Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 14, 2001


Genesis 16:1-4, 11, 12 The birth of Ishmael

Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived. . . .

And the angel of the Lord said to Hagar, "Now you have conceived and will bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He will be a wild donkey of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he will live at odds with all his kin."


Matthew 5:43-48 Love your enemies

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Arcana Coelestia #1949 The character of Ishmael

"He will be a wild donkey of man" means rational truth, which is described here. This is clear from the meaning of a wild donkey, which is rational truth. In the Bible, horses, horsemen, mules, and donkeys are mentioned many times, but no one up to now has known that they mean intellectual concepts, rational concepts, and factual knowledge. . . .

Belonging to the same group is the wild donkey, which is a mule living in the desert, or a donkey in the wild. It stands for our rationality--not our rationality in its entirety, but only rational truth. Our rationality is composed of both goodness and truth, or of things relating to kindness and of things relating to faith. It is rational truth that is meant by a wild donkey. This is what Ishmael represents, and what is described in this verse. . . .

People whose rationality consists only of truth--even though it is truth that comes from faith--and not of the good of kindness also, are of this character. They are quick to find fault, make no allowances, are against all, regard everyone as being in error, are instantly prepared to rebuke, chasten, and punish, show no pity, and put no effort or energy into redirecting people's minds. They view everything from the standpoint of truth, and nothing from the standpoint of goodness. In short, they are hard people. The one thing that can soften their hardness is the good of kindness; for goodness is the soul of truth. When goodness draws near and plants itself within truth, then the truth becomes so different that it can hardly be recognized.


And the angel of the Lord said to Hagar, "Now you have conceived and will bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He will be a wild donkey of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he will live at odds with all his kin." (Genesis 16:11, 12)

Last week, while I was away staffing a wonderful Youth Retreat at Blairhaven Retreat Center, Kelly Milne spoke about the rainbow, and how the story of Noah and the animals cooped up in the ark, with that beautiful rainbow at the end, can picture our own journeys in life--how we question ourselves as we go along and wonder whether we are getting anywhere, only to find that God has known where we are going along, and has a beautiful promise for us once we have made it through our difficult passages.

After the story of Noah and the ark, there is the strange story of Noah getting drunk and cursing of his son Ham. Then, following a chapter of genealogy, is the famous story of the Tower of Babel, and the Lord confusing the people's language and scattering them around the earth. Though the people represented by Noah started out with the right intentions, it was not long before they were derailed also into foolish and selfish ways of living. Up to this point (Genesis chapter 11), Swedenborg tells us, the Bible story is made of pure symbolism, or "correspondences," and not of literal history.

With the Call of Abram in Chapter 12, and the events just before it, we enter into something like literal history, and also start a new phase in humanity's development. Abram (later renamed Abraham) was a man who obeyed God without question, even if it seemed that doing so would be quite painful or harmful to himself. When God told him to leave his own people and go to a new land with which he was unfamiliar, and where he knew no one, he simply got up and went. And later, when he heard God as commanding him to sacrifice his only son by his true wife Sarah (whose name had earlier been Sarai), he simply took the boy and prepared to carry out that command--until the angel of the Lord stopped him.

With Abram, we move into a period of life in which we are primarily motivated not by love and by God's living presence, as the earliest people, represented by Adam and Eve were; and not by understanding and spiritual intelligence, as the people represented by Noah and his descendants were; but by simple trust in and obedience to the Lord. And Abram, as the earliest beginnings of this new period, represented trust and obedience in its purest form: a spontaneous, childlike trust and obedience that lasted only as long as Abram himself did.

Even when we start out wishing simply to follow wherever God leads us, it isn't long before our own ideas begin to assert themselves, and we start thinking things out and wanting to figure out the best way for ourselves rather than simply doing it God's way right from the start. And as a stage of development, this is not a bad thing. God does not want mindless, thoughtless followers, but people who understand and appreciate God's ways, and follow them out of understanding and wisdom rather than blind and unthinking faith. And just as learning to walk involves some falls and bruises, so developing our ability to rationally understand spiritual things involves some early unsuccessful attempts.

Ishmael, as Abram's firstborn (but not by his wife Sarai) symbolizes those first headstrong but faulty attempts to think for ourselves. Specifically, as we learn from Arcana Coelestia #1949, Ishmael represents our early sense of "truth and justice" before it is tempered by mercy and kindness toward our fellow human beings.

