Ishmael: A Life of Contention

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Dani Roth

Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid [Hagar] is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.” Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. An angel of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” And the angel of God said to her, “Go back to your mistress, and subjugate yourself to her treatment.” And the angel of God said to her, “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.” The angel of God said to her further, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for God has paid heed to your suffering. He shall be a wild ass of a person: his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him. He shall dwell alongside of all his kin.” (Gen. 16:6-12).

God wished to elicit a precise statement from Hagar. God told the angel to ask Hagar concerning 2 matters: 1) her point of departure, and 2) her destination. God also tells the angel to address Hagar as “slave of Sarai.” Meaning, God wants Hagar to recognize that her capacity as a servant still remains, even after she fled. That is, God wants this capacity to remain. 

Hagar replies only about her departure; destination is of no concern to her. God wants this emphasized, that Hagar’s state of mind was not a destination, but only to flee Sarai. It is this fleeing from conflict God wishes to highlight. But why?

God tells the angel to tell Hagar to return and submit to Sarah, instead of following her emotions (cowering to fear) by fleeing Sarah’s presence. This must be significant, as God commanded His angel to redirect Hager back to Abraham's house. What is the importance? 

Subjugation to others often times is distasteful, but it is not necessarily wrong, or evil. Torah permits slavery. But what greater good was served by Hagar returning? It would appear the birth and child rearing by Abram of Ishmael her son was the objective. If so, there must be some significance to Ishmael’s life. But all we are taught of Israel here is “His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him. He shall dwell alongside of all his kin.”  Meaning, he is in conflict with all others, they are intolerant of him, and Ishmael lives isolated, apparently due to his conflict with others. 

God does not interfere in free will. When the angel says that Hagar’s son Ishmael will be wild and will raise his hand against everyone, the angel is stating what her son and his descendants will decide of their own free will.

Hagar’s son Ishmael will embody the same incorrect trait Hagar expressed in fleeing Sarai: preoccupation with man over God. His descendants will follow this wrong preoccupation. 

However, our purpose is to be preoccupied not with man, but with God, where social status and human acceptance is of no concern. Ishmael will become a lesson to mankind that living emotionally with contention is the incorrect life, as no one will tolerate Ishmael for “everyone’s hand will be against him” in response. 

Hagar first caved in to her conflict with Sarai and fled. But she followed God’s angel and exemplified perfection by overcoming her conflict and subjugating herself to God’s will. His will is that Ishmael exist and flourish into a nation that displays the improper life of contending with man, of following petty emotions of rivalry. 

God wished Hagar to choose between an emotional life seeking avoidance of interpersonal grief, and between following God’s will of educating mankind. Hagar rose to the occasion, she accepted the grief and subjugation under Sarai, and accepted her son’s role to teach man this very lesson. 

“Remove yourself from man, whose soul is in his nostrils, for what [little grandeur] is his value?” (Isaiah 2:22). Here, the prophet appeals to man to abandon seeking approval from mortals, a lifestyle most people find hard to leave. People live primarily for ego satisfaction. Human ego depends on how man thinks his friend views him. Our strivings for beautiful homes, cars, clothes and extravagant affairs are all attempts to give man the imagination of his friends’ approval. Isaiah instructs man to abandon such a life of mere imagination, and turn to Torah and seek God instead, the life that man truly finds deep satisfaction.