Ishmael, a Different Destiny

Ishmael, a Different Destiny

About last week’s post, it occurs to me you might have been confused. I talked about Lot’s daughters and how their actions were complete folly. Then I told you about Genesis Rabbah, a Rabbinic commentary which suggests:

  • Lot may have been fooled the first time his daughters got him drunk, but not the second.
  • Lot’s daughters somehow knew they were part of the bloodline of the Messiah.
  • Lot deliberately isolated his daughters, so he would be their only option for continuing the bloodline.

That is a much different impression you get from reading the English translation. There, it looks like the daughters got him so drunk he did not know what happened, and that they foolishly believed they and their father were the last people on earth. But the Rabbis who put together the Genesis Rabbah saw things in the Hebrew text I would never have seen.

  1. They conclude Lot was not as drunk as we thought because there is a dot over the last word in the verse. According to the Rabbis, the dot over the last word changes the meaning of the end of Genesis 19:33 from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.” That changes Lot from clueless to complicit. (See Translation Notes).
  2. They conclude the daughters knew they were part of the bloodline because the elder said to the younger, “so that we may preserve offspring through our father” (Gen 19:32 NRS), not “so that we may keep a child alive from our father.” They say this means their concern was not just to have a child but to “preserve offspring,” i.e., the bloodline of the Messiah.
  3. The Rabbis point to this verse, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire” (Pro 18:1 ESV). Lot isolated himself with his daughters. They conclude Lot had it in mind to have children through his daughters when he took them to live in a cave in the hills.

The Rabbis make Lot look a lot worse, and his daughters look a lot better, than any English version of this passage. This is maybe the greatest example of “lost in translation” I have ever seen. I’m not sure I agree with all the Rabbis’ conclusions. But considering they had a lot more experience than I do in reading the Hebrew texts of the Bible, they know the editorial marks I don’t, and they know subtleties and nuances in the text I don’t, I can’t dismiss any of it.

All of that is to say if it was confusing how I started out as if I was going to conclude one thing about Lot and his daughters and then went in an entirely different direction, sorry. I wish I could promise that will be the last time I do that, but…anyway, on to the next lesson.

God brings laughter for Sarah

When Abraham and Sarah thought their chance at having a son had passed, Sarah told him to go in to her maid, Hagar. Legally, she could claim the son of her handmaid as her own. Ishmael was going to be Abraham and Sarah’s heir. But then, against all odds, Sarah had her own son at ninety-one. She and Abraham named him Isaac. One can only imagine the joy they felt when this dream they had given up on actually came true.

Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

A joyous moment for Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, whose name means “he laughs,” was the heir God had promised them finally manifest (18:13-15). But what did it mean for Hagar and Ishmael?

How dare he play with my son!

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 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.”

The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

(Gen 21:8-11 NRS)

The ceremony for a child being weaned was a big deal back then, maybe comparable to a bar mitzvah today.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian…playing with her son Isaac. Why would playing with her son make Sarah go to such an extreme as cast out this slave woman with her son? The Hebrew verb tsachaq comes from the same root as “laughter” or “to laugh.” The same root is used for Isaac’s name, meaning “He laughs.” In the form used here, it can mean “playing,” like children often play and have fun together. Or it could mean “laughing at, making fun of, making sport of, or mocking,” as the Philistines did to Samson.

And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.”

(Jdg 16:25 NRS)

Let him entertain us is the key phrase here. They had already robbed Samson of his strength and blinded him. Now, they wanted to take advantage of his vulnerability and “make sport of him.” In context, that looks like the most likely way to interpret playing with her son Isaac. Have you ever seen a Jewish mother’s wrath when someone messes with her child? You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that.

But in this case, Ishmael is her son too. Or is he? Now that Sarah has a son that came from her own issue, Ishmael is the son of this slave woman. It sounds like Ishmael sensed Sarah never truly accepted him as her son. And between him and Isaac, Isaac has more claim to her, even though legally Sarah is his mother. Maybe he took out his frustration on Isaac and gave Sarah the excuse she wanted to break with him and Hagar, in order to protect Isaac’s inheritance.

