It always amazes me to see the Bible held up as a model for contemporary families and relationships.
Abraham, the Father of three major world religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is, to put it mildly, a peculiar example, but perhaps instructive in spite of himself.
Abraham may be the ‘Father’ of three major world religions, but it is really the mothers (as with modern Judaism and Islam) that make the ultimate hereditary definition in terms of race, ethnicity and religious affiliation.
It is Hagar, mother of Ishmael, who defines the heritage and blessing of Ishmael (Genesis 17:20).
Ishmael is generally considered to be Abraham’s first born son (with much controversy, but probably not how most might expect) – and for 13 years, was treated as Abraham’s only son. Ishmael later becomes the origin of Arab peoples, and, even later, the root of Islam.
Sarah’s son, Isaac, is known by Jews and Christians as ‘the child of the promise’ and, of all of Abraham’s sons (of which there are many), the favorite.
Among other things, Isaac gets the full inheritance (Genesis 25:5-6) which should have gone to the first born son (we see this pattern of the inheritance and blessing NOT going to the eldest son throughout Genesis; i.e., Esau and Reuben).
Abraham’s ‘favoritism’ of Isaac is reflected in the later ‘favoritism’ of Jacob toward Joseph – his ‘favorite’ son produced by his ‘favorite’ wife.
Abraham, in fact, had nine named sons (daughters are not named or mentioned in the Genesis accounts). He also had four ‘first-born’ sons from four different mothers.
Like most men of wealth of the time, Abraham had two wives and two female ‘servants’ (this pattern is followed by Jacob with Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah).
Most Christians (prefer to) believe that Abraham had one son, but Genesis names nine; Isaac, son of Sarah, (Genesis 20:12) Ishmael, son of Hagar, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Jishbak and Shuah, sons of Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2) and, according to most Biblical scholars, Abraham’s literal first born son, Eliezar, son of Masek (Genesis 15:2).
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Few Christians have heard of the name ‘Masek’, but she has left her mark on the modern Middle-East – her name, ‘Masek’ is still a common name in Egypt and much of the surrounding area.
Sarah get a lot of criticism for ‘suggesting’ the liaison that produced Ishmael, but social norms of this time already offered this option, in fact, Abraham, with Masek (Genesis 15:2) had a son and, some scholars believe, it was this son that drove Sarah to make her suggestion (much like the maternal rivalry between Rachel and Leah many years later).
Isaac was not Abraham’s only son – but he was Sarah’s only son. Those of us who are of the tradition of Isaac (Jews and Christians) should more rightly call ourselves children of Sarah.
And Sarah was not Abraham’s only wife. Genesis 25:1 introduces Keturah. Most Christians (and most Jews, I would presume) in defense of Abraham’s monogamy, insist that he married Keturah after Sarah died.
This defies sense. Hebrews 11:12 tells us that when Isaac was conceived, Abraham was ‘as good as dead” at well over a hundred years old. The whole narrative tension over several chapters of Genesis was whether Abraham would EVER have a child with Sarah. Are we really to believe that once Sarah died, Abraham (well over 125 years old) was suddenly reinvigorated and hade six sons with a new wife?
Abraham certainly had a ‘focus on the family’ but it certainly wasn’t (presumably) what James Dobson had in mind; Sarah was Abraham’s step-sister and Keturah (wife number two) was his patrilineal cousin.
We might have our difference now with polygamy, but it was the ‘traditional marriage’ of Abraham’s time (and many centuries later) for at least one practical reason; delivery was by far the most common cause of maternal death.
Other women (especially nursing mothers) with a commitment to each child, needed to be available to raise the surviving children.
The number of children, we must remember, was the ultimate indicator of status and power in those times.
Harems were the prerogative of royalty, but polygamy was a pragmatic strategy to protect children and protect the (patriarchal) family name and legacy.
Keturah, according to some scholars, was one of the daughters of Pharaoh. This might explain the ‘abductions’ of Sarah.
In a crowd of about 2, 000 people (and over 300 trained warriors, Genesis 14:14) it is quite unlikely that Sarah would be seen by any outsider and taken to join any king’s harem at an age well-past 90.
But yet another case of maternal/wife rivalry might explain why these ‘kings’ would take Sarah; perhaps they were taking her at Keturah’s bidding.
It is more than a bit odd that Abraham, a man of considerable wealth, influence and authority (and 318 warriors) would so willingly give up Sarah.
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And, to protect himself, and sacrifice Sarah, he not only lies, but he encourages Sarah to lie as well (Genesis 12:11-20).
If my title ‘Abraham’s women’ seems to raise the idea that the women in his life seemed, to him at least, as objects worth not much more than sheep or cattle, that was my intention.
These are my personal, if not cultural biases I know; but the way Abraham treats his women is, by current standards, a disgrace. He willingly hands over Sarah, lies about their relationship, casts out Hagar (and his own son), seems to ignore Masek and her (and his) son, and his wife, with whom he has six sons (!) is barely mentioned.
And, though multiple sons are named, Abraham’s daughters (if any) aren’t even mentioned.
This whole story (and there’s much more to this one) is one of the many examples of people of faith believing, not what the Bible clearly says, but what they want it to say.
Our faith, and our respect for the Bible, is made much deeper and stronger – and more appealing and practical– as we look closely and go beyond the two-dimensional characters most of us grew up with.
I take a lot of comfort in the fact that Abraham was, in many ways, a typical man, and very much a product of his culture. He was used by God and is still claimed by history, even though he was not always honorable or ethical.
We can, however, learn much from him.
Our choices and actions can, and will define who we are and who we become and could have long-lasting consequences.
And, I am convinced, as with Abraham, there is a far larger story at work in our lives than just our own.
Photo Information: Painting by Matthias Stom, Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham