Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Son of the maidservant Hagar, Ishmael was the firstborn and is considered to be the father of the Arabic nations. Yet Isaac was chosen to carry on Abraham’s legacy. Banished from his father’s home, Ishmael had his ups and downs, but ultimately he repented and was considered righteous. In fact, although we don’t name children after the wicked Esau, some of the greatest Talmudic sages and high priests were named Ishmael.

Who was this mysterious and tragic figure?

Ishmael’sIshmael’s life story is only hinted at life story is only hinted at in the biblical narrative, while much of his story is expounded in the Talmud and Midrash. So let’s dig deeper into Ishmael’s origins, and perhaps we’ll gain a better understanding of him—as well as why ultimately Isaac was chosen over Ishmael to be the progenitor of the Nation of Israel.

Princess Hagar Becomes Sarah’s Maidservant

When Abraham and Sarah arrived in the land of Canaan at G‑d’s behest,1 their promised destination was stricken with a severe famine, so Abraham decided to take his family to Egypt until the famine ended. Aware of the immorality of the Egyptians and Sarah’s striking beauty, Abraham hid his wife away in a box, but she was discovered and taken to the king’s palace. However, G‑d sent an angel to ensure that Pharaoh would not have an opportunity to defile Sarah; whenever Pharaoh attempted to be with her, the angel would strike Pharaoh.2

After Sarah’s miraculous escape, Pharaoh gave Abraham and Sarah many gifts, and most importantly, he gave his daughter Hagar to Sarah as a maidservant. Pharaoh told his daughter, “It’s better that you be a servant in Abraham’s home than a princess in the land of Egypt.”3

Abraham Marries Hagar and Ishmael is Born

When Abraham was 85 and Sarah 75, and they had been married for 60 years without having children,4 Sarah selflessly decided to give her maidservant Hagar to Abraham so he could have children with her.

A year later, when Abraham was 86, Hagar gave birth to a baby boy, whom she named Ishmael (“G‑d will hear”),5 as G‑d had commanded her.6

When Abraham was 99, G‑d appeared to him and commanded him to circumcise himself as well as his offspring. Ishmael, who was 13 at the time, allowed his father to circumcise him without any objection.7

It was at this time that G‑d promised Abraham that Sarah would yet bear him a child, who would be named Isaac.8 Sure enough, a year later, Sarah, who was barren, miraculously had a child.

Ishmael is Sent Away

Shortly after Isaac’s birth, people began referring to Ishmael as Hagar’s boy.9 The seed of jealousy and hate began to grow in Ishmael, corrupting him. When he was about 15, he brought idols into his tent and began worshiping them, mimicking the Canaanite neighbors.10 He would also go out into the field and and shoot arrows at Isaac, all the while pretending to playfully shoot birds.11

Sarah became aware of Ishmael’s ways and demanded that Abraham send away Ishmael and Hagar, whoAbraham felt conflicted about sending away his son had become arrogant toward her mistress. Abraham felt conflicted about sending away his son, until G‑d intervened and commanded him to “listen to all that his wife Sarah [told] him.” So Abraham gave Hagar and Ishmael some food and a flask of water and sent them on their way.

At first, Hagar remained loyal to the service of G‑d as she had learned while in Abraham’s house, and her water flask remained miraculously full. But as she wandered further away from Abraham’s house in both body and thought, she changed. Her heart slowly began to return to the idols of her youth, and the water flask dried up.12

As they wandered in the desert of Be’er Sheva, Ishmael became very feverish and dehydrated. His mother, unwilling to witness his death, stowed him under a bush and waited in the distance. Both mother and son began to pray to G‑d.

At that moment, the angels turned to G‑d and asked, “Will you cause a well of water to spring up for him whose descendants will let your children perish with thirst?"

But G‑d replied, "What is Ishmael at this moment—righteous or wicked?" When the angels proclaimed him righteous, for he had repented,13 G‑d continued, "I judge each man according to his current deeds.”14 So G‑d caused a well of water to appear, and Ishmael was saved.

After this incident, Hagar and Ishmael settled in the wilderness of Paran. Ishmael became a bandit, robbing passing travelers.

Abraham and Ishmael Reunite

Three years after he had sent Ishmael away, Abraham went to visit his son, swearing to Sarah that he would not dismount his camel in Ishmael’s vicinity. Abraham arrived at midday and met Ishmael’s wife, a Moabite woman. He asked her, “Where is Ishmael?”

She replied, “He and his mother went to bring fruits and dates from the wilderness.”

“Give me some bread and water,” Abraham asked of her, “for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.”

“I have neither water nor bread,” she answered

He told her, “When Ishmael comes, say to him, ‘An old man came from the land of Canaan to see you, and he said that you should change the threshold of your house, which is not good for you.’”

When Ishmael returned from the wilderness, she told him what had happened. Ishmael understood his father’s message, and he sent his mother to find a wife for him from his father’s house.

Three years later, Abraham again went to visit his son, and again he swore to Sarah that he would not get off his camel while there. Abraham arrived at midday and found Ishmael’s new wife, Fatimah. He asked her, “Where is Ishmael?”

She replied, “He and his mother went to herd camels in the wilderness.”

“Please give me some bread and water,” he asked of her, “for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.”

She brought forth bread and water and gave them to him.

Abraham stood and prayed to G‑d, and Ishmael’s house was filled with bounty and blessing. When Ishmael came back, his wife told him what had happened, and he understood that his father still loved him, even though he was a bandit.15

From then on, Abraham and Ishmael continued to visit each other.16

Ishmael and Isaac Debate Circumcision

Once, when Ishmael was visiting Abraham, he got into an altercation with his brother Isaac. Ishmael said to Isaac, "I am more beloved to G‑d than you, since I [agreed to be] circumcised at the age of 13, but you were circumcised as a baby and could not refuse."

Abraham and Ishmael continued to visit each other

Isaac retorted, "All that you have sacrificed to G‑d was three drops of blood. But I am now 3717 years old, yet if G‑d desired that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse."

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, "This is the moment!"18

G‑d then commanded Abraham, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for an offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you."19

The next morning, Abraham and Isaac, accompanied by Ishmael and Abraham’s servant Eliezer, set out for what was to be Abraham’s tenth and final test, the Akeidah.

Eventually, Ishmael repented and made up with his brother Isaac, and when it came time to bury their father Abraham, Ishmael honored his brother by letting Isaac go first.20

Ishmael and Isaac—Rational and Suprarational

The mystics explain that the key difference between Isaac and Ishmael can be found in the debate the two had over circumcision. Ishmael initially claimed that his connection to G‑d was greater, for he was circumcised when he was 13 years old, fully cognizant of what would happen. Isaac, on the other hand, claimed a superior connection due to his being circumcised when he was eight days old, an age at which the child is not aware of what is going on.

This difference can also be discerned in the circumstances of their births. Ishmael was born in a natural manner, while Isaac was miraculously born to Sarah, who was originally barren.

Thus, Ishmael signifies a thoughtful and rational relationship with G‑d, while Isaac expresses the dimension beyond reason, the willingness to accept even that which cannot be understood. This is why Isaac was chosen to father the Nation of Israel, for the relationship between G‑d and His people is one that transcends the natural and the rational.21