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Isaac and Ishmael, two brothers, so close and so distant

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Oct 11th 2023

Abraham Driving Out Hagar and Ishmael by Il Guercino

God’s promise to Abram

The Abram cycle begins with a description of a family of nomads migrating to Mesopotamia a few millennia ago. Terah has three sons: Abram, Nahor, and Haran. We have no details about the relationship between these brothers, but we do know that Haran dies while his father is still alive. In addition, Sarai, Abram’s wife, cannot have children. A few brushstrokes capture the traumas and dramas of a family that emigrates to a new land with its patriarch at its head. The journey from Ur to Canaan, undertaken by Terah, is interrupted in Haran, halfway there.

It is here that Abram receives a word from God that impacts on him right where his deepest wound is located,  his inability to have children, which leaves him without an heir to carry his name from one generation to the next. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’” (Gen 12:1-3).

Abram is invited to return to the journey, separating himself from those ties that had hitherto shaped his life, so that he can become fruitful according to the pattern of creation that takes place through separation.[1] Abram, therefore, will have to detach himself from his father in order for the Lord to make him a great nation. How will this promise be fulfilled, given that the patriarch and his wife are already advanced in years?


A surrogate child and the child of the promise

Ten years pass, but Abram and Sarai remain childless. Although God renews to the elderly patriarch the promise of offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven (cf. Gen 15:5), we can imagine the disappointment and frustration experienced by the couple. Realistically, because of their advanced age, fatherhood and motherhood seem like an unrealizable dream. Yet, Sarai’s first words in the Genesis account open up a new avenue for obtaining that son who, though promised, delays in coming. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram heard Sarai’s voice” (Gen 16:1-2).

The shortcut of a surrogate mother will enable the couple to have a long-awaited child. The controversial practice of so-called “surrogacy,” a much-debated issue today, was also known in the ancient world. Several sources, in fact, attest that in the case of a woman’s infertility, vicarious motherhood was practiced in ancient Middle East.[2] The body of the slave was used by the master to beget children when the wife was unable to conceive. The expedient suggested by Sarai seems an alternate route in the face of this delay, and God’s word is fulfilled. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress” (Gen 16:3-4).

The solution adopted by the couple turns out to be much more problematic in its implementation than was envisaged. Once pregnant, the slave girl begins to look at Sarai with derision, and Sarai herself, feeling this look of contempt upon her, manifests all her displeasure to Abram. The elderly patriarch authorizes Sarai to deal with the slave girl as she pleases. In the end, the principles of ownership prevail and Hagar is tormented by her mistress to the point that she must flee to the desert. At considerable cost, the Egyptian slave learns that although she is expecting a child by her master, she still remains the weaker one in the hierarchy  of relationships.

God, however, takes on Hagar in her suffering and has a word for her and for the child to be born. The angel of the Lord[3] reveals himself to Hagar beside a spring and comforts her with a promise of fruitfulness similar to that made to Abram (cf. Gen 15:5; 22:17). “The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her: ‘You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael [= God-heard] for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.’ She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ That is why the well was called Beer-lahai-roi” (Gen 16:10-14).

The child’s name will be Ishmael because of the intervention of the Lord, who hears Hagar the slave girl and cares for her and her son. Abram’s God binds himself inextricably to Ishmael with the blessing he had already reserved for his father, but the oracle also includes his brothers. Indeed, Ishmael will not remain an only son. It is true that a wilderness life is foretold for him as he struggles against all, but in the end he will live face to face with his brothers, at once distant and close in relation to his family members. In the land, therefore, there will be room for all and the possibility of sibling coexistence. Finally, the place where God manifests himself receives a new name, which is given by Hagar herself. This same site will be significantly mentioned later in the narrative.

Thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth, Isaac, ‘the son of a smile’, will be born. In fact, in Hebrew the name “Isaac” means “he will laugh.” This name will be given by God because of the smile of Abram (cf. Gen 17:17) and his wife Sarai (cf. Gen 18:12). When faced with the announcement of a son, the elderly couple laugh, and thereby  both manifest disbelief and a not too veiled skepticism. “Abram fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarai bear a child at the age of ninety?’” (Gen 17:17).

Abram not only hides his smile, but leaves his real thoughts and uncertainties in his heart without confessing them to God, who replies, “Yes, Sarai, your wife, will bear you a son and you shall name him Isaac” (Gen 17:19). The Lord is well aware of the skepticism that Abram cannot hide from him. Later, when God visits Abram again, Sarai, unseen because she is behind the tent, hears the Lord’s words to the patriarch: “‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarai your wife will have a son’ […]. So Sarai laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” (Gen 18:10, 12). Sarai reacts with a smile at this promise. The reader is also privileged to enter the woman’s thoughts, which manifest her perplexities about both her own condition and that of her elderly husband.

