The Torah states (Genesis 25:9): And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him (Abraham) in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron the Hittite.
Rashi explains that Ishmael repented of his sins, as
evidenced by his allowing Isaac to walk before him (see Bava Basra 16b).
It is difficult to understand, however, how a simple act of respect such as this atones for the sins of idolatry, murder, and adultery, all of which Ishmael committed (see Rashi ibid. 21:9).
Abraham knew that his leaving Egypt when the famine in Israel ended, set the stage for his descendants eventual Exodus from that land.
This explains the desire that he expressed to Sarah, to obtain gifts from the Egyptians. He was setting the precedent for his children to follow when they left Egypt -- to leave laden with gold and silver treasures.
There was, however, another aspect to Abrahams departure from Egypt which was replicated, to disastrous effect, during the national Exodus. This was the addition of Hagar, Pharaohs daughter, to Abrahams family. Her symbolic counterpart was the Eirev
Rav, the riffraff who attached themselves to the Jewish people and
instigated many sins. Initially, however, the Eirev Rav were dazzled by the display of Gds might during the plagues, just as Pharaoh was impressed by Sarahs ability to call upon Gd and His angels to protect her from his advances. A lingering effect of Sarahs defense of
her purity was the extreme level of chastity evinced by the Jewish women in Egypt, which was on so high a level that the one exception, Shlomis bas Divri, is noted in the Torah precisely because she was the only exception.
However, Hagars legacy for all time was Ishmael, at whose
hands the Jewish people suffered, more than from any other nation (see Maimonides, Iggeres Teiman).
The Torah tells of Hagars scorn for her mistress upon learning that she, Hagar, had conceived. She is a hypocrite, thought Hagar. She acts like a righteous woman, but she is not! She did not merit conception all these years, whereas I conceived immediately!1
Subsequent events seemed to confirm Hagars suspicions in her own mind. When she began to belittle Sarah, Sarah responded by increasing Hagars work load to such an extent that Hagar ran away to the desert. While in the desert, she was visited by an angel, who merely told her to return and tolerate Sarahs abuse, without justifying Sarahs behavior. He also blessed her and foretold Ishmaels birth. From this encounter, Hagar left the desert even more convinced of Sarahs wickedness and her own
It was, therefore, with utter disbelief that she heard of Gds prophecy to Abraham (Genesis 17:15-19): ... and I will give you from her (Sarah) a son ... and you shall call him Isaac; I will fulfill my covenant with him as an eternal convenant, and to his seed after him. After convincing herself of Sarahs unworthiness, it was impossible for Hagar to accept that Sarahs son, not hers, would inherit Abrahams legacy. However, the fallacy of her thinking became apparent all
Scripture states (Genesis 21:9): And Sarah saw that the son of Hagar the Egyptian, that she bore to Abraham, was mocking.
This is an allusion to the grave sins that Ishmael committed. It also refers to his constant fighting with Isaac over their inheritance. As the firstborn, he would stridently demand a double portion, and even menace Isaac by occasionally shooting arrows in his direction.
Abraham was greatly saddened upon being told by Sarah of his sons proclivities. He demonstrated his displeasure -- some even call it
hatred (Rashi ibid. 21:14) -- by sending Ishmael away with only bread and water, but no gold or silver. In this incident, Ishmael is deliberately identified as the son of Hagar the Egyptian that she bore. She bears direct responsibility for his slide into degeneracy, for she degraded Sarah in Ishmaels eyes, and thus neutralized that righteous womans
influence over him.
There came a time, though, when Ishmael renounced his sins. The Torah tells of two lads that accompanied Abraham on his way to the
Akeidah (the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac). Rashi identifies these lads as Eliezer and Ishmael. Abraham accepted Ishmael back into his home because he had repented of his evil. This is borne out by Abrahams response to Gds request that he take the son whom you love, and sacrifice him. Abraham replied, I love them both, for he had accepted Ishmaels penitence
However, Ishmaels penitence was not complete. He repented for his sins of idolatry, murder, and adultery; however, he did not recant his denial of Isaacs firstborn status, an idea reinforced by his mother, and he maintained his claim, as Abrahams oldest son, to a double portion of the inheritance. It was only at Abrahams burial, an event redolent of Messianic overtones (as was Jacobs -- see Ramban, Genesis 48:27) that he indicated his acceptance of Isaacs primacy by allowing his
younger brother to walk before him. Only at that point could it be said of Ishmael, as the Midrash states, that he truly repented.
