The Ambiguous Ishmael

– Ishmael and Hagar –

The important differences of interpretation of Ishmael’s role in the transmission of the Abrahamic inheritance, according to Judaism and Islam, focused in particular on the question of the identity of the son of Abraham who was taken to the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. For the Jews, it is unquestionably Isaac, as Genesis indicates. Muslims claim that it was Ishmael. However, the Koran does not name the son chosen for the sacrifice. In fact, Sura 36 indirectly suggests that this son was Isaac, contrary to later reinterpretations of later Islamic traditions.

It may be that, contrary to the historical importance of this controversy, this is not really an essential question, since Ishmael appears as a sort of inverted double of Isaac, and the linked destinies of these two half-brothers seem to compose (together) an allegorical and even anagogical figure – that of the ‘Sacrificed’, a figure of man ‘sacrificed’ in the service of a divine project that is entirely beyond him.

The conflict between the divine project and human views appears immediately when one compares the relatively banal and natural circumstances of the conception of Abram’s child (resulting from his desire to ensure his descent ii, a desire favored by his wife Sarai), with the particularly improbable and exceptional circumstances of the conception of the child of Abraham and Sarah.

One can then sense the tragic nature of the destiny of Ishmael, the first-born (and beloved) son of Abraham, but whose ‘legitimacy’ cannot be compared to that of his half-brother, born thirteen years later. But in what way is it Ishmael’s ‘fault’ that he was not ‘chosen’ as the son of Abraham to embody the Covenant? Was he ‘chosen’ only to embody the arbitrary dispossession of a mysterious ‘filiation’, of a nature other than genetic, in order to signify to the multitudes of generations to come a certain aspect of the divine mystery?

This leads us to reflect on the respective roles of the two mothers (Hagar and Sarah) in the correlated destiny of Ishmael and Isaac, and invites us to deepen the analysis of the personalities of the two mothers in order to get a better idea of those of the two sons.

The figure of Ishmael is both tragic and ambiguous. I will attempt here to trace its contours by citing a few ‘features’ both for and against, by seeking to raise a part of the mystery, and to penetrate the ambiguity of the paradigm of election, which can mean that « the election of some implies the setting aside of others », or on the contrary, that « election is not a rejection of the other ».iii

Elements Against Ishmael :

a) Ishmael, a young man, « plays » with Isaac, a barely weaned child, provoking the wrath of Sarah. This key scene is reported in Genesis 21:9: « Sarah saw the son of Hagar mocked him (Isaac). » The Hebrew word מְצַחֵק lends itself to several interpretations. It comes from the root צָחַק, in the verbal form Piel. The meanings of the verb seem at first glance relatively insignificant:

Qal :To laugh, rto ejoice. As in : Gen 18,12 « Sara laughs (secretly) ». Gen 21:6 « Whoever hears of it will rejoice with me.

Piël : To play, to joke, to laugh. As in Gen 19:14 « But it seemed that he was joking, that he said it in jest. » Ex 32:6 « They stood up to play, or to dance ». Judge 16:25 « That he might play, or sing, before them ». Gen 26:8 « Isaac played or joked with his wife. Gen 39:14 « To play with us, to insult us ».

However, Rashi’s meanings of the word in the context of Gen 21:9 are much more serious: ‘idolatry’, ‘immorality’, and even ‘murder’. « Ridicule: this is idolatry. Thus, ‘they rose up to have fun’ (Ex 32:6). Another explanation: This is immorality. Thus ‘for my own amusement’ (Gen 39:17). Another explanation: this is murder. So ‘let these young men stand up and enjoy themselves before us’ (2 Sam 2:14). Ishmael was arguing with Isaac about the inheritance. I am the elder, he said, and I will take double share. They went out into the field and Ishmael took his bow and shot arrows at him. Just as in: he who plays the foolish game of brandons and arrows, and says: but I am having fun! (Prov 26:18-19).»

