Growing in Christ - Meditation

Sibling Rivalry

Genesis 25:8-9 (ESV):

Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah …

The above passage has a certain understated drama to it. To understand why, we must examine the concept of sibling rivalry. In doing so, we will discover a fascinating theory about religion and violence.

The story of Isaac and Ishmael is, of course, one of the great foundational stories of the Old Testament. Abraham’s wife Sarah was seemingly unable to conceive, and so she suggested that Hagar, her servant, could be the means by which an heir could be born (Genesis 16:2). This plan worked but then immediately turned sour when Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress (16:4).” Sarah then dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar fled into the wilderness (Genesis 16: 6-7). The angel of the Lord then appeared to her and promised that her son would be born and that he would be called Ishmael (Genesis 16:11).

God also enabled Sarah to have her own son who would be called Isaac (Genesis 17:19).The tension between Sarah and Hagar continued, however, and the time came when Hagar was sent again into the wilderness, this time with Ishmael (Genesis 21:14). The mother and son might have died but God saved them:

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation (Genesis 21:15-18).

Ishmael is greatly venerated by the Islamic peoples,[1] and why shouldn’t he be?  This is a moving story, a demonstration of God’s love and faithfulness. Isaac and Ishmael were both loved and blessed by God. We see that this is so in the Bible, and we also note that the Qur’an appears to quote Abraham as saying: “praise be to Allah, who hath granted unto me in old age Ishmael and Isaac: for truly my Lord is He, the Hearer of Prayer! (Surah 14, Section 6:39)[2]. Two brothers—stepbrothers—born of Abraham and both blessed by God. What could possibly go wrong?

It is probably an oversimplification to say that Ishmael’s descendents “became” what we now understand to be the Islamic peoples of the world. That religion would not come into being until some 600 years after the birth of Christ, which in turn occurred many centuries after the time of Ishmael and Isaac[3]. Nevertheless, we are bringing ourselves to the contemplation of rather an enormous question: why do the three great monotheistic religions of the world not feel united by their common heritage rather than separated by it?

Returning to Genesis 25:8-9 (above), where Abraham was dying and being gathered to his people, we see that both Isaac and Ishmael showed up for the funeral. Matthew Henry comments: “It was the last office of respect they had to pay for their good father. Some distance there had formerly been between Isaac and Ishmael; but it seems either that Abraham had himself brought them together while he lived, or at least that his death reconciled them.”[4] Again, if Isaac and Ishmael could be reconciled in ancient times, why could we not all be reconciled today? It is easy to ask this question, quite another to answer it.

For a valiant and thoughtful attempt to discuss this question and many other matters pertaining to religious discord, the reader may wish to study a book written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence[5]. Sacks discusses numerous examples of sibling rivalry including Jacob and Esau, David and his brothers, and of course the ultimate negative example—Cain and Abel. Could it be that sibling rivalry—with its implicit jealousy, envy and insecurity-- is the key to understanding both individual and national acts of violence throughout the years? Sacks uses the concept of sibling rivalry to explore historical, sociological, and psychological themes pertaining to religious violence. He states that “sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each have our own blessing. Brothers need not conflict (p.141).” For this wise comment, we say amen.

As Christians we are of course immersed in teachings of love and forgiveness. How we work this out; how we each discern our own little role in the complex earthly struggle between good and evil is not always easy or obvious. But neither is it impossible.

We have already touched on the theme of reconciliation. Let us now try to absorb a remarkable verse from the New Testament, namely 2 Corinthians 5:18-20: “all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

How often do we think of ourselves as having the ministry of reconciliation to fulfill? We can only pray that the apparent confidence that God has in us will not be undeserved. We can only pray, every day, for the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit as we attempt to be ambassadors for Christ.

In faith and fellowship,

Patrick McKitrick

Outreach Canada Ministries - more...


[1] See Wikipedia, Islam, pilgrimage.

[2] The Holy Qur’an trans. Abdullah Yusef Ali (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.) 2000.

[3] See Wikipedia, Islam, etymology.

[4] Matthew Henry’s Commentary L.F. Church ed.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan) . 1960. Page 44.

[5] (New York: Schocken Books) 2015.