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Pope Francis arrives in Iraq on Friday, fulfilling a Jubilee Year desire of St. John Paul II to visit Ur of the Chaldees as part of his millennial biblical pilgrimage. Saddam Hussein would not permit the visit in 2000. In the intervening years, the situation of the Christians in Iraq has become quite dire. Pope Francis will arrive to comfort them, strengthen their witness, and advance one of his signature initiatives: the “Human Fraternity” project he launched in the United Arab Emirates two years ago.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic side, the “Abraham Accords” have led to normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. The common paternity of Abraham—“father of multitudes”—is thought to be a theological, political, and sociological foundation for harmonious relations between Israelis and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Which is rather remarkable. The book of Genesis provides some confidence that paternity and the promise can be handed down from one generation to the next, though not without some twists and turns. But as to fraternity, the project is more fraught. It’s fraternity that is the biblically greater challenge. 

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out to me that a deeper reading of Genesis reveals the problem of fraternity at the forefront—and offers hope that the problem can be solved. 

In a public conversation we had in Toronto five years ago, I raised with Rabbi Sacks the issue of divine election. God chooses this one and not that one. Are we simply to accept that choice? Do we get to know the reasons?

Sacks explained that divine election in terms of paternity is relatively straightforward. God creates Adam. God chooses Abram, and promises to make him the father of a great nation. The man receives his paternity and it passes on to his sons.

But to which son? That’s where the problem arises. Sibling rivalry is more complicated than father-son relationships, because while there can be many sons, there is only one father. Who gets what he has? Who inherits the promise?

Genesis opens with a rather bleak account of fraternity. The first set of brothers is Cain and Abel. That does not end well. But the other sets of brothers in Genesis are also troubled: Abraham drives Ishmael out of the household in order to make room for Isaac; Esau, the elder, is tricked out of Isaac’s blessing by Jacob, the younger; and Jacob’s sons conspire to sell their brother Joseph into slavery, after first plotting to kill him. They lie to their father and claim Joseph is dead.

Over all of this sibling rivalry hangs violence, either actual or threatened. It seems that brothers means competition, envy, resentment, grasping, deceit, and violence. Hence appealing to a fraternity rooted in a common father does not seem a promising foundation for harmony, let alone peace.

That, though, is a surface reading. Genesis gives us clues that strife does not have the final word among siblings. The most subtle clue comes at the death of Abraham. Without telling us anything more, Genesis records that “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah” (Gen. 25:9). Ishmael has apparently returned to the household—even if temporarily. The subsequent verses even list the descendants of Ishmael, including them in Abraham’s family tree.

Was there a complete reconciliation between Ishmael, the elder, who was cast out in favor of Isaac, the younger? Or just a temporary truce? Genesis does not tell us. Can rivalry be resolved into reconciliation?

The arc continues throughout Genesis. Recall that after cheating Esau out of the paternal blessing, Jacob flees, fearing for his life. Years later, when Esau and Jacob are about to meet again—and Esau is arriving with 400 men—Jacob fears for his life again. Yet when they meet, there is at least a partial reconciliation. They do not engage in hostilities but embrace and agree to go their separate ways.

In the final chapters of Genesis, where Joseph meets his brothers, the arc arrives at its completion. There is now full recognition, reconciliation, and restoration of fraternal bonds.

“As soon as I started thinking about these stories, it suddenly dawned on me to look at these stories and eliminate everything except the last scene in every case,” Sacks told me. “Abel is dead . . . Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father Abraham’s grave…Jacob and Esau, after years of conflict, they meet, they embrace, they kiss, and they go their separate ways . . . Joseph and his brothers in the last chapter of Genesis grant forgiveness and reconciliation.”

That is the fraternity envisioned when the common paternity of Abraham is invoked. It took a long while to get there. When God begins the plan of salvation anew with Abraham, it is in part to resolve the Cain and Abel problem. There is a lot of pain between Abraham’s two sons and the final reconciliation with Joseph and his brothers. It is long and hard work.

“It was clear that those sibling rivalry narratives in Genesis are not simply variations on a theme,” concluded Sacks. “They describe an upward curve, moving from violence to forgiveness. I suddenly realized there’s more going on in Genesis than meets the eye and we might have here the answer to the sibling rivalry that in a macro scale has poisoned relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries.”

Could it be that the monotheistic faiths are afflicted in history with the fractious, even lethal, sibling rivalry of Genesis? If there is only one God, which tradition gets his favor?

Might it be that the task for the human fraternity project of Pope Francis—and the diplomatic work of the Abraham Accords—is best understood as re-tracing the path from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers? Like the very pilgrimage that Pope Francis is making, it is back to the future in the biblical sense, and the biblical lands.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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