Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, born to Hagar, and Isaac, born to Sarah. There was clear tension between the two. Tradition teaches that both Isaac and Ishmael claimed the right of the firstborn, with each one legitimately claiming to be Abraham’s firstborn through their mothers.
Abraham did not favor one over the other. This can be seen by the midrashic interpretation of God’s command that Abraham offer his son as a sacrifice. The verse in Genesis (22:2) relates that God told Abraham, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.”
The Midrash explains that when God told Abraham to take his son, he asked which son, Ishmael or Isaac? God responded, “Your only one.” Once again Abraham asked for clarification, since both sons were the only son to their mothers. God then said, “Whom you love.”
This did not help Abraham understand who God was referring to, and he told God, “I love both of them.” That led God to say Isaac outright.
Abraham’s love for Ishmael, his actual firstborn, can be seen clearly from two verses. The first occurs when God promises Abraham that he is going to have a son through Sarah who will be the recipient of his blessings including the land of Israel.
Abraham replies, “O that Ishmael might live before You” (Genesis 17:18). Abraham has clear concern for the role that Ishmael and his descendants would have and God immediately comforts him, saying that “I have blessed him… I will make him into a great nation.”
The second occurs when Sarah wants to expel Ishmael from their home due to the conflict between the two sons. The Bible relates that “the matter greatly distressed Abraham” (Genesis 21:11) and he did not want to part with Ishmael. He only agrees to do so after God instructs him to listen to Sarah, but consoles him with a promise that He will make Ishmael “into a nation for he is your offspring” (Ibid, 13).
Despite the fact that Ishmael is expelled from the home, Jewish tradition (see Zohar on Exodus) teaches that in the merit of the fact that he and his descendants perform the ritual act of circumcision, they will be given control of the land of Israel for 1,300 years. (It’s quite remarkable that the Holy Land was under Muslim rule for most of the time between the 7th century and the 20th century!)
DESPITE THE rift between the two brothers, the Bible makes it clear that this feud will not last forever. When Abraham passes away, the Bible relates, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpela” in Hebron (Genesis 25:9). The Talmud teaches that Ishmael joining Isaac for their burial and giving deference to Isaac as seen by Isaac being mentioned first, indicates that Ishmael repented and accepted that Isaac had the right to inherit the land which was promised to Abraham (Tractate Bava Batra 16b).
This, according to the Talmud is the meaning behind the words “Abraham was old, well on in years, and the Lord blessed Abraham with all.” He loved Ishmael and was pained by his distance and the conflict between his two sons. Their reconciliation was the greatest blessing for Abraham.
Tradition teaches that this is why the Bible says that Abraham died “at a good old age.” He was at peace with the fact that his two sons reconciled their differences and learned to get along, on the basis of the understanding that Isaac would inherit the land of Israel.
Jewish tradition teaches ma’aseh avot siman l’banim – that which happened to the forefathers is a sign for what will transpire with their descendants. Nachmanides goes as far as saying, “Everything that happened to the fathers, happens to the sons” and “not one thing that occurred with the fathers won’t occur with their descendants.”
Thus, the reconciliation of Isaac and Ishmael, with Ishmael accepting Isaac’s presence in the Land of Israel, was not simply a story in the past but foretold what would happen in the future. It foretold what happened this week!
The agreements that were signed this week in Washington serve as another step in the process of reconciliation between Abraham’s two sons – a healing of wounds which caused him great happiness in Abraham’s old age and foretold what would transpire in future generations.
“The Abrahamic Accords” was the perfect title for this event, which proves that the developments we are experiencing with the establishment, development and success of the State of Israel are not only historic but also fulfillments of biblical prophecies