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Abraham and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael – A story yet incomplete


The names Isaac and Ishmael were given by God.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the significance of these two names will resonate throughout history.


Finding a name for a new infant can be quite trying.  But what if a voice were to suddenly emanate from heaven announcing the sex and name of your new babe?  It would certainly make planning for the birth of the newborn a lot easier.  On the other hand, it would also make one ponder – why did God get involved in choosing my infant’s name, and what is so special about this name anyway?


 God names both Isaac and Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham.  He also promises Abraham that both sons would have numerous progeny and become nations, thereby ensuring that the implications of these two names would resonate throughout history.  


But what are the implications of these two names?  This is the question that will be addressed in this essay.  Its answer, however, needs a certain perspective on the role of Torah.


Think of the Jewish people as actors within a play.  The Bible lays out the setting of the play.  It also describes in broad terms the characters in the play and it produces the first act.  Everything else is open season.  The play can precede in whatever manner the characters wish.  Nevertheless, it is Jewish belief that the final act is predetermined by God, and He fine-tunes the play for the sake of the final scene.    


If there is anything in the Torah that convinces me this book is not a human creation, it is the story of the interactions of Ishmael, his mother Hagar, Abraham and Isaac.  There is no other story of the ancient world in which the Biblical characters are still around today displaying the same characteristics and facing the same conflicts as in the Bible.


Admittedly, the majority of believers in Islam are not ethnic Ishmaelites.   Nevertheless, they have adopted an Ishmaelite approach to life through Mohammad’s teaching in his Koran.  They study his book in Arabic, read stories about Abraham and Ishmael, and try to visit Medina in Saudi Arabia, the land of the Ishmaelites, at least once in a lifetime.  To all intents and purposes they have accepted upon themselves the role of Ishmael and regard themselves as true heirs of their forefather Abraham.


The name Ishmael


In the Covenant Between the Pieces, God makes a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-20).  His offspring would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.  They would be exiled in Egypt, but would eventually return to Canaan.  Initially, however, God does not reveal to Abraham how he will father a child.  Sarah and Abraham are old and childless.  Therefore, Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands:


And Sarai said to Abram: “See, now, YKVK has restrained me from bearing; consort, now, with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abram heeded the  voice of Sarai.  So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maidservant – after ten years of Abram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan – and gave her to Abram her husband, to him as a wife.” (Genesis 16:2-4)


Note how this passage emphasizes the passivity of Abraham.  Usually, a man “takes” a wife, but in this instance it is Sarah who  “takes” the wife.  Sarah also “gave her to Abram.” 


A Midrash Rabba is struck with the Bible’s description of Hagar as an Egyptian.1  Why did the Bible specifically mention her country of origin when it seems irrelevant to the story?  The midrash concludes that this woman was a well-known Egyptian, an Egyptian princess no less, who was attracted to Abraham’s outreach program.  But one cannot just “take” an Egyptian princess and place her in Abraham’s sleeping tent.  Rather, she was “taken with words” regarding the privilege of cohabiting with Abraham.


But how could Sarah possibly imagine that she would be “built up” through her handmaiden?  


Nahum Sarna in his book “Understanding Genesis” provides an interesting perspective on this arrangement from a marriage contract found during archeological excavations in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi.2  It shows that this type of surrogate marriage was not unknown in the ancient world:

[Miss] Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to [Mr]shennima  … If Kelim-ninu does not bear, Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman of the land of Lulu [i.e. a slave girl] as a wife for Shennima.”


It would seem from this that the first wife had the responsibility for finding a new wife for her husband in the event of her infertility, and this would explain the activism of Sarah.


However, there are already intimations in the Biblical passage above of the problems that will arise as a result of Sarah’s activism.  Sarah had intended that Hagar be as a “wife” for her husband, but she also wanted Hagar to maintain her preexisting servile relationship with her as “maidservant”.  Any son born to Hagar would also be considered hers.  The success of this plan clearly depended on the key players keeping to the script.  It transpired that neither Hagar nor Abraham’s future son would follow through exactly as Sarah had intended.


Hagar soon begins to see herself as an equal to her mistress rather than her servant.  Sarah responded in the way most mistresses would do in such circumstances and acts harshly towards her.  The situation escalates and Hagar flees from her mistress into the wilderness.  She is met there by an angel of God who persuades her to return to her mistress:

And the angel of YKVK found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.  And he said: 'Hagar, Sarai's handmaid, where have you come from and where are you going?' And she said: 'I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.’

And the angel of YKVK said to her: 'Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her hands.' 

