Does Ishmael Molest Isaac?
Ishmael Offends Sarah
When Sarah is unable to conceive a child for her husband, she gives Abraham her maid, Hagar, who gives birth to a son whom she names Ishmael (Gen 16). Thirteen years later, when she is ninety years old (Gen 17:17), Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Isaac (Gen 21:1–7). The next verse fast forwards to when Isaac is a toddler, and Sarah is disturbed by Ishmael:
בראשׁית כא:ח וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת יִצְחָק. כא:ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק.
Gen 21:8 The child [Isaac] grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 21:9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, metzacheq.
The final word is from the root צ.ח.ק, in the piʿel form, and she is so angry that she has the boy banished.
בראשׁית כא:י וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן־הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם־בְּנִי עִם־יִצְחָק.
Gen 21:10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son with Isaac.”
What exactly is Ishmael is doing, and why does it anger Sarah so?
Playing with Isaac?
The most common interpretation is that she saw him “playing.” This interpretation appears already in the Greek LXX, “playing” [παίζοντα], which has an extra clause at the end specifying that he was playing “with Isaac her son” (μετὰ Ισαακ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς). The Latin Vulgate also translates “playing” (ludentem), and in many manuscripts also includes the phrase cum Isaac filio suo “with Isaac her son” as well.
Why would Ishmael’s playing bother Sarah so much? Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) suggests:
כי כן מנהג כל נער. ותקנא בו בעבור היותו גדול מבנה.
For this is what all boys do (=play). And [Sarah] was jealous of him because he was older than her son.
According to this, Sarah is not really upset about Ishmael playing, but is simply concerned that as the older boy, he would inherit in place of Isaac, her son. A similar interpretation appears in the Gordon Tanakh (ad loc), which takes the LXX reading as original here:
ובהיותו בן האמה לא מן הראוי שישחק עם בן הגברת ומתוך כך ינסה להשתוות לו בסופו של דבר גם בירשה.
Since he is the son of a maidservant, it is not fitting that he play with the son of the mistress of the house, and from there, he will try to make himself an equal (with her son) in the end, even with regard to inheritance.
A variation on this interpretation is that by metzacheq-ing, Ishmael is appropriating the very verb that is associated with Isaac/Yitzchaq. Moreover, earlier in the story, Sarah noted that people tzachaq-ed at her for having had a baby in her old age, so she named her son Yitzchaq. (For this use of the root in the qal form, see appendix.) In this vein, Robert Alter, who translates the verb as “laughing,” writes in his commentary:
Given the fact… that she is concerned lest Ishmael encroach on her son’s inheritance, and given the inscription of her son’s name in this crucial verb, we may also be invited to construe it as “Isaac-ing-it” that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.
All of these interpretations assume that Ishmael was behaving innocently. Sarah wishes to remove him from the house to protect her son, but not because of something Ishmael does wrong. At most, his free demeanor, whether laughing or playing, calls attention to how comfortable he feels in the household, and this worries Sarah.
These interpretations, however, all suffer from the same problem: in the piʿel form used in this story, the root צ.ח.ק never has this meaning.
Degradation and Mocking
In two biblical stories, the verb in the piʿel form refers to someone being degraded or mocked.
Lot in Sodom
In the first use of this form in the Bible, Lot has been warned by two angels that Sodom will be destroyed immanently, and he should gather his loved ones and escape. In addition to his two unmarried daughters who live at home, Lot has daughters married to local men, whom he tries to convince to leave Sodom with him before YHWH destroys it, but his sons-in-law do not take his warning seriously:
בראשית יט:יד וַיֵּצֵא לוֹט וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל חֲתָנָיו לֹקְחֵי בְנֹתָיו וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי מַשְׁחִית יְ־הֹוָה אֶת הָעִיר וַיְהִי כִמְצַחֵק בְּעֵינֵי חֲתָנָיו.
Gen 19:14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had married his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for YHWH is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law as a metzacheq.
While NJPS translates “one who jests,” it seems unlikely that the sons-in-law think he is simply being jovial and telling a joke. The point is more that they knew he was serious, but he seemed to them “ridiculous.”
Samson in Gaza
After the Philistines capture Samson and blind him, they keep him tied up in prison in Gaza. One day, during a party, the people decide to bring Samson to entertain the guests:
שופטים טז:כה וַיְהִי [כְּטוֹב] (כי טוב) לִבָּם וַיֹּאמְרוּ קִרְאוּ לְשִׁמְשׁוֹן וִישַׂחֶק לָנוּ וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְשִׁמְשׁוֹן מִבֵּית [הָאֲסוּרִים] (האסירים) וַיְצַחֵק לִפְנֵיהֶם וַיַּעֲמִידוּ אוֹתוֹ בֵּין הָעַמּוּדִים.
Judg 16:25 As their spirits rose, they said, “Call Samson here and let him play for us.” Samson was fetched from the prison, and he tzacheq-ed for them. Then they put him between the pillars.
