Ishmael’s Repentance

November 9, 2023

After Abraham’s death, the Bible tells us that Isaac and Ishmael reunited to bury their deceased father together:

“Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Machpelah cave in the field of Ephron, son of Tzochar, the Hittitie, which faces Mamre.” (Gen. 25:8-9)

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, known as Rashi (11th century France), the greatest and most studied of all Jewish Bible commentators, comments that the fact that Isaac, the younger son, is mentioned before Ishmael, the elder, implies that Ishmael gave precedence to Isaac as Abraham’s primary son. This is viewed as evidence that Ishmael repented. Rashi explains that this is what the verse means when it describes Abraham as “old and satisfied.” Ishmael’s repentance brought Abraham a great measure of contentment in his old age.

Ishmael’s acceptance of the primacy of Isaac is evidence of repentance because it shows that he accepted his father’s, and God’s, decision that Isaac, rather than Ishmael himself, would be the sole heir to Abraham’s blessings. Was it this acceptance by Ishmael alone that brought such contentment to Abraham? Perhaps there is more to Ishmael’s repentance.

The Midrash, a wide-ranging collection of writings from the Jewish sages mostly from over 1000 years ago, includes traditions that expand on the stories in the Bible. The Midrashic stories provide deeper insight into the Biblical text by presenting possible background stories using the characters and storylines of the Bible as a starting point. One of the books of Midrash, called Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, records a narrative of Ishmael’s life after he was banished from the house of Abraham:

Ishmael dwelled in the wilderness of Par’an (Gen. 21:21). Ishmael sent for and took a wife from the plains of Moab. Her name was Issa. Three years later, Abraham went to see his son Ishmael. He swore to Sarah that he would not get down off his camel in the place where Ishmael was encamped. He arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s wife there. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She said, ”He and his mother have gone to bring fruit and dates from the wilderness.” He said, “Give me a bit of water and a bit of bread, for I am tired from traveling in the wilderness.” She said, “There is no bread and no water.” He said, “When Ishmael returns tell him as follows. Tell him that an old man came from the land of Canaan to see you and said ‘The doorstep to the house is broken.’”

When Ishmael came home his wife told him these things. He banished her. He sent his mother to bring him a wife from her father’s house. Her name was Petumah. After another three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael. He swore to Sarah, as the first time, that he would not get off his camel in the place where Ishmael was encamped. He arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s wife there. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She said, “He went with his mother to graze the camels in the wilderness.” He said, “Give me a bit of water and a bit of bread, for I am tired from traveling.” She took some out and gave him. Abraham stood there and prayed to God for his son, and Ishmael’s house became filled with goodness and myriad blessings. When Ishmael came home his wife told him what had happened and Ishmael knew that now his father’s mercies were upon him.” (PdRE, ch. 30)

We know that hospitality and kindness were hallmarks of Abraham’s values from several biblical stories. For example, when three angels in the guise of men visited Abraham, he went beyond the call of duty in his efforts to host them (Gen. 18:1-8). Later, the “men,” who were really angels, arrived in Sodom and were treated very hospitably by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who grew up in Abraham’s house (19:1-3). Lot stayed true to the values Abraham and Sarah raised him with and welcomed the men, despite the fact that accepting guests was frowned upon in Sodom as we can see from the rest of the story (see. Gen. 19). And in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Gen.23:1-25:18), when Abraham sent his servant to his family to find a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham’s servant devised a test to determine who was the right girl for Isaac:

May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. – Gen. 24:14

The trait that would decide who would marry Isaac was hospitality. When the servant then experienced Rebekah’s extreme hospitality, he knew she was the right girl to marry Isaac. (Gen. 24:17-21)

Ishmael’s first wife did not reflect the values of his father’s house. Apparently, Ishmael had rejected his father’s teaching of hospitality. Perhaps his distance from his father’s values was due to resentment stemming from his banishment. Whatever the reason, Ishmael, unlike his cousin Lot, did not continue the ways of hospitality after leaving the house of Abraham.

Later, Ishmael realized that the woman that he married was not someone of whom his father approved. He realized that he had strayed from the good and moral ways of hospitality and kindness that his father had taught him. He searched for a second wife who would share those values. His criteria for a wife were now the same as the criteria for the wife of Isaac. She must share the value of hospitality. For Ishmael to recognize this meant that he had overcome his resentment towards, and rejection of, his father and all that he stood for. Although he had been banished and lived a life distant from Abraham, Ishmael realized that he still retained the values with which he was raised as a part of who he was. This realization of the goodness of the values of Abraham caused Ishmael to accept the will of his father entirely, including the primacy of Isaac.

With this interpretation of Abraham and Ishmael, the sages of the Midrash are teaching us an important lesson.

Often, as people grow older and build their own independent lives, they forsake the teachings and values with which they were raised. This may be done out of a sense of resentment or a desire to break free. It often takes many years before we accept that the teachings of our parents that are buried within us. Ultimately, they shape our sense of right and wrong for life.

Parents who see their children stray from the values that they hold dear often get a sense that all is lost, that their child is no longer their child. Abraham had this same worry. From the moment that Abraham threw Ishmael out of the house, he never stopped worrying about him. After Abraham’s first visit, he probably went home shaking his head and wondering if all was lost, if his son forgot how he was raised. A few years later, Abraham lived to see his son’s return to the values of the family.

Most parents whose children stray do not merit to see the return of their children. Abraham was fortunate in this regard. This is the meaning of the second statement of Rashi with which we began: “This [i.e. Ishmael’s repentance] is the meaning of ‘good old age’ stated regarding Abraham.”

As time went on, many of Ishmael’s descendants once again abandoned Abraham’s value of kindness. All too often, we see them murder, commit acts of terror and spread hatred in the name of Allah and Islam. May we soon see the radical children of Ishmael repent once again, put down their swords and embrace the kindness and compassion of our shared father Abraham.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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