Chapter 21 opens with a description of the birth of Yitzchak and the celebration to mark his weaning. This happy scene is immediately spoiled when Sarah sees Yishmael "מְצַחֵק" (lit. laughing) and commands Avraham to banish and disinherit his son:
(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.
(9) Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. (10) Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this handmaid and her son! For the son of this handmaid will not be heir with my son, Isaac.”
What is the nature of Yishmael's "צחוק" and why does it bother Sarah? Does it refer to innocent laughter and play or degrading mockery? Or, perhaps, is it a euphemism for more heinous deeds? If it was only innocent child's play, is it possible that the righteous Sarah would be ready to expel a son who had done no wrong? On the other hand, is it conceivable that a son brought up in Avraham's household would have committed crimes so terrible that he deserved expulsion?
The ambiguity of the term "מְצַחֵק" notwithstanding, Sarah's demand to banish Yishmael seems unduly harsh, and even Avraham at first appears disinclined to heed her words ("וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ"). A reader, though, who might have expected Hashem to intervene and reprimand Sarah, is surprised to learn that Hashem does the exact opposite:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע.
God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be grievous in your sight because of the boy, and because of your handmaid. In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice. For from Isaac will your seed be called.
Hashem apparently finds no fault in Sarah, and He even directs Avraham to abide by her instructions. This Divine endorsement suggests that more is going on in this story than meets the eye and that a re-evaluation of the actions of both Yishmael and Sarah may be necessary.
Other aspects of the treatment of Hagar and Yishmael are also troubling:
- "גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת" – If Yishmael was the guilty party, why does Sarah demand that Hagar be banished as well?
- Meager provisions? The text shares that Avraham supplied Hagar with bread and a flask of water, which ran out in the wilderness, leaving Yishmael on the verge of death. Why did Avraham not supply Hagar and Yishmael with ample provisions for their journey?
- Hashem's promises to Yishmael – In the desert, Hashem intercedes to save Yishmael and pledges that he will become a great nation. If Hashem deemed Yishmael worthy of banishment, why does He simultaneously perform miracles for him and promise him greatness?