Sacrifice of Ishmael

The Sacrifice of Ishmael
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
      his hand against everyone,
      and everyone’s hand against him;
In opposition to all his kin
      shall he encamp.
Genesis 16:12
He canters from tent to tent on fawn-light legs,
Ignoring Hagar, who begs, “Get some shoes on your feet!
No thirteen-year-old boy but a verminous slave
Goes barefoot like some sort of beast. Put your sandals on!”
But the youngster’s father gave him a grown-man’s chore
When he asked him kindly, “Go tell the people to meet.
Most important, my son ―” he said “my son!” ― “is to find
All the males, as young as a week.” And Ishmael
Went hollering, “My father says!” like a spell.
Once everyone gathered beneath an eye-drilling sun,
The boy found it all so thrilling, he just could not stand still,
But pranced around his father on high-arched feet
As if his bladder were full, or as if somehow some hint
Of what was about to be done to his intimate flesh
Had penetrated beneath his consciousness.
But who could guess the master’s barbaric intent,
The covenant that guaranteed his seed
Would be God’s possession forever: His special breed?
How perfect, how grotesque the only son’s obedience:
The mortification of body and spirit his whole inheritance.
For Ishmael, no substitution came, no flawless ram
Or angel descended to spare him from the knife of Abraham.
But more than any since our parents were hurled from Paradise,
That was a day that changed the world, a human sacrifice.
His almond-shaped eyes stop blinking. He smothers a cry
At seeing his father open his caftan, then lie
On the altar, exposing himself; he’s ninety-nine.
Ishmael blushes, but gages: he’s huge ― like mine.
Then Abraham prayed to God, “Accept his gift;”
To the slaughterer holding the knife, “My friend, be swift.”
For one terrible moment, Ishmael, holding his breath,
Believed his father’s sacrifice would be death.
He flinched, watching the butcher nervously slice
At the patriarch’s penis. Death began to seem nice.
When Abraham rose, knees weak with a death-mask face,
He commanded Ishmael to take his place.
There’s nothing this Egyptian hand-maid’s child would not have done
To please the father ― and not be a half-caste bastard. So, to be one
Of Abraham’s chosen, he found the courage to be circumcised.
Yet hardly a year would pass before he was rejected, despised
The foolish child, so lavish of love! He believed
The ordeal had confirmed him as eldest son,
And greeted the birth of Isaac with unfeigned joy.
But Sarah was peeved he appeared so noble and sweet.
Then one day, after she saw him dandling the boy,
She insisted that he and his mother be driven away,
And God told Abraham, “Let her have her way.”
They weren’t even given a donkey; just some bread
And a skinful of water. Well, God would provide, He’d said.
Only then, in a wilderness exile, not knowing why,
Did Ishmael, a desert surrounding him, cry.
Faultless, burdened with all the affliction of God’s divisive plan ―
Who will judge him if he became a wild-ass of a man?
May the children of Sarah never know peace, but shed blood in eternal defense,
If we do not remember Ishmael with reverence.

First published in print in Iraq Literary Review and at