abraham, sarah, and hagar, a kaddish for patterns worth shattering

The question is do we feel sorry for Abraham, or do we say goddamn it, you knew what you were getting us into? Or is there some other way to resolve the whole bit? I’ve been thinking about this for at least a thousand years, maybe two. Maybe three. The whole situation sucks.

There’s this couple, see. They’re married. And they’re stagnant. They produce nothing — no offspring to call their own. Barren. And Sarah by now is way past menopausal by almost half a century. No issue will come from there, right?

But Abraham sticks with her. He doesn’t take another wife. He’s loyal. She matches. She’s of the same basic lineage as he. Good solid stock, and lineage matters in the Middle East. Today, perhaps not as much as in Abraham’s day. But today the wars over this still take a higher toll than they did back then.

He sticks with her. And finally, in a moment of enlightenment, she has an epiphany. By now she’s old and gray, and set in her ways. Stubborn as hell. But her maidservant isn’t. A bit exotic, from the other side of the tracks, so to speak, Hagar has something fresh to offer. And the two of them — Abraham and Hagar — produce something beautiful. A treasure, really. A first born — created out of their instant resonance. No plodding fruitless decades. No marriage just because she’s a relation. They simply join forces and voilà, they birth something miraculous.

This must be fairly common on the horizon. Reminds me in part of Chango and his travails. Let me know what you think. Though this tale looms much larger. It has real-life consequences that are dire and bleak and current.

Ishmael means, quite literally, ‘God hears’ or ‘God is listening.’ And what does that mean to us? It means that this union is sanctioned, if not by tribal authorities and custom (ie, the State) then by a powerful spiritual force that cannot be denied.

But the Torah isn’t terribly interested in any of this. It takes off, quite strategically, ignoring the potential paradigm shift here. Something new — this new couple might not match, but they definitely fit. Call it heterosis, if you need to explain it. Hybrid vigor. They produce something powerful. Who could have predicted it?

Sarah flips out, of course. Some angels come and calm her down a bit with promises. (I’m skipping tons here of course but it’ll have to do for now). And she just cracks up, laughing at the prophetic angels. As does Abraham. And so, when miracle of miracles, she too produces a son, it is incumbent upon her to call him Yitzhak, for their (irreverent) laughter.

The difference in these names is extraordinarily telling. Ishmael, produced out of a resonant union, is blessed with God’s grace. Yitzhak, emerges from a relentless ache of emptiness. He elicits derision, if not scorn.

But now for Abraham, there are two of them. Two women. One of whom (the illegitimate non-wife) produces his firstborn (legitimate heir), and the other (the correct and proper spouse) produces the second born with not much hope for the future under the prevailing inheritance laws.

But Sarah isn’t stupid. She figures it out pretty quick. Get Hagar and Ishmael out of sight ASAP. Banish them to, I don’t know, just make it far. How ’bout a desert they can’t possibly survive?

What kind of parent can allow such a thing? (And of course, it gets worse — but the Akedah is for another day).

A new form of inheritance is introduced in the bible. Primogeniture, the right of the firstborn, is no longer the law of the land. Instead, manipulation of inheritance comes into fashion (more on that, too, some other time maybe).

Sarah wins, of course. And we’ve been paying the price ever since.

Sarah sees her son accede to legitimized inheritance. The bible makes it sound like Yitzhak is chosen for the Akedah. The line of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob is the foundation of the Jewish lineage and the root of Christian faith.

And Hagar wins, of course. And we’ve been paying the price ever since.

These are terrible ways of winning.

Hagar, in her suffering, takes her child out into the desert, and a desert people is born. The Almighty plants a black pearl under the sea, and the pearl begins to cry for her. A sea of liquid ebony amasses way under the dunes she traverses. She wanders. A new line is formed. Arabs are born, and then — the Prophet. And a religion arises that comes to span the globe. And then, much later, the discovery of those ebony tears…

Is one line better than the other? Is one endowed with greater grace?

And what of Abraham? Did he make choices? Or did he just follow orders. Did he just say yes to every opportunity. God says go and so he goes. God says sacrifice your son, and he says sure. Sarah says get Hagar and the goddamned thing you produced with her the hell out of here, and he sends her off into exile.

Islam teaches us that Ibrahim and Ismail have a bond no shrill and jealous mother/wife can rend. The two go off and build the Ka’aba together — a place where all can come and meet, mourn, and rejoice — and pray. It’s not just that they experience God’s grace. It’s that they found a place where others gather to do so. Not just our own lineage. But a community that spans all national and racial and ethnic borders.

