“And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.”
Isaac was away from home when he got the news.
Perched precariously over the side of an ancient well, he peered into the darkness below, trying to catch a glimpse of the bottom. It was hot in that part of the Negev, and Isaac was aware of a warm wind blowing on him from the south, as it sometimes did during this time of year, carrying the stifling heat up from the drier lands of Arabia where summer had already begun. He wiped the sweat off his brow.
“Careful, Grandpa! If you fall in, it’s a long way down.” The amused voice came from behind him. That was where the workers sat beneath the terebinth trees, eating their afternoon meal, trying in vain to get some relief from the oppression of the sun. One of them was having some fun with him, he knew, trying to get a laugh out of his fellows. One of the young ones; the ones who hadn’t been working for him long; the ones who didn’t know just how many wells he had peered into. Without turning around, Isaac wagged a bony finger back at them, and smiled to himself as he heard their laughter in response.
Isaac ben Abraham was no longer a young man. At 75, his hands were calloused from a lifetime in the hills of the northern Negev, and his beard had long since turned to white. Isaac had a peculiar habit of twirling the corner of his moustache between two fingers when he was deep in thought, and he did so right now as admired the well in front of him. This one, he thought, had strong retaining walls and an excellent location. Decades earlier, when this had been his father’s pasturing land, this particular spot had been known for giving water that was both copious and sweet. Just a few more days’ digging, and he was sure it would do so again.
He straightened his back, turning around, and peered in the direction of the labourers, still lounging in the shade. They looked lazy – even decadent – under those trees, but he knew how hard these men worked for him. Isaac began to walk toward them, and that was when he saw in the distance what looked like a man on a camel. Mirages were common during this part of the day, of course, but most of them didn’t have such a clear form. Squinting into the sun, Isaac watched the shape grow in size and clarity, until it became clear that indeed, a visitor was approaching.
At this, he rushed into action as he had seen his father do a thousand times. He clapped his hands, shouting to the workers to prepare tea and lay out a meal of breads and olives and oils, and rushed as fast as his legs would carry him to greet the guest. Approaching the man, he put out his arms in greeting. “Welcome, stranger! Will you stop and eat with us?”
The traveller removed the kerchief from his face, revealing a beard matted with desert sand, and responded with a smile, “I thank you for your hospitality, Uncle.” Only then did Isaac recognize the face of his nephew Dedan.
Dedan ben Jokshan was the son of Isaac’s half brother and the grandchild of Abraham by his third wife Keturah. Isaac had, of course, known the sons of Keturah well when he was a younger man and they were children. He had watched them playing and seen them grow into young adulthood. That was at a time when their father was still strong, when Abraham still desired to hold the family together. But those bonds had begun to weaken as the boys married and started families of their own, and had been all but severed by Abraham’s unexpected announcement that Isaac – and Isaac alone – would be his heir. That was when Keturah’s children had made their way toward the south and the east, to settle the desert lands.
As he helped the younger man down from his beast and embraced him, Isaac was hit by a rush of memories: young Jokshan playing around the camp with his brothers Midian and Ishbak, getting into mischief and being scolded by the women. The astonished eyes and incredulous faces of the Keturah-ite brothers as they learned that they would inherit no part of father’s fortune. The backs of their heads as they left for good, riding into the morning sun with their wives and children – including Dedan – in tow. It had been the last time Isaac had seen most of his half-brothers, since – wracked with guilt and not wanted to stir up old wounds – he had never been to visit them. (He quieted his conscience by telling himself that the family needed him here to oversee the workings of the estate, not running off on world travels.) Occasionally a representative would pass through, bearing news or seeking money and gifts, which Abraham always granted happily. And then the family would gather to eat and drink, and sing and dance, and tell stories of the old days. Those were wonderful times – moments in which it felt to Isaac that all was right in the world; his family reunited, his kin come home. But those times had become fewer and further between. In recent years, Dedan, a merchant and a traveller, was the only one of the Keturah-ites who still came this way, and even he was no longer seen very often.
“What brings you to this part of the Negev?” Isaac asked excitedly as he loosed his embrace. “Come, I want to show you my latest project: a well that once belonged to your grandfa-“
“Uncle,” Dedan interrupted, his smile gone now, “I wish I was here simply for a visit, but I bring important news. I was traveling through on a trade mission, and stopped at Abraham’s camp as I occasionally do. Only this time, things felt different – quieter, more subdued.”
