Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Call me Ishmael

“Call me Ishmael.” (Melville 1) This is perhaps the most famous first sentence of any piece of American Literature and so I feel we must examine the question why Ishmael? There are actually six men named Ishmael in the Christian Bible. A descendant listed in (1 Chronicles 9:44); the father of Zebadiah (2 Chronicles 19:11); one of the murderers of Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor over the remnant in Judah (2 Kings 25:25); and a priest who divorced his foreign wife (Ezra 10:22). However the most famous of any of these is the Ishmael of Genesis, the son of Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 16:3).  This Ishmael is a central character in Western religion he is present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is a central turning point in the cultural history of Muslims and Jews.  Ishmael is now also the title of a philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn in 1992 whether this is based off of the Biblical figure or that of Moby Dick is hard to say but either way Ishmael is a name filled with meaning for many people.

                The name Ishmael is a compilation of two elements: The first part comes from the verb (shama) meaning to hear, listen, obey. The second part is (El), the common abbreviation of Elohim, the genus God. So “God that Hears” (Hitchcock) is a common translation as well as “He Will Hear God” (Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names ).

The most famous Ishmael, that of Genesis, is the byproduct of a promise God makes to Abraham in Genesis 12:2 where God said Abraham would be the father of a great nation. As Sarah, Abraham’s wife, remained barren she had him conceive a child with her hand-maiden or slave Hagar.  The fertility of Hagar while Sarah remained barren caused Sarah to despise her and Hagar fled only to be approached by an Angel of God who told her “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude… thou [art] with child,… and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction… And he will be a wild man; his hand [will be] against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” (Genesis 16:1-13) When he was 13 years old Ishmael was circumcised as part of Abrahams covenant with God and again promised to be fruitful, this time also promised to beget 12 princes, like the 12 tribes of Isreal but the covenant would be with his half-brother Isaac. (Genesis 17) However, after Issac is born Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael thrown out of Abrahams house (Genesis 21:11-13).  Out in the wilderness of Beer-sheba the two soon ran out of water and Hagar wept. "And God heard the voice of the lad" and sent his angel to tell Hagar, "Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation." And God "opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water", from which she drew to save Ishmael's life and her own. "And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer."(Genesis 21:14-21) 

This story marks Hagar as one of the few women to receive a message from God and yet the story of Ishmael and his decedents is one of strife with the Israelites. His son Kedar, father of the Qedarites, is according to tradition, ancestor of Muhammad and the Quraysh tribe (Schaff 502) thus marking Ishmael as the father of the Muslims and Isaac the father of the Jews. Ishmael is mentioned over ten times in the Qur'an, often alongside other patriarchs and prophets of ancient times. He stands with Abraham to set up the Kaaba in Mecca as a place of monotheistic pilgrimage (II: 127-129) and Abraham thanks God for granting him Ishmael and Isaac in his old age (XIV: 35-41).

The story of Ishmaels birth, if not his purpose or calling, is one of the few points on which Jews and Muslims agree.  I think this is an important point in Moby Dick as it is Ishmael that is comfortable between the two worlds of the heathen cannibal and Christianity.  He worships idols with Queequeg as the Biblical Ishmael’s Arab children worshiped idols and yet he himself is a Christian and believes in the Biblical God as does his namesake. Despite his Christianity and his attempts to get Queequeg in church Ishmael does not insist on the correctness of his own beliefs over Queequeg’s but instead focusses on the unity of religions and the brotherhood of man.  He is a mid-ground between two different religious worlds which more often than not view the other with suspicion.

Another way I see the name Ishmael having an important role in Moby Dick, perhaps even more so than his unifying and divisive nature in religion is his role in religious texts.  Ishmael is blessed by God and while not the object of Abrahams covenant with God is brought into the covenant by his blood and circumcision. He is a figure that is tossed into the wilderness repeatedly set adrift from civilization and yet despite his forays into the wilderness he is protected and cared for by the hand of God. In Genesis, his mother and he are twice set out alone in the wild and in both circumstances God brings them into his arms and hears their pleas.  The Ishmael of Moby Dick is setting out to sea in a ship run by Ahab a crazy captain named after the Baal worshiping King of Isreal in a very dangerous industry.  He must be blessed and protected by God to survive his trip into the wild wilderness of the Ocean in the hands of the obsessed Captain.

My final connection with the name Ishmael for our main character is simply to set up an ongoing theme of religion and biblical allusions in Moby Dick.  We begin with a man named Ishmael(Melvin 1), we hear a whale termed a leviathan (Melvin 9) we enter a black church (Melvin 11), meet a man called Jonah(Melvin 15), meet a cannibal idol worshiper(Melvin 24) and go on to sit in on a sermon of Jonah, meet Quakers, hear of Ahab, and get a warning from a man named Elijah.  Biblical allusions and themes are obviously very strong in this story and this is begun from the very first sentence in which we are introduced to the cast out son of Abraham who is still protected by God.

The name Ishmael gives us an idea of the story we are approaching.  From the name we can connect the story to biblical ideas, a wandering man, and a man who is on his own, not really subject to any god, blessed by one and his bloodline a creator of another.  Ishmael gives an idea of deadly situations and protection for our narrator as he goes off to a new world of whales, mad captains, and canibals.

Hitchcock, Roswell D. "Entry for 'Ishmael'". "An Interpreting Dictionary of Scripture Proper Names". . New York, N.Y., 1869. (www.biblestudytools.net/Dictionaries/HitchcocksBibleNames/)

            Schaff, Philip, ed. (1880), A Dictionary of the Bible: Including Biography, Natural History, Geography, Topography, Archæology, and Literature, Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, p. 494 [p. 502 on-line], http://bluehost.levendwater.org/books/Schaff%20A%20Dictionary%20of%20the%20Bible/index.htm, retrieved April 23, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Do the first couple paragraphs serve a purpose? The second one is interesting, but do you use it?

    The third paragraph is a competent summary, which is a necessary component of an essay for this assignment.

    Each subsequent paragraph, I think, basically begins a different argument - but none of them are really argued in any depth. This is a shame, because you have genuinely good ideas here. For my money, I think the one about Ishmael as being in a world between because of the ambiguity of his shared status between the Bible and the Qu'ran (the ambitious version of this would inquire into Melville's level of knowledge of Islam, and/or actual parallels to the Qua'ran). There is a great deal to be done with this argument, although also many exciting ways to fail, or risk failure, with it!

    That part is good. The other randomly listed ideas are fine, but less developed and less promising - you would have been better served, obviously, with more focus.