By the end of the Book of Genesis, the people Israel have been established as the family of Jacob. Along the way, a number of personalities drop out. Among them: Abraham’s nephew Lot, and Jacob’s daughter, Dinah; the former is not in the direct line from Abraham to Jacob, the latter, one would surmise, became part of her husband’s community. Ishmael and Esau, on the other hand, could conceivably be part of the covenantal community, but are not.
The narrative is hardly dismissive of these two sons and brothers. Their opportunity, or lack of opportunity, to receive the blessing of their fathers is described with care. The Book of Genesis is not scientific history. It is rather what we might call an extended midrash; a creative telling of the origin of a people whose actual origins have been lost in the mists of history. It is a powerful literary document; imagined and legendary, perhaps, but also a deeply insightful document of how, in the formation of a people, some participate and some do not.
We will begin with a close reading of the text, and then consider the subsequent intertwined fates of Israel with Ishmael and Esau (Edom), a history that continues today in the form of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The Ishmael strand begins with Sarah as she offers her slave/servant Hagar to Abraham (Gen. 16:1-2). [More accurately, the narrative involves Abram and Sarai. Their names are changed in the next chapter.] Hagar is introduced here as an Egyptian, indicating that she had been acquired during Abraham’s stay in Egypt (Chap. 13), and was not part of the entourage that initially left Haran. Abraham silently complies with Sarah’s offer, and Hagar becomes pregnant. Sarah’s immediate response to this news is not joy or celebration, but rather anger and resentment.
The reaction is both surprising and unexceptional. Sarah had made the initial offer, what else was she expecting? Hagar’s pregnancy, on the other hand, reinforced that the problem in conceiving was all hers, and could not even in part be laid on her husband. Sarah was moreover stuck with the arrangement. Having established a surrogate contract, she was obligated to care for the pregnant woman until the child was born. Hence, her immediate action was irrational but predictable; she blamed Abraham for the situation.
We should note at this point, the incidence of employing a surrogate mother presages the later story of Jacob’s wives and handmaidens. Rachel, in particular, presses her husband to have a child by Bilha. The story here (Chap. 30) has Jacob initially miffed by the implied accusation that he is somehow at fault for Rachel’s barrenness. When Bilha becomes pregnant (Jacob being as compliant as Abraham had been) and gives birth, Rachel rejoices. Sarah’s sense of her own loss and inadequacy has been transformed into Rachel’s celebration in her contribution to Israel’s destiny.
Reacting to Sarah’s accusations, Abraham turns the responsibility back upon her. She handles the situation by embittering Hagar, inducing her to leave the camp and try to make her way back to Egypt. Stopping at a spring, she has an encounter with God. [The text actually says that she sees a mal’akh; an angel or emissary of God. In post-biblical writing, angels are conceived as having an existence independent of God. In the Bible, however, all mal’akhim represent an incarnate manifestation of God’s will. To meet a mal’akh is functionally equivalent to meeting God.]
Hagar is told to return to Sarah and endure her hostility. She is told: “I will greatly multiply your descendents; they will be too numerous to count (16:10).” The language is essentially identical to God’s promise to Abraham. (See, for example 15:5.) The immediate impression is, therefore, that Ishmael will be the son through whom God’s covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled.
The divine word however continues: “He shall be a pereh of a man [properly, an onager, or free-range donkey. Most translations like to use “wild ass,” but the connotation is somewhat misleading.]; his hand shall be against all and the hand of all shall be against him (16:12).” The evident meaning of the oracle is that Ishmael (and the Ishmaelites) will be an independent people — a nation without borders — resistant to alliances with other nations. The language, however, is also the reverse of God’s initial promise to Abraham: “I shall make your name great, and it shall be a blessing; and I shall bless all who bless you (12:2-3).” Hagar learns that the child she will conceive will be blessed, but not with the blessing of Abraham. Hagar has been privileged with an encounter with the divine, and memorializes the spring where the oracle took place as Be’er L’hai Ro’i [The Spring where the Living God Looks Upon Me].
The divine oracle that Hagar receives is then repeated to Abraham. After Hagar returns and Ishmael is born, God tells Abraham that Sarah will also bear him a son (17:16). Abraham literally considers this news a joke; Sarah is already 90-years-old. God persists, informing him that Sarah will indeed have a son, whom they will call Isaac [“the grand joke”], and who will be the one who receives the covenant. Ishmael, as already noted to Hagar, will also be blessed.
