Ishmael and Israel: From Rivalry to Accord

Posted by on Oct 23, 2021

Ishmael and Israel are the sons of Avraham and the founding fathers of two great nations. Each of them fathered twelve sons, who became the backbones of two peoples: Arabs and Israelites.

While Ishmael and Israel took two quite different and even opposite turns in their development as nations, they share some common traits.

As sons of the common ancestor Avraham, they have much in common. Both nations are regarded as Semites, the descendants of Shem son of Noach, and as such they have akin languages, cultures, and traditions.

However, as sons from different mothers, Hagar and Sarah, respectively, the Ishmaelites and the Israelites have inherited their mothers’ differences. And these differences are as antagonistic as their mothers were.

And this is where the antagonism between Ishmael and Israel began, and our story.

The childless mother

In the ancient world, children cared for their parents in their old age. The purpose of marriage at that time was not simply love and companionship, but it was also to bear children: the more children in the family, the more workforce, and therefore the more chance to survive the family as a whole had. A childless couple would be very vulnerable.

Therefore, a woman who was not able to give offspring was seen as not fulfilling her role in the family.

Ten years after Avram had entered Kana’an, the promise of the heir (Gen 15:4) did not seem likely to be fulfilled, even after the covenant had been made. According to the customs of the ancient world, Sarai resolved to give her Egyptian maid Hagar to her husband, to obtain children through her (Gen 16:1-3).

Avram consented without opposition, because, as the prophet said, he sought the seed promised by Elohim (Mal 2:15). That resolution, however, would prove to be bad as she, the initiator of the plan, was the first to experience its consequences; but she would not be the only one.

The rebellious servant 

A descendant of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael with whom the conflict with Israel began.

A descendant of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael with whom the conflict with Israel began.

When Hagar conceived, whether from jealousy or from rivalry, she looked down on her mistress, and Sarai “became little in her eyes” (Gen 16:4). No one else there to blame but herself, Sarai turned against her husband, saying,

My wrong be upon you! I gave my female servant into your bosom. And when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes. Let Yehovah judge between you and me. (Gen 16:5)

Why does the Torah present Sarai’s complaint directed at Avram when clearly she was angry at Hagar, since it was the servant who despised her? If she was angry with Hagar, it would have been natural for Sarai to target her, not Avram.

When Sarai noticed that Hagar took advantage of her pregnancy to diminish her, she became angry at the very idea that a servant could diminish a mistress. There was every reason to believe that Avram was aware of Hagar’s misconduct. And this could have contributed to Sarai’s anger at her husband’s hesitance  to react to Hagar’s disrespectful behavior.

Even worse, when Avram cohabited with Hagar to obtain a son through her, Hagar in effect had become a free woman legally. And when Hagar assumed the haughty position, it was because she no longer viewed herself as a servant, but as Avram’s legal wife. Hence, Sarai blamed her husband for enabling Hagar to have attained the status of (1) a free woman and (2) a wife.

Seemingly, Sarai ceased expressing anger at Hagar. She now challenged before her husband Hagar’s new legal status as his wife. She did this by emphasizing that it was she who had initiated the relationship between Hagar and Avram, but her wrong was to be upon him.

Sarai gave Hagar to Avram as long as she (Sarai) would remain his wife. Sarai picked up her words very carefully when she said, “Please, go in to my servant” (verse 2). Thus, she made it clear to her husband that Hagar would remain her servant even after he sexually cohabited with her.

Sarai repeated the same term of the agreement even after Hagar conceived: “I have given my servant to your bosom” (verse 5), to stress that Hagar must remain her servant regardless. Also, what was suggested in her words was that any child Hagar would bring forth would belong to her, since Hagar had never been Avram’s servant, but Sarai’s.

Yet, Sarai made a mistake. We read further,

And Sarai Avram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Avram had dwelt ten years in the land of Kana’an, and gave her to Avram her husband to be his wife. (Gen 16:3)

Inadvertently, Sarai thus legalized Hagar as Avram’s wife equal to her; but did she? Because by no means it necessitates the assumption that Sarai could have made such a mistake in the same line of words in which, on one hand, to stress on the status of Hagar as her servant, and on the other hand, to grant her a new legal status as a wife of Avram. Unless we are misreading something in the narrative.

