“Take Your Only Son Isaac” – What Happened to Ishmael?
Obedience, violence, all-consuming faith: the vividness of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Akedah has inspired and troubled its many readers. The ethical murkiness of a father’s willingness to sacrifice his son has sparked numerous attempts to make sense of God’s apparent cruelty and Abraham’s silence, such as Søren Kierkegaard’s famous “knight of faith” concept in his Fear and Trembling (1843).
Genesis 22 contains more prosaic problems as well. Near the beginning of this chapter, God instructs Abraham:
בראשית כב:ב קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
Gen 22:2 “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
God commands Abraham to take his “only son”—a detail repeated in vv. 12 and 16—but Isaac is not actually Abraham’s only son. Elsewhere in the canonical text, Abraham has an older child, Ishmael (Genesis 16:15). In fact, in response to God’s promise to Abraham of progeny through Sarah:
בראשית יז:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ.
Gen 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
Abraham even has Ishmael circumcised, as a member of his household (Genesis 17:23). Although he sends Ishmael away in Genesis 21:9-21, Ishmael still returns to join his brother Isaac in burying their father Abraham:
בראשית כה:ט וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו אֶל־מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֶל־שְׂדֵה עֶפְרֹן בֶּן־צֹחַר הַחִתִּי אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא.
Gen 25:9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre.
In short, at the time of the Akedah, Abraham has more than one son. Why, then, does God call Isaac an only son? Did God simply forget about Ishmael?
Isaac, Not Ishmael
A number of the Torah’s earliest readers attempted to deal with this problem.
A Guessing Game (Genesis Rabbah)
In Genesis (Bereishit) Rabbah, compiled no later than the early fifth century C.E., the conversation between God and Abraham is reimagined:
ב״ר נה:ז אמר לו קח נא בבקשה ממך: את בנך אמר לו אי זה בן, אמרו לו את יחידך, אמר לו זה יחיד לאמו וזה יחיד לאמו, אמר לו אשר אהבת, אמר לו אית תחומין מציעית, אמר לו את יצחק, ולמה לא גילה לו, כדי לחבבו בעיניו וליתן לו שכר על כל דיבור ודיבור...
Ber. Rab. 55:7 Said He to him: “Take, I pray you”—I beg you—“your son.” “Which son?” he (Abraham) asked. “Your only son,” He replied. “But each is the only one of his mother?”—“Whom you love.”—“Is there a limit to the affections?” “Isaac,” said He. And why did He not reveal it to him without delay? In order to make him [Isaac] even more beloved in his eyes and reward him for every word spoken.
According to this reading, “canonized” by Rashi in his commentary (ad loc.), God eventually names Isaac but only after playing a sort of guessing game with Abraham, who (unlike in the biblical text) is quick to remember that he has two sons.
Dramatizing the Conflict between the Sons (Pseudo-Jonathan)
The recognition that Abraham actually has two sons when God commands him to sacrifice a son is evident elsewhere in Genesis (Bereishit) Rabbah (55:4). This midrash is also found in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, a mid-first millennium C.E. Aramaic translation of the Torah. In translating Genesis 22:1, the translator adds a large gloss to the opening phrase, וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם (“And it was after these events that God tested Abraham”), explaining what “these events” were (translation is underlined):
והוה בתר פיתגמיא האילין מן דינצו יצחק וישמעאל ישמעאל הוה אמר לי חמי למירות ית אבא דאנא בריה בוכרייא ויצחק הוה אמר לי חמי למירות ית אבא דאנא בר שרה אינתתיה ואנת בר הגר אמתא דאימי עני ישמעאל ואמר אנא זכאי יתיר מינך דאנא איתגזרית לתלסירי שנין ואין הוה צבותי למעכבא לא הוינא מסר נפשי לאתגזרא מתיב יצחק ואמר האנא יומנא בר תלתין ושב שנין ואילו בעי קודש אבריך הוא לכולי איבדיי לא הויתי מעכב מן יד אישתמעו פיתגמיא האילין קדם מרי עלמא ומן יד מימרא דייי נסי ית אברהם
Tg. Ps.-J. Gen 22:1 After these events, after Isaac and Ishmael had quarreled, Ishmael said, “it is right that I should be my father’s heir, since I am his first-born son.” But Isaac said, “It is right that I should be my father’s heir, because I am the son of Sarah his wife, while you are the son of Hagar, my mother’s maidservant.” Ishmael answered and said, “I am more worthy than you, because I was circumcised at the age of thirteen. And if I had wished to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised. But you were circumcised at the age of eight days. If you had been aware, perhaps you would not have handed yourself over to be circumcised.” Isaac answered and said, “Behold, today I am thirty-seven years old, and if the Holy One, blessed be He, were to ask all my members I would not refuse.” The words were immediately heard before the Lord of the world, and at once the Memra of the Lord tested Abraham.”