Rashi’s judgment is extremely derogatory and accusatory. The accusation of ‘immorality’ is a veiled euphemism for ‘pedophilia’ (Isaac is a young child). And all this derived from a special interpretation of the single word tsaḥaq, – the very word that gave Isaac his name… Yet this word comes up strangely often in the context that interests us. Four important biblical characters ‘laugh’ (from the verb tsaḥaq), in Genesis: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael – except Hagar, who never laughs, but cries. Abraham laughs (or smiles) at the news that he is going to be a father, Sarah laughs inwardly, mocking her old husband, Isaac laughs while wrestling and caressing his wife Rebecca (vi), but only Ishmael, who also laughs while playing, is seriously accused by Rashi of the nature of this laughter, and of this ‘game’.

b) According to the commentators (Berechit Rabbah), Ishmael boasted to Isaac that he had the courage to voluntarily accept circumcision at the age of thirteen, whereas Isaac underwent it passively at the age of eight days.

c) Genesis states that Ishmael is a ‘primrose’, a misanthropic loner, an ‘archer’ who ‘lives in the wilderness’ and who ‘lays his hand on all’.

d) In Gen 17:20 it says that Ishmael « will beget twelve princes. « But Rashi, on this point, asserts that Ishmael in fact only begat ‘clouds’, relying on the Midrash which interprets the word נְשִׂיאִים (nessi’im) as meaning ‘clouds’ and ‘wind’. The word nessi’im can indeed mean either ‘princes’ or ‘clouds’, according to the dictionary (vii). But Rashi, for his own reason, chooses the pejorative meaning, whereas it is God Himself who pronounces this word after having blessed Ishmael.

Elements in Favor of Ishmael:

a) Ishmael suffers several times the effects of Sarah’s hatred and the consequences of Abraham’s injustice (or cowardice), who does not defend him, passively obeys Sarah and remorselessly favors his younger son. This has not escaped the attention of some commentators. Ramban (the Nahmanides) said about sending Hagar and Ishmael back to the desert: « Our mother Sarai was guilty of doing so and Abram of having tolerated it ». On the other hand, Rashi says nothing about this sensitive subject.

Yet Abraham loves and cares for his son Ishmael, but probably not enough to resist the pressures, preferring the younger, in deeds. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to guess the deep psychological problems Ishmael is experiencing about not being the ‘preferred’, the ‘chosen’ (by God) to take on the inheritance and the Covenant, – although he is nevertheless ‘loved’ by his father Abraham, – just as Esau, Isaac’s eldest son and beloved, was later robbed of his inheritance (and blessing) by Jacob, because of his mother Rebekah, and despite Isaac’s clearly expressed will.

(b) Ishmael is the son of « an Egyptian handmaid » (Genesis 16:1), but in reality she, Hagar, according to Rashi, is the daughter of the Pharaoh: « Hagar was the daughter of the Pharaoh. When he saw the miracles of which Sarai was the object, he said: Better for my daughter to be the servant in such a house than the mistress in another house. » (Commentary of Genesis 16:1 by Rashi)

One can undoubtedly understand the frustrations of a young man, first-born of Abraham and grandson of the Pharaoh, in front of the bullying inflicted by Sarah.

c) Moreover, Ishmael is subjected throughout his childhood and adolescence to a form of disdain that is truly undeserved. Indeed, Hagar was legally married, by the will of Sarah, and by the desire of Abraham to leave his fortune to an heir of his flesh, and this after the legal deadline of ten years of observation of Sarah’s sterility had elapsed. Ishmael is therefore legally and legitimately the first-born son of Abraham, and of his second wife. But he does not have the actual status, as Sarah jealously watches over him.