And the angel of YKVK said to her: 'I will greatly multiply your seed, such that it shall not be numbered for multitude.” 

And the angle of YKVK said to her: 'Behold, you will conceive, and give birth to a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because YKVK has heard your affliction.  And he shall be a wild ass of a man:  his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him (יָדוֹ בַכֹּל, וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ) (yado bekol, veyad kol bo) ; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brothers.” (Genesis 16:7-12)


The angel makes three statements, each of which begins with the words “And the angel of YKVK said to her.”  In the midrashic literature, and this is also the interpretation taken up by Rashi, these statements are made by three angels each of whom is imparting a separate message.3  However, the involvement of three angels is by no means essential for this passage, and it is just as likely that these three statements are written in this way for emphasis.


The first message imparted to Hagar is that she should return to Abraham’s household.  The second is that she will be the forebear of a multitude of people.  The third is that her future son will be named Ishmael.  Ishmael’s name is derived from the root lishmo’a, which means to listen, and El, which means God.  God is listening to Hagar – because she is being oppressed.  It will also turn out that He will listen to Ishmael in the future.  


Hagar returns to the household of Abraham to give birth to her son, and Abraham does indeed give the name “Ishmael” to his newborn son.  


A question asked by Biblical commentators is how it was that Abraham was aware that he was to name his newborn infant Ishmael.  Rashi suggests that he figured it out by Divine inspiration.  Nachmanides has a much simpler explanation – Hagar told him.


In the above passage, the angel of God comments on the future characteristics of Ishmael.  These have been interpreted very negatively in the midrashic literature.   A Midrash Rabba states as follows:

R’ Yochanan and R’ Shimon ben Lakish discussed the meaning of this expression. R’ Yochanan said: It means that whereas all other people grow up in settled areas, he will grow up in the wilderness.  R’ Shimon ben Lakish said: The word “man” in the phrase “wild man” should be understood literally, so that the phrase means “one who chases after people” – meaning that whereas all other people plunder for money, he plunders for lives.”4 


Wild asses live in the wilderness.  According to Rabbi Yochanan, therefore, being “a wild ass” means no more than that he will live in the wilderness.  By contrast, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish suggests that being wild and having his hand “against everyone” means he will be a murderous thief.   Rashi picks up on these negative comments:5

A wild ass of a man”: One who loves deserts to hunt animals, as it says: “He dwelt in the desert and became an archer (Genesis 21:20).”

“His hand in everything”: [This means he will be] a bandit.

“And everyone’s hand against him”: All hate him and attack him.


Nevertheless, these explanations fit poorly into the plain meaning of the text. Is Hagar really expected to go back to Abraham’s household so that Ishmael can become a bandit?  


In an insightful essay, Rabbi Yonatan Grossman suggests there are other ways of looking at this passage.6  


The characteristic of a wild ass is that it is totally free and impossible to domesticate.  Nothing can restrain it.  It has this meaning in a passage in Job: “Who set the wild ass free, and who loosened the bonds of the wild donkey, for whom I designated the desert as his home, his habitats in arid land?”  (Job 39:5-10)  It is not so much the place of Ishmael’s habitation that is being emphasized here but his freedom.  


Other interpretations exist also for the second phrase.  It is not that he will be “against everyone” and everyone will be “against him,” but that he will be “into” everyone’s affairs and everyone “into” his.  This meaning accords well with the Hebrew: "his hand will be in everything and everyone’s hand into his"(yado bakol, veyad kol bo)(יָדוֹבַכֹּל, וְיַדכֹּלבּוֹ).  Hence, the commentator Chizkuni writes: “His hand shall be in everything” – in all types of wares, and everyone’s hands against him” – in haggling over the wares.”  Similarly, the Second Temple commentator Onkelos writes: “He would be dependent on other nations and they would be dependent on him.”   


According to this positive interpretation, in return for returning to Sarah, Hagar is guaranteed that her son will attain his freedom, that he will be financially secure, and that he and his progeny will live eventually in their own autonomous territory.  


Nevertheless, there seems to be deliberate ambiguity in this passage.  Hagar would no doubt have heard the positive message.  Readers of the Bible may well hear the more negative message.  This is because there are both positive and negative aspects about being unrestrained.  Being of a different mold can lead to new and positive directions for civilization, whereas a reluctance to fit into the norms of civilized society can lead to discord.  Being “into everything” is positive with respect to global trade, but very much the opposite when related to explosives, violence and mayhem.  

The expulsion of Ishmael


Ishmael has been named by both God and Abraham.  As the story unfolds, the continuing significance of this name will become apparent, as Ishmael is soon to be “heard” by God.


