Sarah and Hagar and their offspring
and their offspring
by Dr. Asher Eder ©
1) The Biblical/historical background
After the birth of Isaac and his weaning, his mother Sarah demanded from her husband, Abraham:
"...cast out ["divorce"] this handmaid and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen.21:10).
Abraham was then told:
"...everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice..." (v. 12).
Abraham was not being told to execute automatically what her words were telling him to do, but rather to listen to her voice. He was to understand what she meant to say, and then act in accordance with this deeper understanding. He had to incorporate into this deeper understanding what he was told by the Almighty when he pleaded for Ishmael (Gen. 17:18):
"And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: I have blessed him, and will
make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly..." (Gen. 17:20).
How was Abraham to bring Sarah's demand (to which he was to listen) in line with this Divine blessing, which is then repeated and rephrased in Gen. 21:13:
"And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed"?
Abraham's solution is implied in the verse which follows. It tells us that:
"...Abraham rose up early in the morning ... and sent her out..." (21:14).
There is a substantial difference between "sending her out," and a divorce, casting her out. This "sending her out" implies a sending out to a mission. (Cf. when Adam, after having forfeited the Garden of Eden, was "sent out to cultivate the soil", Gen. 3:24).
However, Abraham was told “in all that Sarah has told unto thee, hearken unto her voice…”
The term “in all” includes Sarah’s reasoning – indeed a prophetic one: Two sons, or two peoples, cannot inherit the very same thing, or land. God’s word to Abraham stressed that point:
“…for in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (vs. 12).
(Bequeathing the land to Isaac and his seed does not mean that sons of Ishmael, and for that matter also other stranger, could not live therein, too – provided, of course, that they abide by the rules of the house. See Appendix “Ps. 87”).
We also have to bear in mind that Ishmael is frequently called "son of Abraham" (e.g. Gen. 25:12; 1.Chron. 1:26); that his seed shall be multiplied exceedingly (Gen. 16:10); that he is taken up in the Abrahamic Covenant by his circumcision (Gen. 17:23); that he carried a special blessing, as mentioned; and that “he gave up his ghost [= " [ ויגוע when he died – a term which, according to Rashi, the Torah uses only in connection with righteous men (Gen. 25:17). In this context, we should notice that the Hebrew term for exceedingly (in "I will multiply him exceedingly) is "b'me’od me'od. Its gamatria (numerical value of the Hebrew characters) is 92, the same as that of the name Muhammed (מחמד). True, the term b’me’od me’od occurs also in describing the great multitude of the people of Israel (e.g. Exod. 1:7) – perhaps indicating a counterbalance.
When taking all these points into account, it seems at first glance somewhat astounding that Abraham sent her –Hagar- out. Why did he not send them out –Hagar and Ishmael; or why did he not send him –Ishmael- out? Wasn’t the latter taken into the Covenant of Circumcision, with the mission implied therein? Apparently, Abraham saw that Ishmael needed still the guidance of his mother who had conversed with the angels. Besides, she was an Egyptian princess: The people and the land of Egypt derived from Mizraim, the second son of Ham, i.e. the son after Cush from whom came forth Nimrod, the founder of Babel (Gen. 10:6,8,9. Note: In English, the people and the Land of Mizraim are called Egypt). That may indicate that Ishmael’s mission is foremost among the Hamite tribes. Indeed, Hagar got her son Ishmael married to an Egyptian lady, Gen. 21:21 – see also below).
After Sarah had passed away, "Abraham took a wife, and her name was Kethurah" (Gen. 25:1). She was, according to our sages, none other than Hagar. If he had previously "divorced" her, or "cast her out," he could not have taken her now as a wife. In other words, this confirms the interpretation that she was sent out, not cast out. It also indicates that Abraham must have appreciated her and her character. Her value is already reflected in the name Kethurah, related to Hebrew kethoret = "incense".
Then, after Abraham took Kethurah as his second wife, he got from her six sons, besides Ishmael (Gen. 25:2).
The Torah then states: "And Abraham gave all he had unto Isaac. And unto the sons of the concubines ... Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, into the east country." Our sages hold that these “sons of the concubines” were in fact those six sons from Kethurah. If so, they certainly they took along with them much of Abraham’s faith and conduct of life (besides the material gifts he gave them) - which we find now reflected to quite some degree in the cultures of the East; and most likely they brought there also from that fire which he took on his way to Mount Moriah, Gen. 22:6,7 – and which may have become the “holy fire” in ancient Persian and Indian rites. Now, they stimulate us to reflect on our own call, as probably intended by Abraham when he in his high age, and after Sarah’s death, begot those six children with Hagar.
Ishmael is not mentioned here, probably because he had already been "sent out." What did he get from Abraham? According to Muslim tradition, Ishmael's father, Abraham, established for him the Kaaba in Mecca. (I see no reason to reject this tradition: Abraham may have done so on occasion of his second travel to visit Ishmael spoken of in Midrash Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 30).