d) Ishmael is thrown out twice in the desert, once when his mother is pregnant with him (in theory), and another time when he is seventeen years old (being 13 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth + 4 years corresponding to Isaac’s weaning). In both cases, his mother Hagar had proven encounters with angels, which testifies to a very high spiritual status, which she did not fail to give to her son. Examples of women in the Hebrew Bible having had a divine vision are extremely rare. To my knowledge, in fact, there are none, except for Hagar, who had divine visions on several occasions. Rashi notes of Gen 16:13: « She [Hagar] expresses surprise. Could I have thought that even here in the desert I would see God’s messengers after seeing them in the house of Abraham where I was accustomed to seeing them? The proof that she was accustomed to seeing angels is that Manoë when he first saw the angel said, « Surely we will die » (Jug 13:27). Hagar saw angels four times and was not the least bit afraid. »

But to this, we can add that Hagar is even more remarkable because she is the only person in all the Scriptures who stands out for having given not only one but two new names to God: אֵל רֳאִי , El Ro’ï, « God of Vision »viii , and חַי רֹאִי , Ḥaï Ro’ï, the « Living One of Vision »(ix). She also gave a name to the nearby well, the well of the « Living One of My Vision »: בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי , B’ér la-Ḥaï Ro’ï. x

It is also near this well that Isaac will come to settle, after Abraham’s death, – and especially after God has finally blessed him, which Abraham had always refused to do (xii). One can imagine that Isaac had then, at last, understood the depth of the events which had taken place in this place, and with which he had, in spite of himself, been associated.

In stark contrast to Hagar, Sarah also had a divine vision, albeit a very brief one, when she participated in a conversation between Abraham and God. But God ignored Sarah, addressing Abraham directly, asking him for an explanation of Sarah’s behavior, rather than addressing her (xiii). She intervened in an attempt to justify her behavior because « she was afraid, » but God rebuked her curtly: « No, you laughed.

Making her case worse, she herself later reproached Ishmael for having laughed too, and drove him out for that reason.

e) Ishmael, after these events, remained in the presence of God. According to Genesis 21:20, « God was with this child, and he grew up (…) and became an archer. « Curiously, Rashi does not comment on the fact that « God was with this child. On the other hand, about « he became an archer », Rashi notes proudly: « He was a robber… ».

f) In the desire to see Ishmael die, Sarah twice casts spells on him (the ‘evil eye’), according to Rashi. The first time, to make the child carried by Hagar die, and to provoke his abortionxv, and the second time to make him sick, even though he was hunted with his mother in the desert, thus forcing him to drink much and to consume quickly the meager water resources.

g) At the time of his circumcision, Ishmael is thirteen years old and he obeys Abraham without difficulty (whereas he could have refused, according to Rashi, the latter counts to his advantage). Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael (Gen 16:16). Rashi comments: « This is written in praise of Ishmael. Ishmael will therefore be thirteen years old when he is circumcised, and he will not object. »

h) Ishmael is blessed by God during Abraham’s lifetime, whereas Isaac is blessed by God only after Abraham’s death (who refused to bless him, knowing that he was to beget Esau, according to Rashi).xvi

i) Ishmael, in spite of all the liabilities of his tormented life, was reconciled with Isaac, before the latter married Rebekah. Indeed, when his fiancée Rebekah arrives, Isaac has just returned from a visitexvii to the Well of the Living of My Vision, near which Hagar and Ishmael lived.

Moreover, his father Abraham ended up « regularizing the situation » with his mother Hagar, since he married her after Sarah’s death. Indeed, according to Rashi, « Qeturah is Hagar. Thus, for the second time, Ishmael is « legitimized », which makes it all the more remarkable that he gives precedence to his younger brother at Abraham’s funeral.

(j) Ishmael lets Isaac take the precellence at the burial of their father Abraham, as we know from Gen 25:9: « [Abraham] was buried by Isaac and Ishmael, his sons. « The preferential order of the names testifies to this.

k) The verse Gen 25:17 gives a final positive indication about Ishmael: « The number of years of Ishmael’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. He expired and died. « Rashi comments on the expression « he expired » in this highly significant way: « This term is used only in connection with the righteous. »

Let’s now conclude.