In the Bible story, this is expressed by the character of Ishmael as foretold by the angel of the Lord to his mother Hagar before he was born: "He will be a wild donkey of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he will live at odds with all his kin." Swedenborg fleshes out this character in our reading from the Arcana:

People whose rationality consists only of truth--even though it is truth that comes from faith--and not of the good of kindness also, are of this character. They are quick to find fault, make no allowances, are against all, regard everyone as being in error, are instantly prepared to rebuke, chasten, and punish, show no pity, and put no effort or energy into redirecting people's minds. They view everything from the standpoint of truth, and nothing from the standpoint of goodness. In short, they are hard people.

Does this sound like anyone you know? People who know the "truth," and can quote it chapter and verse, but who seem more interested in using that "truth" to condemn everyone around them than to help them, show kindness to them, or encourage them toward a happier and more thoughtful way of being? Sometimes, I'm afraid, it sounds just like me! I can remember one of my own Ishmael stages all too clearly when, as a teenager, I knew everything that was wrong with everyone around me, and told them all about it in no uncertain terms! I was against everyone, and everyone was against me--or so it seemed to me at the time. Looking back on it, I'm amazed that my family and friends put up with me at all. Even today, that old Ishmael in me comes out more often than I'd like to admit, and I fall right back into thinking I'm right and they're wrong, and that's all there is to it.

I know I'm not alone in this. Most of us, I suspect, went through a time period in our childhood or youth when we were convinced that we were the only one who really knew which way was up, and everyone else (especially our parents!) was way out in left field. And I suspect that most of us still have our times when we get a little too sure of our own rightness, without stopping to think of the other person's feelings. When we're in this state of mind, we're likely to put down others in our own mind, or even openly attack them.

This character of putting down those whom we don't consider to be at our level of intelligence or sophistication, or even of spiritual advancement, is illustrated by an incident a little later in Genesis (Chapter 21), after Isaac has been born. On the day of little Isaac's weaning, Abraham held a great feast. But Ishmael apparently went too far. Sarah saw him laughing, probably at her son Isaac. The Hebrew isn't clear, but that's the impression we get, since Sarah promptly went to Abraham and demanded that he expel Hagar and Ishmael from their household. Abraham reluctantly did so. This is followed by a touching story of Hagar and Ishmael wandering in the desert, only to be rescued by an angel of the Lord.

In just this way, when we get self-righteous and start looking down on others, we generally end out in our own emotionally arid desert of isolation. When we approach others sure that we are right and they are wrong, without considering that the most important thing is not being right, but being kind and good, we get into all kinds of contentious situations. When we're sure we are right and other people are wrong, we are apt to find fault with them for every little thing, showing very little courtesy or compassion in our words and actions.

This grows very old very fast with the people on the receiving end. Pretty soon they will start pushing us away at best, or at worst responding with counter-attacks of their own. As with Ishmael, when we see only the truth, and do not stop to consider the good of kindness, before long "our hand is against everyone and everyone's hand is against us, and we are living at odds with all of our kin." How many family quarrels and feuds can be traced back to just this attitude on the part of the various family members?

Of course, from Ishmael's perspective he had every reason to want to mock Isaac. Wasn't Isaac the one who took away Ishmael's honored position as Abraham's firstborn simply by the act of being born? Ishmael had occupied that position for thirteen years before Isaac came along and ruined it all for him. And now he probably felt he that had a right to be angry and bitter, and to lash out--right when everyone else was celebrating--at the little upstart who had dethroned him.

This is how the world looks to us when we are caught in that truth-only, unloving, us-against-them mentality. And it is the reason why both literally and spiritually, Ishmael had to give way to Isaac as the heir to Abraham's legacy. Ishmael, the man of contention, could not carry on where Abraham left off. Someone with a more yielding and contemplative personality had to take on that mantle.

That someone was Isaac. Later in the Bible story (Genesis 37), instead of fighting for land and wells against those that he could have made into his sworn enemies, Isaac simply went and found other land and dug other wells. Because of his non-contentious character, Isaac ended out living at peace even with those who had formerly been jealous of him and quarreled with him. In fact, when they saw how the Lord had blessed him, they came to him and asked him to make a treaty of peace with them.