Isaac’s weaning is celebrated with a party and there is joyous laughter in the home.  One matter, though, mars Sarah’s joy - Ishmael is jeering.  Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be banished from the home, and they are sent away with nothing but bread and water.  

So she said to Abraham: “Drive out this slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)


Both wander aimlessly in the wilderness.  Soon their water is finished and both are in desperate straits.  They are weeping in despair.  At this time God “hears the cry of the youth” and directs Hagar to a fountain of water.

And Elokim heard the cry of the youth, and an angel of Elokim called to Hagar from heaven and said to her: “What troubles you, Hagar?” Fear not, for God has heard the cryof the youth in his present state. Arise, lift up the youth and grasp your hand upon him, for I will make a great nation of him.” (Genesis 21:17-18)


God’s “hearing” Ishmael has little to do with either his or Hagar’s merits, but is a direct consequence of God’s previous promises to Abraham.  Abraham was informed by God to circumcise himself and his household and the following promise about Ishmael was made:

“And regarding Ishmael I have heard you; behold I shall bless him and make him fruitful and make him very greatly numerous, he will bear twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” (Genesis 17:20)


Abraham was clearly upset that Sarah wished to banish his son, but God instructed him to listen to his wife.  Nevertheless, this entire episode leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling - how could Abraham, the example of righteousness, have treated his son and his mother in this way?


A valuable perspective on Abraham’s behavior comes from the Law Code of Hammurabi. 7  Hammurabi was a Mesopotamian ruler who wrote a law code for his empire which is extant to this day and is known as the Code of Hammurabi.  It is unclear to what extent this code was actually used, but it does provide a useful window into aspects of Mesopotamian life.  The following laws discuss the inheritance of a son from the liaison between a master and his maidservant or slave.

  • If a man’s chief wife bears him children and his maidservant [also] bears him children, and the father, while he still lives, tells the children whom the maidservant bore him: “[You are] my children,” then he counts them among the children of his chief wife. After the father dies, the children of the chief wife and the children of the maidservant divide the property of the father’s estate between them equally. The son of the chief wife is first to choose and take his portion of the inheritance.

  • If the father, while still alive, does not say to the children whom the maidservant bore him, “[You are] my children,” then after the father dies, the children of the maidservant do not receive a portion of the father’s estate with the children of the chief wife.  The release of the maidservant and her children is assured; the children of the chief wife shall not demand servitude of the children of the maidservant.


This could be very relevant to the Sarah-Hagar dispute.  If Ishmael had not been disowned he would have co-inherited with Isaac, although Sarah’s natural son would likely have had first choice of the family property and goods.  By throwing Hagar and Ishmael out of the house, Abraham was providing them with their freedom and they would have no further claims on the family.  It is likely, therefore, that Abraham’s actions were well within the practices of society at that time.


Ishmael leaves Abraham’s home with nothing, but God has already intimated to Hagar that Ishmael will attain territory and dwell “over all his brothers (Genesis 16:12).”  This indeed occurs.  After the death of Abraham, the Torah completes the account of the life of Ishmael:

These are the descendants of Ishmael… 12 chieftains for their nations. These were the years of Ishmael’s life: a hundred and thirty-seven years, when he expired and died, and was gathered to his people.  They dwelt from Havila to Shur – which is near Egypt – towards Assyria, over all his brothers he dwelt.” (Genesis 25:12-18)


Where are Havila and Shur?  Havila is mentioned several times in the Bible, and is likely located in either the Arabian Peninsula or possibly in northwest Yemen.8   Ishmael’s offspring will be “12 chieftains”.  There is a clear similarity here to the future descendants of Isaac, since the sons of Jacob will also give rise to 12 tribes.  


The name Isaac (Yitzchok)


The name chosen by God for Abraham’s second son, Isaac, comes from the Hebrew word “l’itzchok” - “to laugh,” and this verb is destined to resonate throughout Jewish history.  


There are different connotations to laughing.  One can laugh at the absurdity of an impossible situation, as in a joke.  One can laugh for joy.  One can laugh in amazement at how a situation has or will evolve.  This is the kal form of the verb, involves only one person, and describes the simplest activity of the verb.  There is also the piel form of the verb in which there is intensification of the action and involvement of more than one individual.  


The laughter surrounding Isaac will be all embracing.  His father will laugh, his mother will laugh, and those who hear about his birth will laugh.  There is an intimation that Isaac himself was a playful type of person.  There will also be a more sinister form of laughing in the piel form of the verb, meaning to laugh cynically, to mock or denigrate.  The Bible will play on all these meanings.


