By Shlomo Riskin
One of the most difficult stories of the Bible – and certainly the complex highlight of Vayera – is the “binding” (and near slaughter) of Isaac, but the tale preceding it may legitimately be called the “binding” (near death) of Ishmael. This occurred when Abram (Abraham), acting on the commandment of God, banishes his eldest son, but without providing him and his mother with enough supplies to survive a desert journey. And perhaps, when the Bible introduces the story of the binding of Isaac with the words, “And it happened after these things…,” the “things” which preceded and even caused the akeda (“near sacrifice”) of Isaac refers to Abraham’s harsh treatment of Ishmael. God is saying, in effect, that if Abraham could send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with only bread and a jug of water, then God will now make Abraham take Isaac to Mount Moriah ostensibly to watch him die.
There seem to be many biblical parallels between the two stories that give credence to this “measure- for-measure” interpretation. In both stories it is God who commands the near sacrifice; in both stories it is an “angel of God” who saves the young men, both of whom are referred to as “na’ar” (youth) rather than “son” in the context of the deus ex machina (Gen. 21:17; 22:11, 12); and in both instances the son in question does not return to live with his father.
However, upon further reflection it seems to me that the akeda story – clearly an important test for Abraham in its own right – cannot be taken as a mere reaction to Abraham’s “niggardly” treatment of Hagar and Ishmael; moreover, Abraham sends his son and mistress away only in acquiescence to God’s command that he listen to Sarah, with the Bible expressly stating that “the matter [of the banishment] was very grievous” in his eyes (21:10-12). Abraham only agrees after hearing God’s promise that “I shall also make the son of this maidservant a nation, because he [too] is of your seed” (21:13).
Hence I believe that Abraham did give them sufficient supplies, but Hagar got lost in the desert. The point of the biblical narratives – and the parallels between them – is not “measure-for-measure punishment,” but to stress the fact that Ishmael is also a son of Abraham, that he too will become a great nation, and that the destinies of both will always be intertwined. Indeed, because Ishmael has been so significantly blessed by God, Isaac seems to be almost obsessed with him – or at least with the place where God promised greatness to Hagar’s son – and this obsession haunts him for life.
You will remember that when Hagar first becomes pregnant and Sarai (Sarah) is still barren, Hagar behaves superciliously toward her. In response, Sarai treats Hagar as a handmaiden again (rather than as an equal wife, as the Code of Hammurabi ordains), and she flees. An angel of the Lord finds her, exhorts her to return to Sarai as a handmaiden, and then grants the following blessing: “I shall increase, yes, increase your seed, and they shall not be able to be counted because they are so numerous… and behold you are pregnant and shall bear a son. Call his name Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your affliction [at the hands of Sarai].
He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand over everything and everyone’s hand against him; and in the face of all his brethren shall he dwell” (16:9-11).
This blessing of Hagar’s seed parallels the blessing that God had just given to Abraham’s seed: “Look now heavenwards and count the stars; you cannot count them; so shall be your seed” (15:5). And when, in the next chapter, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, reflecting his destiny to be the father of a multitude of nations, Isaac will wonder whether the main heir to the Abrahamic patrimony is Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn! The place where God bestows this Abrahamic blessing on Hagar’s seed is a well between Kadesh and Bered which Hagar names “the well for the Living God who looked after me,” Beer-lahai-roi (16:13, 14). And even though later on, when Abraham is told by God to banish Hagar and Ishmael because Ishmael is “mocking” around Isaac, God promises Abraham that “through Isaac shall be called your [covenantal] seed” (21:12).
Yet God still saves Ishmael’s life and guarantees that He will make from him “a great nation” (21:18).
Hence Isaac spends his life both attracted to the more aggressive firstborn Ishmael, who will also father a great nation, and jealous of the brother who may well have been his father’s favorite – after all, when God informs the 99-year-old Abraham that his 89-year-old wife would become pregnant, the patriarch responds: “Would that Ishmael may live before thee!” (17:18). Isaac is, after all, rather meek – witness how reluctant he is to get into any kind of battle with Abimelech, even though the king of Gerar has reneged on a contract – and he may well fear that Abraham favors the more aggressive Ishmael. He may even have suspected that his father wanted to see him dead at the akeda to clear the way for Ishmael, and therefore doesn’t return with his father to Beersheba afterward; we only find Isaac with Abraham at the end of Abraham’s life. Isaac is jealous, but is also guilt-ridden.
Ishmael is after all the firstborn, who is banished and whose mother is banished because of him. And Isaac is also filled with feelings of unworthiness because of his lack of self-assertiveness.
And so Isaac, due to his conflicted relationship with Ishmael, is described as going back and forth from Beer-lahai-roi (“bo mibo” – literally coming from coming, Gen. 24:62, 63), which is where Eliezer finds him when he presents Rebecca. And Rashi even suggests that Isaac returns to Beer-lahai-roi to bring Hagar as a new wife for Abraham after Sarah’s death; Isaac serves as shadchan (“matchmaker”), since he feels guilty about Ishmael and Hagar’s banishment. And Abraham is buried by “Isaac and Ishmael his sons” – the Midrash says that Ishmael returned and repented – after which “Isaac dwelt in Beer-lahai-roi” (25:8-11).
The chapter concludes with the 12 “princes of nations” born to Ishmael, paralleling Isaac’s 12 grandsons and tribes. Ishmael and Isaac are involved in a kind of perpetual approach-avoidance dance wherein they see each other as rivals but come to recognize that they must learn to live together in the same part of the world, where each will develop into a great nation.
Abraham is indeed the father of a multitude of nations.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.