Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ishmael on Hagar's Back

Genesis 21:14 says (in the King James Version): “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.”  The context is that Abraham is sending out Hagar and her son Ishmael because Abraham’s wife Sarah does not want for Hagar to share in the inheritance with Sarah’s son, Isaac.

Genesis 21:14 is often lampooned, or it is cited to show that the Bible has different sources, or that an editor clumsily threw together different stories in Genesis.  The reason is that Genesis 21:14 appears to say that Abraham put Ishmael on Hagar’s back.  Why would Abraham put Ishmael on Hagar’s back?  He wasn’t a baby at this point!  Earlier in the Book of Genesis, in Genesis 17, Ishmael was circumcised at the age of 13!

I found two attempts at a solution to this problem.  First, there’s that of the Protestant commentator John Gill.  In the Hebrew, it says (in my literal translation) “And Abraham rose early in the morning, and he took bread and a water-skin of water and he gave to Hagar.  He put on her shoulder, and the boy, and he sent her and she went and she wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.”  According to Gill, the text is not saying that Abraham put Ishmael on Hagar’s back.  Rather, Gill thinks that “the boy” goes with “he gave to Hagar”, not “He put on her shoulder”.  It’s almost as if Gill treats “He put on her shoulder” as parenthetical.  For Gill, Abraham gave Hagar bread and a water-skin and put those on her shoulder, and he also gave Hagar Ishmael, which means that Abraham “delivered him into her hand, to be taken care of by her; and very probably she led him in her hand”.  Whether this works, I don’t know.  I have to admit that “and the boy” is in a pretty awkward place in the verse!

The second solution is that of Genesis Rabbah 53:13.  It says that Sarah gave Ishmael the evil eye, and so Ishmael got sick.  As a result, Hagar had to carry Ishmael on her back.  I do admire the rabbis for their creativity!

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