Call me Ishmael. My mother was a maid to the elderly lady of a wealthy home. The lady was a formidable woman, but not able to have children. My mother, on the other hand, accepted her own humble condition. She was a servant, and embraced service. She also embraced the master of the house.
But this is not what you think. The lady of the house wanted the laughter and play of children in her home, so she actually asked her husband to go to my mother and have a child. (This was a long time ago, before monogamy. Bear with me.)
My mother and the master of the house conceived me. When my mother learned she was pregnant, she began to feel very important, and she embraced her service to the lady less, and she embraced the master of the house more. My mother no longer accepted her humble condition, or the gift of providing service. She became rude and insolent.
The lady of the house tired quickly of my mother’s expressions of her own importance, and began to abuse my mother. She told her husband, “I gave that woman to you, I condoned that relationship. And she repays me with disrespect and conceited disdain. I will not tolerate this.” The lady was furious. My father just said, “She’s your maid. Do what you think is right.”
The lady’s ugly treatment continued. My mother was beaten and threatened. My father did nothing to help.
So my mother ran away. Eventually, she found herself at a spring in the desert. Jehovah’s angel came and told her to go back, and take the abuse. He promised her that I would father a great nation and 12 tribes. My faithful mother saw, and returned to the beatings at home.
And then I was born. The Lord gave me my name. It means “God hears” in Hebrew.
Then a miracle came. Jehovah breathed the breath of life into my father and his wife – the lady of the house. The breath of life changed their names from Abram and Sarai, to Abraham and Sarah. He gave them the gift of their own child. When Sarah knew she’d conceived, she laughed joyfully because she could not believe such an old lady could have her own child. My half-brother was named Isaac, which means laughter.
Before my brother was born, my father asked God to bless me and my unborn brother. God promised my father Abraham, just as He had promised my mother, that I would become the father of a great nation and 12 tribes.
For my brother Isaac, God promised to keep His covenant of exquisite sensitivity with him.
But once Isaac was born, Sarah allowed jealousy to get the better of her again. She saw me playing, and she filled with fear. She told my father, Abraham, that she refused to allow a slave’s son to share Isaac’s inheritance. My father balked; I was his son. Sarah’s jealousy was disrespectful to my father. But God reassured my father that I would father a nation. So Abraham, believing God’s word, gave my mother bread and water, and sent her and me into the wilderness.
We drank all the water. My mother put me under a bush, turning away because she didn’t want to watch me die. God heard our sobs, and filled a well nearby. God’s intervention rescued us.
God also intervened and rescued my brother Isaac later. When, believing he was following God’s instruction, my father took Isaac to a mountain, bound him, and held a knife to his throat to sacrifice him, Jehovah’s angel brought a ram to take Isaac’s place and redeem him. Isaac never spoke to our father again.
The lady of the house, Sarah, died in Hebron, a foreign land.
Just as God promised, my father Abraham became the father of many great nations.
As promised, I became the father of 12 tribes and a great nation: Islam.
My brother, Isaac, was blessed with a marriage of love.
And, as promised, Isaac’s son, my nephew Jacob, became Israel and like me, the father of 12 tribes and a great nation.
How would we feel if the only family we ever knew beat and drove our mother out of the only home we had ever known, into the desert to live or die according to the will of Jehovah, Allah, God? Or if your father had tied your brother up, and held a knife to his own son’s throat on the top of a mountain to live or die according to the will of Jehovah, Adonai, the Lord?
What began as a contest between two women (the matriarchs of Israel and Islam) to assert their predominance, has become thousands of years later a power struggle between many nations which threatens the entirety of human kind.
What began as a dysfunctional home full of domestic violence and child abuse, has become a dysfunctional world which threatens each and every one of us -- every race, creed, home, and heritage -- with suffering beyond imagination.
Have we, by our failure to address the roots of this mole-hill, created a mountain of fear and hatred?
Children of abusive households tend to emerge in one of two ways. Can we, the children of an abusive household generations removed, evolve to laugh together as we process the pain and heal ourselves? Can we learn to trust the universal love that has redeemed us time and again for thousands of years? Or is our mistrust and fear of each other so strong that we will create more pain, just to be understood? Do we still have a choice?
Or are we to be left in this wrestling match, once more to live or die according to the will of Allah, Adonai, Jehovah?
Fehrman is a professor of legal skills at California Western School of Law.