The Story Of Isaac And Ishmael: How Did It All Begin?



A few years ago, I started writing a book on Isaac and Ishmael—started reluctantly, responding to someone’s request, not altogether convinced that I was the right person to do it. There are so many people, I thought, who would be much more qualified to write about Ishmael and the Arab people. Besides, I was well aware of the claim that the modern Arabs were not descendants of Ishmael.  I was wondering what to do—should I write this book about biblical personalities: Isaac and Ishmael? Should I write this book about Jews and Arabs? Should I write this book at all?

Little did I know the journey that would follow: the journey of discovering a biblical basis and spiritual explanation of the empirical facts. We do have two different peoples: Arabs and Jews; we do have evidence of their closeness and similarities in so many ways—from their language to their DNA. But unfortunately, we also have endless tension and conflicts between them.  Regardless of what some scientists say, don’t you think there is a biblical story and a spiritual reality beyond this complicated visible reality? This journey has been  amazing – God’s hand and His guidance have been evident all along – and not only has my heart been deeply touched, but my thoughts have also been shaken deeply by what I discovered on the pages of Scripture.

A large part of my discoveries was based on the Hebrew insights into chapters 16-21 of Genesis; another part came through PARDES – the Jewish exegesis method that provided a structure for the book. Many of my readers will not be familiar with PARDES; neither do they read the Scriptures in Hebrew, therefore I would like to share some of my discoveries on these pages.


In Jewish exegesis, the PARDES method describes four different levels of Biblical interpretation. The term PaRDeS is an acronym formed from the initials of these four levels, which are:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) – “plain” and “straight,” or the direct, literal meaning of Scripture;

Remez (רֶמֶז) – “hints,” or the deeper, symbolic meaning, beyond the literal sense;

Derash (דְּרַשׁ) – “to inquire” and “to seek,” or the comparative meaning: a deeper meaning obtained from a passage by comparing its words and content to similar passages elsewhere;

Sod (סוֹד) – “secret” and “mystery,” or the meaning of Scripture revealed through inspiration or revelation.

In other words, Peshat means the literal interpretation; Remez is the non-literal or allegorical meaning; Derash represents the expanded life-application meaning; while Sod represents the hidden, secret meaning of the text.


The story of Ishmael begins in Genesis 16, but we will begin our study from Genesis 15, since the conversation with God that opens this chapter is crucial for our understanding of Abram’s decision in the following chapter.

In Genesis 15, we witness an amazing conversation: For the first time ever, Abram expresses his pain to the Lord. We don’t know whether it was a decision consciously made in advance or if he just could not hold back his disappointment. What we do know is that, when God tells Abram: “Your reward is exceedingly great,” instead of humble, meek gratitude, we hear a resentful complaint: “Lord God, what will you give me? I am going childless.” This is how the English translation reads. In Hebrew, however, it is even worse: “Anohi oleh ariri!” Yes, the word ariri (when spelled with ayin) means “childless” – but it has also connotation of “lonely, abandoned, forsaken.” Besides, this word sounds so close to the root “curse” (spelled with alef), that the bitterness of this statement is truly overwhelming: I am cursed by being childless and you are talking about reward! “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.”[1]

We can all understand Abram’s pain: he has been waiting for so long. However, you have to read Hebrew in order to understand something else—he has been constantly reminded of this pain by the irony of his name: אברם ,  Av-Ram, “lofty father”. He has been carrying this name for 85 years, and yet he is still childless.  He really hurts, and that’s why he even repeats this complaint twice, as if to make certain that his pain and disappointment are clearly conveyed to the Lord. The third verse of chapter 15 merely reiterates the second, with the same resentful and almost angry attitude: “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir.”[2]

And now the conversation becomes truly groundbreaking, because Abram learns, for the first time ever, that not only does his obedience matter to God, but his pain does as well. There is no greater revelation of God’s love than to realize that when you cry, He cries also. I believe that this was just such a moment for Abram, because after this bitter speech, instead of expected rebuke and reproach, God takes him outside and says: “Look towards heaven and count the stars.”  In Hebrew, this phrase הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה (hebet-nah hashamaymah) includes a very interesting word –  נָא(na)—the Hebrew  particle of entreaty: Please, I beseech you! This particle is typically used to mark a polite speech or emotional request, and normally, it is the people who say “na” to God, not the other way around. (a famous example is the word הושיעה נא  (hoshi’a na) in Psalm 118:25, where  Hosanna comes from). Here, however, we witness something very unique: God Himself says “na” to Abram – and through this little word, completely lost in the translation, we can see how carefully, lovingly and tenderly God speaks to Abram even now, after his painfully bitter complaint. And then Abram hears these wonderful words: “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir…”[3]

Probably, at this point Abram starts to sob. He has been waiting for so long. He is 85 years old and still childless. But now he learns that he will have a child of his own after all. Not just a multitude of descendants in some nebulous future, but his own child, from his own body; his own child, whom he will be able to hold with his own hands. This is something that Abram of Genesis 13, though assured of God’s promise concerning his descendants and the dust of the earth, did not yet know – and it is this knowledge that made Abram incredibly happy!

But there is something that this man, overwhelmed by the Lord’s grace in the quiet splendor of the starry night, does not yet know: He was happy to learn that he was going to have a son at his not-so-young age, but he still has no idea that he is to have two sons, and that his overwhelming desire to be a father, his love for those two sons, and the inevitably ensuing family dynamic, all within the context of God’s plan, will shape the course of human history.

To be continued…


Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this article,  so if you like this   article,  you might also enjoy the  book. Click here to get  free  sample:   

[1] Gen 15:2

[2] Gen 15:3

[3] Gen 15:4

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. Victor Olear

    Fascinating insight.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Victor!

  2. Renee Gelman

    HaShem waited for the right time so all the events of the future history of the Jewish people and biblical prophesy will be fulfilled in its proper time. Yes, it was a test of his faith and faithfulness to HaShem’S promises but more than that it was HaShem faithfulness to us making sure all his covenantal promises would be fulfilled”in the fullness of time, not only for the Redemption of Israel but the world!