Ishmael, the Sacrifice of Abraham
Elizabeth Kubota (December 12, 2003)
The tragedy of strained relations between Islamic and Judeo-Christian countries is a part of everyday life in 2003. One need only pick up a newspaper or check the news story of the day via television, radio, or internet to learn of the latest violent attack by a suicide bomber or military retaliation on such an attack. The terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by countries that are predominantly Islamic with the counter attacks coming from a well-armed Israel, supported by US arms sales as well as US silence. Arecent CNN talk show byline queried, “Are we at war with Islam?” One does sometimes wonder.
Israel has long held a policy of counter attack to deal with terrorists harbored by governments of neighboring countries. Following 9/11, the United States government adopted this policy. As part of this new policy the US military went after terrorists in Afghanistan and destroyed the country’s infrastructure as well as innocent civilians in the process. In early 2003, Iraq was attacked for the same reasons, with the same resulting damage. Terrorism directed against Iraqis and Coalition forces as well as military retaliation by Coalition forces continues to make the headlines in occupied Iraq. The cycle of violence continues.
To say the cause of political friction in the Middle East is due to religious differences is too simplistic as well as unduly inflammatory. Other things come into play, such as protection of US interests involving energy production, and even control of the water supply by Israel and its neighboring countries. However, to say the violence has nothing to do with religious differences denies the past 4,000 years of history.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, three of the world’s great religions, have their roots as well their “holiest places” in the Middle East. All three religions revere Abraham as a common ancestor. Yet all three have had bloody interchanges throughout history. How and why did Abraham’s children become such a dysfunctional family? Where is God in this “family feud?” Finding answers to these theological questions that could help provide a peaceful future are important for all. Conflicts surrounding this “family of God” involve more people and places than were involved even 50 years ago. For example, currently there are more Muslims living in the United States than Methodists (Geisler and Saleeb, 2001).1
The Story of Ishmael
One must wonder what event or events provided such
fertile ground for violence and bad feelings to thrive? If one were to name a common cultural denominator in the
Middle East that seems to express the polarization of the Islamic world
against the Judeo-Christian world, it is the story of Ishmael. Understanding the “status” of the two oldest sons of
Abraham 4,000 years ago may even shed light on some of the differences
between Jew and Arab of the present time ( Francona, 2000).2
Born in Ur, or present day Iraq, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, set
out for the area now known as Israel and the West Bank, the area of the
Palestinian Authority. Upon moving to Egypt they acquired a slave, Hagar.
Since Sarah and Abraham were unable to have a child, Sarah insisted
that Abraham have a child with her slave, Hagar. Sarah would raise the
child, who would be Abraham’s heir.
The child born from this arrangement was Ishmael. Abraham, Sarah,
Hagar and Ishmael moved to what is present day Saudi Arabia. Abraham and
Ishmael built a shrine, the Ka’aba, which is the holiest site of Islam.
An unexpected complication for this family was God causing Sarah to become
pregnant in her old age. Isaac,
the child of Sarah and Abraham, whom Jews and Christians consider the heir
of God’s covenant with Abraham, was born. Subsequently Sarah insisted
Abraham force Hagar and Ishmael from their household (Francona, 2000) .3
Abraham’s heir-Ishmael or Isaac?
