If the defining axes of Genesis 1–11 were making/naming and commanding/disobeying, those of the Patriarchal narratives are fertility/barrenness and pastoral/urban.

Over and over again the LORD promises fertility to the barren, and to the childless a multitude of descendants. The primary sign of the LORD’s covenant with the children of Abraham is circumcision, the marking of the organ of generation. But the women these circumcised men fall in love with are all beautiful but barren — barren for a long time anyway. Sarah is, famously, ninety when Isaac is born, but it’s not often noticed that Rebekah is childless for twenty years before giving birth to Esau and Jacob. (We’re not told how old Rachel was when she finally gave birth to Joseph, but internal evidence suggests that she was in her late thirties.) The line of descent of the covenant promise is perilously thin at first but then grows thicker: first one son, Isaac; then two, Esau and Jacob, though in effect only one, because Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother; then a dozen; and from that dozen, the Twelve Tribes in their multitudes.

But though this line of descent is the key one in the story that is to follow, it’s not the only one that matters. Re-reading the story this time, I was especially drawn to Chapter 21, and struck by the LORD’s great compassion for Abraham’s other family (as it were). Because Sarah was barren for so long after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, and because Ishmael is by one reckoning Abraham’s eldest son, she despises both of them and will not even call Hagar by name, instead referring to her contemptuously as “this slavegirl.” (This will be repeated in the next generation when Rebekah will only refer to Esau’s wives Judith and Basemath as “the Hittite women.”) When she demands that Hagar be cast out of the household and into the wilderness, “the thing seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes,” but

God said to Abraham, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes on account of the lad and on account of your slavegirl. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl’s son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.”

And when Hagar and Ishmael run out of water in the wilderness, and she sets the child aside and goes to sit “at a distance, a bowshot away” so she will not have to hear his dying cries, the LORD speaks to her (“What troubles you, Hagar?”) and consoles her with a mighty promise: “Rise, lift up the lad / and hold him by the hand, / for a great nation will I make him.”

What’s fascinating about this story is how closely it mirrors the much more famous story from the next chapter, the binding of Isaac. In that second story “Abraham rose early in the morning” to take Isaac to his death; in this one “Abraham rose early in the morning” to send his son Ismael into the wilderness where he is likely to perish. In each story there is a moment of hopelessness, when death for “the lad” seems inevitable. In each story that hopelessness is banished by a sudden providence: a ram appears to take Isaac’s place, and a hitherto unseen well of water appears to rescue Ishmael and his mother. Each “lad” survives, and thrives, and inherits his promise.

In Chapter 16, which recounts the birth of Ishmael, the Lord’s messenger appears to Hagar and says,

“Look, you have conceived and will bear a son
and you will call his name Ishmael,
    for the LORD has heeded your suffering.
And he will be a wild ass of a man —
his hand against all, the hand of all against him,
    he will encamp in despite of all his kin.”

(The ambiguity of this blessing is echoed in Chapter 27. There Esau, having had the blessing meant for him pre-empted by the deceitful Jacob, pleads for some blessing at least, and all his aged father Isaac can manage to say is “By your sword you shall live and your brother shall you serve. And when you rebel you shall break off his yoke from your neck.” These “blessings” are really prophecies of lives of struggle and conflict.)

The name Ishmael means “God has heard” — God has heard Hagar’s pleas even when Sarah would not. God does not forget her, nor her son, though he warns her that his way will be hard, and his kin will not accept him. This conflict between the children of two divine promises will continue throughout the history of the Ishmaelites, the ancestors of those whom today we call Arabs. But the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael have one father. In Genesis 25 we are told that at his death “Abraham gave everything to Isaac” — one cannot doubt that Sarah and her child are essential to him in ways that Hagar and her child are not — but we are also told that

Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Machpelah cave in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite which faces Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites, there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.

And what follows this burial is an account of the lineage of Isaac — and that of Ishmael. Both lineages matter because Isaac and Ishmael, and later the Israelites and Ishmaelites, are alike the children of Abraham. Whether they realize it or not, whether they accept it or not, they are bound together forever by this common lineage.