In this aggadic expansion, Pseudo-Jonathan not only recognizes that Abraham has two sons, but also explains how in a contest of the brothers’ faith, it is Isaac—and not Ishmael—who passes the test and emerges as the more faithful and excellent son, and is this son who accompanies Abraham up Mount Moriah.
Your Beloved (LXX and Jubilees)
Other translators, however, sought to address the difficulty of Abraham’s two sons through more subtle means. In the case of the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient Greek translation of the Torah, the Hebrew “your only one, whom you love” is rendered as τὸν ἀγαπητόν ὃν ἠγάπησας, “your beloved whom you love.” This reading may reflect a textual issue, with the apparent rendering in a Hebrew Vorlage of yǝdîdĕkā (ידידך) instead of yǝḥîdĕkā (יחידך), i.e., a dalet in place of a ḥet.
While admittedly repetitive, this text sidesteps the issue of Abraham’s “only son” (also Genesis 22:12, 16 LXX). The composer of Jubilees, dated to the mid-second century B.C.E., appears to have been using the same text, as he describes Isaac as “your beloved” or “dear one” (f.q.r in Geez) at the moment Abraham is tested (Jubilees 18:2).
Josephus, Philo and Hebrews
Other ancient readers of the Torah in Greek were demonstrably familiar with the traditional reading. For example, when the first century historian Flavius Josephus, who usually follows the text as reflected in the Septuagint, recounts God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son in his Jewish Antiquities (1.222), he describes Isaac as Abraham’s only son:
|Ἴσακον δὲ ὁ πατὴρ Ἅβραμος ὐπερηγάπα μονογενῆ ὄντα καὶ ἐπὶ γήρως οὐδῷ κατὰ δωρεὰν αὐτῷ τοῦ θεοῦ γενόμενον.||Now Isaac was passionately beloved of his father Abraham, being his only son and born to him “on the threshold of old age” through the bounty of God.|
Philo of Alexandria, who always cites scripture from a Greek translation, expands upon the Greek text in presenting Isaac as Abraham’s “dearly-cherished” and only son (On Abraham 168):
|υἱὸς ἐκ τῆς γαμετῆς γίνεται τῷ σοφῷ γνήσιος, ἀγαπητὸς καὶ μόνος, το τε σῶμα κάλλιστος καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν ἄριστος.||The wife of the Sage [Abraham] bore to him in full wedlock his dearly-cherished and only son, a child of great beauty and excellence of soul.|
Likewise, the writer of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews (ca. 100 C.E.), in an allusion to Genesis 22, declares that when tested Abraham “was ready to offer up his only son” (Hebrews 11:17; cf. “his son Isaac” in James 2:21).
Thus, even among Greek-speaking readers of the Bible, the text of “only son” appears to have been known. Moreover, the MT text is supported by the Samaritan Pentateuch (את יחידך), the Syriac Peshitta (לאיחידך; ܠܐܝܚܝܕܟ), the Old LatinH (unigenitum) and the Old LatinK (unicum). This, plus the awkwardness of doubling “beloved,” implies that the LXX text here is a late revision to avoid the problem of calling Isaac an only son. Thus, we return to the question: What does the text mean by claiming Isaac was Abraham’s only son?