After so much waiting, the word of the Lord is fulfilled: “Then Sarai said, ‘Reason for glad laughter has God given me: whoever knows it will laugh gladly at me!’ Then she said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.’ And she added, ‘Who would have said to Abram that Sarai would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age’”(Gen 21:6-7). Isaac, the son of the smile, finally comes into the world, and this time the laughter is an expression of irrepressible joy. How will the two brothers, both sons of Abram but born of different mothers, relate to each other? How will the moods and expectations of the parents affect the two brothers’ journey and their interaction?[4]

Two distant brothers

The first interaction between the two brothers is recounted in a controversial episode that, throughout the history of interpretation, has been commented on in very different ways. During a great feast celebrated in honor of Isaac, Sarai’s gaze falls on Ishmael, and she reacts harshly because of what she sees: “The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abram held a great feast. But Sarai saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abram was mocking, and she said to Abram, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac’” (Gen 21:8-10).

The festive atmosphere for the weaning of Isaac is ruined by Sarai’s request to Abram to expel Hagar and Ishmael because of what the latter is doing at the banquet. In verse 9, we find in the Hebrew text the verb ????q, “to mock,” which indicates the action performed by Ishmael and in that verbal form means “to joke, to play, to mock.” This Hebrew term is homophonic to the name Isaac, which, as we have said, means “he will laugh.” Moreover, the Greek version of the LXX specifies that Ishmael joked “with Isaac.” What did Sarai see, to the point of it eliciting in her a reaction that appears disproportionate in the eyes of the reader? According to the LXX, the Vulgate and the Targum Onkelos, Ishmael would play with Isaac. Another ancient interpretation gives this verb a sexual connotation, as is evident from other occurrences of the verb in the biblical text (cf. Gen 26:8; 39:14.17). Ishmael, on this interpretation, would seem to be molesting Isaac.[5] According to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Ishmael was playing with idols.[6] According to St. Paul, however, Ishmael was  persecuting Isaac (cf. Gal 4:29).

All these interpretations focus on the meaning of the verb, while it is rarely considered how the focus of the scene is not so much what happens between Ishmael and Isaac, but Sarai’s perception of the event. The focus of the narrative, in fact, is from Sarai’s point of view, and it is through her gaze that the reader grasps what is happening. It is no accident that Ishmael is not called by name, but referred to as “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” Ishmael’s laughter and joking would be interpreted by Sarai maliciously, in a spirit of  envy and jealousy. We have seen that in Hebrew there is a subtle play on words that arises from the assonance between the noun “Isaac” and the verb “to joke.” It is as if in Sarai’s eyes Ishmael not only played, but even wanted to play Isaac, usurping the place of the firstborn son that should belong to Sarai’s son, the “true” son of God’s promise to Abram.[7]

The elderly patriarch does not react well to Sarai’s claim that, with contempt toward “this slave” Hagar, she wants to drive Ishmael away and deny him his inheritance and, along with it, the possibility of living together with Isaac and sharing his company: “The matter distressed Abram greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarai tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring’” (Gen 21:11-13).

Paradoxically, the Lord turns to Abram and commands him to obey Sarai. Once again, God is able to write straight on crooked lines and something good will come from this painful separation. As promised by God, Abram will also father a multitude of nations through Ishmael (cf. Gen 17:4-6, 20). The paths of the two brothers, therefore, part, but both sons of Abram remain under the sign of divine blessing.[8] Though far apart, they find themselves united by the God of Abram, who is also their God.

Two lives in parallel

The lives of Isaac and Ishmael do not intersect for a long time,[9] but they follow two similar paths that pass through separation from their father and an experience of salvation received from God as they face death (cf. Gen 21:14-21; 22:1-19). In both cases, however, the point of view is that of the parents.

Lost in the desert after being driven out by Abram, Hagar weeps, fearing that her son may die of thirst. God hears the voice of Ishmael, who, finding himself near death, fulfills the meaning of his name – literally “God hears” – when he is saved by the Lord’s intervention: “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Gen 21:17-18).

Later, a now adult Isaac will be led to the mountain to be sacrificed. The narrative does not dwell on Abram’s son and how he experiences this ordeal, but follows the journey of the elderly patriarch, tested by this command from the Lord.[10] Thus Isaac, about to die, will find himself in a situation very similar to that of his brother Ishmael. Again, the angel of the Lord will intervene to save the life of Abram’s son and renew the promise of blessing: “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen 22:16-17).

In both cases it is a grieving father who first sends one son away to the desert, and then leads the other son to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him to the Lord. Both are beloved sons, from whom Abram is sorrowfully separated, as the Babylonian Talmud effectively points out, “God said to Abram, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac’ (Gen 22:2). When God said, ‘Your son,’ Abram objected, ‘I have two sons!’ God said to him, ‘Your only-begotten.’ Abram replied, ‘This one is the only son to his mother, and that one is the only son to his mother!’ God said to him, ‘The one you love.’ Abram replied, ‘I love them both!’ God then said to him, ‘Isaac!’”[11]

Moreover, the two sons of Abram will fulfill God’s word when, thanks to their parents, they each find a wife and father their own offspring. The first to take this step is Ishmael: “And his mother took for him a wife from the land of Egypt” (Gen 21:21). He separates himself from his father and mother and, by uniting himself with his wife, fulfills the word the Lord spoke in the creation accounts, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).[12]

Later, it will be Abram who will facilitate Isaac’s separation by finding him a wife from among his kinship, Rebekah, who will console him for the loss of his mother Sarai: “He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen 24:2-4).

