The Expulsion of Ishmael: Who Is Being Tried?
A Terrible Story for All Concerned
For millennia, Torah scholars and philosophers have wrestled with the theological implications of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), the patriarch’s ultimate trial of faith, but scant ink has been spilled over God’s role in the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-21).
In this story, Sarah demands that Abraham “banish that slave-woman and her son” (v. 10).Abraham is distraught at the demand (v. 11), but God urges him to heed Sarah’s voice (v. 12-13), promising that Ishmael will survive and prosper but reiterating that Abraham’s covenantal line must continue through Isaac. The patriarch then sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with only a skin of water and some bread (v. 14).
What Prompts the Banishment?
Sarah orders the banishment of Hagar and her son on the basis of what seems to be a trifle.
בראשית כא:י וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק:
Gen 21:10 And Sarah saw the son of the Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing [מְצַחֵק, metzaḥeq].
The participle form of the verb tzḥq (in the intensive piel), meaning “to laugh, play, or mock,” has no direct object. With whom or what was Ishmael playing?
LXX – Playing with Isaac
The Septuagint (the 3rd c. BCE Greek translation of the Pentateuch) text is fuller: “he was playing/sporting with her son, Isaac.” This reading does not explain why Sarah has him exiled. Playing seems innocuous enough between brothers, though the age difference, which according to the Priestly source was fourteen years, might suggest otherwise. Perhaps the point here is that Sarah, the son of a maidservant, sees Ishmael as lower than her son, and their playing together suggests that they might be equals.
Genesis Rabbah and Rashi
Following the midrashic tradition in Genesis Rabbah (53:11), Rashi implicates Ishmael with the three cardinal sins: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder, based on the resonances throughout the Tanakh with the root tzḥq. This would certainly explain—and justify!—Sarah’s repugnance to the boy, but, to invoke Hamlet’s mother, “Methinks the midrash doth protest too much!” Nothing in the text justifies such a harsh reading of the verse.
Robert Alter – Fear of Usurpation
The literary scholar Robert Alter offers a more compelling reason for Sarah’s decision to banish Ishmael:
Given the fact, moreover 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” [מְצַחֵֽק, metzaḥeq]–that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.
Threatened by usurpation of the true heir, her son, Sarah orders the expulsion of the firstborn (v. 10). Sarah is justified in her concern, since law in the Ancient Near East, including that found in the Pentateuch, would favor the oldest son.
The banishment of Ishmael, then conforms to the pattern of the “overturn of primogeniture,” the younger son as the chosen heir to the covenant, trumps the right of the firstborn. Unlike the scene of blessing between Isaac and Jacob (27:18-29), where the blind father does not realize Esau, the firstborn, is being displaced, this definitive scene of exclusion entails a conscious complicity on the part of the patriarch to cut his firstborn son out of the inheritance and out of the covenant.
Throughout this passage Ishmael is not once mentioned by name. The passage maximizes his anonymity, reducing the “heir apparent” to the level of a passive object, a mere pawn in the divine plan.
In the Binding of Isaac, the narrator informs us directly that God tested Abraham in the Akedah, “And it was after these things that God tried [נסה] Abraham…” (22:1). The expulsion of Ishmael is never described in these terms, but we can reconstruct a sense of trial by sounding out the resonances between the two chapters:
God commands Abraham to sever his relationship with each of his sons.
Both entail a trial of obedience to an unethical demand of sacrifice.
Abraham acts with alacrity in both episodes, with the words “So Abraham rose early in the morning [וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר ]…” (Gen. 21:14), repeated verbatim in the next scene (Gen. 22:3).
Both describe bearing a burden, using the same verbs “to take” (ל.ק.ח) and “to place” (ש.ו.מ):
וַיִּקַּח לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הָגָר שָׂם עַל שִׁכְמָהּ וְאֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ.
“And [he] took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder with the child and sent her away (21:14).
וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ.
“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac (22:6).
Both sons experience near death.
Both use of the verb ש.ל.ח (“to send”): Abraham sends Hagar away [וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ] (21:14), Abraham sends out his hand to take the knife [וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת יָדוֹ]” when Isaac is bound on the altar (22:10). There may also be an assonance play with the similar sounding ש.ל.כ, and Hagar “casts [וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ ]” her son under a bush to die of thirst (v. 15).
In both, an angel of God intervenes, deus ex machina, at the last minute (21:17-18 and 22:11).
In both, an object presents itself as the source of salvation to the eyes: “And God opened her eyes (21:19) וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת עֵינֶיהָ,” while Abraham raises his eyes to see the ram “(22:13) וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֵינָיו.”
In the final revelation, God promises to make a great nation of the son. To Hagar, the angel of God says: “I will make a great nation of him (Ishmael)” (v. 18). The narrator confirms this: “And God was with the boy” (v. 20). After the Akedah, God swears on oath (irrevocably) that Isaac’s descendants will be heir to the covenant as a reward for Abraham’s obedience in the Akedah (22:16-18).