The Ishmael story continues after Isaac’s birth, when Sarah sees him ‘playing’ (m’tzahek) with Isaac. Sarah insists that the boy and his mother be thrown out of the camp. Abraham is initially upset at the prospect, but receives permission from God to submit to Sarah’s wishes. The narrative continues: “Early the next morning, Abraham got up and took bread and a waterskin, and handed them to Hagar, placing them and the boy on her shoulder (21:14).” Ishmael is no less than fourteen-years-old, and hardly has to be carried. The language, however, presages the telling of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. [“Early the next morning, Abraham got up…he took the wood for the offering and laid it on Isaac (22:3,6).”] In this case, Abraham is apparently sacrificing Hagar with her (their) son as the material for the offering.
Intimations of sacrifice are not only found in the foretelling of the Akedah. Both occasions that Hagar is sent out of the camp have the feel of “goat for Azazel” described in the Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus 16. The high priest Aaron takes two goats, and by means of lots, determines that one will be sacrificed to God upon the altar in the tabernacle (mishkan), and the other sent out into the wilderness as an atonement. The fate of that goat is unknown to those who remain in the camp. Its sacrifice does not require it to be killed, but rather to venture out carrying, so to speak, the burdens of the people, and thus allowing them to move on re-inspirited in their lives. Hagar goes out, carrying, so to speak, the burden of Ishmael, so that Isaac (the future of the people) may move on in his life.
Instead of traveling toward Egypt, Hagar just wanders until the water is used up. She weeps, not over her own imminent demise, but rather over the expected death of her son. The narrative makes a point of having Hagar move away (“the distance of a bowshot”) from Ishmael. Again, we can sense a foreshadowing of the distance between Sarah and her son, Isaac, when Abraham takes him away to be sacrificed. Once more, a mal’akh appears and announces that “God has heard the cry of the lad where he is (21:18).” Hagar weeps, and yet it is Ishmael — whose very name is “God hears” — whom God hears! When Hagar first left the camp, she was before a spring and saw God. This time, she is before God and sees a spring.
Rebecca, like Sarah before her, is initially barren. When she does become pregnant, she finds herself in physical distress, and calls out to God, “why me? (25:22)” God answers that she has twins who are already struggling with each other. Ultimately, however, “One nation shall prevail over the other, the elder shall serve the younger (25:23).” Like Hagar, Rebecca is privileged with a divine oracle, and like Abraham, she knows the fate of her two children. Sarah, on the other hand, is the object of divine oracles, but never has a direct encounter herself. Yet, in the literary parallels that exist between the stories of Ishmael and Esau, an intertwined Sarah/Hagar as Abraham’s wife is the counterpart of Rebecca.
The twins are born with Esau being only barely older than Jacob. A midrash depicts the two children as being like two pearls dropped into a narrow vase. The first one in would be the second one out. With this image in mind, one can ask who is truly the older, and who the younger? [Note an even closer and more ambiguous birth order in the story of Judah and Tamar’s twin sons (Gen. 38: 27-30).] Esau is quickly depicted as being an outdoorsman and Jacob as a homebody. Thus, a parallel is drawn to the onager Ishmael, and the younger, more homebound, Isaac.
The Ishmael story, as already noted, includes only a brief reference to a relationship with Isaac (the odd expression of ‘playing’ will be discussed shortly). The Esau tale also includes just one encounter between the brothers, but it is more extensive: Esau’s selling of his birthright to Jacob for some lentil stew and bread. The incident concludes with the statement: “thus did Esau disdain his birthright (25:34).” We see an intimation of the Esau narrative turning the Ishmael story on its head. Even before he is born, Ishmael’s lot is to be one who is independent, disconnected from the family of Abraham. Esau, on the other hand, affirmatively chooses to disassociate from the family of Isaac.
A climactic moment in the Esau saga takes place with the scene in which Isaac summons him to receive his covenantal blessing (Chap. 27). The scene is depicted with drama, suspense and not a little artifice; it is a set-up. Isaac, now functionally blind, announces to Esau that he will receive the blessing, and then sends him away on an errand. Rebecca conveniently overhears Isaac and prepares Jacob to take Esau’s place. Jacob is resistant, but Rebecca insists and declares that she will take responsibility if the plot misfires.
