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The Contrast Between Isaac and Ishmael

The Contrast Between Isaac and Ishmael

Why were Isaac and Ishmael circumcised at different ages?


We read in Genesis (17:7–27) how G‑d appears to Abraham and instructs him to circumcise himself and all the males of his household. G‑d further commands that henceforth every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life, as a sign of the “eternal covenant” between G‑d and the seed of Abraham.

G‑d then informs Abraham that, in one year’s time, he and Sarah will have a son, Isaac. Abraham was nearing his hundredth year at the time, and Sarah was approaching the age of ninety; the two had been married for 75 childless years, and Sarah was physically incapable of having children. Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, born thirteen years earlier, after Sarah had urged him to marry her maidservant Hagar, so that he could father a child through her.

Abraham’s reaction to the divine promise was to proclaim, “If only Ishmael would live before You!” Abraham seems to be saying that he would be perfectly happy to see Ishmael as his heir—as the one who continues his life’s work and perpetuates his special relationship with G‑d.

G‑d rejects Abraham’s proposal. He reassures him that Ishmael will become a great people, “but my covenant I shall establish with Isaac.” Only Isaac, the son you will have with Sarah, can be your true heir, and only Isaac can father the people with whom I will enter into a covenant as my “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”

This is more than a technical choice. G‑d’s insistence on Isaac as the progenitor of His chosen people tells us something very fundamental about the nature of our relationship with Him.

For Ishmael and Isaac differed in two significant respects:

  1. Ishmael came into the world by natural means, while Isaac’s birth was a supernatural event.
  2. Ishmael was circumcised at the age of thirteen, the age of daat (awareness), whereas Isaac entered into the covenant of circumcision as an eight day-old infant—an age at which a person is not even aware of what is taking place, much less of its significance.

In other words, Ishmael represents a rational relationship with G‑d, one that is based upon a person’s nature and understanding. Isaac represents a supranatural, supra-rational bond.

Abraham discerned many positive qualities in Ishmael, and was prepared, and even desirous, to see him as his heir. Yet G‑d insisted that his covenant with Abraham be perpetuated specifically through Isaac and Isaac’s descendants—a people whose commitment to G‑d will transcend the natural and the rational.

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Discussion (15)
November 14, 2014
Medically proven that the only day a human has twice as much Iron in his body in his whole life, is on the 8TH day, The day of the jewish circumcission
January 8, 2014
Brought up Christian, I knew something was wrong in the book I was following.
As far as I can see we modified this book from the Jews who recieved their beliefs from Isaac, the second born to Abraham. Now I'm still only researching but from wot I can see the Quran sends the word of the one and only god, that the jews, and Christians also believe in through Ishmael without being customized to suit different groups needs from god.
October 26, 2012
sibling rivalry
I would say 'cain' to this comment about the younger sibs as in the Hebrew: YES!

It always felt wrong to me... so please explain these stories.
ruth housman
marshfield, ma
October 25, 2012
First Born and siblings
The true question really is why the youngest son is able to steal the heritage of the oldest and ...on top is blessed for doing so....
Cain and Abel.
Isaac and Ishmael
Yaacov and Essau.

Something is fishy with these younger siblings.
July 4, 2012
To Anonymous from Jordan
I don't think it is accurate to say that "the Jews always insult the Arabs." It may be true that some Jews insult Arabs some of the time, but not that the Jews, as a people, insult the Arabs, as a nation. The Torah tradition in fact highlights the righteousness of Hagar, and how Ishmael eventually repented from his wild ways. For an interesting perspective on Jewish-Arab relations, please see here
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
June 26, 2012
the Family of Man
why do people insult each other. I think the Arabs would say, to add insult to injury has to do with the feeling Israel should be entirely theirs, but not all Arabs feel this way, just some. And I could say, not all Jews feel the same way about how Israel is partitioned, and not all Jews have enmity towards Arabs.

We're talking about people who carry feelings, and often these feelings emerge in really bad words about each other. That's really upsetting and the biggest challenge for us all, is to someone how see, I to I, and eye to eye, because AYE, yes, we're all related.

The Isaac and Ishamel story tells us this, and poor Hagar, well she got rather Haggard and I am using language here to make a point.

we're all in this together and I believe when these are the flowers we all gather, we're going to celebrate the beauty of the mixed bunch. We need diversity but we must stop hating and denigrating each other, and this means, everyone.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
June 24, 2012
one question if Ishmail was the brother of Isaac this means that Arabs and Jewish people are cousins, why do the Jews always insult Arabs?
pheildephea, jordan
March 18, 2012
Totally, strangely, the word Covenant keeps coming up for me lately. I just met a social worker who was at the Clinic where I worked in Framingham, and she is working at Covenant House, but before this I got a gift of a butterfly necklace from a friend with a sweet card that was a benefit card for Covenant House, and after this, I actually was in my husband's car when he drove past Covenant House. I do believe this work is for people with addictions. But there are "other" Covenants, and the one I keep coming back to is the Covenant of salt. Salt and Lot's story of his wife and that pillar of Salt come to mind, and our "Lot " in life. A lot of life seems to be the luck of the draw, as in our birth, where we come to be born, and what is borne, for us all, is a story, that is deep, often sorrowful and hopefully having a learning curve towards compassion. I think this story is a coming "attraction", namely a story for us all, about LOVE and THAT particular Covenant.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
November 22, 2011
Nature and Reason
This article strangely conflates nature and reason. But reason is inherently supra-natural: reason tells us what *ought* to be, what we *ought* to do, as opposed to what *is*.

Accordingly, it is bizarre to say, on the one hand, that circumcision is a form of perfection over what's naturally given, and on the other hand to claim that the choice to circumcise is supra-rational.

Indeed, insofar as circumcision is a form of perfection, it is inherently rational, for to bring perfection into this world and make it as it ought to be is the greatest demand reason makes of us.
Brooklyn, NY
November 7, 2011
Poor guys/ Poor gals the life of souls
One could say, within Biblical story there are good guys and bad guys, and sometimes, in the re-examination of these stories, it could be, the assumption of who is bad, is up for interpretation.

I have read many commentaries on Esau, for example, and how bad he was, and about Ishmael, and it always seems there is the "chosen" one and the one who is not chosen, who also suffers, and deeply.

Who and what is being sacrificed to make this story.. and if there is such sacrifice, and often it appears wrong, as in the stealing of a birthright, maybe we are meant to ponder all of this.

I feel for Sarah in learning about Isaac, and what she was not told. How right was this?

I think we're meant, even now, to think about this, if we keep revisiting, reinterpreting and trying to make sense, of stories that do inhabit, our lives

Appellations such as "the hairy one" are judgmental and color our perceptions.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma