Can Bible Stories Be Spiritually True, But Factually False? (Ishmael and Isaac’s Ages)

The Bible overall, but especially Genesis, is a collection of stories. These stories were stitched together (either by man or God, it doesn’t matter) to make theological or historical points. I’ve made a big deal out of ages and timelines in the last couple of posts because I love facts. I love nuggets of information that I can hold on to and draw context with. Genealogical tables, lists of place names, and timelines all fascinate me in the bible and I’ve done posts about all three.

The truth is though, that sometimes it seems like the author didn’t care about all of that. Some stories appear to be spiritually true more than they are historically true, or even true relative to other stories. This happens in the Proverbs (some of which directly contradict each other), this happens in Numbers (the inflated population figures), and it happens in Genesis. The ages of Isaac and Ishmael is one of those “truths”.

What do I mean? Well, I guess you’ll have to keep reading…

First, let’s look at Ishmael’s last story, when he and Hagar were cast out of Abraham’s house shortly after Isaac was born. This was the second time that Hagar left Abraham’s household, but this time it was with God’s blessing. Abraham provider her and Ishmael some bread and water and shoved them out the door:

 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

Engraving of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out. Ishmael is depicted as being a young child, hardly more than a toddler.
It’s a powerful image: Hagar leaving Abraham’s household with bread and water and an infant strapped to her back. And it continues:

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

Water ran low. Hagar placed the baby Ishmael under a shrub for shade, then sat a “bowshot” away. She knew that without water soon, the baby would die and should could not stand to see it. Thankfully, God heard the child’s cries and rescued the family and watched over them.

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.

Genesis 21:17-19

It’s a powerful story. It shows the callousness which Abraham cast out his firstborn son, as well as the mercy of God would came down to rescue the pair. They would not be as holy as the children of Isaac, but God had made a special place for them and would not let them suffer.

And the beauty of that story is not diminished by the fact that it couldn’t have happened as written. When Hagar and Ishmael were sent out, Ishmael was at least fourteen years old. Do the math: Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16) and 100 when Isaac was born. Hagar was cast out sometime, perhaps a few months to a few years later, but the YOUNGEST that Ishmael can be during that story is 14. And it just doesn’t make sense for a 14-year old to be carried on his mother’s back and to be powerless as his mother places him under a bush to die.

But other artists portray Ishmael as much older in the same story.

We can make excuses: Maybe Ishmael was sick that day. Maybe he was unable to walk until God rescued him at the well. Jewish traditions (Rashi again) say that Sarah placed a curse on Ishmael, withering him until he could not walk. We could just be dealing with a mistranslation and “on her shoulder” is an idiom for granting custody or similar. But these excuses reduce the power of a simple story, of a mother and her helpless infant child alone in the world except for God. The story is more important than every fact aligning just right.

Now, re-read the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22:

And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’ And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ And Abraham said: ‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.  And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Genesis 22:5-10

Isaac’s age isn’t as unambiguous as Ishmael’s was in the previous story, but when I read this I still see a young teen. The timeline makes the most sense if Isaac is 35, but this is at its heart a story of a boy that trusts his father so completely that he would allow his father to bind him on the sacrificial altar. Abraham could hardly have forced a teenager, let along a 35-year old man, to lay down like that. It’s a beautiful image and nicely parallels God swooping down to save Ishmael in the desert. And it’s a better story when you don’t need it to be absolutely factual.

Does that mean I’ll be paying less attention to dates and places? Absolutely not. But I wanted to share that my love for the former does not diminish my respect for the stories that are told in the Bible, even when they don’t always line up.

Others have wrestled with this question before me. Here’s a different answer from Answering Islam. (Ishmael is a very important figure in Islam.)

Next up: Back on track to buying a burial plot, I think. And (soon) a return to bible genealogy.

One thought on “Can Bible Stories Be Spiritually True, But Factually False? (Ishmael and Isaac’s Ages)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *