the Bible is superfluous’.

“In the case of Hebron, the Biblical words that most intrigue him are in the 25th chapter of Genesis. Its eighth verse reports: Abraham died, ‘an old man and full of years’. The ninth says, ‘His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpelah’ (which Abraham had bought from the Hittites as a grave for his wife, Sarah).

“Until Genesis 25:9, Ishmael had not been heard from since Abraham sent him and his mother, Hagar, into the wilderness, where they were taken under God’s protection. Yet, after Abraham’s death, Ishmael returns to mourn with Isaac.

“‘Who buried Abraham?’ Mr. Rosensaft asked. ‘His two eldest sons together. Clearly, there has been a reconciliation that let Isaac and Ishmael pay their respects to their father. There is no record in the text of any hostility’.

“Mr. Rosensaft is not alone in wanting to call attention to the verse. So, too, does Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose monthly discussion groups about Genesis have lately become the basis for Bill Moyer’s public television series, ‘Genesis: A Living Conversation’. ‘I think it’s a very apt text’, Rabbi Visotzky said, ‘I’d say for Menachem, he’s on the mark. That’s what we have to preach’.

“Rabbi Visotzky has, in fact, preached on Genesis 25:8,9 before formal peace talks began between Israelis and the Palestinians. ‘What I’ve said about it is, How many more graves do Isaac and Ishmael have to stand over before they realize they are brothers?’”

The article then deals with the obstacles facing Israel and the PLO in trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement respecting authority over and ownership of the land, and then continues with the thought of reconciliation. We quote:

“Mr. Rosensaft said Genesis 25:9 posed ‘an absolute religious argument’ for interfaith reconciliation. ‘It is relevant, in my opinion’, he said, ‘because Hebron has become a symbol of religious fanaticism in the Middle East, on both sides’. He called it essential for both sides to ‘de-demonize each other’. ‘From a secular standpoint’, he said, ‘the peace effort has done some of that. The time now,’ he added, ‘is to bring this same respect, and this same tolerance and understanding, into the philosophical and theological sphere, in order to persuade the imams and the rabbis to say, ‘Wait a minute, we do have common ground’.”

Abraham is the key figure to the reconciliation sought by both descendants of that noble patriarch. But how is it to be accomplished? In order to answer that question we need to examine the background of Abraham’s life and faith, and in particular the part that God has in mind for him. Abraham was called by God to leave his country, his people, and his father’s house and to go to a land he would show him. A promise was made to Abraham, that if he would do this, God would bless him. God said, “I will make you [Abraham] into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:2-4, New International Version) And Abraham obeyed God.

This is known as the Abrahamic Promise and Covenant, although the word ‘covenant’ concerning this promise does not appear until Genesis 15:18, which reads: “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the River Euphrates’.” The background for this statement was Abraham’s concern that they were approaching ten years since God had promised to bless all families of the earth with his seed, and there was no seed. So Abraham suggested that Eliezer, his steward, be adopted as his son and heir. God’s answer was, “This shall not be thine heir.” Rather, a son coming from Abraham’s body would be the heir.—Gen. 15:1-5

It was then that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, suggested that Abraham take her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, as a wife and bear a child since Sarah was barren. Abraham decided to help God in this matter, and took Hagar as a wife and she conceived. Hagar became contemptuous of Sarah, and Sarah had to deal hardly with her, causing Hagar to flee.

In the wilderness she encountered an angel of the Lord who advised her to return to her mistress, also telling her that she would bear a son and call him Ishmael. He would be the father of a multitude of people that could not be numbered. (Gen. 16:9-11) A prophecy was pronounced concerning Ishmael which said, “He will 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.” (vs. 12, NIV) Hagar returned to Sarah and bore a son whom Abraham named Ishmael. Finally, Abraham had an heir which came from his own body.

However, this was not the promised seed God had in mind when he made the promise to Abraham. Thirteen years after Ishmael was born, when Abraham was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and confirmed the covenant with him. God then introduced circumcision as a token of the covenant between Abraham and himself. Also, he made it plain that the promised seed would not only come from him, but that Sarah would be the mother. This seemed incredible to Abraham, because he was almost 100 years old, and Sarah was 90, past the age of childbearing.

It prompted him to plead for Ishmael, saying: “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Gen. 17:18) But God was adamant, and said: “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.”—Gen. 17:19-21

True to God’s word, Isaac, the miracle child, was born to her who was barren. When Isaac was weaned and no longer absolutely dependent upon his mother, Abraham made a great feast to celebrate the occasion. The Scriptures say: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.”—Gen. 21:9,10

Abraham was grieved and did not want to do this because he loved Ishmael. But God told him to heed Sarah, because it was through Isaac that his seed would be called, and that he would also make a great nation from Ishmael’s seed. As a consequence Hagar and Ishmael were sent out into the wilderness. When their water was gone, Hagar was sure that Ishmael would die. But the angel of the Lord calmed her, and God opened her eyes to find water for their survival. The Lord’s promise was fulfilled—a great nation came from Ishmael.