“Is there a problem in my father’s camp?” Isaac asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Isaac, your father is dying. I have been sent to bring you back as quickly as possible.”
He had known that this day would come soon. The recent months had brought a change in Abraham’s demeanour – slowing down in his movements, sometimes forgetting where he was, coughing and wheezing in ways that frightened everyone around him. The irony was that as far as Isaac was concerned, Abraham had always been an old man. Isaac was, after all, the child of his old age. But this was different. This was a severe, heartbreaking failure of strength and memory; this was death crouching at the door. In fact, Isaac had hesitated over the last two months even to leave the camp, not wanting his father to slip away while he was absent. This three-day expedition to oversee the digging of the new well had only come after much careful consideration. After all, how long can one be expected to sit and wait for death?
As he rode toward Beer Sheva that afternoon, Dedan by his side, Isaac prayed only to arrive while his father still breathed. Approaching the camp, he could see Eliezer rushing out toward him. Abraham’s trusted servant and business partner looked haggard and sad.
“He asks only for you,” the man whispered as they drew near each other.
Isaac rushed to his father’s tent. He did not stop to greet his own wife; he threw only a passing glance at his twin sons – out in the fields arguing about something, as usual. He entered the gloomy shelter, adjusting his eyes to its darkness, and wordlessly took his father’s head into his hands.
During the long hours spent in that tent, Isaac was struck by the strangeness of the events that had led him there. That the sons of Keturah – silent for so many years – should reemerge at this moment. That an unseen force should have guided them back into his life just as his father was approaching death, just as everything was about to change.
When he was young, Isaac’s mother used to talk about footprints of the Nameless One. “Sometime we see God’s feet,” Sarah would say, “and sometimes we only see His footprints.” In fact, when he was very young she sometimes referred to him as her Little Footprint. Isaac’s very life had begun in such a moment of providence, a mysterious announcement by a mysterious visitor. How fitting and how strange that the final moments of his father’s life should be heralded by such an event as well. Sometimes life works that way, he thought. Sometimes things come full circle.
Hours later, Isaac emerged bereft and exhausted from the tent. As the servants entered with a burial shroud, he fell into the loving arms of Rebecca, managing only a few words, “The world is different now,” before dissolving into tears.
Rebecca held her husband for a long time as he wept silently. She nodded in silent agreement. It was true: her father-in-law was larger than life, a bundle of charisma who spoke to God and men alike, who commanded the respect of peasants and chieftains, who could change minds with a single word and who regularly negotiated treaties in his dining tent. It was hard to believe that such a man could be gone. It was hard to believe that Isaac – her Isaac – could take his place.
Finally, Isaac broke the silence, shifting his focus to the concrete tasks ahead of him. “We have work to do. We’ll need to arrange passage to Hebron. I’ll need to have Eliezer send runners to tell all the chieftains – the Hittites, the Jebusites, the King of Gerar. I can’t even imagine how many dignitaries will come for the burial….” His voice trailed off.
“Are you going to tell him?”
“Him?” It took a split second moment before Isaac understood to whom his wife was referring. And when he did, his heart dropped. Shaking his head with a sigh, he lowered his eyes to the ground.
“Isaac, don’t you think he has the right to know that his father is dead? He’s your brother.”
“A brother I haven’t spoken to in decades. The child of the slave.”
“Your father’s firstborn son.” She paused. “And a man who has not had an easy life.”
Isaac didn’t hate his older brother Ishmael. He was wary of him; sometimes he pitied him; occasionally he feared him. But most of the time he simply preferred not to think about him. That tendency had been cemented early on by his mother’s fury at the very mention of that slave woman. Sarah would never speak the name of Hagar, the servant-turned-wife who had given birth to Abraham’s eldest son. And for that reason the old man had refrained from speaking about her, or her unfortunate offspring, except with his most trusted advisors. Isaac had only occasionally been part of such conversations, but he had gleaned a few important pieces of information. He knew that it had been painful for Abraham to send them away. He knew that Abraham cared about Ishmael, and had even been to visit him, though he knew nothing of what had transpired during that visit, nor of any ongoing correspondence between the two. But because of all this, Isaac knew that his wife was right: he would have to travel to the south to tell his brother that their father was dead.
He steeled himself. “You’re right. I need to go.” He picked up his cloak and walked out of the tent, striding in large steps toward the camels. Rebekah rushed after him, distressed and confused by these sudden movements from a husband who was rarely decisive.
“I didn’t mean right now!” she shouted at the back of his head. “At least let me prepare some food for the journey.”