In our context, more challenging are the questions: How did Ishmael relate to Abraham, his father? How did he relate to Sarah – who felt despised by Hagar his mother? And how did the two half-brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, relate one to the other? The Torah does not answer directly that question, but after recording the burial of father Abraham, it tells us that the sons of Ishmael “dwelt from Havilah unto Shur” (25:13,18) – and “Isaac sowed in that land”, and dug wells (26:12, 18-25). That begs the question, what was going on in Ishmael’s heart and mind when he attended together with Isaac the burial of Father Abraham at the very Machpelah (Double-Cave) where Sarah was buried? Was he reconciled with her dictum that “he –Ishmael- shall not be heir with my son”, Isaac? Or did he bear grudge in his heart, waiting for an opportunity to reverse that crucial dictum of hers? The Torah does not tell us, probably intentionally so: The Torah is a Divine Instruction for the benefit of man/mankind but it is not meant to be a straightjacket. The question “Whose Land?”, i.e. who is the legitimate heir of that land, the “Land of Canaan”, became the paramount issue in our times. Realizing that, we have to specify our question about Ishmael’s thoughts and feelings in the Machpelah, i.e. in front of Sarah’s tomb: Did he still bear some grudge, hidden deep in his heart, ready to burst out any time? Or was he himself fully reconciled? If so, did/could he pass on that reconciliation to his descendants, the “Ishmaelites”? Or did the latter question that reconciliation? If so, when; why; on what occasion? In the following, we will have to reflect on that.
3) Reviewing some commentators.
Many commentators, referring to Rashi on Bereshit 21:9, hold that "Ishmael threatened to kill Isaac" when he was playing scornfully with his little brother (Gen. 21:9). Such an interpretation seems questionable:
a) Rashi interprets the Hebrew word metsahek (= played, in the sense of misbehaving) as engaging in idolatry, but does not say anything about killing, or threatening to kill. True, in commenting on verse 17, Rashi refers to the mistreatment of Israel by the Ishmaelites later on when the former were on their way to exile in Babylon. On the other hand, Rashi stresses that Ishmael in his affliction (vs. 15,16) was declared a tsaddik, righteous one, by the Lord.
Rashi, who lived in the times of the Crusades and saw the fierceness of the Catholic/Muslim wars for possession of the "Holy Land", and relying on earlier sages, may have foreseen that a similar war might be waged by the Ishmaelites against Israel when the Jews would return to the Land of the Fathers. He may also have had in mind the fact that the early --and major-- Caliphs were slain either in battle or in internal rivalries (except for Abu Bekr), and that the sword plays a major role in Arab culture (cf. the flag of Saudi Arabia). Yet none of this justifies speaking about Abraham's son Ishmael as being born for the sake of revenge.
b) The Ramban, in his comment on the above episode, says that "… G-d saw [liter. heard] her [Hagar's] affliction and gave her a son who was to become a פרא אדם [usually translated wild man; or lawless man] to afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kind of chastisements". Revenge on future generations for the sins or failures of ancestors? That idea, apparently current in ancient times, was already rejected by the Prophets Jeremiah (31:29), and Ezekiel (18:2).
c) The Hebrew term metsaheq could and perhaps should be understood in the sense of laughing at, mocking at, that latecomer who was to take up the position of the spiritually firstborn – and would thus take his, Ishmael’s, respective natural hoped-for rights.
All in all, taking the term פרא אדםas wild or lawless man, contradicts the Torah which tells us that
Abraham loved Ishmael, too (cf. Gen. 17:18: 21:11,26);
Ishmael was blessed in his ways (17:20);
“he gave up his ghost” (25:17, mentioned above);
"God was with the lad" (=Ishmael; 21:20) - a very rare statement in the Torah!
The Torah would not say all this about a person born to be wild and lawless.
We should also bear in mind that Ishmael's eventual religion, Islam, can certainly not be described as a religion of wildness, or lawlessness. True, the Torah conveys more commandments than does the Koran, but that is mainly due to Israel's vocation as the "Kingdom of Priests" among the nations, with the Land Covenant as an integral part thereof. The Koran has its own strict precepts and ordinances, many of them tailored to mend Ishmael's Abrahamite/Hamite double nature (see below); and to straighten what went wrong especially in Christianity. We should also bear in mind that present Islam is not always in line with the Koran – not to speak of the wildness of the Jihadists.
c) Even more objectionable is an utterance of a contemporary rabbi by comparing the Arabs to snakes which God must have regretted creating! It may well have been prompted by the incitement and murderous deeds of Jihad fanatics. Nevertheless it is by no means for us humans to tell the Almighty what He should or should not have done.
Let us remember in this context that Ishmael is one of the very few Biblical personages (besides Isaac and Solomon) whose names were ordained before their actual birth. That means there is a Divine intention expressed in these names and their bearers. Regarding Ishmael, this may find its support in the Midrash haTehilim: Commenting on Ps. 1:3, we read there: “…that yields its fruit in its season – this is Ishmael; …and the leaf of which does not whither - this is Isaac”. Then, commenting on Ps. 49:2, that Midrash relating to the term “both”, says that it refers to the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Kethura.
4) Afflictions upon Sarah's children?
