Casting out Ishmael

God was very hard on Abraham’s relationship with his kids. Despite the fact that he would be “a great nation”, the choices (and commands) that God gave Abraham only served to separate him from his family. While the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is better known, it must have been all the more heart-wrenching to Abraham for one often overlooked reason: he had already sacrificed his fatherhood for his real first-born son. When God commanded him later to “Take now thy son, thine only son,” when he took Isaac up the mountain, those words must have stung twice over: both with regret for the son he had already lost, as much as for the one that he knew he was soon to lose.

After a long break with posts about holidays and marriage, I have returned to the Genesis stories. (The last was the second wife-sister story, where Abraham first meets Abimelech.) This will begin a short cycle (with one intermission to return to the Abimelech story) that will ultimately result in the loss of everything Abraham ever loved: Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and finally Sarah.

Read on!

Abraham Sends away Hagar and Ishmael
Abraham Sends away Hagar and Ishmael (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Genesis 22 brings good news: Isaac is finally born to Abraham and Sarah. The couple are gleeful and Sarah laughs at the absurdity of her having an infant at such a late age. (This is a pun based on Isaac’s name, which may translate to “he laughs” or “he will laugh”.) But underneath this mirth is a difficult truth: that Hagar and Ishmael are no longer needed surrogates. And within a few months time, possibly a little longer, Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar returned. This wasn’t new, of course, Hagar had already fled from her mistress’s hand once (in Genesis 16) and only returned at God’s insistence.

Just like in that story, the final straw for Sarah is the perception that these surrogates were acting above their station. In Genesis 16, Sarah felt that she “was despised in [Hagar’s] eyes”, in other words that Hagar didn’t look up to her or may have been jealous of her. (Though it seems the inverse may have been true.) In Genesis 22, now the problem appears to be between Ishmael and Isaac:

And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

Genesis 21:8-9

During the great feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning (making him a toddler, perhaps two), Ishmael “makes sport” with Isaac. Depending on the translation, this has been rendered either as Ishmael playing with Isaac (as a brother may play with another brother) or making fun of Isaac. Regardless of whether this was innocent play or childish teasing, Sarah would have none of it. Presumably she halted the festivities for this unkind proclamation:

Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’

Genesis 21:10

And perhaps this wording tells what Sarah’s real problem with Ishmael was: he would have been joint-heir, perhaps even the primary heir as the first-born. In her anger, she doesn’t even refer to Hagar as a wife, or even as a handmaid, but as a bond servant, essentially a slave. If that doesn’t underline her view of Hagar’s social status, I don’t know what does.

And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’

Genesis 21:11-13

Abraham doesn’t really want to do this, though not on Hagar’s account. He loved Ishmael as a son, his first son. Ishmael was fifteen years old at this point, perhaps legally an adult but not yet a man. Ishmael and Abraham were even circumcised together in a covenant with God and if that isn’t father-son bonding, I don’t know what is. (Genesis 17:26)

But, God commanded it and so Abraham followed. He let go of his first-born son and his second wife, sending

Ishmael and Hagar Visited by an Angel
Ishmael and Hagar Visited by an Angel (source: Wikimedia Commons)

them to the desert. He knew that Ishmael would “make a nation” and so would survive this ordeal, but he would not survive it with a father. What must Abraham have felt about that? What could any father feel in that circumstance?

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

Genesis 21:14

To make matters worse, Abraham didn’t even give them enough supplies to last them a trip: only a bottle of water and bread. He knew God would provide, so why give them more? Maybe he secretly hoped they wouldn’t go far. But this seems ultimately a selfish act. Ishmael was his son, and even if he didn’t consider Hagar his wife, he could have supplied servants or donkeys, livestock or money. Abraham was a wealthy man. And what must the pair of them have thought, being cast out of home with barely enough to eat and drink to make it to the next town, let alone a new life? If I were Ishmael, I’d be hurt. His father betrayed him. He doesn’t know that God told him to. And, if he did, would he have cared?

And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.

Genesis 21:15-16

Eventually, these spartan provisions run out. Ishmael was apparently the first to succumb to the heat and the lack of food. She placed him under a shrub, perhaps for shade, and sat a distance away. She couldn’t stand to hear his cries, as she cried herself. It’s a powerful image of desperation.

And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.

Genesis 21:17-21

Ishmael the Archer
Ishmael the Archer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And in this moment of desperation, God appeared to Hagar again. Unlike the last time, he didn’t command her to return to Sarah. This time, he opened her eyes to the water that was already there (a metaphor for offering her self-sufficiency, if I’ve ever heard one) and they lived. They more than lived: they thrived. Ishmael grew to adulthood and became an archer. (The very first in the Torah, though he probably didn’t invent archery.)

This isn’t the end of the Ishmael story (he has a very touching moment in Genesis 25), but it is the end of Hagar’s story. And it’s not a fitting end for a woman that put up with as much as she did.

Up next:  A few more words about the Ishmael story, then a return to Abimelech.

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