Isaac and Ishmael

Abraham is claimed as the spiritual ancestor of over half the population of the earth: Christians, Jews and Muslims all look to him as their forefather in some way or another.  Isaac and Ishmael were his two sons, of different mothers.  Their mutual presence had torn a family apart in Genesis 21.  One would father the line of the Jews and the other the line that would bring about Islam. After a long separation, we are told in Genesis 25:9  they were reunited for their father’s funeral.  I wonder what that was like…

The silence was both strange and comforting.  He was alone.   He stared at the coffin.  It seemed a little alien.  His mind was still coming to terms with him being alone.  It wasn’t unexpected, his father was quite old, very old, in fact.  He was so caught up in the strange silence that, oddly he didn’t notice the person standing next to him until he heard his name.

“Isaac” was said in cold, flat greeting.

He looked to see a figure he did not expect to see.  He had send messages to his half-brother, but did not expect to see him.  This was not a situation he had prepared for.  He looked back to the coffin and tried to work out what to say.

“Ishmael” he returned the greeting.  Neither offered more than that.  “I wasn’t sure if you were going to come”.  That was the truth.  The last time they had seen each other was when Ishmael and his mother had been sent out in exile to the desert.  No-one was sure if they had survived until a caravan had mentioned they were living deep in the Negev desert.  His father was silent for a week, he suspected his father was quietly rejoicing.  His mother on the other hand…well that was a week to be out with the sheep.

“He was my father too”.  The accent was on the ‘my’.

The stood side by side.  There was so much in common and yet there was so much distance between them.  The main thing they had in common was lying in the coffin in front of them.

“So he finally died” Isaac bristled at Ishmael’s observation.  It seemed like a mundane observation like he was saying the land was flat or the goat was thin.  It made Isaac’s grief sound so empty.

“Yes”.  The fact was that Isaac wanted to say as little as he could.  He knew Ishmael would be looking for a way to start a fight.  That had always been his way and though they had not seen each other for many years, there was nothing to suggest that that had changed.  It surprised Isaac even though they were men now, how quickly they settled into the pattern they had as boys.

“I suppose this means you get everything”.  Ahh yes, the inheritance.  Here we go.  The situation was unusual since not only did Ishmael get nothing, neither did Isaac’s other half brothers who were born of his father’s second wife.  There was no way around this and there was not way he wanted to justify it.  It was his father’s will and he had made it very clear how he wanted things to be when he was gone.


“Well, you always were the golden child.”  It didn’t take long.  They had not seen each other for years and the animosity erupted already.

“After all it wasn’t you and your mother that was left in the desert to die”  The venom in his voice showed that this was still something that was as sharp for Ishmael as the time when he was told that he was to be exiled.  Isaac imagined that the poison in his heart had grown and festered there over the years and he blamed the world, God, his father and especially the reason he was thrown out – Isaac.

“Well he did try and kill me once”.  Isaac didn’t know why this moment in his history had popped into his head.

“Really?”  This appeared to genuinely take Ishmael by surprise and he made no effort to hide the fact that he relished in the prospect of a rift between father and son.  Animosity was being replaced with curiosity.

“Yes, God told him to sacrifice me.”  The climb to the mountain, the building of the altar, it all came flooding back.

“Really?”  Isaac could just see the sly grin spreading across his brother face.  This had it all, not just a rift between father and son, but that God who was behind it all was there too.

“He had me bound up, and the knife was raised and everything”

“Really?  What happened?”  Isaac could imagine what Ishmael wanted to hear.  That son had fought the father, that they had had a falling out.  But what he had to say would crush Ishmael and there was something about that that he enjoyed in a guilty way.  He paused for the dramatic effect and find the right words.

“God saved me.”  He turned enough to see the smile dissolve and dark clouds cover the face of Ishmael again.  The animosity returned.

The silence that was such a comfort to Isaac a few minutes ago was now stifling.

“If he was so good and a follower of God, why did he get my mother pregnant?”  Ishmael paused.  “In a way I shouldn’t even be here.”

That last sentence surprised Isaac.  Why did his father sleep with his mothers servant?  It was a question that was whispered enough for even he to hear.  He knew his mother knew, in fact it was her idea.  But Isaac had not considered how it would have effected Ishmael.  The strange thing was that it was the thing that he felt about himself quite often.  Perhaps they had more in common than he thought.

“My mother could not have children at all.  So, in a manner of speaking, I shouldn’t be here either”.

There was another long stifling as they both considered the other’s strange existence.

Isaac could not stand the silence anymore, it was pressing down on him almost physically.  Even if it was small talk, even if it would lead to a fight, he had to say something.

“Did you get married?”

“Yes, an Egyptian girl from a family my mother knew.”  The tone was strangely devoid of emotion.  Like he was considering the effectiveness of a brood mare.  Isaac wondered if it was a reflection on how Ishmael saw the marriage or whether it was how he missed his mother, whom Isaac assumed had died by the word ‘knew’.  It was better not to pursue that topic.


Ishmael’s presence changed physically.  He went from hostile to looking proud.

“Twelve sons.  All strong.  All fighters”

Just like their dad, thought Isaac.

“How about you?  Married?”

“Yes, her name is Rebekah”  He allowed himself a half smile.


“Not yet.”

At the news that Isaac did not yet have children Ishmael remained looking proud.

Another long, stifling silence.  Isaac could not think of anything else to say and was trying to work out a reason to leave when Ishmael spoke.

“Well, good bye,” though it was unclear whether it was directed to Isaac or the coffin.  He sniffed and walked away

“Goodbye Ishmael.” Isaac turned to see his brother walk away, unaware that the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the sons for thousands of years.

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