Really Ishmael Mocked the Little Isaac?
Most if not all translations say that Ishmael, the son of Avraham from the Egyptian Hagar, “mocked” the little Yitschak (Isaac), while JPS renders the verb in question as “making sport”. But what did really happen between Ishmael and Yitschak? Are the translation correct to say that Ishmael mocked Isaac? Did he just mock, or there is something we misread? We read,
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. (Gen 21:9)
Elohim told Avraham in Gen 15:13-16 that his seed was to be sojourners in a land that was not theirs and would serve and be afflicted for 400 years. And this is interpreted by many that Israel was in Egypt 400 years.
However, in Exo 12:40-41 we see that the sojourn of Israel in Egypt was 430 years. Is there any contradiction in the Scripture and how does Ishmael’s mocking relate to Gen 15:13-16 and Exo 12:40-41? Let us reason together.
According to Gen 16:15-16, Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born by an Egyptian woman. But the “seed” of the covenant, Isaac, was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Gen 17:19-21), therefore at the Isaac’s birth Ishmael was 14 years old. On the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham’s Egyptian son, Ishmael, was “poking fun” at him (Gen 21:8-9). According to archaeological evidence, the children in the Ancient Near East were weaned between three and five years of age [per Gen. Rabbah 53:10, Keth. 60a, at the end of twenty-four months], then it is possible that Ishmael was between 17 to 19 years old and Isaac, 3-5 years old when the mocking occurred, and Ishmael was expelled.
Tsachaq‘s application as a sexual play can be seen in Gen 26:8 where Yitschak and Rivqah were involved in a sexual play.
And it came to be, when he had been there a long time, that Avimelek sovereign of the Philistines looked through a window, and he watched and saw Yitschak playing with (צָחַק tsachaq) Rivqah his wife. (Gen 26:8)
This Hebrew word צָחַק tsachaq can have an expression of idolatry in the golden calf sin, as idolatry with idols is likened to whoring:
And they rose early on the next day, and offered ascending offerings, and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play (צָחַק tsachaq). (Exo 32:6)
And an expression of illicit sexual relations, as it is said in Gen 39:17, where the Yoseph’s mistress falsely accused him of an attempt for rape:
And she spoke to him these same words, saying, “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came into me, to mock me (צָחַק tsachaq), so it came to be, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside.” (Gen 39:17-18)
Or, we may simply say that tsachaq in its simple meaning “to poke” can be translated depending on what one pokes with. Therefore, we may conclude that the Hebrew word צָחַק tsachaq for “mocking” can have a negative connotation and Gen 21:9 can be translated as:
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, (צָחַק tsachaq) molesting.
In support of this understanding of what happened between Ishmael and Yitschak, Apostle Shaul makes the same point in his Epistle to the Galatians where he says that Ishmael persecuted Yitschak (see also Mid. Rab. Exodus 1:1 and Mid Rab Genesis 53:11):
But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him born according to the Breath, so also now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the female servant and her son, for the son of the female servant shall by no means be heir with the son of the free woman.” (Gal 4:29-30)
But when did Ishmael persecute Yitschak? Never. There is no such an account of maltreatment in Genesis except in verse 9.
If the translations have made the verse “easy to read”, i.e., Ishmael mocked Isaac, and a molestation was what indeed happened, then that was the beginning of the “affliction” of the seed of Avraham (Gen 15:13), and the Exodus occurred 400 years later from that point. Therefore, Gen 15:13 and Exo 12:40-41 are two statements for two different events.
For more information on the years Israel was in Egypt, refer to Chapter In the Beginning from the present author’s book The Reckoning of Time.
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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!