Oh That Ishmael Might Live in Peace

Hagar and Ishmael in the desert (Luigi Alois Gillarduzzi, Wikimedia Commons)
Parshat Vayeira continues the narrative of Abraham’s family in Genesis 18. Abraham’s prayer to God in Genesis 17:18, “Oh that Ishmael might live before thee,” came at a very telling moment. God was just revealing to him that his everlasting covenant would be with Sarah’s son, Isaac, and with his seed after him. Rather than accepting this revelation with heartfelt gratitude that the wife of his youth would be so blessed, Abraham laughed and prayed for Ishmael instead.
Abraham’s mysterious prayer for Ishmael despite God’s revelation about Isaac is at once baffling and revealing. What is behind it? What was it about Ishmael that would make Abraham argue with God on his behalf?
Although Sarah was barren for most of her life, she and Abraham had prospered and were growing old together. They were advanced in years, not the best time to start a new family, when God told Abraham that he would make of him a great nation and that his seed would be as numerous as the dust of the earth.
We don’t know how long Abraham had been noticing his wife’s servant girl, but it’s very possible from the way the narrative unfolds that Abraham had already given Hagar more than just a passing glance. Abraham drove the point home to Sarah that he was chosen by God to produce children for a special calling. Hint, hint.
Always the dutiful wife, Sarah understood Abraham’s suggestion. She had no reason to believe at that point that she could be a mother at her age. So as was often the custom in those days, Sarah gave Hagar as a gift to her aged husband, hoping to get some of the credit when Hagar conceived and started the process of building the great nation of which Abraham dreamed.
Hagar subsequently felt that she was Abraham’s favorite because after the night together in the tent when Ishmael was conceived, she became very arrogant toward Sarah in Genesis 16:4. It is unclear if Hagar previously had known that she was the object of Abraham’s affections, but the way Abraham behaved toward her in the tent gave her confidence that his love for her was the real deal.
To Abraham, Hagar was not just for play. An angel of the LORD visited her in Genesis 16:7. She no doubt wept as she recounted how the angel told her by the fountain of Shur that her seed would be greatly multiplied until it could not be numbered for multitude.
God had also told Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. God seemed to be talking to both of them about the same thing. Thus, Hagar seemed to be his spiritual soulmate at that point. He might have expected her to even take care of him as he grew older.
If Abraham had not fully understood how he felt toward Hagar, he would have figured it out when he saw his firstborn son playing upon her knees. The sweet music of Hagar singing Ishmael to sleep would have been enchantment for Abraham’s ears and heart. With every passing day, Abraham’s love for Ishmael and the young woman who bore him would have grown.
Abraham and Ishmael had really bonded during the boy’s first 13 years as only a father and son can. Abraham had gotten really comfortable with the idea that Ishmael was the promised son. He no doubt had taught the boy archery and how to care for the flocks. He probably let the boy try his hand at shearing sheep.
They had spent many nights lying on their backs looking at the stars while Abraham recounted to Ishmael how God had promised to make his seed as numerous as the dust of the earth. When God revealed the covenant of circumcision, it was Ishmael who was circumcised on the very same day with his father. They had both shared the covenant and obeyed God in such a painful and personal way together.
It is not clear that Abraham ever really forgave Sarah for casting out his firstborn son, Ishmael. Just before Parshat Vayeira ends, Abraham moves to Beersheba in Genesis 22:19 after the Akedah while Sarah remains in Hebron.
Why did Abraham go to settle in Beersheba without Sarah? Was the separation a sign of alienation between Abraham and Sarah? Whatever the reason for the separation, Abraham returns to Hebron in Genesis 23 to mourn for Sarah when she dies at the age of 127.
The text is not clear whether Abraham had intended for Sarah to join him in Beersheba or whether she had simply died before she could join him. Had Abraham left her in Hebron because she did not feel well enough for them to make the trip together at that time? If that was the case, then why didn’t Abraham stay with her until she felt well enough to travel?
Did Sarah ever forgive Abraham for almost killing Isaac? What point had he intended to drive home to her by almost killing her son? Was he saying in his old age, “You caused me to lose Ishmael. I’ll show you what it feels like to lose a son.” Yet in the end, he couldn’t sacrifice Isaac just to teach Sarah a lesson. God himself provided the sacrifice.
Ishmael and Hagar are important figures in Islam. Islamic tradition holds that Abraham escorted them to Mecca and then came back for visits. It is also believed that Arabs are descendants of Ishmael.
Abraham married another wife in Genesis 25 and had several more children before dying at the age of 175. Ishmael returned to Hebron and helped Isaac bury their father there.
Too often the descendants of Ishmael have been the perpetrators of horror against their cousins. Too often Israelis have had to drive home the point in a forceful way that terror by Arabs against innocent Jewish civilians will not be tolerated. The children of both Arabs and Jews have suffered.
Palestinians and Jews could live together in peace like Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father so long ago. In order for the descendants of Ishmael to live and prosper in the Land of Israel, they will have to learn to live with us in peace.
Life is just as difficult today in many ways as it was 4,000 years ago. If Ishmael and Isaac could come together to bury their father after all the feuding between their mothers, then their descendants should be able to come together for the sake of peace. After all, we are family.
Oh that Ishmael might live together with us in peace! Imagine the blessings and prosperity that could come to all of us if we learned to work together instead of against one another.
You may write to Yoeli Kaufman at yoeli@israeliupdate.co.il