Rebecca, like Abraham, knows something about the fate of her children that her spouse does not. Abraham makes no use of this information. When pressed by Sarah to have Hagar and Ishmael removed from the camp, he is initially upset even though he knows that Ishmael will be all right, and that such an arrangement serves to fulfill the promise that the covenant will pass through Isaac. [A midrash suggests that Abraham had to endure ten trials. Perhaps the final trial — being called upon to sacrifice Isaac — arose from his hesitation in having Ishmael move on.] Rebecca, on the other hand, affirmatively acts upon her knowledge. She pushes Jacob into doing what the oracle had told her must be done.
For Jacob to receive this blessing, he must cover his arms with hair and present his father with a meal of wild game. The previous depiction of Jacob cooking was a presumably meatless lentil stew. In the story of Cain and Abel (Chap. 4), Abel’s offering of produce was preferred over Cain’s of livestock. Now, it will be the meat offering that is a key to the blessing. With hair and the meal, Jacob is putting on an act; he is playing Esau.
Ishmael had been playing. While many commentaries will assume this means sexual impropriety, it might be better to read the text as suggesting that he was attempting to act like Isaac! Ishmael had already received his blessing, although it was given by God first to Hagar and then to Abraham. He would become the father of twelve princes. Even though Sarah is not privy to the knowledge of the fates of both her surrogate and natural sons, she intuits that it is not right for Ishmael to become more like Isaac. In the matter of Jacob and Esau, however, their fates have not been decided fully. The oracle Rebecca received was not explicit. Both she and Isaac (who uniquely shared in the naming of their children — Abraham named his children, and Jacob’s wives name his) must intuit who is the more worthy recipient of the blessing. It is the one who is most capable of being like both twins. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).”
Jacob thus receives Isaac’s blessing with the words “May God give you of heaven’s dew and earth’s bounty (27:28).” The prayer concludes: “May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed;” a recapitulation of God’s promise to Abraham. When Esau returns, he learns that Jacob has already received their father’s blessing, and insists on a blessing of his own. Isaac ultimately complies, and uses virtually the same formula: “Behold, of earth’s bounty will your dwelling be, and among the heaven’s dew (27:39).” He then states “you will live by the sword,” hence intimating that Esau’s fate is like Ishmael’s, one of independence within the community of nations. [Some readers of Isaac’s words to Esau have suggested that the word “of” should be understood as privitive — away from — as opposed to the partitive “of” in Jacob’s blessing. The land of Edom, however, is subject to similar rains and productivity as the land of Israel. It makes more sense to treat the words to Esau as a blessing as well.]
Indeed, all four children are blessed. Isaac and Jacob are called upon to become great nations fulfilling Abraham’s covenant with God, and Ishmael and Esau are called upon to become numerous peoples who, though outside of the divine covenant, are also separated from all other peoples. Abraham, however, blesses neither of his sons; it is God who blesses them both. God blesses neither of Isaac’s sons (at least, not at this point in the narrative), and it is Isaac who blesses both. The mothers, far more than the fathers, propel the proper child toward their destiny. Yet, both fathers are placed in difficult positions with fateful choices.
Little noted, but I believe of great significance is the sense Genesis imparts that neither Ishmael nor Esau spurned a covenantal blessing. On the contrary, they both seemed quite willing, even eager, to receive it. [This conclusion is reinforced by reading Ishmael’s “playing” as wanting to take his brother’s place.] Ishmael was passed over principally by God. Esau, on the other hand, was simply not as worthy.
The book of Genesis establishes a motif in which decisions move from the divine will to human choice. God determines the fate of Abraham’s family, and in doing so, tests Abraham’s willingness to accept that fate. The family of Isaac, however, must determine their own future. God’s role is not eclipsed, but not decisive either. In the final “act” of the book, the saga of Joseph and his brothers, the divine hand is completely absent.
From Persons to Peoples
A close reading of Genesis reveals a sophisticated interlocking of storylines and motifs. The narrative involving Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac contains structural parallels and passages that presage the stories of future generations. The entire exercise highlights a carefully organized literary saga. The construction of the legend produces insights and deep truths that overwhelm whatever actual ancient history might be at the heart of the telling.