The idea mentioned above that Ishmael was "destined to be a lawless person who would bring suffering on the seed of Avram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah with all kinds of affliction", begs the question: Bringing suffering and afflictions upon Sarah's children to revenge on them their mother's mistake of hoping to be “built by her” (Gen. 16:2); and then her hard treatment of Hagar? This does not sound logical: it contradicts the Prophets’ sayings that each one shall be taken to account for his/her own sins (e.g. Jer. 31:29). True, all of us will have to pass the cleansing “revolving flaming sword” before re-entering the Garden of Eden with its “Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24). Ishmael may have to play his part in that process – “as a man sharpens the countenance of his neighbour” (Prov. 27:17). Ishmael, like any other person or group, may choose to become lawless and murderous – similar to Cain; or to Amalek – but that is not a destiny from birth.
5) Why did Abraham had to have those two sons, Ishmael and Isaac?
Before answering that question, we should first consider Abraham’s faithfulness to Sarah throughout the many years of her barrenness; and this in a time in history where childless women were divorced mercilessly; for, the aging peoples depended on their children for taking care of them. In addition, Avram/Avraham had built an altar publicly proclaiming the Creator of the world as the only true God – the God who had promised him that all mankind would be blessed in his seed! How should that come true? Shouldn’t we see Sarah’s suggestion to be built by a son from her maid, Hagar, as motivated not by egotism but by true love for her husband and his mission? For, didn’t the peoples around already mock at her husband, Avram, as a barren mule whose much proclaimed God didn’t even allow him to have a child (as some commentators suggest)? Couldn’t the promise that his own son shall be his heir (Gen. 15:4), be brought to its fulfillment with the birth of a son from the maid, Ishmael (Gen. 16:15); and thus to be built be her? In addition, wouldn’t that proof that he is not a “barren mule”, but is still virile even in his high age? And, on top, would proof the faithfulness of God?
With that background in mind, we should delve more deeply into the question why, then, Abraham had to have two sons, one from Hagar and one from Sarah? In other words, why did the Almighty keep Sarai/Sarah barren (Gen. 16:2) until Ishmael was born, causing suffering to both women and their respective sons?
In order to answer this question, we have to take several seemingly unrelated points into consideration:
a) Isaac’s unusual birth.
If the son of promise had been born in a prevalent and well known way, he could not have been called Isaac (meaning: he will laugh), with all this implies. He was born in an unusual way, pointedly expressed in the Lord’s rhetoric question to Abraham (Gen. 18:16): “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord [to do]?” And the son of promise was to be given the name Isaac for the sake of different kinds of laughter, and thus of testing men’s hearts:
--God-fearing people would laugh for joy and gladness in their realization that "there is nothing impossible for the Almighty" (Gen. 18:14);
--the worldly-minded and the wicked, would laugh a laughter of mocking at Isaac and what he stands for (Gen. 21:6);
--then, when asked by them (mockingly): “What is your name?”, he would answer: “Isaac” meaning “HE will laugh” – i.e. at you (cf Ps. 2:4);
--Isaac himself would in the end laugh a laughter of release and thankfulness for the final fulfillment of the Divine ordinances and promises. [Note: many prophecies evolved from this point, as e.g. Ps.118:26; 126:2,6);
--the final fulfillment of the Divine Covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, and of the Promises involved, would eventually show the nations that there is indeed a Creator of All Who is not subject to the laws of nature, but is in command of them (cf. Ps. 104:2-4); and the nations “that cannot discern what is left and what is right” (Jonah 4:11) will come to joyfully praise the Lord God of heavens and earth (Ps.117);
--The playful laughter of couples in love can be found in any of these three types of laughter, but ultimately all of us human beings should be aware that even such a natural act as reproduction is subject to the Divine blessing, and should be asked for.
Being born in an unusual way did not make Isaac into something or someone other-worldly. On the contrary, of all the Patriarchs he was the most earthly one: he never left the country; he harvested a hundred fold; he dug wells; his wealth increased so much that the locals (Philistines) envied him. To be sure, this earthly-ness of his was not for its own, material sake; it was guided by the Divine spirit – as King David summed up: “”Both riches and honor come of Thee…” (1.Chron. 29:12). In that spirit he cultivated the soil, in compliance with Man's mission as ordained for him by his Maker: "...and the Lord God sent him forth to cultivate the soil" (Gen. 3:23). By the way, it is for this reason that Isaac is identified in Kabbalah with the Sephirah DIN on the left side of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life” representing the Divine emanation of Law, and of form as part thereof. In the Divine spirit, Isaac adhered to the Divine Law including the Law of Nature, and consequently he mastered nature by being in harmony with it.
