Isaac and Ishmael: Issues of Inheritance
The story of Abraham fascinates us; we see the story of a man God promises much to: a great nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the world with land of their own. Establishing one’s family line and securing one’s rights to the land were essential components for survival in ancient Near Eastern culture, so God’s promise to Abraham carries the assurance of perpetual security and prosperity. Yet this seemingly simple story of the fulfillment of God’s promises involves a multitude of complications, two among which are Abraham’s wife Sarah and her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, both of whom have sons by Abraham. Whose son will become the beneficiary of Abraham’s inheritance – of both his property and God’s promise? Though Ishmael is the first-born, God’s fulfills the promise through Isaac, meaning Ishmael will not receive his rightful inheritance.
The narrative begins by telling us that Sarah has borne Abraham no children, but desires a son for herself. To solve this problem, she approaches Abraham saying,
‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.’ And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai…gave [Hagar] to her husband as concubine.
Sarah’s request is in line with common ancient Near Eastern practices; should there be no heir, the wife could produce one of her handmaids for her husband to consort with and the resulting child would belong to the wife. Even so, Sarah’s proposal raises questions surrounding Hagar’s status as a result of her relationship with Abraham. Once she discovers she is pregnant, she looks down upon Sarah. Sarah’s brilliant scheme has backfired, as Hagar’s pregnancy challenges Sarah’s status as the dominant woman in the household – a position she has held for many years.
When confronted with the situation, Abraham gives Sarah permission to deal with Hagar as she sees fit, apparently disregarding the fact that Hagar could bear him the promise-fulfilling child he has been awaiting. Abraham returns Hagar to Sarah’s jurisdiction, and Sarah uses her power over Hagar to abuse her. Hagar flees from Sarah but a confrontation with a messenger of the Lord results in Hagar returning to her mistress. In this conversation between Hagar and the angel, God promises Hagar that she will have many children, much like the promise God gave Abraham.
‘I will greatly increase your offspring,
And they shall be too many to count…
Behold, you are with child
And shall bear a son;
You shall call him Ishmael…
He shall be a wild ass of a man;
His hand against everyone,
And everyone’s hand against him;
He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.’
While there is no mention of land or blessing (in fact, he will live in constant discord with his neighbors and dwell alongside them), Ishmael is a likely candidate for the fulfillment of God’s promise. Abraham now has an heir, although Bruce Vawter points out that Ishmael doesn’t quite fit the ideal picture, being the son of an Egyptian – Abraham’s “surrogate wife.” In addition, God’s pronouncement of Ishmael’s personality as a “wild ass of a man” does not bode well for the potential heir of promise.
Sarah eventually gives birth to Isaac. This poses more problems as to the rightful inheritor of Abraham’s property.
Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.
Certain translations portray Ishmael as “mocking” Isaac instead of “playing,” interpreting the Hebrew pun of Isaac’s name in a derogatory manner, attempting to justify Sarah’s desire to remove Ishmael from the household.  The Jewish Study Bible notes remark, “Ishmael was ‘Isaacing,’ or ‘taking Isaac’s place’,” which could provide incentive for Sarah’s behavior. Even though Ishmael is the rightful first-born, Sarah wants her son to receive the inheritance.
Sarah makes no claim on Ishmael as her son, although Sarah’s desire for a family caused his birth in the first place. She refuses to accept responsibility for the situation, and she rejects Ishmael himself, though he should have been treated as if he were her own son. In her eyes, Ishmael is merely the son of “that slave-woman,” and her denial serves to keep Hagar in her place. Although Hagar remains a slave, Ishmael is still in line to receive Abraham’s inheritance.
But while Sarah rejects Ishmael, Abraham accepts him as his own child. Abraham recognizes Ishmael as his legitimate first-born son and as such, Ishmael is entitled to the rights accompanied by that acknowledgment. The code of Hammurabi justifies this acknowledgement, as the sons of a slave-woman and the master of the house are allowed their share of the inheritance, should they be legitimatized. Otherwise, the child and the slave are given their freedom in exchange for the claim to the inheritance.
Ishmael’s position as the legitimate first-born son was threatening to Sarah. If Abraham were to die, the largest portion of the inheritance would fall to Ishmael, who was sixteen at the time while Isaac was only three. Ishmael would assume the position of the head of the household. After seeing how Sarah treated his biological birth mother Hagar, Sarah might have feared how Ishmael would treat her. This potential role-reversal could have distressed Sarah enough to remove this risk from the picture. The inheritance would give both Ishmael and Hagar power that Sarah would not want them to have. 