Both stories conclude with epilogues concerning finding of a wife for the son. For Ishmael, his mother finds him a wife from among her own people in Egypt (21:21). For Isaac, it is presaged with the “birth announcement” of Rebekah, descendant of Nahor, Abraham’s family (22:23).
Both Isaac and Ishmael establish a “great people”, through twelve princes born to Ishmael (17:20, 25:16) and the twelve tribes of Israel/Jacob, son of Isaac.
Who is Being Tried?
The literary similarities between the two accounts implies that we are to read them in light of each other. Could we then read chapter 21 as a kind of “binding of Ishmael”? But if so, who is being tried?
Just as he does in the story of the Akedah, Abraham accedes to God’s demand here, as painful as it is. But, in the banishment of Ishmael, he does not silently accede to the command. As in the covenant of circumcision, where Abraham expresses concern over Ishmael who is excluded from God’s covenant of promise (17:18), here too, the patriarch overtly expresses concern for his son, eliciting God’s reassurance (21:13, as in 17:20).
Furthermore, when he sends Hagar and Ishmael away he does give her a skin of water and bread. It seems like very little, but perhaps he had intentions to follow her and provide for them. But, she “strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba (21:14) וַתֵּתַע בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע” . Thus, Abraham (if it is a trial for him) seems to pass the test; he does so while showing some compassion for his son.
But the story does not end there. With Abraham no longer in the picture, the boy’s mother, Hagar, becomes the protagonist.
טו וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם מִן הַחֵמֶת וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם: טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה: “אַל אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד” וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ:
15 And when the water was gone from the skin, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
Hagar casts the boy off, rejecting her maternal feeling to comfort him as the boy—apparently quite young, perhaps even an infant— is perishing of thirst. She casts him under a bush, in order not to witness his death; the distance between them that of a bowshot. This image foreshadows the mode by which he will live as a hunter, a man of the bow (21:19)[רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת).
Perhaps the sharpest criticism of Hagar implied by the narrative is found in the attention of the angel of God. She had wanted not to see the death of the son and raises her voice, crying (v. 16), yet it is the sound of the child God hears:
יז 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:
17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
Instead of raising her eyes, as Abraham did to see the ram, her eyes must be opened by God to see the well that provides their salvation (v. 19). This failure to see on her part is underlined by the angel’s command; while she cast the child away, the angel of God summons her to take him back into her arms:
יח קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת הַנַּעַר וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת יָדֵךְ בּוֹ כִּי לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ: יטוַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת הַחֵמֶת מַיִם וַתַּשְׁקְ אֶת הַנָּעַר:
18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Should we Judge Sarah, Hagar, or Abraham?
Certainly, our sympathies are drawn (like water from the well) towards this desolate and desperate mother. Yet God had made a promise to her at another well, Beer la-hai Roi, so named for the living God that sees while she survived the sighting. This promise was on par with the patriarchal promise: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (Gen. 16:10). Had she trusted in that prophecy that God would somehow “stay the hand” of sacrifice and kept her child close, the imprint of trauma on Ishmael might have played out differently.
The reasons for divine trials remain inscrutable. We, ultimately, will never know why God tests his subjects. It is clear, nevertheless, that both Ishmael and Hagar, like Isaac and Abraham, undergo a trial of near sacrifice and salvation emblematic of God’s elect.
Abraham and Hagar
Whereas the Akedah is a trial of faith primarily for Abraham, the banishment centers on both Abraham and Hagar. The earlier trial is more covert, carried out by human agency, while the narrator informs us that God initiates the following one: “And it was after these things/words [devarim] that God tried Abraham…” (22:1). While Abraham emerges from the final trial as the quintessential “knight of faith,” to use Kierkegaard’s term, with a renewal of the covenant on the basis of an irrevocable vow, Hagar emerges less vindicated than her male counterpart.
Hagar may have failed her test in thrusting her son away, yet her failings are not all her own hand, but may be traced back to her treatment under the hands of Sarah. The animosity by which Ishmael’s descendants would live, “his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him [יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ],” may ultimately be traced to the harsh hand of Hagar’s cruel mistress (16:6), to whom the angel urged Hagar to return years before (16:9). In fact, it is the behavior of our own matriarch (and even to some extent our patriarch’s complicity in it) that is hard to accept.
For the sons, the scars begin to heal in the next generation when Isaac and Ishmael both come together to bury their father (Gen 25:9). The rabbinic tradition takes the possibility of reconciliation even further. In one midrash, found in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 30, Abraham visits Ishmael’s home twice after the banishment, even offering him marital advice, thus partially rectifying the relationship between father and son. In addition, the rabbis also seem disturbed by the poor treatment of Hagar. This underlies the rabbinic exegetical tradition that Abraham remarries Hagar (identified with Keturah)—making amends for the banishment he felt compelled to carry out.
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Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
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