Rightful Heirs

Rev. Liza Knapp
June 22, 2014
Genesis 21:1-22; Matthew 3:7-9


Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about me: I am related to President Lincoln.

I’m not named Lincoln, because back in the day only the sons got to pass on the family name. My great-grandmother, Anna Lincoln, married a man named Knapp, and so we became Knapps. But Lincoln is one of those names families tend to hang on to, and so it became instead our hereditary middle name, beginning with my grandfather, James Lincoln Knapp, and continuing on to my nephew, Nicholas Lincoln Beudert. We hung on to the name, because we were proud of our heritage. Proud to be sons and daughters of Abraham.

Actually, technically, we’re more like second cousins of Abraham. But still, I have to say, as a kid, I was proud of that connection. I mean, we weren’t just talking any president here, we were talking Abraham Lincoln. As in Gettsyburg Address. Lincoln Memorial. I was proud to be in the same family as the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

As if, you know, I had something to do with that.

As if being descended from the Proclamation’s author were any more remarkable than, say, being descended from those who were emancipated by it.

Some of you might remember when another President’s family tree was suddenly in the news, some years back. A research team reported that they now had DNA evidence, that Thomas Jefferson had fathered at least one child with a woman named Sally Hemings, who was a slave in his household. The descendants of Eston Hemings had always believed that Eston was Jefferson’s son, but until then there had been no corroborating evidence to support their claim.  Jefferson never acknowledged Sally’s children as his heirs.

I know that when the story came out, some people were shocked to think that one of our founding fathers could have behaved in this way. If they had read their Bibles, of course, they would have known, that Jefferson was simply following in the footsteps of another famous Patriarch.


Father Abraham, the song goes, had many kids. We don’t know exactly how many, because the men who recorded the biblical genealogies almost never mention the daughters’ names. But according to Genesis, Abraham had at least eight sons before he died. We are concerned here today with two of them: Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born; and Isaac, Abraham’s heir.

When I was a child, I learned the story, that God promised a child to Abraham and his wife, and that the promise finally came true. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I learned the rest of the story: that Abraham and Sarah had apparently got tired of waiting for God to fulfill this promise, and so in the meantime, Abraham fathered a child with a woman named Hagar, who was a slave in his household.

We don’t know how Hagar felt about this; like Sally Hemings, she left no diary. We are told that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, initially welcomed Ishmael into the family, but that her attitude changed after her own son Isaac was born: “Cast out this slave woman and her son,” she told Abraham, “for my son will not share his inheritance with the son of a slave.”

This is one of the recurring themes of the book Genesis: not all children get to be heirs. Only favored sons receive their father’s blessing. And so generation after generation, siblings become rivals, competing for their birthright. Think of Jacob and Esau. Think of Joseph and his brothers. Think of Cain and Abel.

Ishmael pretty much disappears from the Genesis narrative after this account. We learn that when Abraham died, Ishmael and Isaac buried him together; but we also learn that Abraham left all he had to Isaac alone. We get a brief genealogy of Ishmael’s sons; but from then on, his descendants are referred to simply as “Ishmaelites” – no longer kin, but strangers.

I said before that Ishmael pretty much disappears from the Genesis narrative, but we can follow his story elsewhere. Islamic tradition teaches that Ishmael became a prophet -- the ancestor, in fact, of the great prophet Mohammed. Jews and Muslims are both children of Abraham, still struggling over their father’s inheritance.


Just this year I discovered the website, ancestry.com. For those of you who haven’t tried it out, ancestry.com is a free genealogy website. You enter as much of you know of your family history, and the website organizes it into a nice family tree. It also searches for records that may be refer to your relatives – census records, birth certificates, immigration documents. It’s pretty addictive, uncovering these buried fragments of your past as you dig deeper and deeper into the roots of your family tree. I type in some names and dates from my grandmother’s Bible, and suddenly I’m looking at photograph of my great-great grandfather’s name on the passenger manifest of the boat that carried him to North America. Pretty cool, right?

Shortly after I had discovered the website, a friend asked me to help her set up her own account. Her mother was coming for a visit, and she was looking forward to exploring the family tree with her. So the two of them sat down at the computer and began entering the names and dates that the two of them recall. Suddenly, up popped a beautiful old black-and-white photograph, of an attractive young couple, posed cheek to cheek, the woman with just a hint of a smile on her face.

“Is that grandma?” my friend whispered.  “That’s my mother and father,” her mom answered. “I have that picture at home, it’s there wedding picture. I don’t understand, how did it get here?”

Then they noticed the caption under the photo, which read: “Grandpa’s sister, and her husband. Husband’s name unknown.” The photo, you see, had been posted to the website by another ancestry.com user, a long-lost second cousin, searching for the same common ancestors.

My friend and I were both thrilled to think that we had discovered her mom’s long-lost relatives. But her mother seemed dazed, taken aback, perhaps, to think that this cherished family photo belonged to a stranger. “I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “Who could this person be?” Then, suddenly, her eyes grew wide, and she drew in a breath. “Oh! She must be Edgar’s family.”

“Who was Edgar?” I asked. “He stole from my family,” was all her mother knew.

She was stunned, I think, to consider that his grandchildren might look upon her as their kin.

I think we sometimes forget that as we trace our family backwards, it gets bigger. Not only deeper, but wider. I had only two parents, but I have sixteen great-grandparents. Go back five generations, and we’re talking over a hundred ancestors. That’s a lot of fifth cousins. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you here today are fourth of fifth cousins of mine; some of my dad’s family came over to Massachusetts way back in the 1600’s. Of course, back a few thousand years, and we’re all related.

But can we embrace all these kindred as kin? Most of them are strangers to us. Some of them might even be enemies. It’s always tempting to prune away these unwelcome branches of the family tree. It’s always tempting to believe that ours is the true vine, the chosen branch. 

So, who was Abraham’s rightful heir? Genesis offers one answer. The Koran offers another. The apostle Paul offers a third. The gospel of Matthew offers a third. The first verse of the gospel of Matthew says: “a genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham. But the interesting thing is, if you read the rest of that first chapter, two things become clear. First: Joseph is a direct, patrilineal descendant of Abraham. Two: Jesus is not Joseph’s son.  No wonder Jesus responded to John’s message that God could raise up sons of Abraham from the very rocks. Jesus, you see, had a different idea about what makes a family.

So did his followers. Take the apostle Paul, for example. Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee among Pharisees, a son of Abraham if ever there was one. And yet he became convinced that his mission was to bring the good news of God in Christ, not just to his fellow Jews, not just to Abraham’s descendants, but also to the Gentiles, to Greeks and to Romans. In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the “spirit of adoption” that calls them into the family of God. You are no longer slaves, he tells them, but children -- and if children, then heirs. All of you.

Abraham may have given all he had to Isaac alone, but God’s blessing went with Ishmael as well. God spoke to Hagar in the wilderness, telling her, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of your boy. Lift him up and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.”

God, you see, claims all of us as his own. The promise is for you, and your children, and for all who are far off. Not just for the favored sons, but also for the unnamed daughters; not just for the rightful heirs, but also for the disinherited, the enslaved, and the orphaned. Not just for Isaac and Jacob, but also for Ishmael and Esau, for Eston and Edgar. Whether our ancestors came to Massachusetts on the Mayflower or the Amistad, or were here before the first boats landed, God was with them. God heard their prayers, just as God heard the prayers of Hagar, and of Sally Hemings, that their children might live to see a better day. A day when all God’s children might finally learn to claim one another as kin.

Father Abraham had many kids. I am one of them. So are you. Praise the Lord.