The matter was very distressing to Abraham

But Abraham still thought of Ishmael as his son. He did not want to cast them out. Sarah, though, once she makes up her mind, will not budge. Being a prophet, Abraham would seek a word from God.

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. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

(Gen 21:12-13 NRS)

So God tells him to do whatever Sarah says to you. I don’t think that made him feel any better about it, but when your wife and God are both telling you the same thing, you’d better do what they say. I’m just saying.

God promises to make a nation of him also. God will always watch over him because he is your offspring. This moment was foreshadowed when God said to Abraham,

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

The child of the promise

Abraham has to let Ishmael go, but God will not abandon him. God promises again to make Ishmael a nation. But Isaac was the child of the promise. He was the one God would establish God’s covenant with. He was the one Abraham’s offspring would be named for. And as we know today, he was the one through whom the Messiah would come into the world. God had a plan and a destiny for Ishmael too, but it was apart from Abraham and Sarah. And God had also hinted to Hagar the same thing.

“He (Isaac) shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(Gen 16:12 NRS)

He shall live at odds with all his kin. He was at odds with his half-brother, Isaac, and that put him at odds with Sarah. Their tent was no longer big enough for everyone.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

(Gen 21:14)

Beer-Sheba is in the northern part of the Negev Desert. The town is named for a well Abraham is said to have dug (Gen 21:25) and was the southern border of the land Israel occupied when Joshua led them in. It has a wadi that runs nearby in winter but is dry in the summer. Given Hagar’s difficulty finding water, I’m guessing this is the summer.

Bread and a skin of water? That’s all? He sends them into a desert with only a skin of water and bread. Sounds like the exact opposite of the generous hospitality he showed the angels. How much you want to bet that was Sarah? The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.

Sarah’s bad side

She has shown in the past when you get her angry, she has no pity whatsoever (Gen 16:5-6). “So they don’t have enough food and water to survive a trek through the desert? How is that my problem? I told you the son of the slave would not inherit anything from us.”

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 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.

(Gen 21:15-16 NRS)

If they had died, I’d say the blood would have been mainly on Sarah’s hands. As for Abraham, God told him to do whatever Sarah told him in this matter. I still think he could have pushed for at least two or three water skins, or at least go where they could sell Hagar and Ishmael to someone who wouldn’t cast her out into the wilderness. But then when Abraham died, Ishmael might have come back to claim part of his inheritance. Sarah was having none of that.

“God hears”

But God had promised Ishmael would not only survive but become a great nation with twelve princes. He cannot die here.

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. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

(Gen 21:17-18 NRS)

And God heard the voice of the boy. This plays off the meaning of Ishmael’s name (“God hears”). We were told what Hagar said, but not what Ishmael said. Still, God heard his voice. Did he say anything, or did he just cry out because he was suffering and afraid? But God speaks to Hagar and promises again to make a great nation of him.

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.

(Gen 21:19 NRS)

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. The well was there, but she didn’t see it. There is a powerful metaphor there. She cried out to God in her distress, and salvation was right there all along. But she couldn’t see it until God opened her eyes.

God was with the boy

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

(Gen 21:20-21 NRS)

God was with the boy. God kept all God’s promises concerning Ishmael, even though he was not the one God chose to continue Abraham’s line and Abraham’s covenant. Being Abraham’s child was enough to secure a blessing from God.

He lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. See 16:12.

His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Hagar was Egyptian, so that was a natural choice.

…and he grew up. Wait a minute! He grew up? I thought he was already grown!

Hmm. Something amiss here.

How old was Ishmael when this happened?

According to the story so far, Abraham had Ishmael when he was eighty-six and Isaac when he was a hundred. So Ishmael was fourteen years old when Isaac was born. This happened when Isaac was weaned, which would make him about two or three. That would make Ishmael sixteen or seventeen when it says he and his mother were cast out. That makes no sense in this story. Did you notice these details?

He…took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the childshe cast the child under one of the bushes.

(Gen 21:14-15 NRS)

The Hebrew word for “child” here is yeled, which can mean “child, offspring, son, youth, or little child.” Since Abraham put him on Hagar’s shoulders and she cast him under a bush, it seems like it should be translated “little child” in this case. But at sixteen or seventeen, he would not have been a little child. He would have been considered already an adult in that society. Could Ishmael have been a midget?

Seinfeld: Mickey Abbott schools George Kostanza on "little people"
It’s little people! You got that? Little people!

Sorry. Could it be Ishmael was a little person? And by the way, what happened to him being “a wild ass of a man”—strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions? He should have been the one finding the well for his mother. Except he wasn’t a man yet. After Hagar gave him water, it says,

and he grew up;

(Gen 21:20 NRS)

So he was a normal size child, and I think it’s safe to assume he grew up to be a normal size adult—after this incident. He was a little child, small enough for Abraham to place him on Hagar’s shoulders, small enough for her to carry on her shoulders, and small enough for her to cast him under a bush. Sixteen or seventeen years old is out of the question. He was more like three or four, possibly five. It looks like we have another doublet.

Another doublet?

One example of a doublet I’ve already shown is the “wife-sister” episodes (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). This happens when the same story is passed down orally in different locations over several generations. It will essentially be the same story but with some variations in the details. This is the second story of Hagar leaving Abraham and Sarah. In both stories, Sarah drives Hagar to leave, and when it looks like she will die, an angel appears and rescues her at a well. The angel also makes promises from God concerning Ishmael.

It looks like the story of Abraham originally had Ishmael just a year or two older than Isaac. That changed when this author spread out the birth of Ishmael and the birth of Isaac timewise, making Ishmael’s age a serious logistical problem for this episode. Why did the author place it here? Because, despite those problems, this is where it makes the most sense to the story as a whole. The tension between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael came to a head after Sarah had a son of her own.

Why didn’t the author clean up those details that don’t fit Ishmael for the whole story? My best guess is he did not want to change this tradition, because it was sacred. So he placed it where it had the best dramatic effect. And that applies not only to this episode but to all cases where we find these logistical difficulties. He had more than one version of most if not all these stories about Abraham, and he wanted to put them together into one narrative without changing the traditions he received. The result, anytime you do that, is you will have some inconsistencies in the details.

What does it mean?

Ishmael is supposedly sixteen or seventeen when this episode takes place, but the episode itself is told as if Ishmael is at least three years old but no more than five, maybe six. I’ve explained why I think this is the case. But this is an example of why we can’t just say, “Believe the Bible, everything literally, word for word.” Sometimes, the literal word contradicts itself. Which are we to believe literally, that Ishmael was a little child of three to six years old, or that he was a young man of sixteen to eighteen? I’ve shown you they are both in the Bible. I can’t believe both, so which one do you say I have to believe?

In cases like this, I take my sister’s approach and go deeper. What did the story mean to the original audience? Why did the author write it this way? If it really happened, which version is more likely? What if it didn’t really happen? Yes, I do consider that possibility, especially when the details of the story don’t make sense. But whether it happened or not, the fact is this is how the story was passed down to us. Why is it here? What are we supposed to learn from the story itself?

Why is it here? It is an origin story for nations Israel encounters who claim Ishmael as their ancestor (Gen 25:12-18). What are we supposed to learn from it? I see the lesson in what God says to Abraham and Hagar.

Whenever God appears in the Abraham saga, it is for three reasons: to make promises, to keep promises, and to maintain the bloodline of Abraham or the Messiah. We see all of these playing out in this story. God said Ishmael’s destiny would take him away from Abraham and Sarah, and this is the fulfillment. God told Abraham and Hagar Ishmael would become a great nation, and we see the fulfillment here as well. And even though Ishmael is not part of the Messiah’s bloodline, God pronounces blessings over him because he is Abraham’s offspring. So the lesson here, as I said about the wife-sister episodes, is God keeps God’s promises, even if, as in this case, it is to someone who would often be hostile to Israel over the years.

An allegory

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses this story as an allegory (4:21-31). He tells the Galatian Christians through faith in Christ, they became Abraham’s offspring, children of the promise, like Isaac. But when they submitted to the circumcision party, they left the life of the spirit for the life of the flesh, i.e., righteousness by works of the Law. They became children of the slave, like Ishmael. The point he is making is,

So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

(Gal 4:31 NRS)

That is why as Gentile Christians, they do not have to become Jewish in order to follow Christ.

What if this story never really happened? Does that negate Paul’s lesson? Absolutely not. (Or in Greek, me ginoito). Because the story itself, as Paul uses it, is an illustration of a spiritual truth, which is why he called it an allegory.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Eph 2:8-9 NRS)

That is true whether the illustration “really happened” or not.

Translation Notes

…or when she arose

וּבְק֗וּמָֽהּ׃ (Gen 19:33 WTT; ubiqumah) The dot over the qaph is an editorial mark called a Puncta Extraordinaria. It possibly changes the meaning from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.”


Playing with her son Isaac. Gk Vg: Heb lacks with her son Isaac, so it was probably understood given Sarah’s reaction.

מְצַחֵֽק (Gen 21:9 WTT; mitsacheq) verb piel participle masculine singular absolute, from tsachaq:

8119  צָחַק [8120] (Hebrew) (Strong 6711) 2. sport, play Gn 21:9 (E) Ex 32:6 (J); make sport for Ju 16:25  (BDB, 850).

(1905f) מִשְׂחָק (mischaq) object of derision (Hab 1:10)….Sarah insists that Ishmael be driven away because he was “mocking” Isaac al ( Gen 21:9). The RSV innoccuously renders this participle “playing.” Yet in the light of Gal 4:29, on Ishmael’s persecuting Isaac, KJV, ASV, NASB, NIV prefer mocking. Observe that the Hiphil of sahaq (2Chr 30:10) describes the mockery by Israelites of the Northern Kingdom at Hezekiah’s invitation to share in the Passover at Jerusalem. (TWOT)


Yeled = “the child” (Gen 21:14, 15)

Hol3340  יֶלֶד

יֶלֶד: יָֽלֶד; pl. יְלָדִים, cs. יַלְדֵי (4 ×) & יִלְדֵי (Is 574), sf. יְלָדָיו, יַלְדֵיהֶם: — 1. boy, male child: a) Gn 423; b) pl. boys, children Gn 3026; = fetus (in a miscarriage) Ex 2122; (pg 135)


Na`ar = “the boy.” (Gen 21:20)

Hol5604  נַעַר (ca. 230 ×): נָֽעַר, sf. נַעֲרוֹ, נַעַרְךָ; pl. נְעָרִים, cs. נַעֲרֵי, sf. נַעֲרֵיהֶם: marriageable male while still single: — 1. boy, youth Gn 194; — 2. young man, pl. young people Gn 1424; 400 °îš-na±ar 1S 3017; — 3. boy, (man-)servant: of Abraham Gn 223, weapon-bearer 1S 141; pl. Jb 115; can write Ju 814; military, i.e. personal retinue 1S 213•5; (Strong)


Gadal = “he grew up”

וַיִּגְדָּ֑ל (Gen 21:20 WTT; vayyigdal) {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine singular}

Hol1442  גָּדַל (gadal)

1. grow up, become great Gn 218•20; wayy¢lek…h¹lôk w®g¹dôl 2S 510 « h¹lak 4, cf. g¹d¢l; — 2. be great 2S 726, of God 2S 722; — 3. become wealthy Gn 2435; — 4. become important Gn 4140; g¹dôl b®±ênê is valuable for 1S 2624.

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