This fact is also pre-figured in his unusual birth: the Divine power did make use of the laws of nature in an unexpected way: "and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" (Gen. 18:11), but it did not do away with these laws: “Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son…” (Gen. 21:1-3). The left side of the Kabbalistic "Tree of Life" which represents Form, or Law, as said, comprises the "manner of women”. They are expressed in the feminine side, the female aspect of mankind, headed by Eve, the Mother of all Life, in the Sephirah “BINAH” above the Sephirah “DIN”. In Isaac we may see the apex of males who can be symbolized by the Sephirah “DIN”.
b) Avram/Abraham between Sarah and Hagar
Here, let’s have a look at Avram vis-a-vis Sarai, his wife, and Hagar the handmaid who was with child from him. Why did he not take the latter to account when she despised Sarah, her mistress (Gen. 16:4)? Two explanations for this atypical behavior of his come to mind:
aa) There was the Divine promise “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Gen. 12:7; 14:4,18). Did the term “thy seed” by necessity include his wife Sarai as the bearer of that seed? Should her barrenness be taken as an indication that she was not meant to be that bearer? But perhaps Hagar was? Hagar, an Egyptian princess (see Rashi on Gen. 16:1), not merely a deserted girl picked up from a street corner. True, Sarai/Sarah was faithful to him all the way long, and even suggested to him: “… go in unto my maid, it may be that I may obtain children by her…” - that is, we could build our family upon the children from her (instead of letting Eliezer, the faithful servant and “son of the house” in accordance with the custom of those times, become the heir, Gen. 16:2,3). “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (Gen. 16:2), and “he went into Hagar, and she conceived” (vs.4). Was he then charmed by her so much that he didn’t see her anymore as the maidservant but as an equal; and as the woman who bore him finally the child promised and expected since long?
bb) When Sarai was outraged about Hagar’s haughtiness, and complained to Avram, he told her: “Behold, thy maid is in thy hand, do to her what is good in thine eyes…” (vs.6). Was he indifferent to her grief; or did he mean to say “you cooked it up, now you take up responsibility, and do what is good in your eyes”?
Whatever the case, we may sense Avram (Avraham) somewhat bewildered, even uncertain of the meaning thereof. He had to be guided further on.
c) The change of names – from Avram to Abraham, and from Sarai to Sarah.
After Ishmael’s birth, Abrams’ and Sarai’s names were changed into Abraham, and Sarah respectively. In gamatria, the letter yod (here the end letter of the name Sarai), equals 10; and the letter heh equals 5. That is, the gamatrical value of the letter yod, 10, got split into two equal parts, 2x5, with each one of the couple receiving so-to-speak an equal share. While the gamatrical value of both names remained the same (753), the change with its introducing the letter heh elevated the spiritual/vocational value immensely: The Torah, in its Hebrew text, tells us (in Gen. 2:4): “…… with heh did he create them (=earth and heavens)”. That is, the change of their names must have indicated to Abraham and Sarah that they, as a couple, would be instrumental in the Lord’s creating earth and heavens anew in his spirit (indicated by the letter heh, an essential letter of the Lord’s name, the tetragrammaton), after the heavens and the earth had already been created as outlined in Gen. chpt.1. It is most significant that they received the son of promise after that change of their names! Thus we may perceive Ishmael as being born in the common natural way; and would remain therein; while Isaac representing the Divine promise and working with its heh-aspect would act in nature for the sake of elevating it. Yet, also Ishmael is frequently called “son of Abraham” (Gen. 17:25; 25:12; 28:9)’ and thus can open to that heh-aspect.
Seeing this background gives us a better understanding of Sarah’s demand: “The son of the handmaid cannot inherit together with the son of promise”. The son born of the flesh may – as the firstborn – well be entitled to the heritage allotted to him, but will have to recognize the Lord’s choice of the spiritually first born and what that entails (the Tanakh brings many examples thereof, as e.g. Jacob vis-a-vis Esau; Yehudah vis-a-vis Reuven; David the eighth of Ishai’s children; Israel vis-a-vis the nations, Exod. 4:22; etc).
6) Reviewing the “great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned” (Gen. 21:8).
While it seems very natural that Abraham made a “great feast” to celebrate the late and very unique birth of his son Isaac from his wife, Sarah, on occasion of his weaning, we should consider some more aspects:
Some commentators observed that no such feast was made, or at least not mentioned, after Ishmael’s birth. Celebrating now, and in such a grand style, the birth of Isaac might well have contributed to the Ishmael’s attitude – scornful play; mocking; or whatever -toward his new half-brother.
Yet, there is another point, usually overlooked: Who was invited to that “great feast”; and took part? The first, and natural, answer coming to mind, would point at the “many souls” Abraham and Sarah hade made so far. Then, also faithful servants, like Eliezer, would surely have been invited.
But there were also Abraham’s relatives - the forebears who were still alive: Amazing as it sounds, S(h)em, one of the three sons of Noah; as well as Selah, and ‘Eber “The Father of the Hebrews” (Gen. 10:21-25), were still alive, even outlived Abraham; and, needles to mention Abraham’s father Terah (see file attached “Time Table – The Age of the Patriarchs”). While they lived most likely in some other parts of the region (“Near East”, in modern terms), it is certainly not too far fetched to assume that they came to partake in that “great feast” to celebrate not merely the birth of another child but of the “Son of Promise” born in such an unique way. The “great feast” itself was held a few years after Isaac’s birth, on occasion of his weaning, apparently to allow for the time needed to bring the good news of Isaac’s birth and circumcision to the invited relatives; and for them to make the travel from the respective places of their residence to Abraham’s tent. Can we imagine the “family talk” on that unparalleled celebration not only of the birth of a son but above all of the verification of the unique Divine intervention and promise which lead to that birth? And, can we imagine the impression the mocking of Ishmael –by then 16 or 17 years of age- made upon them? Most likely, Abraham counseled also with his honored ancestors how to handle the situation.