On the one hand, Islam, which claims to be a ‘purer’, more ‘native’ religion, and in which the figure of Abraham represents a paradigm, that of the ‘Muslim’ entirely ‘submitted’ to the will of God, – recognizes in Isaac and Ishmael two ‘prophets’.

On the other hand, Ishmael is certainly not recognized as a ‘prophet’ in Israel.

These two characters, intimately linked by their destiny (sons of the same father, and what a father!, but not of the same mother), are also, curiously, figures of the ‘sacrifice’, although in different ways, and which need to be interpreted.

The sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah ended with the intervention of an angel, just as the imminent death of Ishmael in the desert near a hidden spring ended after the intervention of an angel.

It seems to me that a revision of the trial once held against Ishmael, at the instigation of Sarah, and sanctioned by his undeserved rejection outside the camp of Abraham, and the case againt Ishmael should be re-opened.

It seems indispensable, and not unrelated to the present state of the world, to repair the injustice that was once done to Ishmael.


i Qur’an 36:101-113: « So we gave him the good news of a lonely boy. Then when he was old enough to go with him, [Abraham] said, « O my son, I see myself in a dream, immolating you. See what you think of it. He said, « O my dear father, do as you are commanded: you will find me, if it pleases God, among those who endure. And when they both came together and he threw him on his forehead, behold, We called him « Abraham »! You have confirmed the vision. This is how We reward those who do good. Verily that was the manifest trial. And We ransomed him with a bountiful sacrifice. And We perpetuated his name in posterity: « Peace be upon Abraham. Thus do We reward those who do good, for he was of Our believing servants. And We gave him the good news of Isaac as a prophet of the righteous among the righteous. And We blessed him and Isaac. »

This account seems to indicate indirectly that the (unnamed) son who was taken to the place of the sacrifice is, in fact, Isaac, since Isaac’s name is mentioned twice, in verses 112 and 113, immediately after verses 101-106, which describe the scene of the sacrifice, – whereas the name Ishmael, on the other hand, is not mentioned at all on this occasion. Moreover, God seems to want to reward Isaac for his attitude of faith by announcing on this same occasion his future role as a prophet, which the Qur’an never does about Ishmael.

ii Gen 15, 2-4. Let us note that the divine promise immediately instils a certain ambiguity: « But behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man shall not inherit you, but he who comes out of your loins shall be your heir. If Eliezer [« this one, » to whom the verse refers] is clearly excluded from the inheritance, the word of God does not decide a priori between the children to come, Ishmael and Isaac.

iiiCourse of Moïse Mouton. 7 December 2019

ivTranslation of the French Rabbinate, adapted to Rachi’s commentary. Fondation S. et O. Lévy. Paris, 1988

« v » Hagar raised her voice, and she cried. (Gen 21:16)

viGn 26.8. Rachi comments: « Isaac says to himself, ‘Now I don’t have to worry anymore because nothing has been done to him so far. And he was no longer on guard. Abimelec looked – he saw them together. »

viiHebrew-French Dictionary by Sander and Trenel, Paris 1859

viiiGn 16.13

ixGn 16, 14: Rachi notes that « the word Ro’ï is punctuated Qamets qaton, because it is a noun. He is the God of vision. He sees the humiliation of the humiliated. »

xGn 16, 14

xi Gn 25.11

xiiiGn 18.13

xivGn 18.15

xvRachi comments on Gen 16:5 as follows: « Sarai looked upon Agar’s pregnancy with a bad eye and she had an abortion. That is why the angel said to Hagar, « You are about to conceive » (Gen 16:11). Now she was already pregnant and the angel tells her that she will be pregnant. This proves that the first pregnancy was not successful. »

xviRachi explains that « Abraham was afraid to bless Isaac because he saw that his son would give birth to Esau. »

xviiGn 24, 62

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