Genesis 17:15-22 | Matthew 8:5-13
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, one of my all-time favourite TV shows, The West Wing, had a special edition which explored relations between Islam and the west. In the show, the first lady, Abigail Bartlett, was asked where the conflict began. “This goes back a long way,” she replied, “it began with Isaac and Ishmael.”
The story goes back a long, long way. Our story goes back a long way, and, as the very human story it is, there has never been a time when it has been truly free of conflict. So it’s perhaps appropriate today that we go back to one of the stories of a man who is recognised as the father of the nations by all three of the world’s major monotheistic faiths.
Jew, Christian or Moslem, we all look back to the story of Abraham as the story from which the nation of God springs…
I guess if most of us think of Abraham, there are a few stories which come to mind. Perhaps you think of the start of his journeys, when God calls him out of Ur and promises him a land and a great nation. Or maybe you think of how he finally had a son, Isaac, by his ninety year old beloved wife, Sarah, after years of waiting. And thinking of Isaac, you probably also go in your mind to that strange and disturbing story of the sacrifice.
I’m guessing most of us don’t so quickly think of some of the darker parts of Abraham’s story; of how he passed Sarah off as his sister, allowing king Abimelech to take her as his wife. Or of how he gave up on God’s promise for a child, and slept with his maidservant, having a son by her – Isaac’s older half brother, Ishmael. And then laughed in God’s face when God repeated the promise that she would bear a son, and prayed instead that Ishmael might be blessed.
Ishmael, the father, in our story, of the Arab world.