A Portrait of Yishmael


Dearth of Details

Painting a portrait of Yishmael is a complex challenge, in large part because of the paucity of Biblical source material.  Yishmael himself appears by name in five chapters in the Torah:  Bereshit 16 tells of his birth and the events leading up to it, Bereshit 17 recounts Avraham's concern for Yishmael's future and his circumcision, Bereshit 25 notes Yishmael's role in burying Avraham and records his death and descendants,1 and Bereshit 28 and 36 mention that his daughter2 married Esav.  However, none of these narratives reveal much about the nature of Yishmael's character.

Of course, the main story which could potentially shed light on Yishmael is the account of the banishing of Hagar and her son in Bereshit 21.3  Fascinatingly, though, Yishmael is not mentioned by name even once in this entire chapter, but is rather repeatedly referred to as "הַיֶּלֶד" or "הַנַּעַר"‎.4  Moreover, in most of this story he is a passive character acted upon by others,5 and never once do we hear him speak.6  Thus, Biblical exegetes need to make the most of the small clues which the Torah does provide.

Ambiguous Phrases

There are two verses which are of critical import in evaluating Yishmael's character. The first of these is the description of Yishmael found in the forecast of Hashem's messenger to Hagar in Bereshit 16:


(י) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ ה' הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֵךְ וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. (יא) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ ה' הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל כִּי שָׁמַע ה' אֶל עָנְיֵךְ. (יב) וְהוּא יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו יִשְׁכֹּן.

(10) And the angel of Hashem said to her, "I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will be too many too count."  (11) And the angel of Hashem said to her, "You are pregnant and will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yishmael, because Hashem has heard your affliction.  (12) And he will be a wild ass of a man, his hand on all, and the hand of all on him, and he will dwell alongside of all his brothers."

According to this verse, Yishmael is destined to be a "פֶּרֶא אָדָם" with "יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ".  But are these positive or negative epithets?  On the one hand, the context is one of blessings and answered prayers, but on the other hand, the untamed wildness may hint to a violent nature and future.

The second text lies at the core of Bereshit 21:


(ח) וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת יִצְחָק.  (ט) וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק. (י) וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם בְּנִי עִם יִצְחָק. (יא) וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ. (יב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע. (יג) וְגַם אֶת בֶּן הָאָמָה לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ כִּי זַרְעֲךָ הוּא.

(8) And the child grew up and was weaned, and Avraham made a great feast on the day that Yitzchak was weaned.  (9) And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she has borne to Avraham, laughing (perhaps: mocking).  (10) And she said to Avraham, "Banish this maidservant and her son, for the son of this slave-woman shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak."  (11) The matter was very bad in Avraham's eyes on account of his son.  (12) And God said to Avraham, "Do not let it be bad in your eyes over the lad and over your maidservant, all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for from Yitzchak will your offspring be called.  (13) And I will also make a nation of the son of the maidservant, because he is your offspring."

What is the meaning of the key phrase "מְצַחֵק" – is it innocuous laughter, mean-spirited mocking, or a euphemism for more depraved behavior?  This ambiguity leads commentators to wonder about two additional questions:

  • Is it conceivable that Avraham could have raised a son whose conduct was so heinous that it constituted grounds for expulsion?7
  • Conversely, is it possible that Sarah was so petty that she wanted to banish a son who had done nothing wrong?8

Mixed Messages

In both of Chapters 16 and 21, it is clear that Sarah finds the actions of Hagar and her son to be odious.  The attitudes of Hashem and Avraham, though, are far more equivocal.  While, in Chapter 16, Avraham (perhaps reluctantly) permits Sarah to discipline Hagar, in Chapter 21 there is something which is "bad in his eyes".9  Is this disfavor "עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ" regarding his son's conduct or Sarah's proposed punishment?

Even more perplexing is what to make of Hashem's reaction.  While He enjoins Avraham in no uncertain terms to follow Sarah's instructions to the letter, He also pledges to watch over Yishmael.  This promise is then promptly fulfilled only a few verses later when Heavenly intercession spares the lad from certain death, with the accompanying explanation of "כִּי שָׁמַע אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם".  How should we understand Hashem's verdict regarding the son of Avraham and Hagar?  Is Yishmael evil, deserving of banishment, and saved from death only because of Avraham, or does he have his own merits which earn him special Divine protection?

Eponymous Prototype of Islam?

The relationship between Biblical figures and the nations identified as their progeny is a bidirectional one.  The character traits of ancestors are viewed as influencing their offspring, and the attributes of the descendants are often retrojected upon their forefathers.  In Approaches, as we analyze the various portrayals of Yishmael through the centuries, we must examine whether the advent of Islam and the association of its adherents with Yishmael impacted some of the later perceptions of the Biblical character.10