The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayera 5758-1997
What had Sarah seen?
Department of Bible
"And Sarah saw the son, whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, making sport (metzahek)" (Gen. 21:9). This verse is the Torah's principal explanation why Sarah demanded that Abraham banish Ishmael. However, what she herself says points to another reason: "For the son of this slave-woman shall not be share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" (v. 10). In the Tosefta (Sotah 6:6) we see differences of opinion on the matter even among the Tannaim:
But I say, Heaven forbid such a person exist in the house of so righteous a man! How could there be idolatry, sexual licentiousness and bloodshed in the home of him, of whom it is said, "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children, ..." (Gen. 18:19). Therefore "sport" (tshok) here can refer only to the matter of inheritance; for when Isaac was born to Abraham, everyone rejoiced, saying, "Abraham has had a son, a son who shall inherit the world and take a double portion!" So Ishmael laughed to himself, saying, "Do not be silly; I am the firstborn, and I shall take a double portion." Indeed, we may infer this from Sarah's response: "For the son of this slave-woman shall not inherit" (v.10). My interpretation is more sound than that of R. Akiva.
R. Simeon b. Yohai's view appears closer to the plain sense of the text, since it relies on an explicit remark made by Sarah, in contrast to the other interpretations based on the obscure verb letzahek (playing, making sport, etc.), which can be understood in a variety of ways. His approach, however, raises two questions: What claim could Ishmael make to the inheritance? It is clear from Genesis 16 that Hagar was and remained Sarah's maidservant. To wit: "Abraham said to Sarai, "Your maid is in your hand; deal with her as you think right" (v. 6); Hagar acknowledges, "I flee from my mistress Sarai" (v. 8); and in chapter 21, Sarah calls her a "slave-woman" (v. 10). Hence, any property that might fall into the hands of Ishmael, the "son of the slave-woman,"--even by inheritance-- belongs to Sarah and ultimately would be Isaac's.
Indeed, Genesis Rabbah 45:1 describes Hagar's status as a "usufructuary handmaid," a servant brought into the marriage as part of the dowry. Ketubbot 79b states that "the animals born by a usufructuary animal belong to the husband, and the children born by a usufructuary handmaid belong to the wife." If such is the case, it is hard to understand why Sarah preferred to banish her servants, by saying "Cast out that slave-woman" (v.10), thus setting them free, rather than have them remain subservient to her, their property being in her control by virtue of the law that "whatever a servant acquires, is acquired by his master" (Pesahim 88b).
Secondly, G-d's reaction is also hard to understand: Why did Sarah receive such far-reaching backing from the Almighty, who gave her carte blanche for whatever she wished to do ("Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says" - Gen. 21:12)? This was a petty dispute over inheritance which could easily have been resolved in any human court of law according to the legal practice of the times?
Only the interpretation offered by R. Akiva and the other Sages can resolve these difficulties. Sarah perceives that Isaac is being endangered, either spiritually because of Ishmael's departure from the way he was educated in Abraham's house, or physically by a threat on Isaac's life. Both types of danger stem from the great difference in age between Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:16) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (Gen. 21:5); thus little Isaac was likely to emulate his older brother, fourteen years his senior, since an older brother is often much admired by the younger; but the age difference can also lead the older brother to feel frustrated, having been considered the sole heir of his father's wealth for many years, and suddenly being displaced by a younger brother whose claim to the inheritance has greater validity, as the son of the chief wife. How tempting it must have been for the older brother, a "wild ass of a man" (16:12) whose "hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him," (ibid.) to stage a little mishap for the tender young child!
Close examination of our text shows that Sarah viewed Ishmael as a son whose affiliation to Abraham was secondary; he was first and foremost "the son of Hagar", who indeed "bore him to Abraham," but she was the one who impressed her culture upon the child -- the culture of Egypt. This culture was the product of the disgraceful behavior of Ham, ancestor of the ancient Egyptians, who knew no respect for his father. It was a culture of illicit sexual practices and bloodshed; the Egyptians had no qualms about stealing a man's wife, hence the life of a man who had a beautiful wife was always in jeopardy (cf. Gen. 12:10ff).
When Sarah addressed Abraham, she stressed Ishmael's belonging to Hagar, "the son of the bondwoman," in contrast to other places where the Torah calls Ishmael the "son of Abraham." Apparently, G-d agreed with Sarah and severed the tie between Abraham and Ishmael; though Abraham found the entire affair troublesome "for it concerned a son of his," G-d said to him, "Do not be distressed over the lad" (Gen. 21:11-12).
But if Sarah's main concern was Isaac's spiritual and physical welfare, why did Sarah dwell on the issue of inheritance? Knowing some of the prevalent legal practices at the time of the patriarchs helps explain why, despite her being the mistress of Hagar and Ishmael, she demanded that Abraham banish them. Articles 170 and 171 of the Code of Hammurabi regulate questions of inheritance among brothers born to mothers of different status -- mistress and maid. The father's behavior in his lifetime towards sons born to him by a maidservant determined whether or not they would inherit from him. If, during his life, the father treated them as sons in every respect, calling them "my sons," then they would inherit equally along with the sons of the mistress; if the father did not relate to them in this way, they would not share the inheritance with their brothers, yet neither would they remain their slaves, rather they would be set free upon the father's death. If Sarah wished to keep Isaac away from the pernicious influence of Hagar and Ishmael during Abraham's lifetime, she could not do so by selling them as slaves to some far-away place; for article 146 of the Code of Hammurabi discusses a similar case to that of Hagar becoming haughty towards her mistress because she had born her master a son, and there it is ruled that the mistress may demote her to her former status of maidservant but may not sell her. We may reasonably assume that this law also applied to the son of the maidservant. Hence Sarah could only remove the wild man Ishmael by banishing him, but since Abraham had treated Ishmael as his son from the child's birth, banishing him would be tantamount to giving Ishmael a reward: even though he had not adopted his father's spiritual values, upon his father's death he would be eligible to receive his inheritance, which was in part spiritual, and as a free man his property would not be subject to control by Isaac. However, if Abraham himself were to banish the son born him by his maidservant, that would be tantamount to declaring him not a legitimate heir and would express his dissatisfaction with Ishmael's actions, behavior which apparently led to G-d's directive, "in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee (21:12)," notwithstanding the fact that "As for the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation of him, too, because he is your seed" (Gen. 21:13).
Sarah's clairvoyance warded off violent confrontation between Isaac and Ishmael, unlike the way relations developed between Jacob and Esau. Ultimately Ishmael recognized his own spiritual inadequacy and Isaac's superiority. However he also viewed Isaac as a brother, as emerges from the account of their next meeting: "And Abraham expired, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him" (Gen. 25:8-9), on which Genesis Rabbah 62:3 remarks, "Here the son of the bondwoman paid homage to the son of the mistress."
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