The Three “Ishmaels”
Traditional readers of the Pentateuch automatically read it as a single text from one author, and thus they are forced to try to make all its details coherent. Critical scholarship, however, has long argued that the Torah is a composite document and thus problems like the “only son” detail can often be solved by assuming multiple authorship.
In this case, the Documentary Hypothesis seems most helpful. When we look at the various narratives and descriptions about Abraham’s household, we find that E, J, and P each have their own exclusive view of Ishmael’s status as Abraham’s son, based upon how each understands the place of Ishmael’s mother, Hagar.
Handmaid, Wife, or Concubine: Who Is Hagar?
Hagar is presented in conflicting ways, namely, as שפחה “handmaid,” אשה “wife,” and אמה “concubine,” three words with different legal and societal connotations. These differences can help us identify the multiple sources included in the compiled canonical presentation of Hagar and her son.
The Priestly (P) account consists of Genesis 16:3, 15-16:
בראשית טז:ג וַתִּקַּח שָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת־אַבְרָם אֶת־הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית שִׁפְחָתָהּ מִקֵּץ עֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים לְשֶׁבֶת אַבְרָם בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַתִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָם אִישָׁהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. טז:טו וַתֵּלֶד הָגָר לְאַבְרָם בֵּן וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָם שֶׁם־בְּנוֹ אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָה הָגָר יִשְׁמָעֵאל. טז:טז וְאַבְרָם בֶּן־שְׁמֹנִים שָׁנָה וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּלֶדֶת־הָגָר אֶת־יִשְׁמָעֵאל לְאַבְרָם.
Gen 16:3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 16:15 Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16:16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
P’s account is but a note explaining when, how, and why Ishmael was born; such brief notes typify this source. According to P, Abraham takes Hagar, his wife’s handmaid, as a wife when, after ten years in Canaan, it seems clear that Sarah will be unable to conceive. Abraham names Ishmael, claiming him as a son.
In P, Ishmael and Hagar have status in Abraham’s household and they never leave this household; when God promises Abraham descendants, Abraham asks about Ishmael (Genesis 17:18). Although God insists that his covenant with Abraham will be established through a future son named Isaac (v. 19), Ishmael will also become great (v. 10). Ishmael is circumcised among the men of Abraham’s household (v. 23). Indeed, P presents Ishmael as a faithful son as, alongside Isaac, he carries out the duty of a son in burying Abraham (Genesis 25:9). Throughout P, Ishmael’s status as Abraham’s son and heir is affirmed.
The remaining verses in Genesis 16 (vv. 1–2, 4–14), consists of the Yahwist’s (J) account, which also explains in more detail why Abram fathered Ishmael. In this account, Hagar remains a handmaid, even after Abraham lies with her:
בראשית טז:א וְשָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם לֹא יָלְדָה לוֹ וְלָהּ שִׁפְחָה מִצְרִית וּשְׁמָהּ הָגָר. טז:ב וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל־אַבְרָם הִנֵּה־נָא עֲצָרַנִי יְ־הוָה מִלֶּדֶת בֹּא־נָא אֶל־שִׁפְחָתִי אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם לְקוֹל שָׂרָי. טז:ד וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הָגָר וַתַּהַר וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ. טז:ה וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל־אַבְרָם חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ יִשְׁפֹּט יְ־הוָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ. טז:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל־שָׂרַי הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ עֲשִׂי־לָהּ הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי וַתִּבְרַח מִפָּנֶיהָ.
Gen 16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 16:2 and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that YHWH has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 16:4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 16:5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May YHWH judge between you and me!” 16:6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
In this version, Hagar is Sarah’s handmaid and is never given the status of wife. Abraham has a child with her at Sarah’s request. As Hagar’s mistress, Sarah believes that Hagar’s child will be her own (אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֵּנָּה in v. 2). This provides the background for J’s conflict between Sarah and Hagar, since a handmaid cannot treat herself as equal to her mistress.