Following Ishmael’s birth, Abraham is told by Elokim that his name will be changed from Abram (father of Aram) to Abraham, which means a father of a multitude (of nations). (Genesis 17:3).  Sarai’s name, which means my princess, will also be changed - to Sarah, or a princess (to all the nations of the world) (Genesis 17:15).  Abraham is now instructed to circumcise himself, his 13-year old son Ishmael (hence the Islamic practice of circumcising sons), and all the males in his household, including his slaves.(Genesis 17:10)  He is also told that he will bear a son through Sarah.  Sarah is by now a 90-year old woman and well beyond child-bearing age.  Abraham laughs in amazement, and probably also in joy.9


And Abraham threw himself upon his face and laughed (vayitzchak) (וַיִּצְחָק); and he thought: “Shall a child be born to a hundred-year-old man?  And shall Sarah – a ninety-year-old woman - give birth.  And Abraham said to Elokim: “O that Ishmael might live before You!” Elokim said” Indeed your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac  …. But regarding Ishmael I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him……”(Genesis 17:17-20)


Three angels now arrive at Abraham’s tent.  One has come to inform Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, another to save Abraham’s nephew Lot from the destruction, and the first to inform Sarah that she is about to bear a son.  Sarah is not addressed directly by the angels, presumably for reasons of modesty, but it is obvious to all that she is listening through the tent wall, and the intent is clearly that she should be informed of the news.  Sarah’s reaction is very different from that of her husband’s, although in both cases there is laughter:

 “And Sarah laughed (vatizchak) (וַתִּצְחַק)within herself saying: After I have withered shall I again have the deepest satisfaction, my lord also being an old man. Then YKVK said to Abraham: “Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying; “Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged?” Is anything beyond YKVK? At the appointed time I will return to you at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:11-13)


Sarah laughs not in joy but in disbelief.  This is clear from the reprimand she receives from God – “Is there anything beyond God?” 


In this next sentence, describing Isaac’s activities with his wife, the Bible uses the piel form of the verb,litzacheck, meaning to act in a playful way, possibly caressing or kissing:

And it came to pass, as his days there lengthened, that Abimelech gazed down through the window and saw – and behold, Isaac was acting playfully (מְצַחֵק) with his wife Rebecca.” (Genesis 26:8)


The Bible may well be intimating here that playfulness was part of the very essence of Isaac’s character.


These different aspects of laughter are brought together in the following passage.   It is a passage full of the name Isaac (laughter) and the different connotations of this word.  The Bible could well have used the word “he” when repeating its discussion about Isaac, but seems to be going out if its way to use his name.  

As with Ishmael, God will suggest the infant’s name and that name will be used by Abraham:

"And YKVK remembered Sarah as He had said, and YKVK did unto Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which YKVK had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said: 'God has made laughter (tzechok) (צְחֹק ) for me; every one that hears will laugh (yitzachak li) ( לִי יִצְחַק) for me.'  And she said: 'Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.' And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, jeering (metzacheck) (מְצַחֵק ).  Wherefore she said unto Abraham: 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.' And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son. And God said unto Abraham: 'Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah says to you, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee." (Genesis 21:1-12)

 Isaac is circumcised at 8 days of age, and Sarah laughs again.  She also states that other people will be laughing too.  The meaning of the phrase “yitzachak li” ( לִי יִצְחַק), literally “will laugh to me” is not entirely clear, but could well have the meaning of “to laugh in amazement with respect to me”.10


At a later time, Abraham made a party for his son’s weaning, and Sarah notices that Ishmael is not laughing but jeering (metzachek)(מְצַחֵק ) (indicated in bold in verse 9).11   Sarah’s reaction to Ishmael’s jeering is described in terms of inheritance, but there could be a deeper significance.  She realizes that this type of negativity cannot exist in a household whose inheritance includes a spiritual destiny.  

Comparing the early lives of Isaac and Ishmael


 There are many similarities between the early lives of Isaac and Ishmael and the Bible clearly wishes us to be aware of them:

  • God names both children.

  • Abraham gives both children these names.

  • Both children are promised nationhood.

  • 12 princes or tribes are to arise from Ishmael and 12 tribes will come from Isaac’s son Jacob.

  • Both children will experience a near-death experience as a result of the actions of Abraham.

  • Both children are rescued from this experience by an angel of God.