NJPS translates here “he danced” and NRSV picks the vaguer “he performed.” Certainly, Samson was not there to tell jokes. Whatever he may have done, the point is that the entertainment he provided them was not a performance but the very fact of his humiliation. Here was the formerly frightening killer blinded and tamed, acting on Philistine command. The degradation of Samson is what causes the audience to laugh.
In keeping with this meaning of the term, some translators and commentators have suggested that Ishmael was engaged in mocking behavior. Thus, the Syriac Peshitta translates the term as מגחך, “mock or deride.” In his commentary (ad loc.), Elia Samuele Artom (1887–1965) writes:
מלגלג על אברהם ושרה השמחים בבנם יצחק. כנראה עשה זאת בשעת המשתה.
He mocked Abraham and Sarah, who were joyous about their son Isaac. Apparently, he did this during the party.
Artom follows the MT here, which does not specify an object to the tzechoq, and he connects it implicitly to Sarah’s earlier exclamation describing people tzachaq-ing about this elderly couple with a new baby. Devora Steinmetz also reads it this way, suggesting that “Ishmael’s laughter parallels his mother’s mockery of Sarah,” referring to when Hagar became pregnant earlier in Genesis 16:4, וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ “and she made light of her mistress in her eyes.”
An alternative explanation along these lines, suggested already by R. Saʿadia Gaon (882–942), is that “according to the simple meaning, Ishmael was mocking Isaac.” Some commentators add that Ishmael was mocking Isaac because he was worried that he would lose access to the inheritance now that Abraham’s main wife had a son.
While the translation “mocking” picks up the negative connotation of the verb, this is not the way the word is used in the Lot and Samson passages. There, the metzacheq is the object of the scorn who appears ridiculous, not the one mocking others, as would be the case for Ishmael here.
While this interpretation is more in line with the negative valence of the root in its piʿel form, I would argue that a better interpretation is based on the sexual connotation of metzacheq, in line with its other four appearances in the Bible.
The Sexual Connotation of Tzechoq
The sexual meaning of the root צ.ח.ק in the piʿel form is found in several biblical stories.
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
When Joseph is a slave in the house of Potiphar in Egypt, his master’s wife attempts to seduce him. When she fails, she concocts a story according to which Joseph tried to take advantage of her when he found her alone in the house. First, she tells this story to the house servants:
בראשׁית לט:יד וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל.
Gen 39:14 She called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to tzacheq with us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice…”
Potiphar’s wife says “with us,” and not just “with me.” She includes the servants to make a broader point: By trying to seduce or rape the master’s wife, Joseph effectively humiliates the entire household. The fact that its main connotation here is sexual is clear both from the explicit clarification “to lie with me,” as well as from the next instance, when she repeats the story to her husband:
בראשׁית לט:יז וַתְּדַבֵּר אֵלָיו כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר בָּא־אֵלַי הָעֶבֶד הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר־הֵבֵאתָ לָּנוּ לְצַחֶק בִּי.
Gen 39:17 She told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to tzacheq with me…”
With this accusation, Potiphar’s wife communicates not only that Joseph tried to have sex with her, but that he was humiliating her, and by extension Potiphar too.
The Incident of the Golden Calf
A more ambiguous example of צ.ח.ק in the piʿel form comes in the story of the Golden Calf. After the Israelites pressure Aaron into building them the calf, he declares the next day to be a festival. When the people see that Moses has not returned from the mountain, where he went to speak with YHWH, they ask Aaron to make an idol for them to worship (v. 1), which he does and then declares a festival to be held on the following day:
שׁמות לב:ו וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ מִמָּחֳרָת וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק.
Exod 32:6 They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to tzacheq.
It is difficult to say for certain what the text is picturing here. Clearly, it does not mean an innocent game or telling jokes. Many commentators assume that it is a kind of erotic play or dance, or even more than this, as a fertility rite performed around the calf.
Isaac and Rebekah
Perhaps the most illustrative example for our purposes again involves Isaac, but this time as the active character. When Isaac moves to the city of Gerar, he pretends that Rebecca is his sister, but his behavior with her eventually tips off King Abimelech to the truth:
בראשׁית כו:ח וַיְהִי כִּי אָרְכוּ־לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק אֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ. כו:ט וַיִּקְרָא אֲבִימֶלֶךְ לְיִצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר אַךְ הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא וְאֵיךְ אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא...
Gen 26:8 When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw [Isaac] metzacheq-ing his wife Rebekah. 26:9 So Abimelech called for Isaac, and said, “So she is your wife! Why then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?”… 
From Abimelech’s reaction, which expresses that he is certain that Rebecca is Isaac’s wife and not his sister, it is clear that Isaac wasn’t laughing with her or telling her a joke, but engaging in sex, or at least sexual play, with her.
The use of the derogatory metzacheq here highlights how Abimelech has exposed Isaac as having lied. Isaac must accept Abimelech’s humorous/humiliating deduction that Rebecca was clearly not simply his sister based on what he saw them doing. Perhaps the reader is meant to chuckle at Isaac’s expense, thinking that this is not something a man does with his sister, nor something he wishes to do even with his (secret) wife, in full view of the local monarch peeping through a window.