The birth circumstances of Ishmael and Isaac must be examined to determine who is considered the rightful heir of Abraham. Ishmael, the first born, is Abraham’s son by an Egyptian slave while Isaac, the second son, has a much clearer claim, being born to Abraham’s legal wife, Sarah. Terminology in the Jewish Torah and the Arab histories causes more confusion. The Torah refers to Hagar as a slave. However, Arab scholars disagree that the text refers to Hagar as a “slave.” Arabs show sensitivity to this reference, as the circumstances of Ishmael’s birth to Hagar imply that he was the illegitimate child of a slave girl. Jews have used this to cite that the Arabs are inferior to the descendants of Isaac, the legitimate son. These circumstances led to the Jewish law establishing Jewish nationality through the mother instead of the father ( Francona, 2000).4
Isaac’s birthright cited in Jewish texts was the covenant between God and Abraham which gave Abraham’s descendants the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. Murals of these boundaries appear in some Israeli official buildings. This fuels Arab fears of Israel’s wish to increase their territory to the Biblical record (Francona, 2000).5
Ishmael, whose life was spared by God due to the request to do so by Hagar, became the father of the Muslim nation. Consequently, Abraham is the thread that connects three of the worlds great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Abraham died in Hebron, now known as Al-Khalil, on
the West Bank. Arabs, Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians revere
Abraham’s tomb ( Francona, 2000).6
Christian and Jewish Commentary on the Ishmael Story
The study of Christian biblical commentaries and rabbinical commentaries on the Ishmael story provides other viewpoints than those expressed by Francona on the interpretation of this narrative. Some points to be considered are:
Does Ishmael have a birthright?
The conflict between the two sons, two mothers and the ambiguous father is filled with complexity ( Brueggemann, 1982).7 Although Isaac is the chosen heir, Ishmael has some rights as well as the oldest son of Abraham. For his part, Abraham does not seem ready to drive Ishmael out. God, who agrees that Abraham must listen to Sarah and be rid of Ishmael and Hagar, reassures Abraham that Ishmael will be taken care of by God.
God’s promise to Hagar
Upon the request of Hagar, God not only saves Ishmael’s life in the desert, but promises that the descendants of Ishmael will make a great nation (Brueggemann, 1982).8 Brueggemann says this narrative tells the “canonical” story of Isaac as the “child of promise.” The text is also clear that Ishmael is not to be “dismissed” by the family (Brueggemann, 1982). 9 However, one cannot deny from reading the story that it seemed Ishmael was not only dismissed from his family but his life was jeopardized by his family, as he would have died in the desert without God’s intervention in providing water.
God acts on behalf of the oppressed in his promise to Hagar.
Cotter (Cotter, 2003) 10 sees a foreshadowing of God answering Hagar’s cries in the desert to save Ishmael in the meaning of Ishmael’s name: “God hears.” Cotter also sees meaning in the name Hagar gives to the being-whether angel or God- she has encountered in the desert: “God Who Sees Me.” Cotter says Hagar probably felt God alone “saw her,” as she was just an instrument in the creation of a son to others. Contrary to viewing Hagar as “just a slave girl,” Cotter says God honored Hagar forever by making her, through her son Ishmael, the mother of a nation. Until this desert encounter with Hagar, Abraham alone was promised to be progenitor of nations. Other parallels Cotter sees include that, like Israel, Hagar followed an Exodus toward freedom. Hagar, like Moses, saw God. Cotter suggests the reason is because “God is justice,” ( Cotter, 2003) 11 in the Ishmael story. Cotter says Hagar stands for those that hold special concern for God, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow (Cotter, 2003).12
The above commentary indicates God held a special
bond with Hagar and Ishmael, regardless of their dismissal from their
earthly family. In God’s view, according to Cotter, Hagar and Ishmael
were honored for all time, just as Abraham and Isaac were so honored.
However, that honor does not change the way the story goes. Hagar
and Ishmael were driven into the desert without adequate water. Abraham
would have known that their chances of survival were not good.
