Why Isaac, not Ishmael? Why Jacob, not Esau? These are among the most searing questions in the whole of Judaism.
It is impossible to read Genesis 21, with its description of how Hagar and her son were cast out into the wilderness, how their water ran out, how Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush and sat at a distance so she would not see him die, without feeling intensely for both of them, mother and child. They are both crying. The Torah tells us that God heard Ishmael’s tears and sent an angel to comfort Hagar, show her a well of water, and assure her that God would make her son "a great nation" (Gen. 21:18) – the very promise He gave Abraham himself at the start of his mission (Gen. 12: 2).
Likewise in the case of Esau. The emotional climax of the parsha occurs in chapter 27, at the point when Jacob leaves Isaac’s presence, having deceived him into thinking that he was Esau. Then Esau enters, and slowly both father and son realise what has happened. This is what we read:
Then Isaac trembled with a very great trembling, and said, "Who then was it who hunted game and brought it to me and I ate it before you came and I blessed him?—and he will be blessed." When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried an intensely loud and bitter cry, and said to his father, "Bless me, me too, my father!" (Gen. 27:33-34)
These are among the most powerful descriptions of emotion in the whole of the Torah, and they are precisely the opposite of what we would expect. We would expect the Torah to enlist our sympathies for the chosen: Isaac and Jacob. Instead it almost forces us to empathise with the unchosen: Hagar, Ishmael and Esau. We feel their pain and sense of loss.
So, why Isaac and not Ishmael? Why Jacob and not Esau? To this there are two types of answer. The first is given by midrash. On this reading Isaac and Jacob were righteous. Ishmael and Esau were not.
Ishmael worshipped idols. 1
He violated married women. 2
He tried to kill Isaac with his bow and arrow while making it look as if it were an accident. 3
Esau was attracted, even in the womb, to idolatrous shrines. 4
He trapped not only animals but also his father Isaac by pretending to be pious when he was not. 5
God cut short Abraham’s life by five years so that he would not live to see his grandson violate a betrothed woman, commit murder, deny God, deny the resurrection of the dead, and despise the birthright. 6
Such is the way of midrash. It helps us see Isaac and Jacob as perfectly good, Ishmael and Esau as dangerously bad. That is an important part of our tradition.
But it is not the way of the written Torah itself, at least insofar as we seek what Rashbam called omek peshuto shel mikra, the "deep plain sense of Scripture." 7
The Torah does not portray Ishmael and Esau as wicked. The worst it has to say about Ishmael is that Sarah saw him metzachek (Gen. 21:9), a word with many meanings, most of them not negative. Literally, it means, "he was laughing." But Abraham and Sarah also laughed. 8
So did Isaac. 9
Indeed Isaac’s name, chosen by God himself, 10
means, "He will laugh." There is nothing in the word itself that implies improper conduct. 11
In the case of Esau, the most pointed verse is the one in which he agrees to part with his birthright in return for a bowl of soup (Gen. 25:34). In a staccato series of five consecutive verbs, the Torah says that he "ate, drank, rose, went and despised" his birthright. Yet this tells us that he was impetuous; nothing more serious than that.
If we seek the "deep plain sense," we must rely on the explicit testimony of the Torah itself – and what it tells us is fascinating. Ishmael will be, an angel told Hagar before he was born, "a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him" (Gen. 16:12). He became an expert archer (Gen. 21:20). Esau, red-haired, physically mature at a young age, was "a skilful hunter, a man of the field" (Gen. 25:27). Ishmael and Esau were at home in nature. They were strong, adroit, unafraid of the wild. In any other culture they might have emerged as heroes.
And that is the point. We will only understand the Torah if we recall that every other religion in the ancient world worshipped nature. That is where they found God, or more precisely, the gods: in the sun, the moon, the stars, the storm, the rain that fed the earth and the earth that gave forth food.
Oddly enough, in the twenty-first century, atheists, agnostics, and New Age devotees still "worship" nature. That, for them, is the ultimate reality. We share 98 per cent of our genes with the chimpanzees and bonobos. Natural selection has hard-wired certain instincts and reflexes into our brain. Human art is like the peacock’s feathers: a way of attracting females so we can transmit our genes to the next generation.
We are wholly the products of nature. We are physical beings: nothing else because there is nothing else. There is no soul; there is no real freedom; human life is not sacred, nor are we differentiated in kind from other animals. All there is, is nature. That, roughly, was the view of Spinoza (God is nature seen under the aspect of eternity). It was the view of Lucretius in ancient Rome and Epicurus in pre-Christian Greece, and it is the predominant secular philosophy today.
The God of Abraham was beyond nature, because He created nature. And we are in the image of God because, though we are dust of the earth, we also have within us the breath of God. We can conceive of possible worlds that have not yet existed, and act so as to bring them about. That is what gives us freedom and makes us unique. We can distinguish between what is and what ought to be. We can ask the question "Why?"
After the Flood, God was reconciled to human nature and vowed never again to destroy the world (Gen. 8-9). Yet He wanted humanity to know that there is something beyond nature. That is why He chose Abraham and his descendants as His "witnesses." 12
Not by accident were Abraham-and-Sarah, Isaac-and-Rebekah, and Jacob-and-Rachel, unable to have children by natural means. Nor was it happenstance that God promised the holy land to a landless people. He chose Moses, the man who said about himself that he was not a man of words, to be the bearer of his word. Moses thought that this disqualified him from being God’s spokesperson. In fact, it was precisely this that qualified him. When he spoke God’s words, people knew the words were not his own. Other peoples take children and land – the Darwinian imperative and the territorial imperative – as natural. Jews don’t and can’t. As David Ben-Gurion said, "In Israel, to be a realist you have to believe in miracles."
Isaac and Jacob were not men of nature, of the field, the hunt, the gladiatorial game of predator-and-prey. They were not Ishmael and Esau, people who could survive by their own strength and skill. They were men who needed God’s spirit to survive. Israel is the people who in themselves testify to something beyond themselves. Jews have consistently shown that you can make a contribution to humanity out of all proportion to your numbers, and that a small nation can outlive every empire that sought its destruction. They have shown that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, and rich when it cares for the poor. Jews are the people through whom God has shown that the human spirit can rise above nature, testifying that there is something real that transcends nature.
That is a life-changing idea. We are as great as our ideals. If we truly believe in something beyond ourselves, we will achieve beyond ourselves.
-To engage further with Rabbi Sacks’s teachings, or to sign up to his mailing list, please go to www.rabbisacks.org
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