Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5763/ October 19, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5763/ October 19, 2002

"O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!"

Dr. Yair Barkai
Jerusalem

Towards the end of this week's highly eventful reading the Lord reveals Himself to Abraham once more, reinforcing yet another time the covenant made between them. He brings him tidings that his destiny is to be "the father of a multitude of nations," changes his name, reiterates the promises of progeny and inheriting the land, and commands him to circumcise himself, his entire household and all his servants, home-born as well as those bought from outsiders. Abraham makes no response to the Lord's words, accepting them with silent consent.

In the second part of the revelation, the Lord announces that Sarai's name is to be changed to Sarah, and adds:

I will bless her;
indeed, I will give you a son by her.
I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations;
Rulers of peoples shall issue from her. (Gen. 17:16)

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed,
As he said to himself,
"Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old,
or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" (17:17)

And Abraham said to G-d,
"O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" (17:18)

On the face of it, the second part of Abraham's response is peculiar: When the Lord brings him tidings of something that he has been longing for ever since his departure from Haran fourteen years before, and he responds with an embarrassed laugh - this is perfectly natural. But what was the meaning of his request to the Lord regarding Ishmael? Was the birth of a son by Sarah conditional on whether Ishmael were to live or die? Could the two not exist together?

The commentators were divided in their opinions on this question, falling into two main categories. The first held that Abraham indeed feared lest the annunciation of the birth of Isaac bring with it tidings of the death of Ishmael. The second approach takes Abraham's response as an expression of modesty: "Lord, You have given me enough!"


Rashi:
If only (hallevai) Ishmael would live,[1] although I am not worthy of such a reward.

Rashi seems to be saying both things, one - that Abraham indeed feared Ishmael's imminent death, and the other - that Abraham, out of his great sense of modesty, did not feel worthy of another son after G-d had given him one son in his old age at Sarah's request.


Nahmanides:
Abraham said that if Ishmael would live, [Abraham] would want the blessing that the Lord had just given him of having offspring through Sarah, since he had been promised at the outset that "none but your very own issue [in the singular] shall be your heir" (Gen. 15:4), indicating that he would have only one heir. Abraham had thought that that heir was Ishmael, but now that he had been told that Sarah would have a child and that that child would be his heir, he feared lest Ishmael die.

According to Ramban, Abraham's fears for Ishmael's life were genuine.

Abarbanel's interpretation is similar:
When he saw that the Lord had destined him to have another son, and that it would happen by way of a miracle rather than nature, and knowing that the Lord does not perform miracles except in dire necessity, he concluded that this indicated one of two possibilities: either the Holy One, blessed be He, knew that Ishmael would soon die and therefore He was preparing another son in his place; or, if he were not destined to die, that it was not His will that the covenant be continued through him, with its promise of the land and closeness to G-d and all the other benefits that went with it, and therefore He would give him another son to receive all this. Therefore Abraham took courage and said to G-d, "O that Ishmael might live by Your favor," by way of question and request, as if to say: If only I knew whether Ishmael will live or is destined to die soon, as would be indicated by Sarah having a son...

Abarbanel adds to Nahmanides' reasoning the issue of a miracle. Since Isaac's birth involved a miracle, and since the Lord had already fulfilled His promise to give Abraham offspring, Abraham thought that the Lord would not perform a miracle needlessly, and hence it must be that Ishmael was likely to die soon.[2]

Yehuda Kiel, author of the Da'at Miqra commentary on Genesis, takes the same line:
"That he might live," and not die, ... and the blessings that his mother received would be fulfilled through him...

In Da'at Miqra another point is raised: the Lord, after all, had promised Hagar that Ishmael would be fruitful and multiply, so how would these blessings be fulfilled if Ishmael were destined to die soon? It is as if Abraham were reminding the Lord of His blessings to Ishmael, and by virtue of their existence was requesting that he remain alive even after the birth of Isaac.

