Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Don't Call Me Ishmael

This week's Torah portion depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent incident in which Sarah urges Abraham to expel Hagar - mother of Abraham's older son Ishmael - from their home, so that Hagar's son would not be a negative influence on Isaac. A discussion of the lessons for our times of this painful and difficult decision by Abraham would be interesting. Several contemporary child-rearing issues come into play, including how much we should shelter/protect our children vs. allow/support exposure to external, potentially harmful influences, as well as the parameters of employing "tough love".

However, for now I'd like to focus on two difficulties in the pshat [simple meaning] of the story itself. First, the Torah goes out of its way to avoid using the name "Ishmael" throughout this episode. At the start, it employs many extra words - "the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she bore to Abraham" instead of just saying "Ishmael". We know the Torah does not waste words - why this lengthy evasion?

A second problem is that Ishmael was at least seventeen years old at the time of this incident, since it occurred after Isaac was weaned at the age of three, and Ishmael was fourteen when Isaac was born. Yet the story clearly implies the boy in question was a small child - Hagar carries him, throws him under a bush, etc.

The midrash steps in to provide explanations for both of these issues. Ishmael's name was avoided in order to emphasize that his bad behavior reflected his mother's views. He was struck by a plague and thus unable to walk, so Hagar had to carry him. Of course, she'd have to be almost supernaturally strong to carry a strapping 17-year-old boy!

It seems to me that there is a much simpler explanation which answers both questions above. The child in question was not Ishmael, but rather another, younger son of Hagar!

Although this idea doesn't appear in any of the meforshim [classic commentaries], it does have some midrashic support of its own. We are told at the end of next week's parsha that Abraham's wife Keturah bore him many additional sons. The midrash identifies Keturah with Hagar. Since we know that "ain mukdam u'meuchar batorah" - that the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order - could it be that some of these subsequent children were born to Keturah/Hagar at an earlier point, and were thus playmates of Isaac?

My theory also harmonizes with the fact that - again according to the midrash - Ishmael continued to be present in Abraham's household on later occasions. E.g., he was one of the lads who accompanied Abraham and Isaac to the Akeida. Whereas, the son in this story is implied to have settled in another land from that point onward.

Again, I'd love to find a well-known meforash who proposes this theory, but meanwhile, even if not otherwise supported, I still think it rings true.


At 11/16/05, 4:38 PM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Since according to the text of the Torah itself Yishma‘eil never actually did anything wrong, and according to the midrashic tradition he ended up repenting whatever bad things he did, it's perfectly possible that Yishma‘eil went back to visit his dad after settling down in the desert.

At 11/17/05, 8:13 AM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

If we're going with the Medrash, the Medrash tells us that Avraham did continue to stay in touch with Yishmael. Once he went to visit and was disappointed with Mrs. Yishmael and left a message that his son could do better. Yishmael heeded his father's advice.

At 11/17/05, 9:13 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Steg, David:

I acknowledge that the fact that Ishmael was around in later years, doesn't strongly support my theory that it was another child who was sent away. But it certainly doesn't disprove it either, and my first two reasons are stronger IMO.

I still wonder if there are any meforshim who suggest this. I've never been able to find one, but of course I haven't done an exhaustive search. Maybe next time I'm in Baltimore I'll spend some time with my dad's library.

At 11/17/05, 6:54 PM, Blogger benros52589 said...

rashi shemos ses ein mukdam meuchar min torah btw concerning yishmael he did teshuva a hear a medrash keep sending pshat

At 11/22/05, 4:27 PM, Anonymous chuck said...

seee rashi 'basher hu shom'
regarding it being yeshmael

oh ya, if a 3 year old rivka can bring water for 10 men & their camels, then hagar can easily carry a 17 year old
remember people were built stronger in those days

At 11/22/05, 4:40 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Chuck: Don't know you well enough to tell whether you're being serious or facetious! (In case it's the former, I'm in the camp that doesn't take the "Rivka was 3" midrash in a literal fashion either.)

Either way, I know that Rashi (based on the gemara) assumes it's Yishmael, and that my theory is not found in any other sources, but I'm kind of fond of it anyway!


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