7) Ishmael’s pedigree. A glimpse on Noah’s descendants.
Here, let’s have a look into the development of the nations after the Flood.
Noah’s three sons: S(h)em; Ham; and Yephet, portrayed in Genes. chpt 10 as the ancestors of the nations after the Flood, can also be understood as archetypal figures. The qualities represented by them may be dominant in the respective nations but can be found in every human being to some degree.
Noah’s son Yephet, with Greece as the outstanding representative, stands for beauty and intellect, in their positive as well in their deceptive qualities.
From S(h)em, literally “Name” derive the peoples of the Semitic languages and cultures. The Torah, however, applies this term then solely to the people of Israel, as the people, or bearer, of the Divine Name (cf. Numb. 6:27; Deuter. 28:10). Adversaries are consequently called anti-Semites, even if they belong to a people of the Semitic language group.
The Hebrew word Ham means warm. It is the root for warmth, heat, and also for the color brown. In the genealogy of Noah's offspring, Ham is depicted as the ancestor of the Hamite peoples --usually identified as the dark-skinned peoples, or the peoples of the earth's tropical belt. In ancient times, Egypt and Babylon were their outstanding representatives.
Ham, warm(th), may represent feelings in general. All of us have so-called good feelings (affection, empathy, joy, love, sympathy, etc.) as well as evil feelings (envy, greed, hate, licentiousness, etc). One of Ham's offspring, Canaan, represents the lower, or so-called evil, feelings. These lower feelings, however, are not something separate in themselves (as, for instance, intellect which can stand on its own, even though it can be influenced by feelings). The darker emotions are seen as characteristic part of Ham: "...and Ham is the father of Canaan" (Gen. 9:18). While Ham saw the nakedness of his father, Noah, and in his gloating informed S(h)em and Yephet (v. 22), Noah declared Canaan to be cursed (v. 25). At first glance, this seems very odd. Why did he not speak out against Ham the tale-bearer? Why did he pick Canaan from among Ham's sons (the other three being Cush; Mizraim [=Egypt]; and Phut)?
The word Canaan derives from Heb. can'a, low. It hints at the low, evil part of our feelings, and this specific trait is cursed, not feelings altogether. (Note: Noah did not put a curse upon Canaan; rather he declared him and what he stands for as cursed. That is, these lower, evil feelings bear in themselves the curse, and consequently the one who is ruled by them is cursed). They find their redemption when they are linked to, and guided by, the higher propensities (Gen. 9:26,27). This may be exemplified by the Canaanite lady married to Yehudah (Gen. 38:2); and by Tamar who was most likely of Canaanite origin, too.
Ishmael combines in himself the character traits of the Divine Spirit he inherited from Avram/Avraham, a descendant from S(h)em; and those inherited from Hagar the Egyptian princess (Note: what is called Egypt, in English, is in Hebrew Mizraim, a descendant from Ham) .
Those two traits made up for Ishmael’s disposition to be פרא אדם (pere adam; Gen. 16:12). This term is mostly translated “wild man”. The term “wild” in this context, should be understood in the sense of being enthusiastically devoted to something; rash; reckless; easily excited – while the Hebrew term adam describes Man, Mankind, in their noble, Divine traits, as Rav S.R.Hirsch explains ad loc. It is indeed the “rash nobility” which characterizes Ishmael’s descendants, the Arabs, till our days. Which trait in this double nature of theirs would get the upper hand? “… his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and in the face of all his brethren will he dwell”, the angel continued to predict. Or, would the noble – “Adamic” –trait prevail? Ishamel cannot be tamed by men. What is more, “And G-d was with the lad” (=Ishmael), the Torah relates after he and his mother were evicted – and then “he became a master of archers” (liter.: bow shooter, 21:20). In this archery of his he remains deeply devoted to G-d – or to what he at times understands as pleasing G-d. (In the following we will have to look deeper into the meaning of the Hebrew term keshet, rendered here as archer).
As an outcome, his nephews and their descendants – Israel; Esau; as well as Abraham’s other 6 sons from Hagar/Kethurah, his mother – will enjoy his “Adam” trait as long as they walk in the fear and love of G-d; or else meet Ishamel’s archery if they try to repress him, or lean toward idolatry and licentiousness. Or, if he deems himself to be the “Master of the Bow”, he might get inclined to rule and subjugate them…
In fact, Abraham’s descendants are each to the other like “iron that sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17), not for the sake of violence and dominance one over the other; rather that eventually we may “emulate in good works” as the Koran enjoins so aptly (Surah “The Cow”, 143; “The Table”, 53; “Pilgrimage”, 66).
Ishmael’s double nature finds its expression even in his pre-ordained name. It can be rendered “G-d will hear” (namely him when he is in distress); and “He will hear G-d”; i.e. in the end he will hear, and submit to, God’s decree. In that he will be reconciled, and be healed of the two traumas he suffered in young age: his removal from the country given by the Almighty to Isaac and his seed; and his near death experience in the desert near Beer Sheva (Gen. 21:14-16), understood by Moslem scholars as the “Aqedah [sacrifice] of Ishmael” (e.g. Bukhari; Ibn-Arabi; Al-Ghazali). - Of course, a death experience as such does not yet make up for an “Aqedah”.
