Rabbi Sacks’ core argument is that violence exists because we are social animals. We find our identity in the groups with whom we live, and these groups fight over resources; religion plays a part here only ‘because it is the most powerful source of group identity the world has yet known’ (p. 101). The ‘fraught relationship’ between Judaism, Christanity and Islam (p. 87) has much to do with sibling rivalry – which we see portrayed from the beginning in Genesis with the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. We can, he suggests, and often have, read these stories as a simple case of the younger inheriting and the elder being disinherited, but, surveying this, and the stories of Esau and Jacob and Joseph and his brothers, Rabbi Sacks suggests a not only the need for a more careful reading, but he also gives it to us.
In terms of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Sacks reminds us of how badly sarah comes out of it all. She, it was, who suggested that Abraham slept with Hagar, and she it is who insists the slave-woman and her son are cast out to die. Abraham is unhappy, but as God tells him to do as Sarah says he does so, with a heavy heart. Sacks invites us to a closer reading, pointing out that God sends an angel to save Hagar and Ishmael. The angel also promises her that Ishmael’s descendants will form a great nation. The name ‘Ishmael’ means ‘God has heard’, and if we read with attention we see God did not reject Ishmael, indeed he allows him to be the ancestor of many nations; but the covenant is made with Isaac. However, we are made to sympathise with Hagar, and by being invited to enter into her thought-world, were are encouraged to identify with the other rather than to demonise them. He reminds us of Genesis 25:8-9 where Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. He reminds us that Beer Lahai Roi (Genesis 25:11) where Isaac was living, was the place where God had spoken to Hagar, who had named it ‘the well of the living one who sees me’, and suggests that Isaac had been on a mission to reconcile his father, Hagar and his half-brother. So, once Sarah had died, there was a reconciliation, which is how the two brothers came to be there at the end of the Patriarch’s life. So, here, he suggests there is a counter-narrative to the usual interpretation, one where God chooses one son for one thing, for which he is suited, and the other likewise.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to suggest that with the Isaac/Esau story, and that of Joseph and his brothers, a similar counter-narrative can be seen, in which Jacob and Joseph, like Esau and the brothers, come to a wisdom through trials which allows them to grow spiritually by coming to understand what it was like to stand in the place of the others. There is, in every case, he argues, a reconciliation – after repentance. That is the key – the change of character that comes through true repentance. Yes, God could have created a race of obedient robots to love him, but he preferred the free worship of free human beings. We can change through repentance, and if we can, then there is no reason why the future has to be an action replay of the past. Sibling rivalry ‘is not written indelibly into the human script’, and Genesis, as well as telling the story of man’s faith in God, tells the story of God’s faith in mankind.
There is here, he argues, evidence that a relgious vision has the power to reframe history and to liberate ourselves from ‘the otherwise violent dynamic of revenge and retaliation’ (p. 157). Part III suggests what we can do with this insight.
[Some thoughts on legislating on Religious Extremism’ can be found here: