Isaac and Ishmael: a Tale of Two Sons

Oct 25, 2015

Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away (Gustave Dore, 1885)

וַיהֹוָה פָּקַד אֶת־שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ יְהֹוָה לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר׃

Hashem took note of Sara as He had promised, and Hashem did for Sara as He had spoken.

Genesis 21:1

וַיִּכְרְתוּ בְרִית בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע וַיָּקָם אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וּפִיכֹל שַׂר־צְבָאוֹ וַיָּשֻׁבוּ אֶל־אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים׃

When they had concluded the pact at Be'er Sheva, Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, departed and returned to the land of the Philistines.

Genesis 21:32

The Torah now relates the birth of Isaac, long-awaited son to Abraham and Sarah. Named for the laughter of joy his birth elicited in his father, Isaac is circumcised at eight days old, just as God commanded Abraham. As he grows, however, his mother becomes concerned about the influence his half-brother, Ishmael, might have on him. She asks Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away.

God assures a distressed Abraham that listening to Sarah is the right move, and that He will make Ishmael great, as well. Abraham reluctantly banishes Ishmael and Hagar, sending them on their way with bread and water.

Hagar wanders into the desert around Beer-sheba, and soon runs out of water. Not wanting to see her son die of thirst, she casts the youth off under a shrub and sits at a distance, crying. God sends an angel to reassure her that everything will be alright, and shows her where to find water. The Torah tells us Ishmael grows up in the desert, and flourishes. His mother ultimately finds him a wife from among her own people.

Meanwhile, back at home, Abraham makes a treaty with Abimelech, at the latter’s request. Abimelech asks Abraham to swear that peace will reign between him and Abimelech’s children and grandchildren. Abraham agrees, and uses the opportunity to air a grievance regarding his well, which Abimelech’s servants have seized. Abimelech denies any prior knowledge of the seizure.

Abraham presents Abimelech with cattle to commemorate the oath, and separates seven ewes to mark that he dug the well. As the Israel Bible points out, the place, Beer-sheba, which means “Well of Seven” or “Well of the Oath”, is named for this play on words.

Abraham plants a tree, and calls out to God, Master of the Universe. The Hebrew name by which he refers to God is El Olam. Olam means world, but also comes from the same root as ne’elam, meaning ‘hidden’. Thus, the Israel Bible points out, the name King of the Universe (world) also hints that He is King over that which remains hidden.

Abraham remains in Gerar a long time.

Virtual Classroom Discussion

Isaac is named for Abraham’s laughter. Why do you think it was commendable that Abraham laughed at Isaac’s birth, but Sarah was chastised for laughing at the news (see Genesis 18:12-15)?


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