He stopped, looked back at her, and nodded. Emboldened, she continued with another suggestion.
“Why don’t you take Esau with you? Let him protect you. Let him hunt for you.” Surely Isaac would not resist the temptation to spend several days travelling with his favourite child. But to her surprise he seemed more resolved about this than he had ever been about anything.
“No,” he replied. “I have to do this alone.”
Alone. Alone on a camel. Alone in the desert, headed toward the south. Alone in the world, no father to rely on. Alone under the expansive sky, passing over hills and dunes that all looked the same, keeping the sea always to his right, searching for any sign that he was moving forward. The silence in and of itself was enough to make a man feel small and lonely, and for a man who had been surrounded by people and their chatter his entire life, it was no easy feat to fill that silence. Isaac did so by worrying. He worried about marauders, though he was carrying virtually nothing worth taking. He worried about where he would sleep each night, though in the end he managed to find or create some shelter each time the sun went down – once with a caravan he chanced upon; once in a small inn along the road; and several times in his own makeshift tent under the stars. More than anything else, Isaac worried about seeing Ishmael. How would he be greeted by his estranged brother? What words would he use to break the sad news? And how would the man respond? With anger? With sadness? With violence? Or perhaps worst of all, with indifference? Each of these possibilities he played out in his head a thousand times, like scenes from a storyteller’s tales, trying out different words and different actions to see how they might change things. And when he tired of those scenes, but still had much distance to cover, he moved on to watching other, more familiar stories: the burial of his mother; his wedding to the beautiful Rebecca; the arrival of the twins and the first time Abraham had held them; the wells he had dug; the decision not to go north in time of famine. These moments too, Isaac directed in his head, changing words and actions to create new possibilities. And in only the space of a few days he found that he had come to appreciate the silence of the desert, to value its expansive space. And so it was that he was startled when, at dusk on the fifth day, he realized he was already nearing the plain where his brother had made his home.
Crossing over a small spring, Isaac was roused from his thoughts as from a long sleep by the shouting of children. A group of boys, who had obviously been playing in a nearby ravine, ran toward him excitedly, demanding to who he was. Isaac, still dazed from the desert, stammered that he was the brother of Ishmael, and in an instant the boys were gone. Turning on their heels, they ran as quickly as they could around a hill and out of sight – eager to be useful in announcing the arrival of a visitor, but not yet well-mannered enough to lead him into the camp. Isaac wondered if it had been a mistake to be so candid. Should he have hidden his identity until he was alone with his brother? He fingered the handle of the short knife he had hidden in his robe, the only weapon he had carried with him on this journey.
Pointing himself in the direction the boys had run, he followed toward what he hoped was Ishmael’s camp. And before he even had a chance to worry about losing his way, a group of men emerged, coming quickly toward him. There must have been about ten of them, walking in a cluster following a tall, slender figure was seemed to be their leader. Isaac could not tell if they were carrying weapons, though under the circumstances, it seemed likely.
As the men drew nearer, he could see that many of them were indeed armed, though their hands were not on their weapons. He breathed deeply, quieting his quaking limbs, and suppressed the instinct to turn around and flee the other way. Isaac reasoned that men of the desert never kept their swords far from their persons, and though it was tempting to draw his own, he instead forced himself to descend from the camel and raise his arms in a gesture of greeting. To his great relief, the leader of the quickly approaching band, now maybe 30 or 40 paces away, did the same.
“Brother!” The man shouted this word as he ran toward Isaac and took him into his arms. Isaac felt the pressure of the man’s rough embrace. He looked up into the eyes of this tall desert creature and knew, beyond a doubt, that this was his brother, for they were the eyes of Abraham. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he even managed a word of greeting the men began hustling him excitedly toward the settlement.
Isaac was led to a large, ornamented tent hung with colorful tapestries. Soft, plush carpets covered its floor, and the men placed him in what seemed to be a seat of honor on the largest carpet. Ishmael took his place beside him, as more and more people began to file in to join them. Soon the tent was full of men, chattering and jostling and peppering him with questions as food and drink were brought in. How had he come to be in this part of the desert? Had he traveled alone? Was he truly the brother of Ishmael? Why had he never visited before? Isaac understood that this was a ceremony, that it was not the time to share his news, and so he made up his mind to enjoy himself in the meantime. Dish after delicious dish was put before him, and fine things to drink as well. He ate his fill, enjoying the conversations and the hospitality of the men, and found himself wondering why he had never made this trip before.
