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2 stories of Ishmael

November 11, 2009

I just finished a book entitled “Ishmael,” by Daniel Quinn. Some of you will recognize the name Ishmael, especially if you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, or are well-read.

The book I’ve been reading is not a work of historical fiction based on the biblical Ishamael.. It’s.. quite different. I don’t know why the author chose that name for the main character Maybe someone else who has read this book could comment on that. Before I get into this particular story called Ishmael, I shall tell you about the original.

Ishmael is told about in the Hebrew bible, which is also called the Old Testament, if you happen to be a Christian. Ishmael is also mentioned in the Quaran (also spelled “Koran,” “Quran,” – the Muslim holy book). All three scriptures tell of Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. You can read this story in the book of Genesis. I was a Christian for many years, so I learned of Ishmael by reading the Old Testament. I’ve never read the Koran.

Abraham.. do I have to tell all of his story as well? No, go read Genesis, it is one of the most interesting books in the Bible – in my opinion, Genesis and Revelation – the first and last books of the Bible, are the most interesting to read, except for the first few chapters of Revelation, which I found quite dry.. but the rest of it, wow.. some have hypothesized that St. John, who wrote the Book of Revelation while on the Isle of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea, was ingesting some sort of psychedelic plants.. (and if you want to read a book about psychedelic plants – I have just started one called “Breaking Open the Head,” by Daniel Pinchbeck – later, I’ll let you know if I think it’s good) .. but I digress..

Right then, Abraham.. first of the patriarchs. Abraham was told by God to leave his land and go to an area unknown to him and set up camp there.. he did so, and God blessed him with livestock and good crops and fertile land and good weather to grow the crops, etc. God also promised (well, I guess I am telling at least part of the Abraham story here aren’t I?) .. God promised Abraham a son.

Abraham and his wife Sarah grew quite old, and waited and waited..

And.. waited.

Finally, one day, Sarah says, “You need an heir. I ain’t gettin’ any younger, neither are you.. so, go make flippy-floppy with our servant woman, Hagar, and she will bare you a son.” Abe said ok, (I am guessing Hagar was not horrible – sorry, bad joke, couldn’t resist) did the deed, and later, Sarah bore Abraham his first child, Ishmael. God wasn’t exactly pleased about this, because he told Abe and Sarah to wait, and that, eventually, Abe and Sarah would make a son. This was a test of faith, one that Abe and Sarah, but especially Abe, failed. You may notice this is a second incident in the Book of Genesis in which a woman tempts a man, the man succumbs, and bad things happen.. well.. these books were written by men… and as to the story of Ishmael and Abraham and Isaac, after I finish recounting it, you be the judge of whether things have turned out badly or not…things certainly did not go pleasantly in Abraham’s household after Ishmael was born.. read on..

Some time after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Abraham got Sarah pregnant, and she had the promised child. They named the boy Isaac, which means “laughter.” (Sorry, I don’t remember what the name Ishmael means, and don’t feel like digging up my bible. I’ve spent more than enough time reading it, and have long since stopped reading it regularly, which, for me, is a very very good thing.)

As you might guess, there was tension between Hagar and Sarah, after Hagar gave Abe his first child. The tensions didn’t exactly diminish once Isaac was born. The two sons didn’t get along too well either, if I remember right. Eventually, things got so bad that Sarah told Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael, which Abraham did. He sent those two away, but God looked after them, and they didn’t starve in the desert.

Before Ishmael and Hagar were banished, God gave Abraham another test. God told Abraham to kill his son – to put his son on an altar and slaughter his son and burn the corpse as an offering to God. God was really into burnt offerings. However, God in the past had always demanded animals to be sacrificed.  This was the first time in the Bible that God wanted a human killed on an altar. According to the  New Testament, the second human killed as a sacrifice was Christ, and that occurred much much later.

Here is an interesting thing.. In the book of Genesis, it is Isaac who Abraham is told to sacrifice, in the Koran, it is Ishmael. Hmm…

What do I think? I think the story is a myth, not a news report, and not even all news reports are accurate..You believe what you want. I’m agnostic, and am just telling you the story.

Anyway.. Abraham, and his son whose name begins with the letter “I” head up a mountain and put stones on top of each other to make an altar. The son looks around for the sheep or goat or ferret or whatever (just kidding about the ferret), and hmm… no animal, asks his daddy about it, daddy says, “hop up on those stones, son.” Abraham then proceeds to tie up his son, and get the knife out to cut his throat. (Cue dramatic, suspenseful music here.. rising to a crescendo of impending gore and death..)

At the last moment, God tells Abraham to stop, that this was a test, and the son could now be unbound. Then, a ram (a rather unfortunate ram, wrong place wrong time) is sent by God to be wandering around in the general vicinity, and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of his son.

Ok.. so, Isaac, the son of Abraham, becomes the second Jewish patriarch, and Ishmael is considered to be the father of the Arabs.. who eventually become Muslim, around 500 years after the death of Christ, much much later..

Arabs and Jews still don’t get along..

So there you go, that is the story of the biblical Ishmael, he isn’t mentioned much, if at all in the Bible after he gets banished. I don’t know if there is more info on him in the Koran.

