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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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Guy Cottino LAS VEGAS April 27, 2017

As a Mormom, one who believes in the teachings of the Old Testament, I was lead t believe that the birthright son was determined from the order of the wives of Abraham. The birthright son was the first son of the first wife. If she was childless, the birthright passed to the first son of the second wife, and so on. Even though Ishmael was born first, he was the first son of the second wife, Hagar. When Isaac was born, he became the first son of the first wife and therefore became the birthright son.

this follows the same pattern as with Joseph's children. When the birthright was forfeited through sin by Reuben, the first son of the first wife, Leah, it fell to Joseph, the first son of the second wife, Rachel, even though Joseph was born after many of the other sons of Jacob.

Although Ishmael did not forfeit the birthright through sin, he still bacame the first son of the SECOND wife.

Please let me know if I am wrong in this understanding. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For January 2, 2017

To Anon, Corona I am not sure I entirely understand your question, as G-d could and did make a covenant with whomever He chose to, and He wanted a covenant with Isaac specifically. There was nothing to force G-d to enter into a covenant with anyone, if He did not wish to. He did in fact make a covenant with Ishmael as well, but not the unique covenant of Israel. G-d promised to make Ishmael into a great nation. However the special mission of being a "light to the nations," of revealing G-d within the world, was given specifically to Abraham's descendants through Isaac. Reply

Anonymous Corona December 22, 2016

Why God didn't order to Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael,or make a covenant with them while he(Ishmael ) was literally the only son?????!!! Reply

Abdullah July 21, 2016

I'm a muslim. We love and Respect the prophet Isaac peace be up on you.
If any muslims said that Isaac was a wild donkey to downplay him , that man would be out of Islam because it's forbidden to smoke prophets of God, and it's considered from the sins that makes you out of Islam.

Ismael was a great prophet of God. Why would you refuse this fact? Reply

Anonymous 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 Reply

Kim Lismore 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. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma 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. Reply

Lroche NY 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. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein 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 Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

Anonymous pheildephea, jordan June 24, 2012

ishmail 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? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 18, 2012

Covenants 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. Reply

Adam Brooklyn, NY 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. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

Hadassa November 4, 2011

Ishmael Ishmael was brought into the covenant of Abraham's house, and so I feel kind of sorry for Abraham, because he had to "sacrifice" two sons, one was Ishmael when he sent him away (must have been hard to do!) and then later he is asked by G-d to sacrifice Isaac too! Poor guy!! Reply

George Varughese Kerala , India November 2, 2011

Ishmael and Issac we can see a great difference in between Ishmail and Issac in Gen 25.5,6 ( in relation to the wealth) Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 1, 2011

difference between natural & supernatural I understand what you are saying about these births and G-d's choice. In looking backwards over history it does seem this story of brothers and separate but connected destiny has led to so much anguish between Arabs and Jews. In fact Muslims claim that the binding involved Ishmael.

In a way, given this ongoing and so far unresolved conflict it seems to be a story G-d wrote whose conclusion, if love, must resolve in love, meaning a renewal of blood ties that are about greater family.

One could argue that the lesson within has to do with unity & that all Biblical stories carry lessons which is why we keep revisiting them and holding them to the light.

I think all Birth could be termed, in a larger sense, a supernatural event as life itself is the ultimate miracle for us all! Reply

m Perth, WA November 1, 2011

observance just because some people try to be more 'observant' or look more observant, do not make them ethical people. that a Jewish person, observant or not, could choose to do 'unorthodox' acts is a given i guess otherwise all our acts would be controlled. i also think it is interesting that people, esp Jewish people judge harshly the unethical acts of more observant Jews harsher than they judge the ever more pervasive unethical acts by non-observant Jews. Reply

Sharon Oliver Portales, NM October 27, 2009

Ishmael and Hagar I always find it interesting that the people of G-d can perform the most unorthodox acts. When we fail to trust G-d and fail to believe Him, we bring trouble on ourselves. G-d has revealed some things to me, and I asked Him, "Why cannot I not talk about it?' He said, "Sharon, I have a problem." Did you know that G-d has problems. He said, "When I tell people what is going to happen, one of two things happen: (1) They say, 'Oh, G-d cannot cause that; I will do something different;' or 'I will help Him'." Either way, we fail to trust, or we believe that He cannot do it His way in His time. We have to do it our way or help. He does not need our help; He only wants our obedience and faith. Shalom, May we trust and obey, Reply

Circumcision is the first commandment given by G-d to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism.
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