Eventually the party began to dwindle. One by one the guests took their leave, with a joke or a hearty embrace of their host, until the space was empty save for the two men at its centre. Isaac now looked at his brother and saw that his face had changed. The jovial smile had given way to a thin scowl. The reddened cheeks had fallen to reveal age lines hardened by dry desert air. The eyes – so much like Abraham’s in colour and shape – now looked narrow and untrusting. The earlier fears returned: How would his brother, stripped of the need to put on a show, receive him?
Finally, his host spoke. “Has he sent you?”
“Abraham. Has our father sent you here?”
This was the moment that Isaac had rehearsed during the long hours of desert travel. These were the words he had debated how to deliver. Should he ply Ishmael first with kindness, thanking him for his hospitality? Should he launch into an apology for the injustices of the past? Or should he simply say the words? Even in that moment, Isaac wasn’t sure what to do, and it was as if from outside his own body that he heard himself speak, tersely and without ceremony: “Abraham is dead.”
Ishmael said nothing. He looked into Isaac’s eyes for a very long time, and then did something completely unexpected. He rose from the carpet, his tall frame towering over the still-seated Isaac; he grabbed hold of the corner of his own tunic with both hands and tore the cloth violently. And as he did so, he emitted a sound – a horrible, guttural cry that seemed to shake the thick skin walls of the tent. Then, just as unexpectedly – and without even a glance over his shoulder – he left.
Isaac sat in stunned silence, not knowing what to do next. Where had his brother gone? Would he return? Should Isaac go after him? Should he leave now while it was still possible? After what felt like nearly an hour, there was a rustling at the entrance and a boy entered the tent, maybe 9 or 10 years old. Timidly, the boy beckoned Isaac to stand and to accompany him outside. Isaac did so, and was led across the camp to a much smaller tent. This one was outfitted with a small mattress and a few animal skins. It looked like quarters for a short term visitor. He recognized his own camel tied up nearby, and saw his few belongings inside.
“He asks that you wait for him.” The boy had clearly rehearsed the line, but still he mumbled, uncomfortable speaking to a man so many years his senior. Isaac nodded, and the boy started to walk away, but after about ten paces stopped and turned around again, apparently having forgotten part of the monologue. “He says to feel at home; to walk the grounds. He says ‘Thou art surely my bone and flesh.’”
This last part was spoken slowly, deliberately, in the formal language of the people of the north. It was a dialect with which Isaac had once been familiar, though he had not heard it for years. In his father’s prime, when chieftains and relatives and visitors from Aram would still arrive at their camp, words like these had been spoken over lavish meals and banquets. It was, in Isaac’s mind, the language both of royalty and of family, of honour and of intimacy, and he was taken aback to hear it spoken in this foreign place, from the mouth of this desert child. But at the same time it made him feel strangely at home, surrounded by tents and flocks, by men and women and children who were also the children of Abraham.
Isaac entered the tent for just a moment before realizing he had nothing to unpack. So he exited again, walking out into a night sky now splashed with millions of tiny stars. And as had been his brother’s suggestion, and as had often been his custom in the afternoons and evenings, he walked. He made his way through the camp, noticing the noises of life: a baby crying, a child being hushed by its mother, a group of women chattering as they prepared the next day’s meals. Before he knew it, he was at the edge of the camp. Walking a few paces into the surrounding fields, he gave thanks for the night sky, before retracing his footsteps to his tent.
When Isaac pulled back the flap of the tent, he was not surprised to see Ishmael waiting for him. The older man stood facing away from the entrance. If he had heard his brother come in, he gave no sign.
Isaac spoke to his back, “It’s not the news I wanted to bring.”
He tried again, “I wish things could have been different.”
“It was his choice, and not an easy one. He never really came to terms with it. Never really forgave himself. If it had been me, I don’t know what I would have –“
“You think I care what you think?” Ishmael now turned to face him. The voice was angry and the eyes narrow. “You think I want to accept your apology?”
“I didn’t come here to apologize.”
“And yet you did. You’ve always needed to apologize.”
Isaac was silent. His brother continued.
“You lived your life as his privileged son, his prince. What was I? An outcast!”
“He wanted what was best for you.”
“Did he? Or did she want what was best for you? We were a threat to you, Hagar and I. We were the only thing standing between you and the inheritance, between you and the covenant. And that’s why your bitch of a mother made him send me away into the wilderness.”