Hence, Hagar wanders aimlessly in the desert, and she and her son are rescued from death by an angel of Elokim.  Isaac is also rescued from his father’s knife by an angel of YKVK in the Binding of Isaac story:

“And an angel of YKVK called to him from heaven, and said” “Abraham! Abraham!  And he said: “Here I am. And He said: Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.” (Genesis 22:11-12)


However, these similarities also draw attention to the differences in their early lives.  


The names of God most commonly used in the Pentateuch are Elokim and YKVK and these names reflect different relationships to God.  Hence,

  • YKVK names Ishmael, while Elokim rescues Ishmael in the desert.

 By contrast:

  •  Elokim names Isaac, while YKVK rescues Isaac from the knife of Abraham in the Binding of Isaac story.


YKVK is the immanent aspect of God, the God of Abraham’s family, and the God with whom Abraham’s family will develop an intimate relationship.  YKVK will become the God of the Jewish people.  YYKVK names Ishmael because Ishmael was living in Abraham’s home and was under the aegis of the personal God of Abraham’s family.  However, when rescued in the wilderness, he was no longer a member of Abraham’s household and was in a different type of relationship with God.  His relationship was now with Elokim, the God who created the universe, the God of general providence, and the God of all peoples of the world.   Ishmael’s relationship with God will continue, but it will never be with the closeness and intensity that YKVK has with the Jewish people.   


But why is it that Elokim and not YKVK gives Isaac his name?  Isaac was, after all, named within Abraham’s household.   However, the context of his naming was very different from that of Ishmael’s.   Isaac was named at the same time that Abraham and Ishmael were to be circumcised and at the same time that Abram’s name was changed to Abraham.  Just as Abraham is re-named within the context of world history, Isaac’s naming also has global implications.  Not only Jews, but the entire world, will be either laughing in amazement or sneering with scorn at the course of Jewish history.  Nevertheless, Isaac was rescued by the YKVK aspect of God in order to continue Abraham’s mission, and presumably because of his own inherent spirituality.  His rescuing is entirely a Jewish matter that will teach the Jewish people about the parameters of sacrificing for God.


In a beautiful analysis, Rabbi Chanoch Waxman discerns within the text three fundamental differences between the two pairs - Abraham-Isaac and Hagar-Ishmael.12   The pair Abraham-Isaac demonstrate purposefulness, resignation or trust, and togetherness, whereas Hagar-Ishmael display aimlessness, despair, and separation.  


Purpose is always seen in Abraham’s actions.  He may not know the location of his destination, but there can never be doubt that he has one.  This is evident from the very beginning of Abraham’s mission: “Go ..... to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).  Similarly, in the Binding of Isaac episode, Abraham “went to the place of which God had spoken to him.” (Genesis 22:3)  


Unlike Ishmael, Isaac never shows despair.  Even with a knife at his throat, there is no mention by the Torah that Isaac cries out in protest.   Abraham and Isaac function together, even when one is heading to death at the hand of the other.  In a poignant exchange, Isaac questions his father as to where the lamb is for the sacrifice:

Father –.”  And he [Abraham] said: “Here I am my son”. And he [Isaac] said: Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” And Abraham said: Elokim will seek out for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son,” and the two of them went together." (Genesis 22:7-8)


Isaac accepts the words of his father with trust and resignation, even though he no doubt appreciates by this time that he is to be the sacrifice.  


The word “together” is mentioned three times in the Binding of Isaac story, once at the beginning of the story as Abraham and Isaac set out on their journey (Genesis 22:6), in the exchange above when it is intimated to Isaac that he will be the sacrifice (Genesis 22:8), and at the end of this episode as they vend their way homewards (Genesis 22:19).  Throughout this account, there are no recriminations, weeping or protests.  Isaac is an accepting partner.   


Hagar and Ishmael, on the other hand, interact with each other very differently in the following passage:

So Abraham awoke early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar.  He placed them on her shoulder along with the boy, and sent her off.  She departed and strayed in the desert of Beersheba. When the water of the skin was consumed, she cast off (vatashleich) (וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ) the boy beneath one of the trees.  She went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice and wept.  God heard the voice of the youth …”  (Genesis 21:15-17)


Hagar wanders aimlessly into the desert.  She has no destination.  Mother and son are not partners together.  As soon as she runs out of water she casts off her son.  The Hebrew word vatashleich(וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ) (she cast or sent off) has a harsh connotation.   She also deliberately places herself at a distance from Ishmael so as not to hear his cries.  A bowshot is quite a distance.  This was “bowshots” in the plural – even further.  The Bible mentions twice that she sat “at a distance,” leading Rashi to comment that she placed herself at an even greater distance than previously.  Finally, the Bible describes the absolute despair of the two as they weep.  


