The Story Of Isaac And Ishmael: Sarah (peshat)

A painful decision 

We continue with our dramatic story and move on to Sarah’s[1] part now. Remarkably,   the first thing we learn about Sarah is  the fact  of her barrenness (repeated twice):   But Sarai was barren; she had no child.[2] This short note occurs even before Abraham is told to go out of Haran, and speaks volumes: for a married woman, being barren was about the worst thing that could happen. It means that the pain of inadequacy, shame, and guilt was something that Sarah had lived with–and had struggled with–for many years. And probably, it explains why we don’t hear much from Sarah during their first years in the Land: humiliated by   her barrenness, she was silent and obedient!

The very first words we hear from  her,  open our story: So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.”[3] In Hebrew, she is saying: “Perhaps I will be built up from her.”  The same word “build” is used here  that we find, for instance, in the story of Babel:  And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city…”[4] Everybody knows the end of Babel story – and the story of Sarah’s plan is also a sad lesson and a stern warning to everyone who wants to build himself up by his own means: Only pain and devastation come from such  plans.  Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.[5]

Difficult years  

 I don’t understand how Jewish sources can claim that Sarah was “completely free from sin,” when chapter 16 so clearly describes Sarah’s misdeeds toward Hagar. Perhaps, Hagar’s behavior wasn’t easy to begin with, but the whole scenario was Sarah’s doing, and she should have been ready for the consequences. She wasn’t ready, however. The truth is that none of us are ever ready to face the consequences of our own plans or scenarios. The Bible doesn’t provide any details as to what specifically Sarah did to Hagar, but there is no doubt that what she did was bad enough, if fleeing into the wilderness seemed like a better option to Hagar.

Then, the day came when Ishmael was born. We don’t know much about the 13 years that passed between the last verse of chapter 16 and the first verse of chapter 17,- but we do know  that  all those years, Abraham had been absolutely confident that Ishmael was the son of the covenant and that all the promises and plans of God would rest on him.  Sarah should have felt excluded not only from motherhood, not only from the joy of parenting–the joy that her husband was experiencing every single moment now! –but from the everlasting covenant as well, from everything that God had promised to Abraham, his family, and his descendants. This feeling must have been absolutely devastating.

And yet, Sarai would not be able to become Sarah, would not be able to become the  mother and the Matriarch if her heart wasn’t healed, if she did not eventually reach peace, if she didn’t become reconciled to her circumstances and her life. Yes, those thirteen years were years of continuous humbling and pain for Sarah; but obviously, through this pain, God had been dealing with her. And healing her.  And only then – when Sarah had been completely changed and healed inwardly–does chapter 18 come, bringing into her life an amazing, incredible, inconceivable outward change: she will have a son! Much has been said and written about Sarah’s famous laughter within herself.” Naturally, it was a laughter of disbelief: After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”[6] However, there was much more to that laughter than just disbelief and doubt. Once again, God didn’t fail her; once again, He didn’t let her down; once again, He Himself saved and protected her from her shame and pain; once again, He completely justified and restored her. After long years of feeling humiliated, ashamed, and excluded from God’s covenant and God’s plan altogether–and after long years of learning to be reconciled to this feeling–now, Sarah was celebrating her vindication! She was not excluded anymore; she belonged! He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children.[7] It was a laughter of victorious faith!


What did Sarah see?

And now we come to the dramatic scene, to the “family dynamics” of Genesis 21. Isaac is about two or three years old at this time and he’s just been weaned. A big party is thrown on this occasion. Probably, during the party, or around this time, Sarah sees Ishmael, now a teenager 16 or 17 years old, metzahek–“laughing” or “playing” or “scoffing”:  And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham: Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely Isaac.[8] In order to understand verse 10, when Sarah asks Abraham to cast out Ishmael and his mother, we have to understand what happened in verse 9. What did Sarah see?