This compels us to consider the question: if that was Sarai’s intention, why is that not made explicit in a direct speech?

We have to explain the verse in accordance with what we have written in the article The Messenger of His Face and How Torah was Given to Israel of Time of Reckoning Ministry, wherein we explained that the entire Book of Genesis is a narration of the messenger of YHVH Mosheh wrote down. We must therefore view this verse as telling us that the words “to be his wife” and the entire verse 3 were not Sarai’s but the messenger’s, who narrated the story to Mosheh.

Upon hearing Sarai’s words, Avraham concurred with her, saying,

Your female servant is in your hand, do to her what is good in your eyes. (Gen 16:6)

With her husband’s disengagement from the conflict between the two women, Sarai began to treat her servant harshly that led to Hagar’s escape from her presence.

Now, the words of Avram in verse 6 can be understood thus: (1) he had never intended that Hagar’s status should change as a result of the new arrangement; (2) originally, Avram thought that Hagar became free and her status had changed from a servant to that of his wife.

Evidently, Avram had not paid close attention to his wife’s words, “Please, go in to my servant“, when she offered Hagar as a surrogate mother, and a surrogate mother only. And this may well be the reason why during the fourteen years that elapsed between the birth of Ishmael and that of Yitschak there is no record that Avram cohabited with Hagar again.

But that was not the only thing Sarai did. To resolve the problem she created, Sarai involved YHVH to judge between them. Her move was perhaps with the intent that (1) only He knew her true motives, (2) she was misunderstood by her husband and taken advantage of,  and (3) because it was YHVH who promised the heir through her (Sarah, the wife of Avraham), not through her servant, it must have been Him alone who could resolve the conflict in the family.

Which of these cases was indeed presented before YHVH to resolve? We do not know, but He did resolve it: in His way, as we will see in the story.

The other side of the conflict

On the other side of the conflict, Hagar becoming aware first of the huge mistake she had made, when she looked down on her mistress, and then of the lose-lose situation she had fallen in as a result of this, decided to flee. Or the other reason she fled was because she did not want to accept the decision that would reduce her again to the status of a servant under Sarai.

In Hagar’s defense, however, had she heard the condition her mistress set before her husband, namely, only to sexually cohabit with her for the purpose of obtaining a child, the outcome of the whole situation could have been quite different, and we would not have talked about this story in the first place. But that thought did not come to Hagar’s mind; her personal pride as a second wife of the master was too great to swallow.

With that said, we have two different legal cases here: (1) Sarai gave her servant to her husband to procure offspring from her, i.e., Hagar was meant to be a surrogate mother (a woman who bears a child for a couple where the wife is unable to do so), and (2) Sarai gave her servant to her husband as a wife to procure offspring from her, thus making her a free woman.

How we will see these legal cases depends on how we interpret the words in verse 3: “And Sarai … gave her to her husband Avram to be his wife“—as the narrator’s words, or as Sarai’s.

It should not occur to us that Sarai could have granted Hagar the status of a second wife in the family. Therefore, the plain reading of the text suggests that these words were of the narrator of the story, for they are presented in an indirect speech. In this case, Sarai had never intended to give Hagar the status of “wife”, and she had the case before her husband and before YHVH.

Had these words however been presented in a direct speech (as her own words), then Sarai had indeed lost the case, and Hagar would have come out as a free woman. But we cannot derive this beyond any reasonable doubt.

But why would the narrator have had the reason to tell the reader that Sarai had given her servant to Avram to be his wife, if she had never had that intent?

The Torah does not make the things obscured but explains them. Perhaps, the narrator wanted to present the case (1) how Hagar had seen herself in that situation, i.e., as Avram’s new wife, and (2) to prove that Sarai’s decision to self-fulfill the promise was altogether wrong.

The messenger took sides

Hagar fled from her mistress, but the messenger of YHVH found her in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. Shur was the name given to the north-western part of the desert of Arabia (see Exo 15:22). Hagar, the Egyptian, no doubt intended to escape to Egypt by the road to Shur.

When the messenger of YHVH called to Hagar (verse 8), he addressed her as “Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid”. We already know that Hagar was Sarai’s servant. Why did he have to repeat it? To make it clear that Hagar had not been released from her duty of a servant, and therefore she had not been made a free woman. We should recall that it was Pharaoh who gave her (together with other male and female servants) to Avram (Gen 12:16).