It is generally believed that the Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael, in particular the Bedouins living between Sinai and the Persian Gulf. Ishmael’s son, Kedar, is reported to have been an ancestor of Mohammed. Mohammed was born in Mecca on the Arabian peninsula, and that city has become an important city for Muslim pilgrimages. Every Muslim must, during his lifetime, make a pilgrimage to Mecca to visit the great mosque, the Haram which enclosed the Kaaba. The Kaaba is supposed to contain the bodies of Hagar and Ishmael. It is highly revered by the Muslim. Pilgrims make various stops in Mecca, and one of the locations is where Mohammedan tradition says Ishmael was offered up by Abraham as a sacrifice, but that he was prevented from doing so by God’s hand. Mohammedan tradition also says that Abraham went to Mecca to help Ishmael rebuild a temple.

It might appear that Ishmael and Hagar were banished for the slight offense of mocking. But the ‘mocking’ mentioned was more serious than the word conveys. The Apostle Paul, in using Ishmael and Isaac in his allegory in Galatians wrote: “As then he [Ishmael] that was born after the flesh persecuted him [Isaac] that was born after the spirit, even so it is now.” (Gal. 4:29) How did Ishmael ‘persecute’ Isaac? The Bible does not supply details. We have to look to traditional accounts to determine what may have happened.

Ishmael was nineteen years of age when Isaac was five years old. Ishmael had become skillful with the bow and arrow, and, according to tradition, would aim his shaft at Isaac, shooting the arrow close to him. One might call that playing, teasing, or mocking, but what mother would tolerate that form of play? Hence, we can understand Sarah’s reaction, and also why the Apostle Paul called it ‘persecution’.

We have support for this traditional account from the Midrash—a collection of Rabbinical Comments on the Scriptures—and, in an indirect manner, from the Scriptures themselves. When Ishmael and Hagar were banished from Abraham’s home and went into the wilderness, apparently Ishmael took his bow and arrows with him. When Hagar thought Ishmael was going to die, she removed herself “a good way off, as it were a bowshot” (Gen. 21:16), the distance being measured by a bowshot. After their miraculous deliverance we further read: “God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.” (Gen. 21:20) Ishmael did not see Isaac again until Abraham died. Most likely they were not on friendly terms. However, they came together for the burial of their father, Abraham.

Isaac was truly the son that God told Abraham to offer as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. (Gen. 22:9-19) The Apostle Paul mentions this incident in Hebrews 11:17-19, where he says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”

Isaac’s descendants through his son, Jacob, became the nation of Israel, whose history is documented so well in the Scriptures. This nation received special blessings from God, and also special punishments. Their restoration to the land given to them as the natural seed of Abraham is one of the important signs of our day concerning the proximity of God’s kingdom.

It is interesting to note that Abraham never received that land as a possession. Stephen testified concerning Abraham, “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.”—Acts 7:2-5

Later, Abraham’s natural seed did possess the land, and remained there until they were taken captive to Assyria and Babylon. After the seventy years of captivity in Babylon, some returned to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, but they continued to be subject to all the universal empires of that era. Finally, during Rome’s tenure, they were dispersed from the land again and scattered all over the world.

When their punishment ended, favor gradually returned to these natural descendants of Isaac, and they started to return and rebuild a land that had become occupied by the sons of Ishmael. There have been many conflicts between these descendants, and as suggested in the news article, a reconciliation is due. But are they able to effect a reconciliation without assistance from God? We do not think so.

An important part of God’s plan is the resurrection of the faithful people of the Bible, often referred to by Bible students as Ancient Worthies. These are mentioned in Hebrews 11 as examples of faith. Abraham is one of these, who “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (vs. 10) Abraham looked forward to the kingdom of God, or that city whose builder and maker is God, which he never found during his sojourn on earth. As the apostle says in summarizing the activities of these ancient, faithful people, that these were willing to endure afflictions to “obtain a better resurrection.” (vs. 35) This ‘better’ resurrection is described in Psalm 45:16, as being made “princes in all the earth” where they will be the administrators in God’s kingdom over all the family of mankind.

If the death of Abraham brought about a reconciliation between Ishmael and Isaac, what do we suppose the resurrection of Abraham will do for the sons of Isaac and Ishmael? These children of Abraham will rejoice to see him, and will give him utmost respect. Will they listen to his counsel and wisdom? Most assuredly. Petty differences will disappear. The land that they have fought over will be used by them for good, as they recognize that the true owner of the land is Jehovah, the great Creator of the universe, even as he said: “All the earth is mine;” and again, “The land is mine.” (Exod. 19:5; Lev. 25:23) Here God was specifically speaking of the Land of Israel. It will be Abraham who will preside over a highly successful Middle East peace! This will be a happy ending to the long conflict that has endured for centuries, and has been heightened in the last hundred years as God restored Israel to the land he promised to them.

But most importantly, Abraham will be able to see the true fulfillment of the promise made to his ‘seed’, which really is Christ. As the Apostle Paul has said, “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:29) It is Christ the Deliverer who shall come out of Zion and “shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” (Rom. 11:26) Abraham will be one of the earthly representatives of that glorious kingdom of peace under Christ. Considering his background, we do not have to stretch our imagination to see the impact his resurrection will have on his natural progeny.

The best part of this reconciliation will be the blessing of all the families of the earth (Gen. 22:16-18); a promise which, when it is fulfilled, will fill even Abraham’s heart and mind with awe for the wonderful Creator he worshipped faithfully when living upon earth so many centuries ago.

All mankind will echo the sentiments of the Apostle Paul: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”—Rom. 11:33-36

Dawn Bible Students Association
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