Understanding the term “to mock”
Alders’ commentary on the Ishmael story includes an emphatic “yes” to the age-old question of whether what Sarah saw happen between Ishmael and Isaac was “playing” or whether what Sarah saw was Ishmael “mocking” Isaac ( Adlers, 1981).13 Adlers asserts that translation of the word in question is “to mock.” He bases this on other usages of this word in Genesis. In 19: 4, it is the word used in description of the reaction from Lot’s sons-in-laws when they were told of Sodom’s destruction. It also is used in this manner in Genesis 39 :14 and 17, when Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of “making sport” of her. He also cites usage in Exodus 32:6, for the Israelis when they worshipped the golden calf and in Judges 16:26, when the Philistines made a blind Samson “perform” for them (Adlers, 1981).14
Adlers’ acknowledgement that biblical scholars do not share his certainty concerning the meaning of the translation of what Ishmael did to Isaac should be remembered in interpretation of this story. Adlers includes:
Some people have even suggested that whatever Ishmael
did in his mocking sport was agan in origin and involved something that
was very improper for the people of God. It is even possible that he made
fun of the promises of God with respect to Isaac,
thereby expressing his disdain for these promises. In that case we would
have the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” of which Paul
speaks in Galatians 4:29. This mockery of Isaac by Ishmael would then be
veiled as a preview of the persecution of the church by the hostile world,
of the seed of the covenant by those who stood outside of that covenant (Adlers,
In Adlers’ theology not only has Ishmael “mocked” Isaac, with the meaning of “mocked” being quite a severe act, but into the future Ishmael has “mocked” the Christian church. The story of Abraham’s dysfunctional family, if one follows Adlers, has now alienated from each other not only the non-Jewish descendants of Ishmael and the Jewish descendants of Isaac, but Ishmael’s non-Judeo Christian descendants from Isaac’s Judeo-Christian descendants.
Adlers agrees with Brueggemann and Cotter that God
intervened, providing water in the desert as well as making good on the
promise to Hagar and Ishmael that Ishmael would be progenitor of a great
IV. Darr and the Critical, Rabbinical and Feminist Perspective
How can Jewish history begin with a domestic quarrel between a rich elderly mistress and her young servant? – Elie Wiesel (Darr, 1991)16
We need further understanding of the term “to mock”
Critical Perspective-Von Rad
Darr asks, “What did Ishmael do that Sarah would (cast them out) treat them in such fashion?” She lets Von Rad answer this question: “ What Ishmael did need not be anything evil at all. The picture of the two boys playing together on equal footing is quite enough to bring the jealous mother to a firm conclusion: Ishmael must go!” (Darr, 1991)17
Darr says the rabbis sought a more severe reason for Sarah insisting on Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion. Midrash Rabbah presents the opinion of rabbis that have compared the meaning of the word “to mock” and then use this comparison to further “illuminate” the meaning of the Ishmael passage and Sarah’s drastic request for action.18
R. Simeon b. Yohai tells of R. Akiba lecturing of the phrase “to mock” or “making sport” as meaning no less than immorality. In rabbinical teaching this means that Sarah saw Ishmael “ravish maidens, seduce married women, and dishonor them (Darr, 1991).”19 R. Ishmael taught the meaning of the phrase in question referred to idolatry and meant that Sarah had seen Ishmael “build altars, catch locusts, and sacrifice them (Darr, 1991).”20 R. Eleazar said of the term that it refers to bloodshed. R. Azariah went on to say that “Ishmael said to Isaac, ‘Let us go and see our portions in the field;’ then Ishmael would take a bow and arrows and shoot them in Isaac’s direction, whilst pretending to be playing. This term sport [mockery] refers to inheritance. For when our father Isaac was born all rejoiced, whereupon Ishmael said to them, “You are fools, for I am the firstborn and I receive a double portion (Darr, 1991).”21
It is difficult to look at the rabbinical interpretation and not see the anger that must have existed between descendants of Ishmael and descendants of Isaac.
Hagar - a special person in the eyes of God: Darr and the Feminist Perspective
Has the biblical message been misjudged?
Darr raises the question of whether the biblical
message of the Hagar and Ishmael story has been misjudged. She presents
the opinion of Tamez (Darr, 1991),23
“ that these narratives are included in the canon to show that the
oppressed are also God’s children, co-creators of history. God does not
leave them to perish in the desert without leaving a trace. They must live
to be a part of history, and struggle to be the subjects of it (Darr,
Islamic Commentary on Ishmael, the sacrifice of Abraham
It is an undeniable fact that Ishmael was the first
son of Abraham (peace be on them). He was the one who was put to the test
of sacrifice. The event is celebrated yearly by Muslims all over the world
and serves as the biggest holiday of the year. The festive event is called
Eidul-Adha. Millions of Muslims go for Hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah.