Hagar’s response “I flee from my mistress Sarai” was in effect an acceptance to her legal status as a servant of her mistress. That the status had not been changed, since she had left Egypt, the messenger reminded her, saying, “Return to your mistress and submit to her“. The messenger did not leave even the slightest hint that Hagar might see herself as a free woman.

But the messenger of YHVH did not leave her without hope. He said to her,

You are with a child and shall call his name Ishmael (“Elohim hears”), because Yehovah has heard your affliction (Gen 16:11).

Hagar returned home and bore a son to Avram, and he gave him the name “Ishmael”. And Avram was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him (Gen 16:16).

YHVH took sides in the future conflict between Ishmael and Israel

When Avram was 99, YHVH appeared to him and established His Covenant of circumcision between Him and Avram, as an everlasting covenant for his seed in their generations (Gen 17:7).

Avram was renamed Avraham in order to become a father of nations and YHVH renewed the Covenant with him to give him the land He promised. Sarai was renamed to Sarah with the promise to give her a son and she too would become a mother of nations (Gen 17:16).

But the term “nations” could include neither the Ishmaelites nor the sons from Keturah (Gen 25:2), all descendants of Avraham, because the promise was through the son who would be born from Sarah: Yitschak, and through him, Ya’akov.

As one of Yitschak’s two sons, Ya’akov continued in the promise given to Avraham. But the twelve sons of Ya’akov-Israel founded only one nation, which inherited the Covenant of YHVH, so that Avraham and Sarah became through Israel the father and mother of one nation only.

So, how could the promise to Avraham and Sarah of becoming father and mother of nations be fulfilled, if they were continued in one nation only?

When the promise says that Avraham and Sarah would become father and mother of nations, the posterity must have extended not only through one people, but also through those who would be grafted into the seed of Avraham (Rom 4:16-17, Romans 11), as we studied this subject in the article The Father and Mother of Many Nations.

Avraham being concerned of his son Ishmael asked YHVH to bless him too. But Elohim said,

No, Sarah your wife is truly bearing a son to you, and you shall call his name Yitschak. And I shall establish My Covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. (Gen 17:19)

He thus made Yitschak Avraham’s sole heir. But concerning Ishmael, YHVH said to Avraham, “I have heard you (your plea)”. And He blessed Ishmael for the sake of Avraham who offered a prayer on his behalf; but not on account of the Covenant, which includes solely Yitzchak (Gen 17:19-21).

Nonetheless, Ishmael was too blessed to become fruitful and a father of twelve tribes. To Hagar YHVH had already said that her son was to be a wild man against every one, who would dwell over all his brothers. This prophecy was fulfilled for the Ishmaelites after more than 2000 years. Once the prophecy came true, the Ishmaelites through their new religion Islam conquered the civilized world like locusts.

But until then, the conflict between Sarah and Hagar went from bad to worse, as the prophecy began to transpire.

The evil act Ishmael did

YHVH remembered Sarah and she conceived and gave birth to the seed of the Covenant, Yitschak; Avraham was 100 years old, and Ishmael was 13, when Yitschak was born.

And the child grew and was weaned and with this the conflict between the former rivals surfaced again.

When Yitschak was weaned and Avraham made a great feast, the situation became ugly. Sarah saw the son of the Egyptian doing something evil to her little son, Yitschak. In her right to protect her son she said to Avraham,

Drive out this female servant and her son, for the son of this female servant shall not inherit with my son, with Yitschak. (Gen 21:10)

And the matter was very evil in the eyes of Avraham because of what his son Ishmael had done (Gen 21:11). But Elohim said to Avraham,

Let it not be evil in your eyes because of the boy and because of your female servant. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice, for in Yitschak your seed is called. (Gen 21:12)

And Avraham sent Hagar with the boy away.

But what happened during the feast that made Sarah settle the problem and the prophecy once and for all?

From the immediate context and from the advice YHVH gave to Avraham to listen to his wife, it is clear to us that Ishmael, the son of the female servant did something evil to Sarah’s son. But what was it?

YHVH emphasized the difference in the status between Ishmael and Yitzchak that through Yitschak Sarah’s seed would be known (verse 12), not through Ishmael. But Ishmael was too to develop into a great nation for the sake of Avraham (Gen 21:13). This statement of YHVH was not new but well known to Avraham, Sarah, and Hagar. We should not assume that Ishmael was unaware of the prophecy despite his early age.

