Why did Isaac inherit Abraham’s covenant and not Ishmael?
Why Jacob and not Esau?
Often these questions come to our mind, and we try to give them an answer.
The Torah does NOT state that Ishmael and Esau were wicked, as some tend to think. The opposite is true. If we read their Biblical accounts without preconceptions, our hearts even go out to them in compassion. One was sent almost to his death in the dry desert. And from the second, the blessing was stolen.
In an honest reading we feel the pain and loss together with Ishmael and Esau. Notice what the Torah says about them. Sarah, for example, saw Ishmael making fun [literally “causing to laugh”] and immediately demanded that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael.
“And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making fun…“
But is it necessarily negative that Ishmael joked/laughed at his little brother Isaac? Why do we immediately tend to think that this was his sin? Isaac’s very name means “He will laugh.” And we have quite a few “laughing” verses around the birth of Isaac. Both his father and mother were caught laughing. And after his marriage, Isaac himself made his wife Rebekah “laugh” while Abimelech happened to be watching.
The most condemning thing written about Esau is:
“And Esau drank and arose and despised the birthright.“
That is, he was reckless and rash, allowing himself to be tempted by the hunger that gnawed at him. Does that make him evil?
Are these two instances really the reason that the covenant did not pass to Ishmael and Esau, but instead to Isaac and Jacob?
The answer is “No” in both cases. So what is going on?
In delving into the figures and personalities of Ishmael and Esau, let’s read what the Torah chooses to write about them even before they were born.
It was said about Ishmael:
“And he will be a wild man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him.”
Indeed Ishmael grows up and becomes an archer and a hunter.
And the Bible calls Esau:
“A man knowing how to hunt, a man of the field.“
That’s what he was, and his father Isaac greatly enjoyed the wild game Esau brought him. Both Ishmael and Esau lived and survived from nature, meaning they felt at home in nature. They were strong, they were agile, they were bold. In any other culture at the time, they would have been considered heroes. And this is exactly the point that needs to be emphasized. Other cultures worshiped nature and believed that nature is the most powerful thing in the world. Their gods were found in nature – in the sun, in the moon, in the storm, in the rain, in the earth that grows the food – in all these and more.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, on the other hand, is beyond nature. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob created nature. And therefore it is no coincidence that the matriarchs Sarah, Rivka and Rachel were not able to conceive naturally.
Because divine intervention was needed.
Also, it is no coincidence that the people of Israel, without a land, were promised the Holy Land. Because miracles were needed to reach this desired destination.
It is also no coincidence that the man Moses who was chosen to lead the people in the desert, was “heavy of mouth and tongue.” Because precisely when this man who had difficulty speaking, proclaimed words; his listeners knew that these words came from another place, from heaven, from God and from holiness.
Our ancestors were not the ultimate “nature people”! They did not play the bloody game of prey and predator!
Our ancestors were not Ishmael and Esau who could survive in the world thanks to their muscles and skills. Our ancestors needed the Spirit of God to survive in the world. And so to this day the nation of Israel is the nation that testifies that there is something in the world that is beyond. Beyond nature and beyond all the wonders of nature, and even beyond human wisdom. Israel is a nation whose contribution to humanity is enormous, far beyond the proportions of their size. Israel is a nation that survived and lived longer than perhaps any other. Huge empires rose and fell but “the Eternity of Israel will not lie.” Israel remains to this day. Despite all the disasters and hatred and antisemitism, all the attempts to annihilate the Jewish people – it still remains an eternal people. Israel is a nation through which God shows that the spirit can overcome nature, muscles and human strength. Through the survival of the people of Israel it is possible to understand that there is something in this world that is much more sublime and enduring than nature.
Israel lives. Thanks to the spirit and thanks to faith in the great, heroic and awesome God, Who is all powerful. And therefore believing in miracles among the people of Israel is completely realistic. Our very existence in the world to this day is a miracle.
“For His love endures forever.”
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