Several hundred thousand oats, lambs, and cows are sacrificed to
commemorate the trial of Abraham and Ishmael. Part of the meat is shared
with relatives, friends and the poor. (Zahid, 2003)25
Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that the love
Abraham had for God is clearly evident in Abraham’s willingness to
sacrifice his oldest son. It is at this point that Muslims disagree with
the Hebrew Bible account in which Isaac is identified as the child to be
sacrificed. Muslims believe the oldest son that narrowly missed
being sacrificed by Abraham was Ishmael, as the above quotation on Hajj to
According to Islamic scholars the Quran speaks of the
era of Abraham and Ishmael at Mecca and of their
building of “the Ka’aba, the sacred House (Quran 5:100),”
also known as “this ancient House (Quran 22:29).” No mention is made
of Sarah, Hagar, or the extended accounts found in the Hebrew Bible of
their births. Muslim scholars have supplemented the story of Abraham’s
two families with differing versions.
In Muslim tradition there was much more interest in how Abraham and
Ishmael made it from Palestine to Mecca and
built the Ka’aba at Mecca (Peters, 1994).26
However, the trip to Mecca was said by Muhajid and other scholars to be in
response to Sarah and God’s demand for the expulsion of
Hagar and Ishmael (Peters, 1994).27
According to these scholars the angel Gabriel accompanied Abraham
to Mecca and confirmed the exact spot where Abraham was to construct the
Ka’aba. Abraham then told Hagar and Ishmael to go to al-Hajir, a space
at the northwest face of the Ka’aba, to find shelter, and he left them
there. The Quran records Abraham as saying, “ My Lord, I have settled
some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near Your Holy House…that
they may be thankful.” (Quran 14:37).Abraham then traveled back to his
family in Syria and left Hagar and Ishmael at the House ( Peters, 1994).28
This version presents Abraham in a much more caring light concerning the
details of the expulsion of the two than the Hebrew Bible version. In the
biblical account Abraham merely provides water and food then forces Hagar
and Ishmael into the desert, possibly to die.
III. Ghoniem and Saifullah
The Sacrifice of Abraham: Isaac or Ishmael? Muhammad Ghoniem and M S M Saifullah
These Islamic scholars have presented a paper entitled, “The Sacrifice of Abraham: Isaac or Ishmael ?” on the web site Islamic Awareness, in which they refute the claim of Christians that Isaac was the child Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice. They cite the most relevant passage concerning this issue in the Quran as being from verse 37:99 to verse 37:109, with 37:113 including the whole argument.29
99. He said: “I will go to my Lord! He will surely
these scholars the first argument made by those who believe Isaac was the
son nearly sacrificed is that in the Quran it is Isaac’s name that was
associated with glad tidings. They point out that Ishmael’s name was
never linked with good news or glad tidings. The argument lies in verse
37:112, “And We gave him the good news of Isaac-a prophet-one of the
righteous.” In addition, verse 51:28, is said to refer to Isaac, not
Ishmael: “They said, “Fear not,” and they gave him glad tidings of a
son endowed with knowledge.”
Opposition to the
above argument can be explained by these two points:30
1. Well known is
that Abraham’s first child, Ishmael, was not born until Abraham was over
80 years old. This would have been a joyous surprise to Abraham, news of
“glad tidings.” The following birth of Isaac would have only been of
equal or less joy to Abraham, as there would have been no “surprise
factor” in the birth of Isaac.
2. Muslims firmly believe that the sacrificed son was “steadfast in the Quran.” In the Quran, Ishmael’s name, not Isaac’s, can be found in association with patience and steadfastness. The scholars cite from the Quran, verse 21:85 as support of this argument: “And (remember) Ishmael, Idris, and Zulkifl, all (men) of constancy and patience.”
IV. Ibn Kathir
Great Quranic commentator, as told by Ghoniem and Saifullah
Kathir adds two more arguments for the case that Ishmael is the sacrifice.31
Therefore, God cannot order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac before the promise is fulfilled.