Appropriately, Abraham sees both Hagar and her son as within Sarah’s domain, and is thus indifferent to the question of how Sarah will treat her. The J story never records the birth of Ishmael, but we are told that he is coming, and that the angel of YHWH tells Hagar to name him Ishmael. As the child of Sarah’s handmaid, J does not consider Ishmael as Abraham’s son or heir.
In the canonical text, Hagar and her son reappear in Genesis 21:9–21. This report originates from the Elohist (E) source:
בראשית כא:ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק. כא:י וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן־הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם־בְּנִי עִם־יִצְחָק. כא:יא וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנֽוֹ. כא:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אַל־יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל־הַנַּעַר וְעַל־אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע. כא:יג וְגַם אֶת־בֶּן־הָאָמָה לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ כִּי זַרְעֲךָ הוּא.... כא:כ וַיְהִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הַנַּעַר וַיִּגְדָּל וַיֵּשֶׁב בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיְהִי רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת. כא:כא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן וַתִּקַּח־לוֹ אִמּוֹ אִשָּׁה מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 21:9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 21:10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 21:11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 21:12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 21:13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”… 21:20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
The Elohist source does not explain why Hagar has a child with Abraham. She is simply his concubine, i.e., a mate of secondary status to a wife. She is not Sarah’s shifchah but Abraham’s ’amma. Thus, Hagar and her and Abraham’s unnamed son once enjoyed some protection in Abraham’s household.
This is why Sarah acts territorially. Knowing that the concubine’s son is older than hers, and plays with him as an equal, she wants to ensure that her son will inherit, and not the concubine’s, by insisting that Abraham get rid of Hagar and her child. At Sarah’s bidding, and after God’s reassurances, Abraham casts both Hagar and their child away, effectively disinheriting them. Hagar is no longer Abraham’s concubine and the boy is no longer his son. Thus, at the end of E’s account, Hagar and the boy are no longer called “concubine” (אמה) and “son of a concubine” (בן־אמה), but he is נער, “the boy” and she אמו, “his mother.”
What About the Akedah?
The Priestly text of the Torah clearly thinks of Ishmael as Abraham’s son. There is no story about his being banished, Hagar is specifically referred to as Abraham’s wife, and the notice in Genesis 25:9 that Abraham’s sons—Ishmael and Isaac—bury their father belongs to P. Source critics are in agreement that the story of the Akedah in Genesis 22 is not Priestly. This comports with the source division above, since it is mostly P’s conception of Ishmael that contradicts the claim of Isaac as Abraham’s only son. The other sources do not pose the same problem.
Source critics are also in agreement that the Akedah story does not belong to J. On the basis of similar themes with other E pericopae, such as nighttime revelations from God and the use of the name Elohim, we can understand Genesis 22:2 as coming from the E source.
According to E, once Abraham banishes his concubine and her unnamed son, neither has any further claim on Abraham. In E, Ishmael never returns. In other words, according to this source, although Abraham once claimed Hagar’s son as his own, after God convinces Abraham to send both this son and his mother Hagar away, Abraham is left with only one son: Isaac.
E is the only Torah source to report God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son. And in E, neither God nor Abraham forget how many sons Abraham has at this point: the repeated detail of Isaac as Abraham’s only son in Genesis 22 is an accurate reflection of how E understands Abraham’s household.
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Dr. Philip Yoo is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He holds a D.Phil. from Oxford, an S.T.M. from Yale, and an M.Div. from Knox College, Toronto. He is the author of Ezra and the Second Wilderness (Oxford 2017) and co-editor of To Gaul, to Greece and into Noah’s Ark (Oxford 2019).
Grace Leake studies Business and Plan II at the University of Texas at Austin.
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