One final parallel: the stories of the individuals, Ishmael and Esau, and the generational line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all conclude with twelve. As God had already informed Abraham (17:20), Ishmael is described as the father of twelve sons, nisi’im [princes or chieftains] of clans who come to reside in the region south of Canaan (25:12-18). Esau’s progeny is provided in a complex section (Chapter 36) that contains at least four genealogical charts. One passage (36:9-13) tells of Esau’s three wives, lists twelve descendents by name (children and grandchildren), and adds one more child — Amalek — born to a concubine. This passage is quite similar to Jacob’s twelve sons by four women, plus one daughter.
The descriptions of Ishmael and Esau’s descendents are each placed in the text following the death and burial of their fathers. Hence, Ishmael’s story ends with Abraham, Esau’s with Isaac. The text makes no effort to record the deaths of either individual. Rather, the person becomes the people: Ishmael is replaced by the Ishmaelites and Esau by Edom. Legend is transformed into history. Whatever historical truth value can be assigned to the tales of Genesis, there is little doubt that Ishmaelites and Edomites did indeed exist.
Moving forward through Scripture thus reveals the biblical authors assessment of Ishmael and Esau (Edom) as national entities. This historical-sociological reality certainly affects in part the creation of the Genesis legend; it also has a dynamic of its own.
With only a very small number of references, Ishmael essentially disappears from the narrative. The nomadic people known as Ishmaelites are as distant from the story of the people Israel as Ishmael himself was from Isaac. Can a people who are called “those whom God hears” be so marginal to the narrative? I will return to this question later.
Esau/Edom, on the other hand, is mentioned throughout the Bible. The Edomites, unlike the Ishmaelites, are a settled people. While Ishmael’s sons were called chieftains (maybe a better term would be “sheiks”), Esau’s are kings. The land of Edom is substantially east of Israel, comprising the hill country of central and southern Jordan. Edomites also evidently claimed possession of the southern Negev (west of the Aravah rift that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Eilat.
The complex of genealogies in Genesis 36 gives some insight regarding the biblical authors’ understanding of this kingdom. First, they believe that the kingdom of Edom preceded any unified kingdom in Israel. (Verse 31: “And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before a king reigned over the people of Israel.”) The list itself is a jumble. There is no indication of a unifying dynasty. No ruler is described as the son of the preceding king. Capital cities also move around. The overall impression is of a kingdom that is held together by strong (and/or ruthless) leaders, rather than an overarching stable political system. The comparison of the northern kingdom of Israel to Judah comes to mind.
A text that is probably older than the Genesis genealogies, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), includes this enigmatic passage: “O Eternal, when You came forth from Seir/Advanced from the country of Edom (v. 4).” While some scholars suggest that the reference follows one opinion that Mt. Sinai is located somewhere in the hill country of Edom rather than on the Sinai peninsula, I believe one can fairly interpret the verse in line with the Genesis material. God took care of establishing Edom while the Israelites were in Egyptian servitude.
The Book of Judges, as a whole, sets out Israel’s pre-monarchical history, describing a series of conflicts with the neighboring nations. It is most telling that none of these conflicts were with Edom. Indeed, the judge Yiftah (Jephthah) justifies his battle with the Amorites by contrasting their behavior to Israel’s peaceful relationship with Edom. (Yiftah’s account is in Chapter 11, reflecting the narrative found in Numbers 20-21.)
The relationship changes significantly after the Israelite monarchy is established. The Book, II Samuel, describes David’s aggressive expansion of the kingdom, including the conquest of the lands of Edom. The Davidic “Empire,” however, does not last long. Solomon grants autonomy to most of the neighboring peoples, but does maintain control of the Negev down to Eilat.
I Kings 11 provides an intriguing narrative. The text first claims that David’s chief commander, Joab, had put all the Edomite males to the sword. Only Haddad, a member of the royal house, survived and found sanctuary with the Pharaoh in Egypt. When he learned that David had died, he petitioned the Pharaoh to permit him to return to his homeland. Pharaoh appears initially to be reluctant to let Haddad go, but relents. The anecdote — only eight verses long — brims with inverted references to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Haddad, like Moses, survives an attempt to put all the males to death. Pharoah treats Haddad kindly — similar to an earlier Egyptian king rewarding Joseph — going as far as finding him a wife among Egyptian nobility. Finally, Haddad goes before Pharaoh to say “let me go.” And Pharaoh complies!