The successful transmission of tradition requires an iron bond between parent and son at all times.  This was present in the household of Abraham, but never present between Hagar and Ishmael.   


The relevance of the names Isaac and Ishmael


Writing in the 20th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had the following to say about the significance of the name Isaac in Jewish history:


According to all the natural conditions of cause and effect, the whole beginnings of the Jewish people, its history, its expectations, its hopes, its whole life based on these hopes must appear as the most unwarranted laughable pretension.  …  For it was a question of creating a nation, which from the beginning to the end of its existence was to be, even by its very existence, in opposition to all the ordinary laws of world-history, an intimation of God in the midst of mankind, and therefore up to the present day, to the narrow minded deniers of God, appears as the most absurd absurdity.”13 


Jewish history defies logic.  Our beginnings made no biological sense.  90-year old women do not have kids.  More of our history has been spent in exile than in Israel and these years have been one long litany of persecution and pogroms.  We have been in conflict with almost every major world power – the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Roman Catholic Church, the Soviet Union, the British and the Third Reich.  We should not be here.  It is impossible to fight against the world for 5,000 years and survive.  Our existence is unnatural.  Yet the Bible does not say it in quite these words.  Instead, it describes this situation as something laughable – laughable in disbelief.  

 There is also, of course, a negative way of viewing Jewish history and this is to view our destiny with disbelieving scorn.  Our history and destiny mean nothing.  Many nations have taken this approach in the past – but this is particularly the case nowadays for the seed of Ishmael. 

 If one accepts that the name Isaac has significance today, then the name Ishmael should also have significance.  Admittedly, this is difficult to fathom at this point in history, but the story is yet incomplete.  At some time in the future, God will be listening to the Ishmaelite people - since they also are of the seed of Abraham. 


Biblical history repeats itself


Jewish history is like a play - and the stage set and actors are first described in the Bible.  The Medieval Jewish exegetes never witnessed the return to Zion and could not have known that Isaac and Ishmael would meet up again, as in the Bible, bringing with them the baggage of their old conflicts.  Who is the true heir to the spiritual legacy of Abraham – is it Isaac or Ishmael?  And who is possess the Land of Israel, since this is from whence the spiritual legacy of Abraham will emanate?  


It is often not appreciated that the Israeli-Arab conflict is not just a geo-political conflict, but also a religious one. 


The Biblical Ishmael wandered off into the desert and then eastwards, and was never a party to the covenant at Sinai.  Before he left Abraham’s home, however, he did pick up spiritual fragments from the tent of Abraham:


Chessed or charity is a core attribute of Moslem ethics and constitutes one of the pillars of Moslem practice.  The following quotation from the Qu’ran could equally well have come from the Hebrew Bible: “…… dispenses his wealth to his kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the needy, and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and for ransoming, who observeth prayer, and payeth the legal alms …….  these are they who are just and those who fear the Lord.”14  Prayer is also an important aspect of this religion.  


However, differences in belief and practice between Judaism and Islam are much greater than any similarities.  A fundamental principle of the Torah is that God is not only the source of laws of righteousness and justice, but also their model.  Jews are commanded to be holy because God Himself is holy.  Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra because God’s decision to destroy these cities appears to violate His attribute of justice.  If God does not encapsulate absolute justice, how can He demand it of others?  By contrast, while Islam accepts the absolute jurisdiction of Allah, it regards Mohammed as the model for all virtues.  Hence, just as Mohammed embraced violence, so also does his religion.  The Bible describes Ishmael is as “a wild ass of a man: his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.”  With considerable premonition, this also describes his religion.

 Mohammed befriended Jews in Saudi Arabia and liked the Biblical stories he heard from them.  Many of these were told with a midrashic exegetical bend and found their way into the Qu’ran in this form, although often with errors.  Mohammed also borrowed from Judaism the idea of a utopian Garden of Eden Afterlife.  However, whereas the notion of the Afterlife is vague in Judaism, since Judaism regards life itself as being of such importance, Mohammed would place the Afterlife on a much higher pedestal than in Judaism.  In particular, death during jihad, or religious struggle, was considered to lead to a privileged position in the Afterlife, a privilege with distinct sexual overtones.   


All parents love their children.  However, there is a qualitative difference between Judaism and Islam in the love between parent and child – as in the Bible.  Islamic children can be participants in jihad for Allah - and then left at a distance to die:

She went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” And she sat at a distance, ….. “ (Genesis 21:16)


At the beginning of his prophetic career, Mohammed had expectations that Jews would join his new faith and he included a number of Jewish laws in his religion to accommodate them, such as the prohibition against eating pork.  


