Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, knew his bible well. His great masterpiece is an allegory echoing today’s first reading from Genesis. Sarah demands the banishment of of Ishmael, the son of Abraham by Hagar, one of his slaves. After God promises Abraham that Ishmael will beget a great nation, the boy and Hagar are cast out to wander in the desert wilderness. In Moby-Dick, the narrator is cast out to wander in the wilderness of the sea.
In Genesis, Hagar was visited by an angel who instructed her to call her unborn child Yishma’el, meaning “God shall hear.” The prophecy in the name was fulfilled when Ishmael, perishing in the desert, was saved by a miracle: the sudden appearance of a well of water. In Moby-Dick, only Ishmael escapes the sinking of the Pequod, and “that by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous.”
Sarah noticed the son whom Hagar the Egyptian
had borne to Abraham
playing with her son Isaac;
so she demanded of Abraham:
“Drive out that slave and her son!
No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance
with my son Isaac!”
Abraham was greatly distressed,
especially on account of his son Ishmael.
But God said to Abraham: “Do not be distressed about the boy
or about your slave woman.
Heed the demands of Sarah, no matter what she is asking of you;
for it is through Isaac that descendants shall bear your name.
As for the son of the slave woman,
I will make a great nation of him also,
since he too is your offspring.”
Why the discourse on Moby-Dick? Because Melville’s story reminds us that the difficulties that befell Ishmael occur in our times as well as in biblical times. Like Ishmael, all of us are sometimes cast out to wander in the wilderness. But like Ishmael, each of us is under the love and protection of our Heavenly Father. The Lord looks kindly upon us in our afflictions and always calls us to return to Him. If we follow the Lord we will live.
Call me Ishmael.