The sexual connotation of the verb צ.ח.ק in piʿel was noted by the 2nd century C.E. sage, Rabbi Akiva, who makes use of it in interpretation Ishmael’s metzacheq-ing (Genesis Rabbah §53, Theodor-Albeck ed.):
אמר ר' שמעון ר' עקיבה היה אומר בו דבר לגניי,
R. Simon said: R. Akiva would read this term as something negative.
דרש ר' עקיבא... אין מצחק אלא גילוי עריות. היך דאת אמר לצחק בי
R. Akiva taught: “…Metzacheq means sexual transgression, as it says [in the Joseph story, when Potiphar’s wife addressed her husband]: ‘to tzacheq with me.’
מלמד שהיתה שרה רואה את ישמעאל מכבש גנות וצד נשי אנשים ומענה אותן,
This teaches that Sarah would see Ishmael forcing his way into gardens, grabbing hold of other men’s wives, and raping them.”
While sexual violence is a good translation of the verb here, R. Akiva’s imagery of Ishmael crashing through people’s yards as a serial rapist goes beyond the text. If we take R. Akiva’s insight, however, and apply it to the LXX’s text which includes the words “with her son Isaac,” I believe the meaning becomes clear. The LXX text offers an exact grammatical parallel to the Isaac and Rebecca story:
וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק אֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ
*וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית... מְצַחֵק אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנָה
And (Abimelech) looked, and he saw Isaac metzacheq-ing his wife Rebecca.
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… metzacheq-ing her son Isaac.
In other words, Sarah witnessed Ishmael molesting her son. We can better understand Sarah’s anger, and her need to send Ishmael away. His indecent and abhorrent behavior alone warrants disinheriting him, but more importantly, he should not be allowed to remain in the house to continue to abuse her son.
According to this reading, Sarah is not simply taking the main wife’s prerogative by banishing the son of the concubine as a possible future competitor with Isaac; she is protecting her son from the sexual predator in their midst.
Elderly Abraham and Sarah Have a Baby: What Is the Tzechoq?
The qal form of the verb appears six times in the Bible, exclusively as part of a series of stories in which Abraham and Sarah are granted a son in their old age. The inclusion of the root is clearly connected to the fact that the son’s name, יצחק (Yitzchaq) Isaac includes this root. While the root appears either in the qal (simple) form, or in a noun form, as opposed to the piʿel form in the Ishmael story, the negative, sexual connotation may be evident even here, albeit in a subtler form.
The first appearance of the verb comes when God announces to Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son:
בראשׁית יז:יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל־פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה־שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם ־שָׂרָה הֲבַת־תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד.
Gen 17:17 Then Abraham fell on his face and yitzchaq-ed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Abraham’s laughter here could be read as simple joy, but his point implies something more: It is an absurd, perhaps ridiculous thought that a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman will have a baby. Abraham’s immediate response, therefore, is to say that it will be enough for him if only Ishmael would survive and thrive under God’s guidance; a baby with Sarah is too much to ponder.
This same perspective appears yet again when YHWH and his angels visit Abraham in his tent and (again) announce that Sarah will bear him a son:
בראשׁית יח:יב וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה־לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן. יח:יג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי. יח:יד הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְ־הוָה דָּבָר... יח:טו וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי כִּי יָרֵאָה וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא כִּי צָחָקְתְּ.
Gen 18:12 So Sarah titzchaq to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 18:13 Then YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah tzachaq, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ 18:14 Is anything too wondrous for YHWH…” 18:15 Sarah lied, saying, “I did not tzachaq,” for she was frightened. But He replied, "You did tzachaq.”
In this story, the laughing is certainly negative. While this could be attributed to the implication that Sarah does not believe such a miracle to be possible, we have again a reflection on the absurdity of an elderly man impregnating an elderly woman, who will then give birth to a baby and nurse him.
The final uses of the root in this context come after Isaac is born:
בראשית כא:ה וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן מְאַת שָׁנָה בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ. כא:ו וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כָּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק לִי. כא:ז וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו.
Gen 21:5 Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 21:6 Sarah said, “God has brought me tzechoq; everyone who hears will tzechoq with me.” 21:7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”
The first use here is in a noun form and the second in a qal verb form. In both cases, the laughter is caused by the Abraham and Sarah’s production of a child—most likely intended to include the image of sexual activity at their advanced age—and it seems to suggest at the least amusement, and perhaps even derision and ridicule. This is not, therefore, joyous, innocent laughter. Instead, Sarah fears that their son has made her an object of derision and ridicule for sexuality at her age.
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Dr. Lisbeth S. Fried is Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan’s Department of Middle East Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaism Studies from NYU and another in psychology from University of Michigan. Among her many publications are The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire, Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition, Ezra, a Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2015), and Nehemiah: A Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2021).
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