8) Avraham’s mission in the land of Canaan.
Now we begin to understand why Avram/Avraham was sent into the "land of Canaan," or to be more accurate, into the land which "was then inhabited by Canaan" (Gen. 12:6); and why he had to have two sons. The "tikkun ha'olam,"--the restoration of the world to its Divine order--begins with the purification of the emotions, the lifting of all feelings --including the lower ones-- into the realm of the Divine; for their source –Ham- is good, not less than in any other human being. Lower feelings are only misdirected impulses, perhaps comparable to a mistuned radio.
The term "Land of Canaan" is applied to the land [Hebrew eretz, which also means earth] in its corrupt state; while originally, in the language of the Torah, it is the "Land of Moriah" (Gen. 22:2), that is, the land of the Divine emanation and manifestation. Consequently, Joseph termed it the "Land of the Hebrews" (Gen. 40:15). The land is attached to, and belongs to, Mount Moriah, colloquially known as the Temple Mount. There, Isaac was shown his miraculous rescue (known from the aqedah story); and it is there that Israel will find its redemption; and that eventually all mankind, is to be freed from the lower propensities betokened by Canaan. This may also explain why the Canaanites had to be driven out from that land; and why they could not be given another land in exchange: the lower feelings are not to rule anywhere. They will be redeemed by serving the higher propensities (Gen. 9:26,27). Hence: “…and in that day there shall be no more Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts” (Zechar. 14:21).
The question arises: why was Abraham sent to this specific land? Why not to Babylon, Egypt, Greece, India, or any other country? The peoples living there are also not free of lower feelings. The common answer that the "land of the Moriah" is located at the hinge of the three continents (and cultures) of Africa, Asia, and Europe, is only partial. Another, not less important aspect is the fact that the Land of Israel comprises fertile parts (in the north and west) and wilderness (in south and east). The former gave rise to civilizations of farmers and towns, the latter to shepherds and nomads. These two different civilizations, with their divergent, often clashing interests, meet and confront here.
Later on in history, the sown land and the desert became the cradles of Christianity and Islam respectively, now adding "theological" arguments to the strife, and vying over the country and its capital, Jerusalem, which, significantly, is located right at the frontier between fertile lands and desert. It is Israel's ultimate mission as the “Kingdom of Priests” (Exod. 19:6) to balance and pacify those two contradicting and age-old dispositions (symbolized by Cain and Abel), and establish the "Peace of Jerusalem" (Ps. 122:6), with the Sanctuary as the “House of Prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7), the house of peace and brotherhood in the spirit of the Divine.
9) Hagar’s offspring facing Sarah’s offspring
This analysis leads to a deeper understanding of our earlier question, why Sarai/Sarah was kept barren by the Almighty, and why Abraham first needed to have a son from Hagar, the princess of Hamite origin. While Isaac is --so to speak-- fully endowed with the Divine, it is in Ishmael, Abram's physical and natural son, that the extremes of human psyche are lumped together: the Divine, Abrahamite, aspect, as well as the wide range of darker Hamite feelings.
While all of us, Israel as well as the nations, are continually in danger of falling into the trap of the lower, Canaanite, feelings; the Mizraim [Egypt] aspect of Ham is Ishmael's main pitfall. This the more so as his Egyptian mother Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh, as said. (The Pharaoh of that period should not be confused with the "new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph," Exod. 1:8). Her royal lineage may thus have given her natural feelings of superiority toward barren Sarai/Sarah (v. 4) an additional boost.
When Hagar married Ishmael to an Egyptian woman (Gen. 21:21), his offspring gained an additional potent Egyptian component. Yet here we must remember that Ishmael inherited spiritual qualities not only from Abraham. His mother Hagar must also have been highly evolved spiritually: She conversed freely with the angels (Gen. 16:7-14; 21:17,18), Furthermore, she is one of the very few human beings in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) who introduced a name to G-d (El Roi, “God sees me”, Gen. 16:13), a name accepted by G-d and men (Gen. 24:63; 25:11). Howbeit lateron, balancing that expression, Jacob established the name El Elohei Israel = God the God of Israel (Gen. 33:20).
While the word Canaan, as we saw, derives from a root meaning "low," Mizraim derives from the root word zar --narrow, constricted, tight. This characterizes accurately the land of Mizraim (Arabic El-Misr. The name Egypt is a later European term): its fertile and habitable part, the Valley of the Nile, is a narrow strip between the deserts in the west and east, the high mountains in the south, and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. It can be seen as a corollary for our basic human nature, which is liable to constrict and rule our Divine spirit.
No other country in the ancient world identified so closely with its ruler as Mizraim/Egypt did with its Pharaoh. The Nile dictated the people's rhythm of life absolutely, and Pharaoh had to implement these dictates. (Israel could not accept these dictates of nature and its representative Pharaoh as primary values. The social and religious values of the ancient Egyptians had been shaped by the laws of nature--dictated by predictable rhythms of sun and Nile, accepted ultimate gods, with Pharaoh as their representative. Israel could not take up this attitude as its ultimate values: the "13 Divine attributes" are above them.
