Welcome to the desert. Hot, dry, barren, scorpions scuttling and shades of beige. It is seemingly not the most inspirational of landscapes. This is where the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are born. Many of us in “the West” seem to forget that our spiritual roots and patrimony come from the desert. Wait, what? You mean all of that Bible stuff didn’t happen in an Italian Renaissance painting? As if! Lush landscapes, plump people, and rich flowing garments are pretty appealing but it seems hard, thirsty, rocky environments propel men toward transformation. We see this in all three of the major monotheistic traditions. And now here is the quickest reverse chronology of a few men in the desert. Each one, both inspired and tormented by the harsh surroundings and his own inner struggle, reached out to the One, and was answered.
- Islamic tradition says that somewhere around 610 A.D., Muhammad was in a cave near Mecca when he received the first revelations of the Koran from the messenger angel, Jibreel. By the way, Jibreel might sound familiar because he is also known as Gabriel, the messenger angel familiar to both Jews and Christians. Interesting, right? Muhammad would retreat to this cave regularly to pray, to meditate and to contemplate. He had a busy trading business, a wife who was no shrinking violet and a tent full of kids. What man wouldn’t need to get away? We haven’t even mentioned the social and civil unrest he was dealing with. Through Jibreel, Allah speaks to him and Muhammad comes home transformed.
- Jesus was in the desert for forty days and forty nights after his baptism by John. He was tempted by the devil. Forty long days, and it’s doubtless that those were even longer nights. Scarce water, locusts for food, facing choices about power and worldly riches, struggling with his human and divine natures, battling evil. His mind, soul and heart are tried. He endures, he decides, he rejects what is laid at his feet and he accepts his path both willingly and knowingly. Whether literal or metaphorical in one’s reading of the Bible, there is no controversy that Jesus returns transformed.
- Abraham was a man of the desert when he was called to leave his home, trust in the one God, have faith that he would have a son, and learn some serious lessons in hospitality and obedience that we still talk about today. He had already lived a long life by the time we meet him in the desert and it was only going to become more eventful. His wife, Sarah, like the landscape, is also barren. In the emptiness and desolation, promises are fulfilled and Abraham is transformed.
That all of this takes place in the dessert seems profound to me; it can’t just be a geographical coincidence. We find ourselves when we are stretched, tormented, stressed and pushed to our limits. Inner reserves are summoned and strength of character is revealed under the harshest of circumstances. But when deprivation of the body, mind and soul force man beyond those limits, when his reserves are depleted and character no longer suffices, in desperation one may reach out to the divine, to that which is greater than the “I”. He empties his self and stretches out to God and for some, God answers. Abraham was answered, and he listened, changing all of human history. That is a pretty bold statement, but I think we can really back it up.
Abraham’s situation, in a convenient short wrap-up where I am clearly taking liberties for the sake of brevity, is that he was childless. Sarah, his wife, had not yet delivered them a child. That is a heartbreak as anyone who wants a child and does not have one well knows. In an ancient society where one is valued for and whose very survival depends on their progeny, it is all important. I hesitate to paraphrase God, and do not mean to be flippant, but, the basics of the story are that God told Abraham that he should leave his home and in return, God would make of him a great nation. To be more precise, He will “make his descendants as numerous as the stars”. What a beautiful, poetic phrase. Here is where we back up the idea that Abraham is one of the most profound figures in human history. I mean, he is a REALLY BIG DEAL because God kept his promise and as mentioned in passing the last time we chatted, 55% of the world’s population today sees Abraham as their spiritual predecessor. Given all the people who have lived, loved and shone in between, that is indeed a starry, beautiful night. Mind = blown.
In order to keep that world altering promise, Abraham needed a son. Sarah, wife of Abraham, eventually delivered a son and that boy was named Isaac. The promise was fulfilled. Yay! In his long life Abraham also learned some pretty important lessons on obedience, hospitality and welcoming strangers as well as this lesson in faith and trust. These are all lessons valued in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to this very day — again, Abraham is a BIG DEAL. But, let’s back up a bit because for the moment, we are focusing on his progeny.
You see, things are never simple or easy. Your life is full of tests and has challenges, so why wouldn’t Sarah’s face the same things? Perhaps people who lived thousands of years ago have more in common with us than we would like to think. The human condition has not changed. In summary: Life. Is. Hard. Before Isaac comes on the scene, Sarah has a major crisis of faith and she doubts if she will ever have a child. She decides to take matters into her own hands and puts another woman into Abraham’s hands, or rather his bed. Sarah gives her Egyptian slave named Hagar to Abraham and tells him to, um, well, you know. So he does. This seems so very strange to us; women don’t usually ask their husbands to lie with another woman and, well, you know. However, it was a different time with very different mores. Hagar was a slave and that meant Hagar was Sarah’s property — lock, stock and womb. If Hagar has a child, that child could be claimed by Sarah. Boom! Progeny problem solved.