The Hebrew word metzahek has different meanings, and no one knows for sure what it means here. Some commentaries suggest a sexual connotation. After all, this is the same word that we find in Genesis 26, where it refers to Isaac and Rebecca, undoubtedly with a sexual meaning: Isaac was sporting (metzahek ) with Rebecca his wife.[9] Does it have the same meaning here? Was Ishmael sexually molesting Isaac? And was it because of this sexual abuse that Sarah was so infuriated? However, in Genesis 26, Rebecca is clearly in the sentence, Isaac metzahek  with Rebecca;  while in our case,  based on the text itself,  it isn’t even  clear that Ishmael was interacting with Isaac at the moment Sarah saw him: Isaac is not in this sentence at all. So, what did Sarah see and why was her reaction so turbulent? And even more important: why did God support Sarah?  Why did God completely back up what seemed to be a very exaggerated reaction of an  overprotective  mother?

Let us turn to Hebrew for the answer.  If you know Hebrew letters, you can recognize that the word metzahek, מצחק, has the same root as Itzhak : יצחק .  Therefore, it can be read as a verb formed  from the root Isaac. Sarah saw that Ishmael was “Isaacing”, whatever that might mean! Probably, Ishmael was trying to take Isaac’s place – maybe, in Abraham’s family, maybe in God’s plan, maybe in both!  Ishmael was a natural, man-made son. He had been conceived and born naturally, unlike Isaac, who was the child of a miracle, conceived and born in a totally supernatural way. There is only one thing that can make me understand God supporting the banishment of a teenage boy from his family: God doesn’t want God-made reality to be replaced with a man-made one; man-made and God-made are not to be confused or mixed.  In my opinion, this unexpected – and only in Hebrew visible – explanation can account  not only for  Sarah’s stormy  reaction, but for God’s command to banish Ishmael  as well!


If you want to learn more about Isaac and Ishmael story, you can read my book: Abraham had two sons.  Click here to get  the book:   

[1] For the reader’s convenience, we will use the name Sarah throughout the article (except for in Scripture quotations prior to Genesis 17).

[2] Genesis 11:30

[3] Genesis 16:2

[4] Genesis 11:4

[5] Psalms 127:1

[6] Genesis 18:12

[7] Psalms 113:9

[8] Genesis 21:9,10

[9][9] Genesis 26:8

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. Elizabeth I. Seibel-Ross

    I love this process that you guide us through – ever deeper into understanding, and I’m always grateful to you, our good teacher. It seems to me that so much of life revolves around this very issue of man-made vs. God-made, the cusp of our faith. How good is our heart’s ear in discerning the difference between the two throughout our time on earth.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Lisa, I couldn’t agree more: this whole issue of man-made vs. God-made is very central in our lives! How often we fail to discern between real “Isaac” and a thing or a person that just “metzahek”, imitate. As Rahel wrote here, “this is a great lesson that shows us how God reacts to those who try to touch His Chosen One – try to change His Word – and are only imitators”.

  2. Dorothy Healy

    It is so very interesting to look more deeply into the complex relationships of this story. I have a soft spot for Sarah in this saga. You speak about Sarah’s ‘misdeeds’ towards Hagar which caused her to flee into the wilderness. I detect Hagar here trying to usurp Sarah’s position – her attitude toward her mistress had changed. She is still Sarah’s maidservant, but I suspect she no longer acted like one. After her encounter with the angel of the Lord at the well, she was told to go back and submit to Sarah’s authority. The divine encounter made all the difference to her frame of mind, and she obeyed.

    Then we see Ishmael not wanting to lose his place of favour, and acting like he intends usurping Isaac’s place. I see this as a battle between flesh and spirit – between law and grace (which is what Hagar and Sarah represent, according to Paul). There is a lesson here for all of us who seek to walk by faith. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the LORD of Hosts.

    1. Julia Blum

      I agree, Dot, on some level it can be seen as a battle between flesh and spirit – yet, there is also “peshat”, a plain literal meaning of the text, and according to the Jewish hermeneutics, this literal sense and historical basis have to be seen or shown before “remez’, before any allegory can be made or applied. And the plain literal meaning of the text shows us a teenager boy being cast out of his home. I suppose that, were this situation to happen today, Social Services would force the parents undergo family therapy. How could they cast out a child? How could Abraham allow his 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? So, my task here is to try to understand what Ishmael was doing that his behavior was so bad in God’s eyes that God supported Sarah’s request to banish him from home.