Once more, according to the Quran, Isaac cannot be the sacrificed.
The Muslim scholars, Ghoniem and Saifullah, include in their paper a passage from “Encyclopedia Judaica” (Ghoniem and Saifullah, 2003): 32
In the tale of binding (Surah 37:99-110) Muhammad
identified the son who was to be sacrificed as Ishmael and, indeed, the
opinion of the traditionalists were also divided on this subject. It is
related that a renowned traditionalist of Jewish origin, from the Qurayza
tribe, and another Jewish scholar, who converted to Islam, told that
Caliph Omar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-2) that the Jews were well informed that
(Ishmael ) was the one
who was bound, but they concealed this out of jealousy. The Muslim legend
also adds details of Hajar ( Hagar), the mother of Ismail (Ishmael). After
Abraham drove her out and her son out, she wandered between the hills of
al-Safa and Al-Marwa ( in the vicinity of Mecca) in search for water. At
that time the waters of the spring Zemzem began to flow. Her acts became
the basis for the hallowed custom of Muslims during the Hajj.
The Crusades-in 2001?
Ishmael according to a former Muslim / present UMC pastor
Theological analysis of the Ishmael story
Hagar and Ishmael
Birthrights and Covenants
Ishmael, the Sacrificed
1 An attempt is made in this book to present and evaluate the claims of orthodox Islam from the Christian viewpoint, with one author being Muslim and the other Christian. ( Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam, the Crescent in the Light of the Cross [ Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001], 9 ).
2 Commentary by Rick Francona. 2000. Francona, BA MS, Lt. Col. USAF (ret), is an acknowledged Middle East expert and speaker as well as NBC Middle East analyst. http://www.francona.com/commentaries/beginning.html ( accessed 10 November 2003).
3 Ibid., 2.
5 Ibid., 1.
7 This volume on Genesis is from a series of commentaries by the biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann.
( Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, Genesis [ Atlanta: John Knox Books, 1982], 183).
8 Ibid., 183.
10 A book of criticism and interpretation on Genesis, using the NRSV Catholic version of the Bible, copyright by the order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN. ( David W.Cotter, O.S.B., editor, Genesis,
Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry [ Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003],105-106.
13 This volume is from a larger collection, Bible Student’s Commentary, originally published under the Dutch title, Korte Verklaring Der Heilige Schrift , translated by William Heynen .( G.Ch. Adlers, Bible Student’s Commentary, Genesis, Volume II [ Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981], 35-39.
15 Ibid., 36.
16 This book explores critical, rabbinical, and feminist perspectives on four women of the Hebrew Bible: Sarah, Hagar, Ruth, and Esther. ( Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious Than Jewels [ Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster / John Knox Books, 1991 ], 134.
19 Ibid., 143.
21 Ibid., 147.
25 44: Sacrifice Ishmael. The Gospel of Barnabas. An Islamic Perspective and Commentary by Ishaq Zahid.
http://www.barnabas.net/barnabas.net/barnabasP44.html ( accessed 10 November 2003).
26 This text contains a wealth of information on Islamic tradition and theology, the Quran, the prophet Mohammed, the Law, Muslim community, worship of God, saints and mystics. (F.E. Peters, A Reader on Classical Islam [ Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994 ], 258.
27 Ibid. 16-17.
29 Islamic Awareness. The Sacrifice of Abraham. 2003. Commentary by Islamic scholars Muhammad Ghoniem & M S M Saifullah.http://www.Islamic awareness.org/Quran/Contrad/MusTrad/sacrifice.html
( accessed 3 December 2003).
33 This book is written by Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, B. Litt. at Oxford, has worked as a freelance writer and journalist as well as producing documentaries on religious subjects. She currently teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. She was awarded the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. ( Karen Armstrong, Holy War, The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World [ New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2001 ], iii.
34 Ibid., 4.
35 Ibid., 3.
37 Ibid., ix.
38 Ibid., 5.