As you may have figured out by now, two women, one man and a maybe a baby in a tent in the desert turned out to be less than idyllic. Predictably, Sarah and Hagar were locked in battle, Sarah complains that this is all Abraham’s fault (huh?) and Abraham says, “Do what you want because she is your slave.” It was probably pretty ugly. I know it would be if that were going on in my tent. I don’t even like another women in my kitchen nevermind doing you know what with my you know who. Hagar is expelled from the tent and she flees to the desert (we’re back in the desert again!). There she is met by an angel. The angel tells her to return home, her descendants will be many, and she will in fact bear Abraham a son. She should name the boy Ishmael. Oh, and by the way, he’s gonna be a handful. In fact, the angel tells her that Ishmael will “be a wild donkey of a man” and will “live in hostility toward all his brothers”. Uh oh – that is ominous. As promised, Ishmael is born. Sarah later conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Abraham’s desert desolation and obedience to God is rewarded with two sons, and their innumerable, starry descendants, which might even include you.
A lot of this is familiar to you if you are Jewish or Christian. Some of you may be able to quote vast passages from Genesis by heart (I can’t. I was raised Catholic, so, yeah.). Isaac and Ishmael are probably not new figures to you. But, here is where it gets kind of interesting. If you are Muslim, the story follows very similarly. Hagar is an even more sympathetic figure and Ishmael looms larger. According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and a prophet in his own right. Ishmael is a very real, actual and physical link in the familial chain of succession that extends from Abraham to Muhammad. If you believe that Islam descends from Ishmael and Judaism and Christianity follow a line from Isaac, that kind of makes the Judeo-Christian faiths and the Islamic faiths into step-brothers. Whoa. Let that sink in for a minute. And now extrapolate a bit…. that’s quite a family squabble we see in the news everyday.
Wait! There is more! If that weren’t enough food for thought about how very closely Judaism, Christianity and Islam may be related in the very hearts and minds of adherents, we need to talk about the sacrifice on the stone that was so brilliantly painted by Caravaggio up above. (Fun fact: It is not a certainty that Caravaggio painted “Sacrifice of Isaac”. Art historians believe it may have been painted by one of his proteges. There are certainly a lot of mights, maybe and who knows in history, right?) Anyway, back to the boy on the stone. That’s Isaac, right? Sure it is! For some of us. But if you are Muslim, it could very well be Ishmael. And just to make this all murkier, not all Muslims would claim it to be Ishmael. The point here is that one of the most powerful lessons on obedience to God (complying with God’s request to slay your own child is extreme obedience in any one’s book, be it Bible or otherwise) that can be found in any religious tradition may have featured Isaac or Ishmael on the stone, depending on what you believe. This is a seminal story for all three traditions. Obedience is one of the first lessons of all three traditions. It does not get any more elemental than this. One of these boys is a central figure in this lesson, the potential sacrifice. Please note that I am not taking a stand here or stating a fact as to who was on the stone. That’s up to you — I won’t tell you what to believe. You can absolutely yell at the computer and say, “What the heck, girl? That is Isaac <alternatively insert Ishmael here>! What kind of malarkey and blasphemy are you spewing?” Go ahead and yell — I can’t hear you anyway. Ha! Again, my point is that one of the crucial stories about arguably one of the most important figures in human history is deeply meaningful and instructive yet still divisive amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslim. We all take away the lesson of obedience, but we argue about the central figures from whom we learned it. Like one big, not so happy, step family, we are still fighting over who nearly did what to whom and why and where and what it means today. Fortunately, we all agree that no son was slain on the stone and God was merciful to his faithful servant, Abraham. Now there is a nice glimmer of agreement and hope. I love finding that silver lining.
If any of this interests you further, Bruce Feiler wrote a fantastic book titled Abraham. Feiler travels throughout the Holy Land and investigates the life of Abraham. He interviews archaeologists, theologians, priests, rabbis and imams. He talks to scholars and believers alike. He undertook his journalistic investigation (he is a journalist by trade) after September 11. He wanted to find our common roots, though the branches have long grown apart. In it, he summarizes the life of Abraham thus:
“He has no mother. He has no past. He has no personality. The man who will redefine the world appears suddenly, almost as an afterthought, with no trumpet fanfare, no fluttering doves… [Abram]…goes on to abandon his father at age seventy-five, leave his homeland, move to Canaan, travel to Egypt, father two sons change his name, cut off part of his penis, do the same for his teenager and newborn, exile his first son, attempt to kill his second, fight a world war, buy some land, bury his wife, father another family, and die at one hundred-seventy-five.”
Quite an eventful life by anyone’s measure. I wonder what Abraham thinks of his children, we who are as numerous as the stars, our Jewish, Christian and Muslim step siblings. Be kind to your brothers and sisters. Peace, my friends.