Now you can see why the name “Ishmael” is a controversial choice for a fictional character – especially a fictional character who is a…

Telepathic gorilla.

Nope, I am not joking. The title character in the novel I just read, called “Ishmael,” is a telepathic gorilla. He is a teacher, or should I say Teacher.. one who is able and willing to impart great wisdom. Ishmael puts an ad in the paper, which the narrator of the story answers.

When I say narrator of the story, I mean the person telling it. Fiction is almost always written from the perspective of either first person or 3rd person omniscient. First person perspective books say “I did this – I went to the toilet, and while sitting on the porcelain throne, I was reading the newspaper, and found this remarkable advert”   .. and no, in the book, the character does not mention he was reading the book on the john, in case you’re wondering…)

The other literary perspective is called 3rd person omniscient. Omniscient means “all-knowing.” These books don’t start with I did this or that, but instead, “Bob Fribber went to the toilet. Bob sat and read the newspaper, saw an ad in the paper about a teacher seeking a student, and thought he might like to answer that ad, and see what he could learn.” Books written this way tell us the thoughts, motivations, etc. of the characters.

The narrator answers the ad, travels to a rather plain office building, and inside a mostly empty office within that building is a hulking gorilla, who turns out to be telepathic – he can talk with just his mind – which is a good thing, since the great apes, including gorillas, haven’t got the right vocal chords for speech. You can imagine mental telepathy would be quite a helpful ability for a gorilla.

Ishmael the gorilla, and the narrator enter into a series of dialogs. Almost all of the book is their conversations.. so as far as story goes, this isn’t much of a novel.. but it is a really deep book.. a work of philosophy, that I found worth reading.

The topic they discuss, and the wisdom Ishmael shares is regarding the eventual extinction of the human race, caused by the human race.. more specifically, caused by the view or philosophy of the human race.. or rather, most of us on this planet, but not all of us. (What do you mean I’m not making myself clear?)

For the sake of discussion, Ishmael divides humanity into two groups, the Takers, and the Leavers. The Takers are the people who many many many many years ago started the agricultural revolution, and greatly increased food production, which led to an ever increasing human population, which led to the need for yet more food production..which is still happening today,  and the Takers, being in numbers largely superior, took over the world, and mostly wiped out the Leavers.

Leaver societies – people who did not try so hard to control their own fates, who lived as hunter-gatherers, had respect for nature, and did not see themselves how we see ourselves. There are very few Leaver societies left. They include certain Native Americans (probably not those who are heavily invested in Casino gambling), Australian Aborigines, the tribesfolk of the Amazon – you get the idea.

How do we Takers see ourselves? We see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution.. everything on earth leading up to us, and the earth being for us. Leavers, according to this book, see us as being no different than elephants or rabbits or birdies – creatures on the earth, who are for the earth. Leavers therefore, do not exploit the planet and ruin it. It’s the Takers who do this. It is the Takers who are in control, and ruining the planet and ourselves.

You can find ancient references to a Taker philosophy, including the Bible.. mankind being told by God to go out and subdue the earth and take dominion over it, something like that.

Science tells us we are the highest form of evolution and many scientist assume we are what nature intended – no more evolving. This will be the case if we destroy ourselves… if we are all dead, we cannot evolve any further.

For a rather humorous and yet quite sobering look at what a mess American society might become in a hundred years (that is, if we don’t destroy ourselves before then) and, if you are not easily offended (I am guessing that many of those who are very easily offended would have stopped reading this blog before they got this far, so no worries), I highly recommend a movie called “Idiocracy.” It will show you a definite possibility of what the future of Taker society will be.

“Ishmeal” brought up many interesting things, including unusual but very thought-provoking interpretations of the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories from Genesis. I will not write about these interpretations in this blog – if you want to know them, read the book, and if you haven’t yet read the Book of Genesis in the Bible, read that book first – at least the first few chapters – won’t take you much time. (There is even a brief mention of angels having sex with human women and producing powerful offspring – that’s in the 6th chapter of Genesis – far out, huh?) If you are not familiar with the earliest stories in Genesis, reading “Ishmael” will be a bit more difficult.

The book is mainly to get us thinking. In my opinion, not many solutions to our problems were proposed, even at the end.. so in that respect, I sort of felt the book to be lacking.. but that, I think is because we are so used to being spoon-fed information these days, we have lost much of our ability to think for ourselves. So, after reading this book, perhaps I can come up with my own ideas for helping the planet and living better, now that I have a new perspective. I think that is what the author intended.

A new perspective – that is what the book is good for.. a perspective that could lead to more critical thinking, which could later lead to a change in global consciousness, and a change in our behavior.

I kinda doubt it though.. I’m not the most optimistic person in this world. I should try harder to be optimistic..will do me a world of good, then I can do the world more good..

Fact is.. we are waking up to the reality that we humans in the industrialized world need to change, and this book, I think, will help.

If you’ve found this blog interesting, I strongly suggest reading “Ishmael.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2010 11:24 AM

    Ishamael mean god hear!

    • tomschronicles permalink
      November 20, 2010 6:17 PM

      thanks! I didn’t know that.

    • tomschronicles permalink
      November 20, 2010 10:58 PM

      wait a moment, do you mean “God hears,” or “God is here?”

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