The Qur'an is a series of revelations that Mohammed received during his lifetime, and some of his early references to Jews express admiration for them,15  such as: “O children of Israel! Call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and that I made you excel the nations,”16 and “You shall not molest them, O Believers! For it is they who are nearest to the true faith.”17   


However, as it became apparent to him that Jews were not prepared to join his new faith, his comments about them became vitriolic, with warnings that they are not to be befriended,18 they are cursed on account of their disbelief,19 teacherous,20 and that “they shall have disgrace in this world, and ..  grievous chastisement in the hereafter.”21 


Second only to the Qu’ran in guiding Moslems is the hadith, which is a collection of traditions regarding the words and deeds of Muhammad finalized in the 9th century.  There is a single hadith regarding the fate of the Jewish people at the End of Days and this has been widely quoted:


“The Hour (of Judgment) will not arrive until the Muslims fight the Jews, and the Muslims will slaughter them, until the Jews will hide behind the rocks and the trees.  The rocks and trees will say” “O Muslim, O servant of God -  there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”22


Islam believes that it alone possesses the true revelation from God and the legacy of Abraham.  Its messianic vision is to convert the entire world to Islam, by force if necessary, to create a global Islamic state upholding Islamic law (sharia).  While many, if not most, adherents of Islam are prepared to put this aspect of their faith on hold, many fundamentalists take it extremely seriously, and their violent eschatological agenda has created chaos and instability within Arab states, and fear and revulsion throughout the rest of the world.  


In general, the Western world has moved in the opposite direction to the monotheistic faiths with respect to revelation.  Rather than assume there is only one true revelation, many in the West hold that all moral faiths are relative and contain elements of goodness.  Because of this, the Western world has mounted no concerted attack against the moral beliefs of Islam and its tolerance of fanaticism.


It is perhaps ironic that the fuse for activating the eschatological agenda of Islam over the last century may well have been Zionism.23  In many ways, the three main monotheistic faiths operate in tandem, and when Judaism began actualizing its messianic aspirations with its return to Zion, this would have profound implications with respect to the eschatological pretensions of Islam.


The first Arab leader to seriously oppose Jewish immigration to Israel was the Palestinian Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, who was appointed to the powerful position of Mufti of Jerusalem by the British and who orchestrated early and violent opposition to the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine.  He also provided the philosophical underpinnings for what was later to become the Muslim Brotherhood.  He brought the Palestinian people into his vision of a global Islamic struggle and gave voice to the anti-Semitic tendencies already existing within Islam.  This led him to a natural philosophical affinity with the German Nazi party.  


His movement became the forerunner of other violent Arab messianic movements.  The Muslim Brotherhood view their immediate conflict in terms of the Jewish state and Arab states lax in their promotion of Islamic law, while other Islamic movements, such as Al Queda and Islamic State, focused more on promoting the global aspirations of Islam.  The messianic agenda of Hamas is to remove the Israeli cancer from Palestine and restore the importance of Jerusalem to this global Islamic state.  The foreign and nuclear policies of Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah have brought to the fore the schism that already existed in Islam between Sunnis and Shi’ites as the Shi’ites have found themselves left behind in the messianic struggle for world dominion.  


This split in Islam dates to the death of Muhammad and the struggle that ensued for leadership of the new movement.  Most of Muhammad’s followers supported his father-in-law, who became the first caliph or supreme leader.  However, other followers believed that the succession should pass through Muhammad’s bloodline and through his cousin/ son-in-law Ali.  Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but was murdered.  His opponents subsequently killed his son in battle.  Thus began the formal split in Islam, with the Sunnis recognizing only the leadership of the caliphate, while the Shia Muslims venerate the descendants of the prophet or Imams.


The struggles between the two branches of Islam and between the fundamentalists and realists within Islam are now leading to the disintegration of the Islamic world.


The reconciliation between Judaism and Islam


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the internal conflicts within Islam would seem to be intractable problems.  The Torah intimates, however, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  


Following the death of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father before parting on their separate ways.

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.  The field that Abraham had bought from the children of Heth, there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.  And it was after the death of Abraham that God blessed Isaac his son, and Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi. These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, who Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham……...” (Genesis 25:9-12)


There is enough ambiguity within the pages of the Qur'an for there to be a change of heart within Islam with respect to Judaism.  Moreover, there is ample support within the Qu’ran for this change of heart.


