"Hagar and Ishmael," Giuseppe Zola, 18th century. (Wikimedia)

Recognizing The Heir

Sarah's protection of Isaac and family challenge us to strengthen our families, making them the cornerstones of the covenantal community.

Commentary on Parashat Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

We locate the initial covenant that binds us as Jews in the encounter between God and Abram. God promises Abram land, power, fame, and progeny. Abram agrees to leave his home, people, and culture to begin anew in Eretz Israel, the land of Israel. Abram should be satisfied. He gains great wealth, his herds and flocks graze on the promised land, and he is in a meaningful relationship with God. But Abram is miserable, for he has no one to inherit all he has built. And he is confused — three times he tries to identify an heir, and each time is rebuffed by God.

Abram, upon leaving his home for Eretz Israel, takes his wife and his nephew, Lot. Lot has potential — he is family, he is willing to go with his uncle, and he settles in Eretz Israel. Abram must have high hopes, but they are misguided. Lot fails repeatedly to distinguish himself as a potential heir. He cannot share the land with his uncle so he moves into an evil town that will eventually cause his downfall. In the end, he fathers the Moabites and Ammonites, sworn enemies of Israel.

Abram then turns to his faithful servant, Eliezer, who clearly is a righteous man. But when Abram offers Eliezer as a possible heir, God must correct him again. To bear the covenant, Abram is reminded, one must be of the family of Abram. Eliezer fails on this account.

What About Ishmael?

Finally, Abram has a son, Ishmael, born to his wife’s handmaiden. Abram is thrilled, but is once again reprimanded for not seeing the essence of the covenantal connection. The heir will come from Sarah, not from an Egyptian slave woman. Abraham cannot hear, painfully responding, “Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” God chides Abraham, confirming that Abraham has little awareness or sensitivity to the family dynamics in which the covenant will be played out.

The commitment to uphold the covenant by sustaining and nourishing the family will not come through Abraham, who will try sacrifice Isaac, but through Sarah, who will fight fiercely to protect him. Her insights into the power of human relationships and the central role of the family set a model that fundamentally challenges our commitment to uphold Jewish families today.

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

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