Children of Abraham

Hagar and Ishmael, Jean-Francois Millet2Why did I think of Pauline Hanson while reading Genesis over the past few weeks? I imagined her reading the text of Genesis with me  [I was reading Genesis chapter 21, verses 8-21. I imagined Pauline Hanson becoming more and more uncomfortable with the text. Let me explain. Ishmael, a key under-age character in the story, and his mother Hagar (the Egyptian servant woman), is banished from the clan of Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael is, for Muslims today, their claimed link with Abraham and a major prophet in their religion. So, you may think, Pauline Hanson could be cheer-leader for Sarah’s jealous rage: “Get rid of that child! He’s playing with our little boy! Send him away, and his mother with him: You see how she mocked me!” However, the story in Genesis does not give way to ethnically biased cheer-leading

Be aware that in the worlds of the Book of Genesis family conflict resides alongside inter-tribal rivalry and inter-religious hostility. Yet, amazingly, this book suggests that hostility is potentially overcome by genuine faith. And one strand of narrative that binds the texts of Christians and Jews together is the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. And alongside that story is the counterpoint narrative of Hagar and Ishmael.

I want to assert that the vision of Genesis is not a narrow ethnocentric one. It sits with the discomfort of alienation, and dares to suggest that the ancient hostility between the nations of Israel and Ishmael (largely identified as Arab nations) arise in a family conflict. You see, the text of Genesis dares to say that both Isaac (the “laughing boy” or “chuckles,” which his name implies) and Ishmael (“God has listened”) are children of Abraham. But wait, it’s even more complicated: Ishmael is Sarah’s child too, by a contracted surrogate mother, which also is surely a story for our time.

Genesis is not an ethnically-cleansed book. It shares the pain of its characters, and will not let them go. The stories of Isaac and Ishmael, and, later, Jacob and Esau, are linked with ancient ethnicity. They could easily have been told as cold, boring chronicles of tribal origins. Yet, instead, they are hot, lively stories of cunning, trickery, betrayal and tragedy. They are stories of family strife. We are invited to explore the depths of human emotion, our own family feuds, and all kinds of human joy and woe. We are invited to extend our family ties to include theirs. We become part of their stories and find truth for our own through them. Sorry, Pauline Hanson, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is a family tragedy, not a reason to justify the fear and loathing of other peoples.

About the picture with this post: It is one of a famous group of paintings by Jean Francois Millet. It depicts Hagar and Ishmael, near death, after their banishment from Abraham’s and Sarah’s household. They were saved by God’s intervention, finding water and a new home. They received a blessing with the assurance of Ishmael becoming the founder of a great nation. Each year somewhere in Sydney an “Abrahamic Faiths Conference” is held to acknowledge the shared heritage of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith. In 2017 the Abrahamic Faiths Conference is to be hosted in Parramatta on Sunday 16th July.