The mixing of elements of the Exodus story with Haddad is worthy of its own separate analysis. In the context of this paper, we should note that the segment begins with a pronouncement of God’s anger at Solomon over his indulging his foreign wives with shrines to their gods. Solomon has become like a Pharaoh, the king of Egypt is acting like Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, and the Edomite takes the role of Moses.
I believe the overall purpose of this strange passage is to critique Solomon as he drifted (in the eyes of the author of Kings) away from his covenantal relation with God. Edom is employed — along with the inverted references to the sojourn in Egypt — in accord with Isaac’s words to Esau: “…your brother shall you serve. But when you move away, you shall break his yoke off your neck. (Gen. 27:40)” [The parallel history provided by a different author in II Chronicles 9, makes no reference to Solomon’s turning away from God, and thus has no reference to Haddad or Edom.]
Edom is mentioned briefly a few more times in the histories (both in Kings and Chronicles). Specifically, the Judean king Joram had to put down an Edomite revolt, and that a late Judean king, Amaziah, confronted and defeated an Edomite army in the “Valley of Salt.” Both of these references (II Kings 8:20 and 14:7) suggest the ongoing dispute over Negev territories that remained in Israel/Judah’s control. The Valley of Salt seems to refer to the broad canyon south of the Dead (Salt) Sea, an otherwise natural border between to the two nations. It was site of an earlier victory by David (II Sam. 8:13).
Edom is no longer mentioned in the historical narratives. The impression is left, however, that tensions over the border between the two kingdoms is never quite resolved, particularly who can claim control over the Aravah from the Dead Sea down to the Gulf of Eilat. In time, the issue was substantially rendered moot by the Babylonian conquest. The kingdom of Judah was disbanded, and while the exiled Jews were able to return to their land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, they remained under foreign (Persian) control.
Scripture is silent regarding the fate of the bordering kingdoms — Aram, Moab and Edom, among others — that certainly were also absorbed in Nebuchanezzar’s conquests. Two books of the Prophets, however, provide a hint. As a rule, literary prophets sought to distinguish Israel’s fidelity to the one ineffable God, by engaging in a systematic condemnation of the pagan kingdoms. Thus, Edom was mostly treated as just one of the many nations deserving of reproof. (The absence of mention of Edom in the oracles of Isaiah is a curious exception.) Obadiah and Malakhai, on the other hand, specifically single it out.
Obadiah is a very short text, just 21 verses in length. The prophet, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and experienced the fall of Jerusalem, might very well have produced a much longer work, but only these verses were considered worth preserving. The focus of the entire book is therefore on condemning Edom and praying for its ultimate downfall. Malakhai is conventionally considered the last of the prophets. He preached at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah (500-450 B.C.E.), perhaps as much as a century after Obadiah. Only three chapters of the prophet’s writings are preserved (not considerably more than his older colleague), and the only nation to receive condemnation is Edom.
This focus on the part of the two prophets suggest something about the uneven treatment of Judah and Edom by the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar, in contrast to the Assyrians who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, asserted hegemony over lands conquered by demanding tribute and obeisance, but otherwise keeping political and cultural norms in place. When Judah defied Babylonia in 597, Nebuchadnezzar deposed the king (Zedakiah), sent some of the leadership into exile, and looted the Temple, but did not upend the kingdom’s autonomy. That would occur eleven years later, after a second revolt. We may also surmise that the Babylonian ruler, removed some lands from Judah’s control and passed them on to more compliant neighboring kingdoms. Certainly, Edom could have regained the disputed lands of the Aravah. Perhaps, it received even more land after the fall of Jerusalem.
When the Persians permitted the Jews to return some fifty years later, Edom was hardly induced to give up the formerly Israelite land in possession. Again, other kingdoms might have also been beneficiaries of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment, but they would not also be the recipients of Israel’s ire that was reserved for Edom.