  3. Gladys Fox

    Thank you,
    You are a great teacher. I read your books and learn much from them.

    One thing we must remember is the story of Hagar in Gen:16 . See what the Angel of the Lord tells Hagar about the son she is to bear. I believe it will show that Ishmael is tormenting little Isaac. No wonder Sarah is acting like a mother bear. I am 12 years younger than my sister who loved to torment me ,so I can understand this situation.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, Gladys. You might be right, of course, and your understanding goes along the lines of the traditional reading of this episode: Ishmael did something bad to little Isaac. There are two problems here: first, as I mentioned in the post, Isaac is not even in the sentence, so from the sentence itself we can not arrive to this conclusion. Second, and even more serious objection, has to do with God supporting Sarah’s request: Why did God support Sarah? Why did God completely back up what seemed to be a very exaggerated reaction of an infuriated and jealous mother? Your sister tormented you, however your mom didn’t kick her out, did she? Humanly speaking, no amount of scoffing or laughing or tormenting on Ishmael’s part would justify kicking a teenage boy and his mother out of the family. 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 – so there has to be some very deep, profound, in a sense “theological” reason for that!

  4. Nick

    Thank you Julia. So good to revisit this story with your perspective!

  5. Zodwa

    Thank you very much, especially for drawing our attention more to verse 9 as well as God’s support for the banishment of Hagar and son.

  6. Rahel

    Thank you so much for this post.
    Some time ago I was listening to the Hebrew Audio Bible while reading along in the English. When I came to Genesis 11, something really struck me. In the previous chapters we read the account of the flood and how God chose Shem to continue the line of the promise. So he was God’s chosen. However, in Genesis 11,4 the people said that they want to make a “name” (Shem) for themselves – somehow indicating through their words and deeds that they can also imitate what God has chosen. They were united in what they did – but by God’s reaction we see that He did not agree with what they were busy with. God’s reaction was quite harsh. As I continued and got to Genesis 21, I also made that connection: as I heard how Ishmael was scoffing – and the Hebrew word having the same root as Isaac, I thought that Ishmael is trying to imitate Isaac – he wanted to be God’s chosen, but doing it his own way. I literally got goosebumps when I realized that. Both instances are so similar – and both times God’s reaction was severe. It is interesting that even in your post – you refer to that exact same verse (Gen11,4) when Sarah asks to be ‘built up’ – these two events really have quite a few similarities.

    On the other hand it also made me think about ourselves. How often do we know what God wants of us – what God has chosen. Yet instead of accepting His will and walking in it, we try to imitate it, but in our own way and our own understanding. We think we can do it better, or we can only take what we like and ‘adapt’ some things to make it more comfortable or more logical for ourselves. This is a great lesson that shows us how God reacts to those who try to touch His Chosen One – try to change His Word – and are only imitators.

    Thanks a lot Julia.

    1. Jackie McClure

      As I was thinking about what Sarah could have seen, I wondered if Abraham was reacting with Ishmael as if he were the “chosen” one, instead of reacting with Isaac, God’s chosen one, on this special day.

      1. Julia Blum

        Thank you Jackie, you probably are right: Ishmael would not be able to try to “be Isaac”, to try to take Isaac’s place, if he was not encouraged by Abraham. How do we know that Abraham loved Ishmael? We know it because we see Abraham being absolutely devastated by Sarah’s suggestion to cast Ishmael out. It was extremely difficult for him to let Ishmael go. In English, the Scripture calls it “displeasing,” but it’s only a euphemism that encompasses a violent storm of emotions. In fact, the Hebrew describes the matter as exceedingly “bad” in Abraham’s eyes, which is a bit more adequate a reflection of his turbulent emotions than “displeasing.” 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 (there is no word of his feelings even in Genesis 22) – this very fact speaks for itself.

    2. Julia Blum

      Thank you Rahel, for bringing this example with Shem and shem, I’ve never thought of it in connection with Isaac and “metsahek”, but you are right – both instances are indeed so similar! It is so profound, a lot of food for thought – thank you again for bringing my attention to the juxtaposition of those two!