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Parashat Vayera

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 Vayera 5760/1999

The Expulsion of Ishmael

Dr. Joseph Fleischman

Dept. of Bible

The laws of the Torah do not permit parents, or even legal authorities, to expel a son or daughter from the home for any reason. According to the Torah, nobody can divest an offspring of his legal status in the household to which he belongs. This was not the practice among other peoples in the ancient Near East: Various codices and ancient legal documents, some even predating the time of Abraham, attest that expelling one's offspring from the parents' home, i.e., divesting a child of his legal status in his father's house, was a legitimate legal procedure in cases of offenses committed against the parents. While the Torah was not lenient about the punishment of a child who committed an offense against his parents-- a child who struck or cursed his parents could be sentenced to death, if proven guilty-- nevertheless he could not be banished for delinquent behavior.

Against this background, this week's reading presents us with an anomaly. For we find that Sarah demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael (21:10). Although Sarah refers to Ishmael as "the son of that slave," there can be no doubt that Ishmael was considered a legal son of Abraham, as is evidenced by the following verses: "Then Abraham took his son Ishmael" (17:23); "his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. Thus Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day" (17:25-26). Furthermore, even Sarah's own words, "Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" (21:10), lead to the conclusion that in her opinion, Ishmael had rights to Abraham's inheritance by virtue of being Abraham's son.

Abraham acceded to Sarah's demand after the Lord instructed him to do so and promised him that Ishmael's future was safeguarded (vv. 12-13). Pursuant to the first paragraph above, the expulsion of Ishmael raises many questions, not the least of which is the grounds on which Sarah demanded that Ishmael be divested of his status as son and heir to Abraham.

Apparently the answer to this question is hinted in the verse, "Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing (metzahek)" (21:9). Some commentators interpret metzahek as "playing" (mesahek). According to this understanding, Ishmael did nothing bad at all, and Sarah demanded that he be expelled for other reasons. For example, Ibn Ezra notes, "that is the way of any youngster [to play], but she was jealous because he was older than her son." Nahmanides explains Ibn Ezra as meaning that Ishmael was only amusing himself as any child would do, and nothing more.

Some commentators say that Sarah was displeased at the idea of Ishmael, her slave-woman's son, playing with Isaac or even getting close to him. Some understand that Sarah, watching the brothers at play, saw this situation as posing a danger to Isaac's status as Abraham's heir. This idea is expressed by the following midrash:

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai said: Rabbi Akiva had words of condemnation for the word metzahek (his words will be cited later), but I have words of praise. This word tzehok refers to none other than inheritance; for when Isaac was born, everyone was happy. Ishmael said to them, "You are fools, for I am the first-born, and I will take a double portion." From the response of the matriarch Sarah to Abraham, that this son of a slave-woman shall not inherit with her son, we learn that he [Ishmael] will not inherit with her son, even if that son were not Isaac, nor with Isaac, even if Isaac were not her son; all the more so, when she says "with my son Isaac." (Midrash Rabbah 53.15)

This idea can also be seen in Rashbam's commentary: "He had grown very much, and she did not want to have him around any more, lest he want to take possession of his father's inheritance with Isaac." As Ishmael grew up, he would pose a more difficult rival to Isaac and ultimately might share the inheritance with Isaac. Sarah decided that Ishmael had to be divested of the status of son and heir forthwith.

Another view holds that metzahek means to scorn, make fun of. In other words, Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of Isaac, or Abraham or Sarah. For example, Nahmanides says:

What seems to me is that this occurred on the day Isaac was weaned, and she saw him making fun of Isaac or of the great feast. Therefore Scripture says, "the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham" and "Ishmael making fun." So she said: a slave who makes fun of his master must die or be beaten; but I do not want that, so only cast him out from my presence, and let him not inherit at all with my son, the son of the mistress. She also said that his mother should be cast out, because the youngster could not leave his mother, for if he left his mother he would die." Rabbi Akiva said metzahek refers to none other than illicit sexual relations, as in: "The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me (leztahek bi)" (Gen. 39:17). This indicates that our matriarch Sarah observed Ishmael behaving disgracefully, chasing married women and forcing himself on them. Rabbi Ishmael teaches that this use of the word tzehok refers to none other than idolatry, as it is said, "They sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance (letzahek)" (Ex. 32:6). From this we learn that Sarah saw Ishmael building platforms, catching grasshoppers, and sacrificing them on them. Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Judah says: this use of the word tzehok refers to none other than bloodshed, as it is said, "Let the young men come forward and engage in single combat (ve-yisahaku) before us" (II Sam. 2:14). Rabbi Azariah said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Ishmael said to Isaac, "Let us go and look at our portion in the field." Ishmael took a bow and arrow and shot towards Isaac, pretending to be playing; as it says, "Like a madman scattering deadly firebrands, arrows, is one who cheats his fellow and says, 'I was only joking'" (Prov. 26:18-19). [This midrash, in slightly different form, is cited by Rashi in his commentary on the verse.]

