Rosh Hashanah with Ishmael

Abraham endured ten trials of his faith, according to Jewish tradition, and the last two involve Abraham’s two sons: he must cast Ishmael out of the camp, and offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We read about both these trials on Rosh Hashanah; Ishmael on the first day and Isaac on the second. The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture, but we tend to overlook the sending away of Ishmael, even though it reflects one of the great themes of the High Holy Days.

The story opens with the birth and naming of Isaac, Yitzchak, whose name reflects the Hebrew root word for “laugh.” Sarah, who had laughed at the very idea of bearing a child as an old lady, now says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with [or at] me” (Gen. 21:7). Later she sees Ishmael laughing with, or at, Isaac, and demands that he be sent away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham is distressed, but Hashem tells him to do what Sarah says and reassures him that Ishmael, like Isaac, will become a great nation. Then, in words that will be repeated verbatim in the Akedah, the text says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 21:14) to do God’s will. As in the Akedah he gathers up provisions, and then he lays them on Hagar’s shoulder, just as he will lay the firewood on Isaac’s shoulder, and sends them both off.

Before long, the two run out of water, and Hagar, like Abraham years later, faces her son’s death until an angel calls out from heaven to prevent it. In both cases the angel refers to the son fondly as na’ar, or “lad.” At this point in the Akedah, Abraham looks up to see a ram caught in a thicket, which he offers in the place of Isaac. At the same point in Ishmael’s story, Hagar looks up to see a spring of water, which will save Ishmael’s life. Then the angel tells Hagar, “Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). The promise to Abraham and Isaac will echo this promise and then go far beyond it: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18). Isaac is the chosen son, and his chosenness will entail testing far beyond Ishmael’s.  Ishmael is the son sent away, yet his life is preserved and blessed as well, so that he eventually becomes the father of twelve princes, who become twelve nations (Gen. 25:12ff.). The parallels between these two tales reveal that one God enfolds the two sons within his great plan.

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the Lord’s kingship, not only over Israel, but over all the earth. It’s a most Jewish holiday, but it recognizes that God rules over all peoples and tribes, and has a redemptive purpose for them all. Ishmael, of course, is often considered the ancestor of the Arabs. Peace between Jews and Arabs seems more elusive than ever and violence is on the march, so it is good to remember during this holy season that the Scriptures hold out hope. God loves the chosen and the not-chosen and intends to draw them both into the fullness of his blessing before he brings the story to a close.

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