Discussing the Pharaoh of the Israelite redemption the Qur'an states:

"Pharaoh sought to scare them [the Israelites] out of the land [of Israel]: but We [Allah] drowned him [Pharaoh] together with all who were with him. Then We [Allah] said to the Israelites: 'Dwell in this land [the Land of Israel]. When the promise of the hereafter [End of Days] comes to be fulfilled, We [Allah] shall assemble you [the Israelites] all together [in the Land of Israel]."24


The Qur'an also relates the words by which Moses ordered the Israelites to conquer the Land of Israel as follows:

"And [remember] when Moses said to his people: 'O my people, call in remembrance the favor of God unto you, when he produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave to you what He had not given to any other among the peoples. O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.”25


It also says:


"And thereafter We [Allah] said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land. And when the last warning will come to pass, we will gather you together in a mingled crowd.”26   


Eventually, the followers of radical Islam will come to a self-realization that violence begets violence and that their version of Islam lacks the building blocks for creating viable states, let alone a global state.  Until this time, the Islamic world is likely to sink deeper and deeper into self-imposed chaos.  


There is only one way for the Islamic world to save itself – to “cry” out to God in the language He recognizes – the language of the Bible and the language of Abraham. This language is not about violence, but justice and righteousness.   


When this happens, Arab “cynical jeering and laughter” at Jews as “descendants of pigs and apes” will also cease.  Then, for the sake of Abraham, God will “listen” to their cries and bring together the children of Isaac and Ishmael. 


Then, and only then, over the grave of their mutual forefather Abraham, the followers of Judaism and Islam will come together in friendship and mutual respect for the sake of building up a utopian world.



1.Bereishis Rabba 45:1.

2.“Hagar the concubine” in Understanding Genesis. The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum M Sarna, p128. First Schocken Paperback edition, 1970.

3.Bereishis Rabba 45:7 and commentary of Rashi to Genesis 16:9.

4.Bereishis Rabba 45:9.

5.Commentary of Rashi to Genesis 16:12.

6.This explanation is from “The Suffering of Hagar and the Enslavement in Egypt” by Yonatan Grossman in Parashat Lekh Lekha in the Virtual Beit Midrash (

7.Discussed in “The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael” in Understanding Genesis. The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum M Sarna, p156. First Schocken Paperback edition, 1970. 

8.Havila is first mentioned in the Bible as the source of one of the headwaters of the Garden of Eden and a source of gold (Genesis 2:10).  The name is next mentioned in Genesis 10:7 as one of the sons of Ham (Genesis 10:7), and also one of the sons of Joktan (Genesis 10:29) from the progeny of Shem

9.Commentary to the Torah by Rashi and Nachmanides

10.Rashi in his commentary to Genesis 21:2, based on Targum Onkelos, explains its meaning as “laughing for me” or “rejoicing over me”.   He brings midrashic support that “many sick people were cured on that day and many prayers were answered along with hers and there was much cheerfulness in the world.” (Bereishis Rabba 53:8).  The Torah commentary of Abarbanel explains “to laugh at me”.   However, this would seem closer to the piel form of the verb.  

11. This is the explanation of Nachmanides.  There is, however, another meaning to the piel form of “to laugh,” which is to engage in idolatrous revelry.  It would seem to have this meaning in Exodus 32:6 in the episode of the golden calf: “They arose early the next day and offered up olah offerings and brought peace-offerings; the people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to sport (letzachek) (לְצַחֵק)”.  Thus, Rashi will explain that Ishmael was also engaged in idolatrous activities.  This does, however, seem somewhat distant from the plain meaning of the verse. 

12. “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” by Rabbi Chanoch Waxman in Torah Mietzion. New Readings in Tanach. Volume 1 Bereshit. eds Ezra Bick andYaakov Beasly, p171. Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Israel, 2011.

13.Commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Genesis 17:17

14.Qu’ran Sur 1:177

15. of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 

16.Qu’ran, Sur 2:47  (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise). 

17.Qu’ran, Sur 1X11.13  (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise). 

18.Qu’ran, Sur 5:51  (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

19.Qu’ran, Sur 2:88  (website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

20. Sur 5:13  (website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

21.Qu’ran, Sur 5:41  (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

22. “Hamas Covenant” Journal of Palestine Studies 1993;22:122-34.  Quoted in “Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature” by David Cook, pages 35-36. Syracuse University Press, 2005. 

23.“The eschatological conflict between Judaism and Islam” by Arnold Slyper. Midstream May 2009.

24.Qur'an, "Night Journey," Sur 17:102-14) (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

25.Qur'an, Sur 5:20-21(translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

26.Qur'an, Sur 17:104 (translation from the website  of the Jewish Virtual Library, a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).

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