Biblical Portraits: Abraham – Finale

In my last post I wrote that, even after Isaac was born, Abraham still loved his firstborn son as strongly and as tenderly as he had loved him all those years, when Ishmael had been his only child. I promised you that I would prove it from the Scriptures. Let’s find this proof, then.

We are in chapter 21 of Genesis. Isaac was born, grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned.[1] And now we come to one of those puzzling scenes in the Bible (there are many like this) when a reader can endlessly guess what happened, because all we are given to know is the result. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… scoffing.[2] What did Sarah see?

Years ago, I happened upon the large family of a friend as they were all in the middle of a boisterous family fight. As I approached (and there was nowhere for me to escape to), they were still screaming at one another and gesticulating wildly. When I got closer, they halted abruptly, all of them standing around in silence. Their faces were red, some eyes were teary, they all looked miserable, and the whole scene was very unpleasant and awkward. We all felt extremely uncomfortable and nobody knew what to say on such an unfortunate occasion. Then the mother looked at me with a forced smile and with great dignity, she said: “We’ve been having some family dynamics!”

I can imagine that something similar was going on here. As Abraham approached the scene, he could probably see the violent gestures and hear the two women screaming at each other. It is at this point of “family dynamics” that Abraham is challenged by his infuriated wife to cast out his firstborn, Ishmael: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” Sarah’s words just summed up this whole scene of “family dynamics,” which I can imagine contained everything from the aforementioned scene: violent gestures, emotional accusations, red faces, and teary eyes. But most importantly, two boys–a toddler and a teenager–standing together apart from the adults, looking absolutely miserable.

And here is the proof that I promised: at this point, Scripture makes sure we know that Abraham was absolutely devastated by Sarah’s demand. This is the only, absolutely unique time in the Torah that we do receive a report concerning his feelings: And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.[3] Can you imagine? Throughout all the long list of Abraham’s deeds of faith and obedience, before and after this scene, never ever do we hear anything about what is going on in his heart. We can only imagine that it was not easy to leave his home and family in Haran in chapter 12, or to part with Lot in chapter 13, or to cut off a part of his male organ in chapter 17. However, only here, in chapter 21, do we find the one and only time that the Bible says explicitly that Abraham, out of the obedience to God, did something that was “very displeasing” to him. Moreover, even though it’s called just “displeasing” in English, the Hebrew describes the matter as exceedingly “bad” in Abraham’s eyes, which is probably a bit more adequate a reflection of his turbulent emotions than “displeasing.”  But the very fact that this is the only place in Scripture that comments on Abraham’s feelings throughout all his tests of faith and obedience, speaks for itself.

I suppose that, were this situation to happen today, Social Services would force the parents to undergo family therapy. How could they cast out a child? How could they allow their teenage son to be rejected by the family and become a homeless cast-away overnight? Especially in his teenage years, when every trauma and every injustice leaves such a deep scar on the heart? And yet—and this is the most difficult thing to comprehend—it was not just allowed by God, it was confirmed, actually commanded by God!

But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called.”[4]

In our next series, Sarah’s Biblical Portrait, we will try to answer the question why God backed up Sarah and commanded Abraham to banish Ishmael. For now, suffice to say that Abraham did exactly what God told him to do: He sent away his firstborn son, Ishmael, the one that his hopes and expectations had rested on for so many years. He sent him out of the camp with a very heavy heart and great pain. By faith, he followed God’s command—as always, without hesitation or lingering, without doubting or questioning. He got up early, took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder,[5] and sent them away with anguish on his face and tears in his eyes, but with faith and trust in his heart. He trusted the invisible God to watch over his beloved son, because in the visible reality, it looked as if he were sending him into the wilderness to die.

He does this same thing in the next chapter, Genesis 22, when he trusts the invisible God with his beloved son Isaac. Once again, he has to look beyond the visible reality, because once again it looks as if he is leading his son to die—this time, Isaac. Thus, Abraham was asked to sacrifice (and this is the key word for understanding of his character, his faith and his life) both his sons—Ishmael and Isaac. He loved them both dearly and therefore, he had to trust the Lord, Who had commanded him to do this thing, with both of them. Of course, there is no point of comparison; we should not ask Abraham whether Genesis 21 or Genesis 22 was more difficult for him, or which devastated him the most. The two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters—Genesis 21 and Genesis 22—are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and every parent would know that whatever Abraham did before chapters 21 and 22, before sacrificing Ishmael and Isaac, would have been nothing compared to those ultimate tests of faith and obedience to God that he went through—and passed—in these chapters.

[1] Genesis 21:8

[2] Genesis 21:9

[3] Genesis 21:11

[4] Genesis 21:12,13


[5] Genesis 21:14

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nick

    Thank you Julia! In looking at Abraham’s tests and how he had to choose, there was more at work than cognitive logic and reason. Maybe his mental faculties were in fact enlivened by the Divine Presence to choose as he did. Maybe the dilemma or test was an opportunity to build inner knowledge of the invisible God. Maybe that’s “where it’s at”, where the physical interfaces with the Spiritual.
    Thanks for this Abraham series and all you do!


  2. Marge Schwartz

    The Hebrew word for “scoffing” here is the same word used when the king saw Abraham “sporting” with Sarah and realized she was his wife, so it has the connotation of something sexual, as if Ishmael had sexually assaulted baby Isacc.

  3. Maggie

    I never realized Abraham’s views toward Ishmael as tenderly as you have been writing abt them the past few weeks.
    Today, your beautiful conclusion paragraph almost brought me to tears, helped me to trust G-d in the affairs of my own kids and my own future more peacefully.
    Thank you. I look forward to all your articles, and am excited to read abt the series on Sarah.