“That’s enough!” Now Isaac was angry as well. “She’s been dead for years. Let her rest in peace.”
“Come on, tell me it’s not true. Here you are, his sole heir.” Isaac winced as his brother continued, “That’s right, I talk to the sons of Keturah. I know exactly what happened. They moved away. I wasn’t there to tug on his heartstrings. And so it all went to you, his son, his only one.” The words dripped with disdain.
A long silence ensued. Isaac felt wounded, as if he had been stabbed by his brother’s words – their anger, their passion, their truth. But there was one thing he wanted to know, and finally he found the words.
“Why did you weep?”
“You cried out. You tore your clothing when I told you he was dead. Why do you weep for a father you hate?”
“I don’t hate him.” Ishmael took a few steps toward his brother. For a split second Isaac feared he might strike him, but instead the older man’s voice softened, “I might hate you. I probably hate your mother. But I don’t hate him.” A pause. “And that’s why I weep. I weep for what he did to me, for his cowardice. I weep for what could have been. I weep for the father I hardly knew. For the possibility that I could have been a son to him. Learned from him. Made him proud. Showed him his grandchildren. Bathed his brow in old age. Any chance of that died today when you showed up, and for that I weep. For that I tear my clothing.”
Isaac was stunned. These were the words of a man whose pain cut deeply, whose sadness existed just below the surface of his rough exterior. This was neither a ghost to be feared, nor an unfortunate to be pitied. And for the first time in his life, he was moved – not by his brother’s plight, not by his misfortune, but by his humanity. And in that moment, Isaac understood why he had come.
“Bury him with me.”
“Come with me to Hebron. Bury him with me.”
“I don’t owe him anything.”
“Don’t do it for him. Do it for yourself.” Isaac took a step forward; his face was now very close to his brother’s. “I look in your eyes and I see him. I see his smile, his kindness. I see his love for people. I see his determination to build a nation. Our father was flawed – of that you can be sure – but he was a leader of men, and so are you.” Ishmael was silent as his brother opened the flap of the tent, stepping out into the camp. “Look at what you’ve built here, this camp, this tribe. Look what you have started! He sent you out into the desert – that was his mistake – but you took the opportunity to do just what he would have done. Do you really think he abandoned you? How could he have, when his blood flows in your veins? When his spirit shines in your eyes? When his talents are at the tips of your fingers. Do you really think there was even a moment of your life that he wasn’t right here with you?”
Silence. The two men looked at each other. Isaac trembled, feeling as though he had been laid bare, emptied of word and deed. Ishmael’s face registered no reaction; his voice betrayed no emotion.
“Stay as long as you need.”
“I must return quickly. Father’s men will be ready for me at the tomb. He has waited long enough to be returned to his ancestors.”
“Do what you must.”
And with these words, Ishmael walked away, leaving his brother standing alone under the stars. The moon was now high in the sky.
Isaac slept poorly that night. His mind turned over and over the conversations of the day. And when he did sleep – fitfully at best – his restless dreams were filled with angry faces and empty desert landscapes. Awakening shortly before dawn, when just a hint of light was evident in the east, he saddled his camel and began the long trek home.
Four days later, standing outside the family tomb in Hebron, it seemed to Isaac that it had been quite a long journey for such a short conversation. Not surprisingly, there were throngs of people at Machpelah – family and neighbours, acquaintances and business partners, dignitaries and chieftains who had come to pay respects to a great man. But as Isaac peered southward toward the desert, he was struck only that it was possible to feel so alone, even in the midst of so many people.
“It’s time,” he sighed, raising a hand to motion forward the mass of humanity conveying Abraham’s body to its resting place.
It was a warm day, and as Isaac marched slowly forward he was aware once again of the stifling wind. He glanced one last time over his shoulder and this time saw what looked like a figure in the distance, growing nearer. Hastily, he held up a hand. Feet stopped shuffling; heads turned to see the mirage take the shape of a man riding a camel. As the crowd watched, the figure dismounted and strode toward the entrance of the cave, taking his place at the head of the procession. Isaac nodded, and without smiling, Ishmael nodded in return.
As was the custom, visitors were asked to wait outside while the corpse was borne into the tomb. A hundred pairs of eyes watched as Abraham’s body was carried inside, followed by his sons, marching side by side. The sun beat down. A hot wind blew from the south. Wordlessly, the two brothers entered the cave to bury their father together.
Micah Streiffer is a congregational rabbi and a writer, an American living in Canada.