According to this view, metzahek implies that Ishmael transgressed with respect to one or all three of the sins held to be most grave in the eyes of the Sages: illicit sexual relations, idolatry, or murder.

In my opinion, the plain peshat meaning of metzahek agrees with Rabbi Akiva, meaning to do something forbidden in the realm of sexual behavior. In biblical Hebrew, the verb tz-h-k means both to laugh, joke, play and amuse oneself, as well as to enjoy oneself sexually. Similarly, the Akkadian verb sahu means to laugh, smile, be alluring, entice a person to sexual actions that go against the accepted norm (cf. Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, S, pp. 64-65). Thus we may say that the Akkadian verb sahu and the biblical Hebrew tz-h-k are etymologically parallel.

In the story at hand it seems metzahek should be read as a euphemism for some sexual act for the following reason: metzahek must refer to some extremely grave act performed by Ishmael, sufficient to explain and even justify Sarah's harsh demand. According to this hypothesis, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something sexual which apparently was not consistent with acceptable moral behavior in Abraham's house; this was the reason for her unequivocal demand that Abraham expel the slave-woman and her son. Scripture, indeed, does not state that Sarah told Abraham she had seen Ishmael doing this thing, but we may reasonably assume she told Abraham about it, because she must have given him justification for her demand that he take such cruel action against Ishmael.

[The Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate add the words "Sarah saw Ishmael playing with her son Isaac." Quite likely the addition of these words to verse 21:9 stems from the fact that the Masoretic text without the indirect object appeared incomplete to the translators. If, however, we take metzahek as referring to some sort of sexual act, the verse is complete as it stands; Scripture notes only the fact of his illicit activity but does not go into detail.]

Why is metzahek so grave an act as to justify Ishmael's banishment? In Abraham's first encounter with the Almighty he was asked to sever himself totally from his past (12:1-3), he was required to give himself over to a behavioral particularism so that he could fulfill his calling: "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (12:3), namely, universal monotheism. Abraham understood that even in the land of Canaan he must maintain absolute separateness from the local inhabitants in order to safeguard his uniqueness; therefore he made his servant swear that he would "not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell" (24:3). [Isaac and Rebekah, as well, wished to maintain their religious uniqueness and therefore the Canaanite wives that Esau married "were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah" (26:35). Also Jacob was commanded by his father Isaac, prior to his departure for Padan Aram, "You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women" (28:1).]

The repulsion at the idea of marrying Canaanite women stemmed from their culture and religion, which sanctified sexual permissiveness, as can be concluded from biblical and extra-biblical sources. (See Leviticus, chapter 18.)

For Abraham to attain absolute particularism, i.e., complete severance from his past, G-d changed his name from Abram to Abraham. Abram was a Mesopotamian name, given him by his father Terah, a polytheist. Henceforth Abram would be called Abraham, "for I make you the father of a multitude of nations" (17:5). This quality of Abraham was previously hinted at in the words, "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (12:3).

In addition, G-d gave to Abraham the commandment of circumcision. Circumcision of the males descended from Abraham, as well as all his household, homeborn slaves and those bought from outsiders, was intended to serve as a mark of the covenant between G-d and Abraham's sons and those joining them. Circumcision was intended to distinguish in the clearest possible way between the offspring of Abraham and the members of other cultures. The distinction, symbolized by removing the flesh of the foreskin, meant observing different sexual mores.

Abraham's son Ishmael was circumcised at the age of thirteen (17:25). As Abraham's son, his sexual behavior had to be altogether different from that of the Canaanites, yet Sarah saw him metzahek. If this word is taken as a euphemism for unacceptable sexual behavior, we could say that Sarah saw him committing a most serious offense. Ishmael had not lived up to the rules of behavior expected of Abraham's offspring. Most likely Sarah told Abraham what she had seen and immediately demanded categorically that Abraham banish the slave woman and her son. In her opinion, by his illicit sexual behavior Ishmael had made himself no longer Abraham's son, and thus he remained only "the son of that slave woman".

Abraham now faced a two-fold tragedy. His first-born son had committed a terrible sin, and in addition his wife had demanded that he give Ishmael the most severe punishment known among the peoples of the ancient Near East -- divesting a son of his status as son and heir. While in this terrible plight, the Lord appeared to Abraham and instructed him what to do.

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