In the same way that Ishmael gave way to Isaac, we are called by God to leave behind our headstrong, thoughtless, and unkind attitudes, along with the arguments and conflicts with others that these get us into. We are called to leave behind the so-called "common sense" view of the world in which we feel we must fight against everyone we see as an enemy, and do our best to assert our own rights and our own righteousness against anyone who hurts or disrespects us in any way. We are called, instead, to follow a higher path of spiritual rationality symbolized by the milder and more politic character of Isaac.

To the worldly mind, this looks like sure suicide. "If we don't fight back against those who attack us," they say, "they'll see us as weak, and will attack us more and more boldly until they destroy us." When we are in this mindset, it is hard for us to hear the words of the Lord in our reading from Matthew:

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

In Luke, it is made still more explicit:

I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)

This is truly a hard saying! Do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us? Offer the other cheek when someone strikes us? Give them the shirt off our back? What kind of sense does this make? If we acted in that way, the world would rob us blind!

That is how it looks to those caught up in the worldly reasoning represented by Ishmael. But those who have actually lived in this way, although have they certainly had their stripes to bear, have had a more powerful effect for good in this world than all the empires based on "might makes right" that the world has ever produced.

I think especially of Gandhi, a small, barefoot man who defeated the British empire, the greatest military power in the world at the time, without ever firing a shot. He did it by the pure power of an idea applied: non-violent non-cooperation. Under the force of Gandhi's moral stance consistently and bravely carried out, the British were finally compelled by their own re-awakened sense of morality--not to mention the increasing unprofitability of their system of colonial rule in India once the Indian people stopped cooperating with it--to lay down the armaments in which they had trusted, and grant independence to India.

On a far smaller and more personal scale, I think of a time in grade school when I was accosted by the schoolyard bully. He had just kicked a ball across the playground, and ordered me to run and get it for him. I knew that if I did so, I would become his slave. So I refused. He rushed at me, ready to be the enforcer. I knew that I was no match for him in a fistfight. Besides, I had no interest in fighting him. What good would that accomplish? Still, the only alternatives seemed to be either to fight or to flee, neither of which I liked.

As he came at me with fists raised, ready to beat me up, I got an inspiration that must have come from my guardian angel. Instead of either fighting or fleeing away, I "hugged" him. But I didn't think of it as a hug at the time. As he approached me, instead of running away or putting up my dukes, I went toward him quickly, grabbed him around the middle, and pulled him down. I then held onto him tenaciously and we rolled around on the ground for a while. With me at such close quarters, and both my body and the ground hampering his movements, he couldn't get in a solid swing at me. For my part, I wasn't interested in hitting him. I just wanted to keep him from hitting me.

It wasn't long before got tired of this scene. It wasn't doing any good for his reputation as the playground tough guy! Once it became clear to me that he had lost interest in this fight, I let go of him, and he just got up and walked away. And he never bothered me again.

Now, at that time of my life, I didn't have a well-developed theory of non-violent non-cooperation. I was mostly just trying to save my skin! Whatever my reasons, it worked. A situation that could have turned into a bruising fight ended in a de facto state of peace between me and the schoolyard bully. Looking back on it, I realize that this happened because by the grace of God, I acted with some thoughtfulness, and from a desire to avoid aggression while still asserting my own right to live free from fear and oppression.

In every situation we face, there is a decision. Will we argue and fight back, acting in a defensive and contentious way, relying on our inner Ishmael? Or will we look for the way of understanding and acceptance, of turning the other cheek and returning good for evil, calling up our inner Isaac? Perhaps there are times when we must fight. But I believe these situations are few and far between. Most of the battles we must wage are inward ones, against our own faulty attitudes and feelings. In our relations with others, the way of the warrior--Ishmael's way--must yield to Isaac's way of "seeking peace and pursuing it" (Psalm 34:14).

To the world, Isaac's way seems like folly and sure death. But as followers of Christ, we are called to rise above worldly reasoning and see things from a higher, spiritual light. If we follow that light, we will find that it leads not to death, but to life forever. Amen.

Artwork: Like the Wind Inspired Art by Danny Hahlbohm and is
used with permission. All rights reserved by the artist. 

Music: Fragments of My Soul
2001 Bruce DeBoer

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