The bitterness in Hagar must have concealed in her heart resentment over the past years. This resentment was passed on her son Ishmael and took the form of extreme hostility. This may explain what happened that day when Yitschak was weaned. But what happened?

In the account, we are only told that Ishmael was “poking fun” at the little Yitschak (Gen 21:8-9). But was Ishmael just mocking Yitschak, or there is something we do not understand here? That word for “mocking” in Hebrew can have a very negative connotation, as we explained in the article Did Really Ishmael Mock the Little Isaac?

The reader is encouraged to refer to the article for a better understanding of the situation. With that being said, it is important to note that in His intervention to set the things right YHVH did not refer to Ishmael as Avraham’s son but as Hagar’s—a fact all in the camp were aware of. Thus, He made it clear that it was time for Hagar and Ishmael to leave in order that only one of the sons of Avraham should remain in the Covenant: the promised seed.

Ishmael’s blessings

Ishmael and his descendants were not left out without blessings and land. On the contrary. To make the dismissal of Ishmael easier to Avraham, YHVH reiterated the promise already given in Gen 17:20 regarding his son: “I will also make a nation from the son of the female servant, because he is your seed“.

The next morning Avraham sent Hagar away with Ishmael. Ishmael must have been 16 years old, when they left, as he was fourteen before Yitschak was born. Hagar and Ishmael left and wandered in the Wilderness of Be’ersheva until they moved south to the Wilderness of Paran where they settled in.

Hagar took a wife for her son Ishmael from her people, the Egyptian, with which the mutual bond between the Ishmaelites and the Egyptians became stronger to last for centuries ahead.

The Wilderness of Paran is a large desert which stretches along the southern border of Kana’an towards the east to the desert of Shur, the north-western part of the desert of Arabia, and extends southwards to the mountains of Horev (Num 10:12). This is the land Ishmael took as a possession for his descendants, and the land wherein the Israelites spent some of the forty years of wandering after the Exodus from Egypt.

It is believed that the specific site where Ishmael settled is Mecca, near the mountains of Paran. Broadly speaking the Wilderness of Paran is the Arabian Peninsula today. This is where the mountain of YHVH Elohim is located: Mount Sinai.

This peninsula comprises today the states of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Most Arabians are ethnic Arabs, and a substantial number of them are able to trace their ancestry back to the people living in the same area.

According to the tradition, from Ismail (Ishmael), son of Ibrahim (Avraham) two Arabian ancestors descended: in the south, al-Arab al-Aribah, and al-Arab al-Musta’ribah in the north. But according to the Bible, the sons of Avraham from Keturah are also included in the Arabian ethnic group. They settled in “the east country” after Avraham sent them away from his son Yitschak (Gen 25:1-6) to form what is known today as the Arab people.

Ishmael and Israel: from rivalry to accord

The rivalry and hostility between Hagar the Egyptian and Sarah spilled out to their children and their children’s children, as the Ishmaelites and the Israelites have inherited their mothers’ characters.

The main conflict between Ishmael and Israel today is not about religion since both peoples believe in one Creator. It is not about riches of the earth, since the Arabs sit on a vast sea of oil. The conflict between Ishmael and Israel boils down to the possession of the Promised Land.

Elohim gave Ishmael and Israel their blessings as promised. As Ishmael took possession of the Wilderness of Paran, his descendants do not have the legal claim on the land promised to Yitschak and his son Israel, because that land had already been promised. Ishmael conquered and occupied vast land rich of oil, while Israel received a tiny little sliver of land, which YHVH promised to him. There is no room for comparison between the blessings given to Ishmael and Israel. Ishmael received his earthly blessing he was after, while Israel still awaits his blessing in the world to come.

There is no legal reason for the Arabs to attempt to lay hands on what has never been promised to Ishmael, but to Israel. The promises to Ishmael and to Israel are two different blessings, two different lands in two different worlds.

What is remarkable though is that both peoples understood that their fathers, Ishmael and Israel, are brothers from a common father—Avraham—and although they are from different mothers, they have much to share than to divide.

It seems that the past has been left behind as more children of Ishmael are willing to join the accord with Israel and leave behind the rivalry of the past.

Continue reading The Abraham Accords – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

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