As we said, the second group of commentators attributes Abraham's response to his great modesty, not to his fear that Ishmael might die.

This idea reverberates in as early a text as Midrash Rabbah:
Rabbi Judah cited Rabbi Judan: [It is like] the king's favorite, who received an annual allowance. The king said to him, "I would like to double your allowance," and he answered, "Do not fill me with cold, refreshing water; rather, would that you not terminate what you have been giving me." Thus, O that Ishmael might live.

This parable emphasizes the humble attitude of the king's favorite, who does not think himself worthy of the king's generosity. Yet it also leaves the reader with a sense of the twinge of doubt and insecurity felt by the favored one, that the increase might lead to cancellation of the original allowance, a feeling that if one is too greedy, one loses all; better to settle for a small amount that is secure, than place one's hopes on a large bounty that is in doubt.

Thus the Midrash, like Rashi's commentary with which we began, is at the intersection of the two interpretive approaches.

R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th c. France):
"That is to say, it would have sufficed for me were Ishmael alone to live, and now all the more so. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Both of them shall live, for Isaac shall be born and Ishmael will live."

Clearly, Bekhor Shor sees Abraham's response as a polite figure of speech. One son was enough for me, and now you offer me a second! "O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" has not the slightest implication that he might die.

Radak (Provence, 1160-1235):
In other words: What you have given me - Ishmael - is quite enough, for I am not worthy of this great kindness that you propose to give me in addition. What You have given me suffices, that he may live, meaning a good life of blessing and fruitfulness [and multiplying before You, that is, in Your service]; and through him may You fulfill what You said to me: I will assign this land to your offspring (12:7), for Ishmael is my offspring.

Radak, like Bekhor Shor, emphasizes Abraham's humility, yet his interpretation also reverberates (although not explicitly) with Abraham's fear regarding Ishmael's future. If not, why did Abraham not request the Lord to keep his promises to Ishmael and in parallel fulfill the blessings concerning his offspring and the land, as Isaac blessed Esau and in parallel gave Jacob these two blessings?
Be that as it may, it is clear that Abraham was concerned for Ishmael. Abraham's concern for Ishmael finds expression further on, as well, in chapter 21, where we read of Hagar and Ishmael's expulsion at Sarah's behest. To this Abraham responded:

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. (Gen. 21:11)

He acted on her request only after G-d intervened:
But G-d said to Abraham,
"Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave;
whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says,
for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. (Gen. 21:12)
As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too,
for he is your seed." (Gen. 21:13)

This time, as well, Abraham's mind was not set at ease until G-d explicitly promised to fulfill the blessing given Ishmael, except that here the Torah emphasizes that they would be fulfilled only by virtue of Ishmael being Abraham's son.

The Midrash stresses Abraham's compassion towards Ishmael. It is said there[3] that after having received Sarah's consent, twice Abraham went off to the Paran Desert to visit his son Ishmael. The first time Abraham found a woman in Ishmael's tent whose comportment did not measure up to the hospitality that his son had been bred to give in his father's home. In the message which he conveyed through this woman to Hagar and Ishmael he indicated his displeasure. On his second visit Abraham found another woman who received him graciously, and through her he indicated to his dear ones his satisfaction and pleasure.

The Midrash concludes with the lesson that Ishmael learned from his father's visits:
... and Ishmael knew that thus far father felt mercifully towards him.

Abraham's great concern for his son Ishmael indeed bore fruit; for according to the Sages, Ishmael even returned to the true faith.[4]

Abraham's reward was to have both his sons come to bury him when he died:
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah,... (25:9)
Another favorable result was the Isaac maintained close relations with Ishmael throughout his life.


[1] All emphasis by the author of this article.
[2] Malbim, who often follows Abarbanel, interprets the text similarly.
[3] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30, and Midrash ha-Gadol on Parashat Va-Yera.
[4] Cf. Megillah 14a; also Bava Batra 16b. Cf. Rashi on Gen. 25:17.