The new paradigm of Islam addresses the inequality of inheritance very differently than does the Torah. The Torah foments sibling rivalry generation after generation — trickery, selling a brother into bondage, jealousy and strife. Islam says let all brothers be equal in their share, and let daughters inherit as well — another innovation. Calm the chaos of each generation’s feuding. Well, that was the idea. Not that Islam solved that one, but Shariat Law did try. Then again, I’m not sure Freud did much better.

I put all this on the stiff and proud head of Sarah. Sarah who must reaffirm her priority and legitimacy of status. Sarah, who sends a mother and child into the desert, expecting them to die. It’s that part that outrages me perhaps more than any other. Though there’s still plenty to be pissed off about in here.

And Abraham. It takes him so long to get his act together. He too could have saved us all a lot of grief.

Next time, Abraham. Next time. Maybe in your next life. Take a stand. The three of you, please. I might even pray for it, if that’s what it would take. And save us the disasters which follow you if you don’t. Give us a new model. Cooperation. Mutual aid. Some new paradigm shift. Anything to end the agony that comes from experiencing one mother against the other. And their children at war. You can fix this. I know you can.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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5 Responses to abraham, sarah, and hagar, a kaddish for patterns worth shattering

  1. erin says:

    OK, so wait. Holy crap. Are you saying Islam comes out of Abraham and Ishmael regrouping later on? Did I know that? Did I fall asleep that day in Islam class?

    Is this well known?

    Because it’s so completely freaking reasonable.

    Even a thorough Christian education such as the one I had—Sunday School all through youth, catechism and confirmation in my teens, and then four years at a college of the Lutheran church where three semesters of religion were required—tends to gloss over the so-called “Old Testament,” and it’s definitely not at all normal to get into an argument with God, Abraham, and Isaac.

    Never mind Ishmael and Hagar, whom I’m not sure I ever heard mentioned before you came along, Mira.

    Anyway—so, the idea of pointing out that these people are absurd and made stupid choices is a bit earth-shaking. Even more earth-shaking is the idea of pointing out that God is a real shit in these stories. Mind you, I agree—that God sucks. But I sure as hell haven’t been in the habit of thinking we got to think that way.

    So. Abraham and Ishmael go off, regroup in the desert, and a new narrative begins. We have the Jewish tradition, all about Abraham et al, and then the Christian tradition, all about Jesus coming along and offering a better deal than the Torah (“do your best and believe, all is forgiven, never mind those tedious laws”). And—I knew this part—Islam comes next, the third thread in a continuing narrative. What I didn’t know or must have forgotten is that third thread starts with the story that comes after the story about Abraham and Isaac.

    Did I get that right?

    So.

    I have to ask this.

    How common is it for people of the world to see how these three big narratives all fit together?

    If it were more common, would we be in quite the pickle we’re in, with most of the world in some version of at war with each other over religious and territorial differences?

  2. mira says:

    So. This is a lifetime’s worth of questions, and I’m going to be brief at least for the moment.

    First — over a billion Muslims in the world are very well aware of how they fit together, and which one is the correct narrative, and which are the self-serving, and/or blasphemous ones. Jews and Christians are older siblings to Muslims. Their sacred personages are sacred in Islam — from Abraham to Jesus. The Qur’an is seen as a correction to what has been previously taken as sacred text. Islam is seen as the religion given by God to Abraham. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a messenger bringing back the authentic teachings and traditions given to Abraham.

    Second — yup. We’re cousins, locked in a tribal warfare. Very Middle Eastern disfunctional family stuff.

    Third — Jewish tradition dictates that we argue with the material at hand. That we struggle with it. (In Islam, this is called jihad, an internal jihad). In Judaism, all these biblical characters are flawed and very human. They’re not perfected superpowers that we aspire to. They make tons of mistakes — and they have a jealous god. That god is not the sole god, but rather the sole god that the Jewish people should adhere to.

    Fourth — The weaving of traditions starts earlier. In order to really look at Jewish tradition, in my opinion you need to start with the Babylonians and the Akkadians. Perhaps it’s ironic, but the Jews have preserved much of Babylonian tradition, including our entire calendric cycle!

    Hope that hits some of the key points. Apart from that, I have some courses you could take!

  3. Pingback: daily kaddish: for abraham & sarah

  4. mira says:

    How ’bout a kickstarter campaign. I hear they’re pretty effective.

    But for you, as they say in North Africa, “for you — special price — I teach you. You marry my daughter.”

    Oh well, that won’t work. We’ll think of something.

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