Most biblical scholars will date the final editing of Genesis to roughly the time of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Ishmael and Esau, however, are brought to bear many centuries later. Rabbinic texts (third or fourth century C.E. and later) will encode Imperial Rome, and then the Roman-backed Church as Edom. Both Jews and Muslims, beginning in the seventh century, will connect Ishmael with Muhammad and Islam. The associations, I believe, are uncannily apt.
Referring to Christianity as Edom is, of course, purely Jewish terminology. The Church has never applied the term to itself. From the point of view of classic rabbinic thought, the designation reflects the condemnation of Esau/Edom expressed in Obadiah and Malachai. We can see in the appellation, however, a much more complex understanding of the relationship between the two faiths. Both rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity arose out of the same source — biblical Israel — and are products of the theological upheaval of the first century. Fundamentally, they are twins. Their paths diverged, and yet their histories remained intertwined. Finally, Esau, who sought and indeed received a blessing from his father, nonetheless spurned the birthright. Christianity broke with the familial-historical connection to Israel, and became pure religion.
Muslim tradition holds that the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe, were descendants of Ishmael (Isma’il). The Qur’an asserts that Abraham (Ibrahim) journeyed with Ishmael to the region of Mecca, and rebuilt the Ka’aba, a cube-shaped structure purported initially erected by Adam and subsequently fallen into disuse.
One of the more intriguing passages in Qur’an is the retelling of the ‘Akedah, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son. In Sura 37, the story is told in a schematic fashion, and the son’s name is never mentioned. At the beginning of the quranic passage (99-110) Abraham prays to God for a child. His prayer is fulfilled, but when the boy reaches an appropriate age (the text says, when he is old enough to work — say, thirteen), Abraham tells him of a dream in which he is commanded to sacrifice him. The boy complies as an act of obedience to God. In response to both of their faithfulness, the obligation is rescinded and a substitute provided. The story ends with the statement: “And We gave him (Abraham) the good news of Isaac…” The implication, I believe, is clear. Ishmael is the son who undergoes the threat of sacrifice, and the reward for Abraham’s faith is the birth of Isaac. (I am thankful to Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a teacher of Islamic literature, for this reading.)
The Qur’an thus imagines a reinforcing relationship between Ishmael and Isaac. (The text is silent about their mothers, who play such a central role in the Genesis account. One might note, however, the etymological connection between Hagar and Hegira, Muhammad’s escape from Mecca to Medina.) The Hebrew Scripture, in its way, also reaffirms this relationship.
Following the ‘Akedah, Isaac seems to disappear. The story concludes (22:19) by relating that both father and son returned to Beersheva, but only Abraham continued to reside there. Isaac appears again when Rebecca arrives. The text notes (24:62) that he was living in the vicinity of Be’er L’hai Ro’I, spring at which Hagar had encountered God. Isaac consummates his marriage in the tent of his late mother, Sarah, but after joining with Ishmael in burying their father, he returns to the spring (25:11). After the trauma of near-sacrifice, Isaac finds comfort with his older brother.
With the death of Abraham, as noted above, the story of Ishmael also substantially ends. Ishmaelites are mentioned in only a couple of places in the balance of the Bible. While even the Qur’an acknowledges the continued struggle of the progeny of Isaac, through Jacob, with the effort to uphold their covenant God — a history that Scripture records as filled with both righteousness and rebellion — from Ishmael to Muhammad, there is silence. Abraham’s older son did indeed receive God’s blessing, but unlike his half-brother, he somehow could not pass it on. The will and reality of the One God remained buried for roughly two millennia, until Muhammad was able to retrieve it.
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Martin Buber noted that in the Hebrew Bible “the history of the world comes to us as the history of Israel.” The early history — the Genesis tales of the Patriarchs — serves to establish two overarching themes that will be followed throughout the rest of Scripture. They are the story of an idea: One God, Creator of all, transcendent and ineffable. And the story of a family that becomes a people and struggles to accept this challenging and difficult idea. In the saga of the family, two sons seem to be lost. In the cunning of history, however, it is better to suggest that Ishmael and Esau did indeed accept the covenant, but each in both similar and distinctly different ways, could only carry that idea within themselves. The loss was not of the idea, but rather of the family, the history. In time, however, through the legacy of Esau and of Ishmael, the history that was Israel did indeed become the history of the world.