Jews and Muslims, Isaac & Ishmael, and Peace

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Immediately after the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ scene in Genesis, Sarah passed away. When the time of mourning was over, Abraham sent his servant to the land of his birth in order to find a wife for Isaac. The servant brought ten camels laden with gifts, and when he arrived outside the city he stopped beside a well and prayed for a sign. Instantly the beautiful Rebecca appeared, who turned out to be the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, and who possessed a generous and loving nature much like Abraham himself. Rebecca agreed to return with Abraham’s servant and marry Isaac.

Just as Rebecca reached the home of Abraham, “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi”, which means ‘the well of the Living One who sees me’, and was so named many years earlier by Hagar. He ‘looked up’ and saw Rebecca approaching on a camel. She also ‘looked up’ and saw Isaac. “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

In the very next sentence the Bible tells us that Abraham also now remarried, this time to a woman named Keturah, and they had several children. Before he died, he gave these children many gifts, and sent them “to the land of the East.” Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five years old, and then “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his kin.” Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave beside Sarah. After this, we are told, “Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” The episode then ends with a summary of the posterity of Ishmael, all of whom “camped alongside all their kinsmen.”

This perplexing medley of information begins to make sense when we learn from the Talmud that ‘Keturah’ was another name for Hagar. ‘Keturah’ means perfumed, and it is said that Hagar was ‘perfumed with good deeds’. Before Rebecca arrived, Isaac had been in Beer-lahai-roi, which strongly suggests that he had been living with Hagar and his brother Ishmael. After Sarah’s death, Isaac and Ishmael evidently used their influence to bring Hagar and Abraham back together again. Abraham lived another thirty-seven years and had many more children, as did Ishmael, and this formerly divided family lived all together once again, everyone “alongside their kinsmen”. When Abraham passed away, Isaac and Ishmael brought him home and buried him with Sarah, and then Isaac returned to the family and “settled near Beer-lahai-roi.”

On a psychological and family level, the story suggests that it is never too late for broken families to come back to each other and heal their wounds. On a social and political level, given the immense importance of this particular family for all of western history, it clearly tells us that since Isaac and Ishmael could reunite as brothers, there is no reason why their children, Jews and Muslims, cannot do the same.