One last meeting

The two parallel paths of Isaac and Ishmael are marked by detachment from parental figures and God’s blessing, which always accompanies the journey of Abram’s two sons. Yet, there is still time for one last encounter between them, which occurs at the highly dramatic moment of their father’s death: “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abram had bought from the Hittites. There Abram was buried with his wife Sarai. After Abram’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer-lahai-roi” (Gen 25:9-11).

Isaac and Ishmael stand side by side in mourning the death of their father. Ishmael goes to Machpelah, the burial site of Sarai, Isaac’s mother, the woman who had first wanted him in order to overcome her own inability to beget but later rejected him. Isaac, on the other hand, will go to dwell by the well of Beer-lahai-roi, the place where Hagar had seen the Lord who had heard her lament and blessed her and her offspring (cf. Gen 16:14).

The two brothers cross and mingle their stories, and one goes to live in the other’s territory in a fruitful exchange that places them close to each other as a kind of implicit family reconciliation. From this moment on, without the father figure who united them through blood ties but who had divided them for the peace and quiet living of the family, the two brothers will be close in sharing the blessing beyond human stubbornness and pettiness. What might seem like a stereotypical funeral scene becomes the crowning achievement of being brothers separated but not apart. “This is the offspring of Ishmael…” (Gen 25:12); “This is the offspring of Isaac…” (Gen 25:19): a few verses separate the brothers and their descendants, who in life will continue to live opposite each other as Scripture reminds us: “[Ishmael] was established in front of / against the face of all his brothers” (Gen 25:18). The Hebrew particle ‘al can be read as “in front of” or “against.” Which option will they choose?

The families of the Bible are complex, extended, difficult families, much closer to our time than we might imagine. The stories of Isaac and Ishmael reveal to us how the contrasts between their parents – Abram, Sarai and Hagar – can affect the quality of the relationship between siblings who, because of family tensions, are deprived of the opportunity to grow and live together. Yet, in spite of everything, Isaac and Ishmael thrive under a shared, though different, blessing and be good neighbors, generation after generation. Indeed, according to the tradition of the Bible (and also of the Qur’an), behind the characters of Isaac and Ishmael are two peoples as distant, as close as Israelites and Arabs, who, placed side by side in the land in which they dwell, can discover a common root as children of Abram, blessed by the same God.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.3 art. 3, 0323: 10.32009/22072446.0323.3

[1].     On creation, which takes place through a sequence of progressive separations, cf. P. Beauchamp, Création et séparation: étude exégétique du chapitre premier de la Genèse, Paris, Cerf, 2005.

[2]      Cf. Nuzi HSS S.67; Hammurabi, Nos. 144; 146; 173.

[3].     In some cases, when the angel of the Lord is mentioned in the Old Testament, it may be intended to refer to God himself being  present.

[4].     On this theme, cf. A. Wénin, “Ismaël et Isaac, ou la fraternité contrariée dans le récit de la Genèse”, in Études theologiques et religieuses 90 (2015/4) 489-502.

[5].     Ishmael would appear to be performing , unlawful deeds (Targum Neophytes, Genesis XXI, 9). Rashi comments, “This refers to fornication, as it is written: He drew near to me to amuse himself with me (Gen 39:17),” cf. Rashi di Troyes, Commento alla Genesi, Casale Monferrato [Al], Marietti, 1985, 163). Cf. also fragment LL of the Cairo Genizah: “He was doing licentious deeds with his son, trying to kill him.”

[6].     Cf. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Genesis XXI, 9.

[7].     Cf. R. Alter, Genesis, New York – London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, 98.

[8].     Although the covenant will be reserved for Isaac (cf. Gen 17:19).

[9]  .    For further discussion of the Isaac-Ishmael parallelism in Genesis, cf. D. J. Zucker, “Ishmael and Isaac: Parallel, not Conflictual Lives”, in Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 26 (2012/1) 1-11.

[10].    The Targum  adds to the text of Gen 22 the perspective of Isaac, who implores his father to bind him well so that the sacrifice will not be in vain: “Isaac spoke up and said to Abram his father, ‘My father, bind me well, lest I kick you, such that your offering be made invalid.’ Abram’s eyes were fixed on Isaac’s eyes, and Isaac’s eyes were turned toward the angels above. Isaac saw them, but Abram did not see them” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Genesis XXII, 10).

[11].    Babylonian Talmud, bSanhedrin 89b.

[12].    F. Mirguet, “Gn 21-22: Maternité et paternité à l’épreuve”, in Ehemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 79 (2003/4) 326.

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