While in foreign affairs Pharaoh occasionally had trouble with his neighbors in the west and south, characteristically his main interest and thrust was the looting of the land of Canaan (Israel). Since Assur, and then Babylon, had similar interests, clashes with them were inevitable (and Israel fell prey to them). Historically, each and every superpower has needed to control the land of Israel in order to attain and retain its position--or at least to prevent other super powers from ruling it.
Ishmael and his descendants attained, in the form of Islam, the position of a leading world power, and incorporated the Land of Israel into its realm (termed Dar-es-Salam--the "abode of Islam"). Just as Israel was not meant to remain under Pharaoh's rule in ancient times, in modern times --with the termination of its exile and submission under the rule of the nations-- Israel is being re-established in the land of its destiny, the “Land of the Moriah”, or colloquially "Land of the Fathers”. This event puts Ishmael's descendants --Islam and the Arab nations-- to the test as to whether they will yield to their inherited Egyptian/Pharaonic trait, or to Abraham's heritage. Zion is the "test stone" also in this respect (Cf. Is.28:16, where the Hebrew word even bohan means test stone, not tested stone).
In perfect keeping with this, the Koran, the book of the religion of Ishmael, warns its adherents duly and repeatedly not to go in Pharaoh's way (e.g. Surah 73, "Enwrapped," v. 15ff.). The Koran even takes this one step further: it has Pharaoh, when he saw his army drowning, doing repentance, and confessing: "I believe that there is no god but He in Whom the Children of Israel believe; I am of those that surrender" (Surah "Jonah", 92). This is not to be taken as a recommendation to postpone repentance until after the army’s drowning. Rather, it is foremost upon us, the descendants of Abraham via Isaac as well as via Ishmael, to acknowledge the Lord’s supremacy and His statutes; and consequently to recognize our respective vocations for the sake of the benefit of all.
It was for the sake of this end, i.e. in view of the “end of days” [“aharit ha’yamim”], that Sarai/Sarah was kept barren till Ishmael was born; and that Hagar and Ishmael had to return to her, and submit to her, before they could be sent out (as said above).
10) Isaac / Israel
With all this background in mind, let us have again a look at Isaac. Now, we may perceive him not merely as one of the three Patriarchs by line of ancestry; rather, he prefigures Israel’s peculiarity also in so far as its very coming into existence and continuance against all odds are as uncommon as Isaac’s birth and aqedah (“sacrifice”, liter. binding of Isaac): Israel’s exodus from Egypt which was Hagar’s homeland; crossing of the sea; standing at Mount Sinai; 40-years desert roaming; acquisition of the land; survival in the Diaspora; the revival in the country after the Holocaust (like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes); Israel’s growth and prosperity in spite of Arab hostility and boycott, are cases to the point. Some may see in them natural events; some others may try to take issue with them; and there will be also those who “see God’s hand in it, and believe” (cf. Exod. 14:31). This coming to “see, and believe”, is obviously the main reason for, and purpose of Isaac’s aqedah (binding; i.e. binding to the Land of the Moriah); of the Exodus from Egypt then; and now of the “exodus from the lands of the north and from all the lands” (Jer. 16:15): these are visible signs, at least for those who are willing to admit them as such.
While the aqedah story –- significantly told right after Ishmael’s removal and near-death experience as an outcome of his eviction from the country which he was not meant to inherit together with Isaac and his descendants; and after Abraham’s dispute with the local Philistines, Gen. 21:22-33; 22:1 -- is usually depicted as Abraham’s greatest and final test: It culminates after Isaac’s miraculous rescue actually in:
a) the designation of the Moriah as the place where “the LORD will see”, and where “He will be seen” – namely through his rescue of Isaac (Gen. 22:14) which foreshadows the ultimate redemption and elevation of Israel;
b) the eventual reconciliation between Isaac/Israel and Ishmael – after their respective death experiences, as said – a reconciliation foreshadowed by their joining in the burial of their father Abraham in the “Machpelah” (Gen. 25:9-11), i.e. next to the tomb of Sarah who had demanded that Ishmael be “cast out” from the Land which he was not meant to co-inherit with Isaac. Indeed, the Torah informs us that Isaac was living in the land [of Israel]; and Ishmael was “dwelling from Havillah unto Shur”, as said;
c) consequently, in a new attitude all the nations of the earth who
“will bless themselves in thy (=Isaac’s) seed” (Gen. 22:18;
26:4). There, the Hebrew termהתברכו , is a reflexive form
which describes an active attitude of the nations for attaining
the blessing through Isaac’s seed on Mount Moriah, in clear
distinction from the niphal (=passive) form נברכו in Gen. 12:3
which tells us that Abraham was sent unto them for a blessing
without any active involvement of theirs. Prophet Isaiah gives
expression to that new attitude of the nations at the “end of
the days”, in his famous prophecy: “…and many people shall go
and say [[to Israel]], Come ye, and let us go up to the
mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob, and he
will teach us his ways…” (Is. 2:2-5).
Ishmael and his descendants are included in the term “all the nations of the earth”, but it is upon him/them to choose between the blessing in Zion; or else to come to know the Lord G-d of Abraham in the harsh way (cf. Ps. 83).
