Torah Commentary on Chayei Sarah by Bettijane Eisenpreis

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Parashah for November 11, 2023

Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis

This is the line of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names in the order of their birth: Nabaioth, the first-born of Ishmael, Kedar, Abdeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedmah.”

Genesis 25:12-15 

The Bible likes younger sons. Time and again, the firstborn, the nominal heir, gets pushed aside in favor of the second son. It starts at the very beginning, with Cain: God prefers the sacrifice of second son Abel and Cain gets so jealous he kills Abel. Isaac is the second son, as is Jacob. Joseph is the next-to-last of twelve sons. We know that the older son is supposed to be the heir, but just letting him inherit wouldn’t make a good story, and the Bible is all about stories.

At the very end of the story of Abraham, the Biblical authors go back to Abraham’s elder son Ishmael, the child of Sarah’s servant, Hagar, and enumerate his sons – twelve in all. However, the Bible states firmly that Isaac was Abraham’s only heir, even though, when Abraham died, Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury him.

It seems to me that Ishmael got a bad deal. First, Abraham, at the insistence of Sarah, sent Ishmael and his mother out to the desert to die. However, God intervened and Hagar and Ishmael were saved. Then, when Abraham was circumcised as an adult, he had Ishmael circumcised as well, whether Ishmael wanted it or not. Surely that hurt, both physically and emotionally!

There was never any doubt, from the moment Sarah became pregnant, that Isaac would be Abraham’s heir and one of the fathers of the people Israel. Yet what did he do to deserve it? When it was time for Isaac to take a wife, Abraham sent his servant, Eleazar, to bargain for Rebecca. Eleazar succeeded spectacularly, but that didn’t reflect well on Isaac.

I hate to say it, but Isaac was a bit of a wimp. When Rebecca arrived to meet him, he was off somewhere grieving for his dead mother. “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

For any woman who has had to compete with a mother-in-law, this story strikes a responsive chord. And the mother-in-law wasn’t even alive! I can just imagine what Rebecca thought. “Gee, thanks Isaac! I do and do and do for you and all I get is thanks for making you feel less sad about losing your mother.”

But back to Ishmael. He may not have achieved the favor of his father, Abraham, but he didn’t just wither away and disappear. The Bible states that he became the father of twelve sons and those sons were the progenitors of twelve tribes, just like the twelve sons of Jacob.  The fact that he joined his brother Jacob in burying his father emphasizes his legitimacy as a son of Abraham.

We haven’t heard the last of the Ishmaelites. Read the headlines: they may be with us today!

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