Whether it’s Jalal in the office, Ahmed the butcher, Ayad the taxi driver or other colleagues and friends, all Muslims have been busy preparing for the Festival of Sacrifice that began today. Everyone told me that they slaughter at least one sheep to commemorate the burnt offering recorded in the Koran. Eid al-Adha, or Eid al-Qurban, is the highest festival in Islam. In the Bible, Isaac was brought as a burnt offering, but in the Koran this is said to have been his older half-brother Ishmael. The Ishmaelites are the descendants of Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, who is considered the progenitor of the Arabs. If you want, you can see the crux of the matter between the Bible and the Koran here.
The Muslim Festival of Sacrifice ends with the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. At the Festival of Sacrifice, Muslims commemorate Abraham, who, according to Islamic tradition, was put to the test by God. The Koran states that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, but the Muslim holy book does not mention a name. In interpretation, Muslim exegetes conclude that Abraham offered his firstborn son Ishmael as a burnt offering, and not Isaac as the Bible says. The early Muslim exegetes were divided as to Ishmael or Isaac. In principle, it is impossible to definitively determine from the Koranic text which son of Abraham is meant. As in the Bible, an animal appears in the Koran that saves the son from death at the last moment.
Koran: “When he was old enough to walk with him, he said: ‘O my dear son, in my sleep I see that I am slaughtering you. Now see what you think about it. He said: O my dear father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, as one of the steadfast.” (Surah 37:102)
Bible: “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. But he took the fire and the knife in his hand, and they both went together. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham: My father! Abraham answered: Behold, here I am, my son! And he said: Behold, here is fire and wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham answered: My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” (Genesis 22)
God’s promises in the Bible go clearly and distinctly through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the chosen people of Israel, from whom the Jewish Messiah came. For Christians, the Jewish Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus, and will come again. For the Jewish people the Messiah is yet to come. When I present this biblical promise or story to Palestinian Muslims, they don’t understand it. Even if they respect the biblical figures as their own prophets, Ishmael is their victim. That’s why today I no longer argue with my Muslim friends on this subject.
As I have discussed many times before, a hidden debate between God and Abraham can be found in the Hebrew Bible text, in which Abraham asks God which son he should take for a burnt offering, Ishmael or Isaac. “And God said to Abraham: Take your son (Abraham: What son, I have two sons), your only one (Abraham: I have two sons, Ishmael of Hagar and Isaac of Sarah), whom you love (Abraham: I love both of them), Isaac.” Finally, God names Isaac so that Abraham will have no doubt, adding in the same verse: “Go into the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there for a burnt offering.” This happened on a mountain that would later host the first and second Temples. The division between Israel and the nations in Abraham’s family can be traced to this day. Abraham’s family was not an easy family, and we still feel the consequences of that biblical family today. Nor is Jerusalem an easy city, although it is a Holy City. But it really isn’t easy.
Anyone who lives and works around Mount Moriah knows what I’m talking about. Jerusalem is a complex city, just as complex as the biblical founding family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Nevertheless, I wish my Palestinian friends a blessed festival, in Arabic “Id Mubārak.” But Jerusalem remains under Jewish rule, sometimes because of Isaac on Mount Moriah and sometimes for the sake of peace for all. “You, too, are much better off under Israeli rule in Jerusalem than your Muslim siblings are,” I say to my Muslim friends in the same breath.
And you know what, in the Bible (Genesis 21:14-21) you can also read about a burnt offering by Ishmael. This is easier to read in the Hebrew Bible text because of the Hebrew words and concepts that appear in parallel in the next chapter in the Offering of Isaac. I have made it easier for you and highlighted the parallels repeated in the burnt offering of Isaac.
“So Abraham got up early in the morning and took bread and a skinful of water, gave it to Hagar and laid it on her shoulder; he also gave her the boy [Ishmael] and sent her away. She walked and strayed in the wilderness of Beersheba. Now that the water in the skin had run out, she threw the boy under a bush, went and sat opposite, a bowshot away; for she said: I cannot see the boy die! And she sat opposite him and raised her voice and wept. Then God heard the boy’s voice, and the angel of God called Hagar from heaven and said to her, What is the matter with you, Hagar? Fear not, for God heard the boy’s voice where he lay. Get up, take the boy and take hold of him with your hand, for I want to make him a great people! And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy; he grew up and dwelt in the desert and became a hunter. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Pharan, and his mother took him a wife out of Egypt.”
Abraham gets up early, Ishmael lies under a bush (altar) where he is to die. Then an angel appears and saves Ishmael, not with a ram but with a fountain of water. Ishmael is also blessed by God.
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