Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Vayera

By Shlomo Riskin

One of the most difficult stories of the Bible 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. 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; and in both instances the son in question does not return to live with his father.

However, the akeda story cannot be taken as a mere reaction to Abraham’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. 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 Abraham did give them sufficient supplies, but Hagar got lost in the desert. The point of the biblical narratives 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 and this obsession haunts him for life.

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), and she flees. An angel 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). When 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. 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.

And so Isaac, due to his conflicted relationship with Ishmael, is described as going back and forth from Beer-lahai-roi, which is where Eliezer finds him when he presents Rebecca. Rashi even suggests that Isaac returns to Beer-lahai-roi to bring Hagar as a new wife for Abraham after Sarah’s death, since Isaac feels guilty about Ishmael and Hagar’s banishment. And Abraham is buried by Isaac and Ishmael.

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.

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