Abraham, concerned because this issue pertains to his son Ishmael, heeds Sarah’s request at the Lord’s prompting. God says to Abraham,
‘Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.’
Nahum Sarna writes that Abraham only sends away Hagar and Ishmael at God’s mandate. God refers to Hagar as Abraham’s slave and attempts to distance the relationship between Abraham and Ishmael by referring to him as “the boy” rather than “your son.” Sarna points out that Abraham has to wrestle with giving Hagar and Ishmael their freedom or letting Ishmael share in the inheritance with Isaac. He is “torn between conflicting loves and rent by the rival claims of what society and law permitted and what righteousness seemed to demand.”
However, Abraham does not seem to be concerned about the economic inheritance, just the fulfillment of God’s promise. When speaking with Abraham, God does not address the rights of the first-born son. God is also silent about the moral implications of casting out this woman and her son. God sanctions this decision to put out Hagar and Ishmael, instead of what one might expect from a God of justice and mercy, and one of former slaves, especially! God supports Sarah’s position, and reveals to Abraham that God will fulfill the promise through Isaac. God also assures Abraham that a great nation will descend from Ishmael because he is Abraham’s son, although this promise pales in comparison to what Abraham was originally promised.
Upon learning this, Abraham supplies Hagar and Ishmael with some bread and water and abandons them to the wilderness. This small provision from Abraham parallels the small portion of God’s promise that Ishmael will inherit; Ishmael will become a great nation without land or blessing, and he will receive nothing from Abraham except for these meager supplies for an unknown fate in the desert.
Perhaps another reason why Abraham so easily dismisses Hagar and Ishmael is because Hagar’s status is diminished after the birth of Isaac. As Phyllis Trible points out, the language used in reference to Hagar shifts between chapter 16 and chapter 21. “From being a maid (sipha) to Sarai in scene one, Hagar has become a slave (ama), serving the master of the house as his second wife.” The connotation of the original Hebrew conveys the sense that Hagar, through the act of having his child, is now bonded to Abraham, enslaved as a second wife. Despite Hagar’s giving birth to Abraham’s first-born son, she is not equal in status to Sarah. And by elevating Isaac over Ishmael, God’s intervention seals the fate of Hagar and that of her son. She becomes nothing more than a slave to be cast out.
In one sense, Ishmael’s status is dependent upon that of Hagar, as sons of slaves were slaves themselves, but his legitimacy as a son of Abraham has already clearly been established. Because of this, he was entitled to his portion of the inheritance. Yet because it is through Isaac that God will fulfill the promise, Ishmael is cast aside, the land will be given to Isaac, and the promise will pass to the younger son.
These two inheritances – God’s original promise to Abraham and the inheritance of Abraham’s property – are inextricably linked together. Land is a key component in Abraham’s promise. If Ishmael received the inheritance due the first-born son, he would also receive the land. Ishmael had already been promised many offspring, and now he would have the land to go along with it. He would be the inheritor of Abraham’s name. As the leader of the family, he would be responsible for its security in the land and for managing Abraham’s great wealth. Ishmael would be the head of the household, the one accountable for Abraham’s entire legacy – including God’s promise to Abraham.
There is little to address this particular situation in Biblical law. Deuteronomy – 17 sets up a scenario much like the 21st chapter of Genesis: a man has two wives who have both born him sons, and the son of the unloved wife is the first-born. The law states that in this case, the man may not give the first-born son less of the inheritance than he would normally be entitled to. Other laws found in the Torah stipulate a legal obligation to care for slaves. For instance, Exodus 21:10 describes the situation of a woman being sold as a slave for the purpose of marriage. If the man takes another wife in addition to the woman sold into slavery, this law obligates the man to give her food, clothing, and shelter. Failure to do this would result in her freedom without compensation. In this case, Abraham had a responsibility to at least provide for Hagar and Ishmael, even though Hagar’s status in the household is ambiguous. The hearers and authors of this story would have understood this, yet the text gives no critique of Abraham’s action or God’s demand.
Stories of the younger son receiving the inheritance instead of the first-born are evident in many of the patriarchal narratives, subverting this notion that the first-born is entitled to the inheritance. Jacob gets blessed instead of Esau, Isaac receives the inheritance instead of Ishmael, and Joseph is favored above his older brothers. Even in other places in the Hebrew Bible this is manifested, as David, the youngest of his brothers, is anointed king over
This narrative could have been useful in post-exilic times. After returning from exile, the Israelites faced foreign influences in their own land. Those remaining in the land had married foreign wives and produced children of mixed heritage. As a small community of people struggling to redefine their identity as God’s chosen people back in their own land, foreign cultures posed threats to their heritage. These returning exiles were a people with a specific legacy, language, and belief system. Those with foreign wives risked upsetting this delicate balance, as these women would teach their mixed children a different language and about their own gods rather than the God of Israel. The Israelites understanding of the exile was founded in the belief that their consorting with foreign gods led to God’s judgment upon them. The displacement of foreign wives and their children was seen as a preventative measure against God’s further displeasure. Additionally, if these children who had no knowledge of the God of Israel and who grew up learning different customs inherited the land, the whole identity of the Israelite people would be at stake.