Ishmaels personal odyssey inexorably played itself out in the saga of his people. The Arabs, too, worshiped idolatry, until the advent of Mohammed, who led them to believe in one Gd. However, they continue to deny Isaacs legitimacy to this very day. Just as Ishmael saw the light only at Abrahams burial, the Arab people will do so only with the arrival
of the Messiah.
The issue of Isaacs legitimacy in the eyes of the world was
always cause for study. The Mishnah states (Ethics of the Fathers 5:4)
that Abraham was tested ten times. Both Maimonides and Rabbeinu Yonah
count (as two separate trials) the two times Sarah was abducted: once by Pharaoh and once by Abimelech, the Philistine of Gerar. Although both trials have an obvious common denominator, the test of Abimelech added a new dimension. Since it was only after being abducted by him that Sarah conceived, the talk on the street was that Isaac was Abimelechs child. Would Abraham allow the boorish talk of the multitudes to darken his faith, or would he wholeheartedly believe that Isaac was his son, as Gd had promised him, stating, In Isaac shall your seed be called? This, then, was Abrahams test, one that he passed with flying colors.2
The words of the Netziv (Haamek Davar to
Genesis 18:15) provide a reason for Abimelechs abduction of Sarah. He maintains that this was a punishment for her disbelieving laughter upon being told that she would bear a son. The meaning behind his words, it seems, is that Sarah was being punished measure for measure, a penalty to match the sin. She laughed and said, My husband is old, too old to father children. So in retribution, the riffraff muttered that Isaac was indeed not Abrahams son. This notion continued to undermine the Jewish peoples claim on the land of Israel. For if Isaac were really the son of Abimelech the Philistine, he and his descendants who occupy the land of Israel are all Philistines, not heirs of Abraham. False though it was, a vestige of this claim remained, in that the land of Israel was, for 2,000 years, called Palestine.
The attempt to undermine Isaacs paternity was not confined
to the streets. On the verse that describes Ishmael as a mocker, Sforno explains that Ishmael, too, lent his voice to the clamoring chorus of those denying his brothers lineage. His intention, of course, was to
delegitimize Isaac, and then claim that he was the sole heir of Abraham, thereby inheriting all of Israel for himself. This is in contrast to the understanding of Rashi, who explains (ibid. 21:10) that Ishmael merely
demanded a double portion as the firstborn, not the entire inheritance.
In our times, there are two groups disputing our
possession of Israel: the sons of Ishmael and the Philistines. These stem from the two different ways that Ishmael has treated Isaacs descendants. The sons of Ishmael,
represented by the Arab world as a whole, are resigned, in the framework of world politics, to the necessity of conceding a portion of the land of Israel to us (Sanhedrin 91a). On the other hand, the Philistines (or, to use a more familiar appellation, the
Palestinians), are represented by extremist terrorist groups such as Hamas. They do not wish to yield even an inch in their claims of proprietorship over the entire land.
In a spiritual sense, the source of this bitter strife is Sarah.
In the Rambans opinion, Ishmaels oppression of her descendants is a punishment for her abuse of Hagar. Furthermore, due to her skepticism at Gds promise, she was taken by Abimelech, which cast a
generations-long shadow over the legitimacy of her child.
When Ishmael deferred to Isaac at Abrahams burial, his actions revealed that he admitted both that Isaac was truly Abrahams son, and that Isaac was the true heir. Thus it can be said that Ishmael truly repented. His children followed his lead by rejecting idolatry through their embrace of Islam in Talmudic times. However, we will have to wait until the End of Days to witness the acceptance of Gds prophecy to Abraham, In Isaac shall your seed be called, by the nations of
(Genesis 16:4) notes the fact that it was Hagars conception as a
result of her very first relations with Abraham that prompted her scorn, not the fact of the pregnancy itself (see also Gur Aryeh, ibid.).
2. Isaacs very name indicates this dichotomy. The root of Isaac means laughter. Indeed, the scoffers and the mockers laughed
at him, doubting his parentage; but in the end, it is Isaac who will have the last laugh, when his supremacy will be acknowledged at the End of Days.