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Notes from Limmud 2014

My Two Sons: Ishmael and Isaac

Wendy Amsallem

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Genesis 21:1-21:21 בראשית כא א-כא כא

The Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, Isaac. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him.

Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, "God has made me laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me." She said, "Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age."

The child grew up, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, mocking. She said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave-woman and her son: for the son of this slave-woman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac." The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she says; for in Isaac shall your offspring be called. But also of the son of the slave-woman will I make a nation, because he is your offspring."

Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave them to Hagar. He put them on her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

When the water was finished from the bottle, she cast the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down over against him a bow-shot distant: for she said, "Let me not see the death of the child." She sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.

God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, "What ails you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation."

God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.

וַה׳ פָּקַד אֶת־שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ ה׳ לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר׃ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן לִזְקֻנָיו לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים׃ וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־שֶׁם־בְּנוֹ הַנּוֹלַד־לוֹ אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָה־לּוֹ שָׂרָה יִצְחָק׃ וַיָּמָל אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בֶּן־שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים׃

וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן־מְאַת שָׁנָה בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ׃ וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק־לִי׃ וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי־יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו׃

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת־יִצְחָק׃

וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק׃ וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן־הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם־בְּנִי עִם־יִצְחָק׃ וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אַל־יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל־הַנַּעַר וְעַל־אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע׃ וְגַם אֶת־בֶּן־הָאָמָה לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ כִּי זַרְעֲךָ הוּא׃

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח־לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל־הָגָר שָׂם עַל־שִׁכְמָהּ וְאֶת־הַיֶּלֶד וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע׃

וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם מִן־הַחֵמֶת וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם׃ וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה אַל־אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת־קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ׃

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת־קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל־הָגָר מִן־הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה־לָּךְ הָגָר אַל־תִּירְאִי כִּי־שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל־קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא־שָׁם׃ קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת־הַנַּעַר וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת־יָדֵךְ בּוֹ כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ׃

וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת־הַחֵמֶת מַיִם וַתַּשְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּעַר׃

וַיְהִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הַנַּעַר וַיִּגְדָּל וַיֵּשֶׁב בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיְהִי רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת׃ וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן וַתִּקַּח־לוֹ אִמּוֹ אִשָּׁה מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃

It's strange that Abraham seems very upset at the thought of sending his son away, but when he does so he doesn't take a lot of care over it. Why doesn't he send her off with a caravan of camels and gifts like when he sent Eliezer to Aram?

We also never hear about Abraham and Ishmael interacting again; the only subsequent reference to him is when Ishmael came back to help bury Abraham.

[Audience member: Why is Ishmael never named in this story?]

[Audience member: Why does Abraham send them off so early in the morning? Is he eager to fulfill God's commandment, or make sure no one sees, or just before it gets so hot.]

[Audience member: The Israelite slavery in Egypt was punishment for both Abraham and Sarah treating Hagar so badly—so Nachmanides says—but also because Abraham was wrong to have gone down to Egypt originally during the prior famine.]

Why does Abraham only give Hagar bread and a bottle of water? Rashi:

Bread and a bottle of water and not silver and gold since [Abraham] hated [Ishmael] since he had gone off in a bad way. לחם וחמת מים, ולא כסף וזהב, לפי שהיה שונאו על שיצא לתרבות רעה׃

Remember when God first told Abraham he was going to have a second son, Abraham replied, לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ "Let Ishmael live before you" (Gen. 17:18)—he doesn't want another son. He's happy with him. So Rashi has to come up with a reason why he is sent off so poorly.

Rashi also follows a Talmudic tradition that Ishmael's "mocking" involved idolatry or adultery or murder.

Ibn Ezra:

Bread and a bottle of water. He gave it to Hagar and put it on her shoulder and said to her, "Take your son," and sent her. It is conceivable that he also gave her silver and gold but the text does not specify it.* And he gave her bread and water sufficient for her to get to Beer Sheva, because Abraham had been in Gerar. And she went and did not know the way, and she got lost. לחם וחמת מים׃ נתן אל הגר ושם על שכמה ואמר לה קחי אתך בנך וישלחה׃ ויתכן שנתן לה כסף וזהב ולא פירש הכתוב׃ ונתן לה לחם ומים שיספיק לה עד באר שבע כי בגרר היה אברהם׃ והנה היא הלכה ולא ידעה הדרך ותתע׃

* Because if you're dying of thirst in the desert, silver and gold won't help you at all.

Why doesn't Abraham have any continuing relationship with Ishmael? It's odd that he seems to cut him off completely? And if so, why does Ishmael come back to bury his father. These questions bothered the rabbis.

פִּרְקֵי דְּרַבִּי אֶלִיעֵזֶר, written in the ninth century, and probably in an area under Muslim control, and shall become obvious from the story:

Ishmael sent and took for himself a woman from Arvot Moav whose name was `Aipha1. After three years, Abraham went to see his son Ishmael, and he swore to Sarah that he would not alight from his camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt.2 And Abraham arrived in the middle of the day and found Ishmael's wife. He said to her, "Where is [Ishmael]?" She said to him, "He and his mother went to bring date-fruits from the wilderness." [Abraham] said to her, "Give me a little bread and a little water as my soul is weary from travelling in the desert."3. She said to him, "There is no bread and no water." [Abraham] said to her, "When Ishmael comes, tell him these things and say to him that an old man came from the land of Canaan to visit you and said that your doorpost is not good."4 And when Ishmael arrived, his wife told him this thing. [Ishmael] sent her away.5 שלח ישמעאל ולקח לו אשה מערבות מואב ועיפה שמה׃ לאחר שלש שנים הלך אברהם לראות את ישמעאל בנו ונשמבע לשרה שלא ירד מעל הגמל במקום שישמעאל שרוי שם והגיע לשם בחצי היום ומצא שם אשתו של ישמעאל א״ל היכן הוא ישמעאל׃ אמרה לו הלך הוא ואמו להביא פירות תמרים מן המדבר׃ אמר לה תני לי מעט לחם ומעט מים כי עיפה נפשי מדרך המדבר׃ אמרה לו אין לחם ואין מים׃ אמר לה כשיבא ישמעאל תגידי לו את הדברים האלה שבא זקן אחד מארץ כנען לראותך ואמר שסף הבית אינה טובה׃ וכשבא ישמעאל הגידה לו אשתו את הדבר הזה שלחה

1. In some MSS, `A'isha, the name of a wife of Muḥammad.

2. Sarah is jealous that he's going to stay too long. Also, she's scared of Abraham getting involved again with his ex.

3. He asks for exactly the same things he gave to her when he sent her off.

4. Code for the wife. The image of the wife as pillar of the home is found in Psalms.

5. As soon as he gets the message, he immediately realises who the old man was, and takes his advice! Even though he didn't even wait to see him! Note that this is not the wife in the Biblical account: this wife is from Moab, not Egyptian.

Why doesn't Abraham tell her who he is? He's testing her hospitality. She would also be more suspicious about passing on the message if she knew who he was.

His mother sent and took a wife from her father's household and her name was Fatuma.1 After another three years, Abraham went to see his son Ishmael and he swore to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not alight from his camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. And [Abraham] arrived in the middle of the day and found Ishmael's wife. He said to him, "Where is [Ishmael]?" She said to him, "He and his mother went to herd the camels in the wilderness."2 [Abraham] said to her, "Give me a little bread and a little water as my soul is weary from travelling." She took out [bread and water] and gave him. Abraham stood (stopped?) and prayed before God for his son and the house of Ishmael was filled with all good from all manner of blessings. And when Ishmael arrived his wife told him this thing3 and Ishmael knew that all along the mercies of his father were upon him, as it is said (Psalms 103) "As a father has mercy on his children." ושלחה אמו ולקחה לו אשה מבית אביה ושמה פטומה׃ עוד לאחר ג׳ שנים הלך אברהם לראות את ישמעאל בנו ונשבע לשרה כפעם הראשונה שאינו ירד מן הגמל במקום שישמעאל שרוי שם והגיע לשם בחצי היום ומצא שם אשתו של ישמעאל א״ל היכן הוא ישמעאל׃ אמרה לו הלך הוא ואמו לרעות את הגמלים במדבר׃ אמר לה תני מעט לחם ומעט מים כי עיפה נפשי מדרך והוציאה ונתנה לו׃ עמד אברהם והיה מתפלל לפני הקב״ה על בנו ונתמלא ביתו של ישמעאל מכל טוב ממין הברכות׃ וכשבא ישמעאל הגידה לו אשתו את הדבר הזה וידע ישמעאל שעד עכשיו רחמי אביו עליו שנאמר (תהלים ק״ג) כרחם אב על בנים׃

1. Fatima is the name of the daughter of Muḥammad.

2. Is Abraham deliberately arriving when Ishmael is not there?

3. Once again, Abraham has gone! On the other hand, Abraham has loved Ishmael all along. We know this because he cares about whether he's married to an appropriate wife.

Contrast this with the stories with Abraham and Isaac. There are two main stories: one in which he nearly kills him, and one in which he sends his servant off to find him a wife. Here, having had a story in which Abraham nearly kills Ishmael, the midrash comes up with a parallel to the other Isaac story. In the first story, Abraham sends a proxy; in the second the proxy choosing a good wife is Hagar, which tells us that Hagar is herself also good.

The first wife is from Moab; she refuses to feed him. In the later Torah, the Moabites refuse hospitality to the Israelites.

[Audience question: Could this be a polemic against the Qur'an's version of the story? In the Qur'an Abraham visits Ishmael repeatedly, and they build the Ka`aba together. The speaker think that if that were the case, this story would not have him visit him at all.]

The moral of the story is that descendants of Isaac and descendants of Ishmael should get along, because Abraham looked after both of his sons in his later life.

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