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B'resheet/Genesis 25:13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, with their names, according to their generations ...
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The family history of Ishmael begins with one verse earlier with one of the Torah's beloved phrases , "and these are the generations" and concludes at the end of verse 18 with "all his people" (literally 'brothers'). These phrases frame the description of Ishmael and his twelve sons - he did also, like Ya'akov, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, have one daughter - in a way that suggests, Gordon Wenham reports, "that the Ishmaelites were once a confederation of tribes like early Israel."1 The list of names, with similar framing phrases, is repeated in 1 Chronicles 1:29-31.
RabbiHirsch claims that the repetition of the root (here in this verse, twice: , names and , their names) and , (in this and the last verse) is striking. , the name of a person or a people,2 is one of the relatively few two-letter roots in biblical Hebrew with no verb form; it is used 864 times in Tanakh. , to bear or give birth to,3 also a frequently used root - 495 times - is the parent of (in verse 12), generations and (here), their generations. Clines suggests that this has perhaps the wider meanings of history, birth order or origins.4 Rashi agrees, commenting that this is "the order of their births, one after the other," while Hirsch reports that "these well-known names of the Bedouin tribes were originally the names of the sons of Ishmael."
It seems that the Tanakh is fond of lists of names - becauseHaShem is fond of people, the people He created. Scattered throughout the Bible - from the majority which appear in the Torah, to the genealogy of Yeshua early in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke - these lists exist because the people who are named are both known to and important to HaShem. Why, though, is this particular list here, sandwiched between the death of Avraham and the start of the adult life story of Yitz'khak? Perhaps for that very reason - it makes a natural break between the two pieces of narrative without disturbing either. On the other hand, perhaps we can see a more significant reason when we consider the way the narrative flow is working: Avraham, Yitz'khak, Ya'akov, Yosef - there will be hardly time to catch our breath again before Yosef dies in Egypt in the last chapter of B'resheet. The Torah doesn't want Ishmael to be forgotten and has something important to teach us from even these few verses.
As we touched on earlier, the twelve princes and tribes of Ishmael mirror the twelve sons of Ya'akov and tribes of Israel. In practice, although His promise to Avraham was worked out through Yitz'khak, Avraham's first-born son with his wife Sarah, HaShem kept His promise that Ishmael - Avraham's son with Hagar, Sarah's egyptian slave-girl - would also be the father of a great nation: "As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation" (B'resheet 17:20, NJPS). As Terence Fretheim comments, "the many descendants of Ishmael testify to the fulfillment of G-d's promises. Ishmael has a future too."5 This text not only vindicates that promise to prove HaShem's faithfulness. but because He cares for and provides for those He knows and also for those whom it might be (falsely) assumed He does not know.
On the other side of the coin, Bruce Waltke explains that the Torah does this "because Hagar gave birth to Avraham's son as the surrogate mother for Sarah and to show that G-d has kept His promise to this maidservant."6 HaShem met Hagar when she ran away from Sarah, "I will greatly increase your offspring, And they shall be too many to count" (16:10, NJPS), and again when she and Ishmael were sent away by Avraham, "Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him" (21:18, NJPS). This text, therefore, also acts as proof that HaShem keeps His promises to men and women, to patriarchs and to slave girls. He is a promise-keeping G-d who cares for all His people and keeps His word for generations. While the Israelites are given the land of Israel, the Torah tells us that the Ishmaelites "dwelt from Havilah, by Shur, which is close to Egypt, all the way to Asshur" (25:18, NJPS). History reports that they are subsequently to be found south, south-west and east of Israel and appear in many of the annals of the Ancient Near East.
But what is the attitude of those who don't feel that they have received an equal share of HaShem's provision and beneficence? All too often it is rebellion and tantrums that they don't get the first place they think they deserve, easily resulting in out-and-out rejection of His very existence or sovereignty. Not content with blessings of family, community and kinship, with His universal blessing that "while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (8:22, NJPS), or Yeshua's assertion that "[the Father] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45, ESV), many people live in a world of irrational jealousy, trying to recover what they consider to be their right, stolen from them by someone else. Sadly, these jealousies are often generational, being passed from one generation to the next, despite the real opportunities for change and blessing that exist: "[HaShem's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning" (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV).
We see this jealousy made concrete in the closing days of the kings, when the kingdom of Judah was - rightly and pre-announced by the prophets - judged by HaShem and sent into exile from the Land by the Babylonians. The people of Edom, descendants of Esau, sought to steal the Land - "you thought 'The two nations and the two lands shall be mine and we shall possess them'" (Ezekiel 35:10, NJPS) - and collaborated with the Babylonians to defeat the people of Judah and see Jerusalem destroyed: "On that day when you stood aloof, when aliens carried off his goods, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were as one of them ... How could you stand at the passes to cut down its fugitives! How could you betray those who fled on that day of anguish!" (Obadiah 11,14, NJPS). The Edomites were given the territory of Mt. Seir to be their own, and in just the same way that He would hundreds of years later clear the land of Israel for the Israelites when they came out of Egypt, HaShem cleared the area of Mt. Seir so that Esau and his descendants would have a land to call their own, given by G-d!
On the larger stage, bad behaviour, the rewriting of history, false narratives and psychological manipulation are the stock-in-trade of groups that feel they have been wronged, slighted and abused. Despite acknowledgement by history that all peoples and nations have at one time or another been guilty of oppressing each other - and, often at times, even their own people - these groups adopt victim status and insist on trying to achieve disproportionate redress. Not content with equality and tolerance, they use their protected victim-hood status to bully the world into positive affirmation of their aberrant stories, choices and lifestyles, scooping up many innocents as tools or pawns in their shrill and persistent demands for dominance.
What should our attitude as followers of Yeshua be? First and primarily, prayer. The Psalms record the prayers of David and others when wronged and attacked by those who were in rebellion against G-d: "Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts! How long shall the wicked, O L-RD, how long shall the wicked exult, shall they utter insolent speech, shall all evildoers vaunt themselves? They crush Your people, O L-RD, they afflict Your very own; they kill the widow and the stranger; they murder the fatherless" (Psalm 94:2-6, NJPS). We must take up those words - moderated by Yeshua: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44, ESV) - and cry out to heaven, looking to the time when G-d's justice and righteousness will prevail on the earth: "the L-RD comes, He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness" (Psalm 96:13).
Secondly, we must stand firm, gently (where possible) but unflinchingly, refusing to allow the ground under our feet to be stolen from us and proclaiming the truth of the gospel and the kingdom of G-d for all to hear. We must speak truth to power (and would-be-power), pointing remorselessly to Yeshua, His death and resurrection, and unremittingly defending the words of Scripture, for they are our life.
Thirdly and, perhaps, counter-intuitively, we should take every opportunity to show practical love, through conversation, hospitality and random acts of kindness. We are called to show, even though we live in a war zone, that the steadfast love of G-d for His people continues without a break as He calls all His creation to come into His kingdom and find reconciliation with Him. That alone will bring peace: when the whole world finds reconciliation with G-d and in their relationship with Him cease striving to further their own cause and submit to His gracious settlement and resolution of all disputes.
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), page 164.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 467.
3. - Clines, page 153.
4. - Clines, page 484.
5. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 169.
6. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 345.
Further Study: Isaiah 60:6-7; Luke 1:46-53; 1 John 4:20-21
Application: Are you, inadvertently perhaps, caught up in generational jealousy and hatred, unable to break the cycle of aggression and hurt? Know that the time has come to turn to Yeshua because He not only can but has already broken it for you; all you have to do is ask Him to release you. "Know this truth and it shall set you free" (John 8:32). Call on His name today and don't look back!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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