The writers of the story of Abraham could have used the episode of Abraham sending away Hagar and Ishmael as an incentive for the post-exilic community to do the same to their foreign wives. Abraham set the precedent, and the story demonstrates that even though Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with minimal provisions and was distressed about doing so, God still took care of them. This could have been used to comfort men who loved these women and their children, proof that God will ultimately provide for them. These men would need to have faith that God’s promise to Abraham was a promise for them: they are the inheritors and their community together would have to trust that this promise would continue to be fulfilled despite great odds.
While this story can be used to exclude, it can also be used to include. As battles rage in churches over who is “in” and who is “out,” modern day readers of this story can see the actions of Sarah and Abraham as an invitation to self-reflection. Many in the church identify strongly with Abraham and Sarah while glossing over this story involving Hagar and Ishmael. The blindness this produces raises questions for us: should we strive to emulate Abraham and Sarah’s behavior, or should we seek out the people in our communities who are prevented from sharing in the inheritance God has to offer through the church? The modern church has become the arbiter of who can partake in this promise, pronouncing people undeserving of sharing in the inheritance like Sarah. Yet unlike the God of the Israelites, our God is no longer a God of one particular people, but of the entire world, entrusting to all nations the inheritance of God’s favor. We are all deserving; no one person is worthier than another. The church, rather than seeking to bar individuals from inheriting God’s promise made to them, should ensure that all can enjoy the inheritance that God provides for everyone.
The Jewish Study Bible featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation.
Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.
E. A. Speiser, Genesis. Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964/80. Pp. 116-21; 153-57
Phyllis Trible, "Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection." In Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist
Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New
Pp. 213-18; 246-50.
Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary. Old Testament Library.
 According to Phyllis Trible, the language of the original Hebrew used in reference to Hagar describes a woman serving as a personal servant to another woman.
 Translational differences affect how one might view the character of Sarah. For example, Sarah wanting children implies a certain sort of desperation to find some security in making sure Abraham’s family survived. Or one could infer that her desire for children was motivated by a searching for worth in a society where a woman having many children was highly valued. In either case, one may assume that she is ignorant of the promise God made to her husband Abraham and is acting solely for her own benefit.
 JSB, Genesis 16:2 – 4
 Von Rad, p. 191
 Translation differences document. Certain translations refer to Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham to be his wife, to be his concubine, or to be as a wife. This leads to ambiguities as to Hagar’s rightful position in the household.
 According to Vawter, it was Sarah who had the right to reduce Hagar’s status to that of an ordinary slave. But Sarah legally had to appeal to Abraham to regain control of Hagar.
 As Von Rad points out, “there is no clear distinction between the angel of the Lord and Yahweh himself” (193). However, the promise made to her is still from God.
 JSB, Genesis 16: 10 – 12
 However, according to Von Rad, “the reader understands that a child so conceived in defiance or in little faith cannot be the heir of promise” (196). He assumes that the reason Ishmael is not the heir is due to Abraham’s and Sarah’s lack of faith that God will provide.
 Vawter, p. 216
 JSB, Genesis 21: 9 – 10
 JSB, 44
 However, the two could be playing together in a perfectly innocent manner, or Ishmael may not be playing with Isaac at all!
 JSB, Genesis 16:5
 Sarna, p. 156
 Sarna p. 156
 Vawter points out the how the two chapters came from different sources, so Ishmael’s age is unclear. The addition of the Priestly author would have us believe Ishmael is 16. The Elohist portrays a child much younger. (Vawter, 248)
 As noted in precept discussion on
 JSB, Genesis – 13
 Sarna, p. 157
 Trible, p. 21
 Sarna, p. 156
 In addition, putting out slaves was against ancient Near Eastern culture. E. A. Speiser mentions this by referencing both the Hammurabi Code and Deuteronomy (Speiser, 121)
 Von Rad, p. 233
 Trible, p. 21
 Trible, p. 30
 Discussed in precept on
 JSB, Deuteronomy – 17
 JSB, Exodus 21:10 – 11