In that context, let’s have another look into the term “master of archers”, roveh qeshet, by which Ishmael is depicted in Gen. 21:20. It comes right after the telling of his near-death experience in the wilderness, near Beersheva where his mother Hagar is recorded “as sitting a good way off as it were a bow shoot” [kemithaveh qeshet; Gen. 21:16]. “And God was with the lad [=Ishmael], and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer” (liter. “bow shooter”, Gen. 21:20). There, the term “a bow shoot” may indicate that Ishmael who was then at least already 13 years, may have concluded that his life in the “wilderness”, i.e. the deserts in the south of Israel, would have to be sustained by hunting – bow shooting – in all its varieties of hunting and wars. And “God was with the lad”: He would not abandon him, rather, would sustain him also there.
However, that was certainly not the final destiny of him as a son of Abraham who had taken him into the Divine Covenant of circumcision. Hence, it seems to me of significance that the term “qeshet”, bow, occurs here for the second time in the Torah, namely after its mentioning as the sign of God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood: “My (rain)bow = qeshet did I give in the clouds…” (Gen. 9:13): There, the (rain)bow rests on both its ends on the earth and points heavenwards and is a symbol of encompassing all mankind – while the bow (qeshet) of the archer has only one of its two ends upon or near the earth; and is directed against an enemy. That could indeed depict one aspect of Ishmael’s nature, and call. Yet, there is also another aspect: In the rainbow we see the spectrum of the seven colors from red to blue, with the other colors in between. In the course of history, the colors blue got affiliated with Israel (cf. e.g. Exod. 26:31; Numb. 15:38); yellow with the Church; and green with Islam. Green is not a basic color: we get it by blending yellow with blue. Could that indicate that Ishmael’s religion, Islam, is not meant to act perpetually as archer (“bow shooter”) against Israel and Christianity, but rather blend their respective good –Divine- qualities, and yet be distinctive in his own call? We may take a symptomatic saying of the Koran toward that end: “WE have appointed for every nation a holy rite that they shall perform … so be ye forward in good works; unto God shall you return, altogether; and He will tell you of that where you were at variance” (Sura “The Table”, 53; and others). The holy rites appointed for Jews, Christians, and Muslim, may differ, but that does by no means imply a license to transgress them: the one Divine original light should be reflected in purity in the respective colors of the rainbow. “God’s promise is true”; and “every nation shall be summoned unto its Book”, says the Koran (Sura “Hobbling”, 28, 31). That is, Israel will be judged according to the Torah; Christianity according to the Epistles; and the Moslem nations according to the Koran [[note: not according to willful interpretations of the respective Scriptures!]]. Trespasses by Israel and/or Christians might trigger Ishmael to act as bow shooter, but an overacting by the latter would not merely be unacceptable neither to Israel nor to Christianity: it may result in the breaking of his bow (Ps. 37:14,15). For, God “shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His Truth” (Ps. 95:13). And: “He who sits in the heavens – laughs” (Ps. 2:4); and then also Isaac may laugh, as said.
Hence, let’s pray that the Divine original light will be reflected by all of us in purity and harmony, as in the rain bow.
The whole idea of Isaac’s and Israel’s peculiarity is pointedly expressed in several Psalms:
“HE has remembered his mercy and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel, [and] all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our G-d” (98:3);
“…for there [=in Zion] the LORD commanded the blessing, life for evermore” (Ps. 133:3; also 128:5; 134:3)
On the other hand: “…let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion” (Ps. 129:5)
“O praise the Lord, all ye nations,
praise him, all ye people,
For his mercy prevailed over us:
And the truth of the Lord is [then established] forever
Hallelujah” (Ps. 117)
Ishmael, like all the nations, may partake in the blessing of Zion. Indeed, some of his tribes are mentioned for doing so (e.g. Is. 60:7). It is upon Abraham’s descendants to reconcile each with the existence and specific call of the other; and eventually live up to the vision of Ps. 133:1 in an extended way:
“See how good and pleasant it is
sit brethren together also in unison”.
Not only the Tribes of Israel, rather all the sons of Abraham should see themselves as brethren one to the other, each in his respective call yet in peace and unison in the spirit of our Divine Father.
Time table – age of Patriarchs
Name of Patriarch born live span died
Noah 1056 950 years 2007
Shem 1565 600 2165
Arphaxad 1658 438 2096
Salah 1693 433 2126
‘Eber 1723 430 2187
Peleg 1757 209 1996
Re’u 1787 207 1994
Serug 1819 200 2019
Nahor 1849 119 1962
Terah 1878 135 2013
Avram/Abraham 1948 175 2123
Avram left Haran 2023 ( = 367 years after the Flood)
Covenant of Circumcision 2048 ( = 391 years after the Flood)
Ishmael 2034 137 2171
Isaac 2048 180 2228
Jacob 2108 went to Egypt in 2238
a) many ancestors of Avram/Abraham saw his birth (in 1948);
b) the “great feast” on occasion of Isaac’s birth and circumcision could have been attended even by Shem, and ‘Eber [[our sages hold that Jacob attended their school]];.
c) note: Jacob went down to Egypt after all his ancestors had passed away