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  Chapter 18 from
Templates For The Ages
Historical perspectives through the Torah's lenses

By Rabbi David Cohen 

Other Available Chapters

Ishmael at the End of Days

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 Abraham’s departure from Egypt which was replicated, to disastrous effect, during the national Exodus. This was the addition of Hagar, Pharaoh’s daughter, to Abraham’s 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 G–d’s might during the plagues, just as Pharaoh was impressed by Sarah’s ability to call upon G–d and His angels to protect her from his advances. A lingering effect of Sarah’s 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, Hagar’s 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 Hagar’s 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 Hagar’s suspicions in her own mind. When she began to belittle Sarah, Sarah responded by increasing Hagar’s 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 Sarah’s abuse, without justifying Sarah’s behavior. He also blessed her and foretold Ishmael’s birth. From this encounter, Hagar left the desert even more convinced of Sarah’s wickedness and her own rectitude.

It was, therefore, with utter disbelief that she heard of G–d’s 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 Sarah’s unworthiness, it was impossible for Hagar to accept that Sarah’s son, not hers, would inherit Abraham’s legacy. However, the fallacy of her thinking became apparent all too soon.

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 son’s 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 Ishmael’s eyes, and thus neutralized that righteous woman’s 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 Abraham’s response to G–d’s request that he take the son “whom you love,” and sacrifice him. Abraham replied, “I love them both,” for he had accepted Ishmael’s penitence

However, Ishmael’s penitence was not complete. He repented for his sins of idolatry, murder, and adultery; however, he did not recant his denial of Isaac’s firstborn status, an idea reinforced by his mother, and he maintained his claim, as Abraham’s oldest son, to a double portion of the inheritance. It was only at Abraham’s burial, an event redolent of Messianic overtones (as was Jacob’s -- see Ramban, Genesis 48:27) that he indicated his acceptance of Isaac’s 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.

Ishmael’s 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 G–d. However, they continue to deny Isaac’s legitimacy to this very day. Just as Ishmael saw the light only at Abraham’s burial, the Arab people will do so only with the arrival of the Messiah.

The issue of Isaac’s 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 Abimelech’s 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 G–d had promised him, stating, “In Isaac shall your seed be called”? This, then, was Abraham’s test, one that he passed with flying colors.2

The words of the Netziv (Haamek Davar to Genesis 18:15) provide a reason for Abimelech’s 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 Abraham’s son. This notion continued to undermine the Jewish people’s 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 Isaac’s 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 brother’s 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 Isaac’s 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 Ramban’s opinion, Ishmael’s oppression of her descendants is a punishment for her abuse of Hagar. Furthermore, due to her skepticism at G–d’s promise, she was taken by Abimelech, which cast a generations-long shadow over the legitimacy of her child.

When Ishmael deferred to Isaac at Abraham’s burial, his actions revealed that he admitted both that Isaac was truly Abraham’s 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 G–d’s prophecy to Abraham, “In Isaac shall your seed be called,” by the nations of Ishmael.

1. Rashi (Genesis 16:4) notes the fact that it was Hagar’s 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. Isaac’s 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.
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