Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible.
“And the angel of God said unto her: Behold you are with child, and shall
bear a son. And you shall call his name Ishmael, because God has
heard your affliction. And he shall be a wild ass of a man. His hand shall
be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall
dwell in the face of all his brethren.”
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Earlier in Genesis, Bible students read of God’s promises to Abram. The patriarch heard
that he would be the father to many nations, and that his descendants would inherit Canaan. Yet,
Abram and Sarai grew older and older, with no children in sight.
In Chapter 16, things come to a head. Sarai senses that she is reproductively impaired. Ten years in the
Holy Land brought no boost to the couple’s fertility. Still no babies.
Sarai came up with a strategy. She pleaded with Avram to wed Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaid.
Perhaps, Sarai hoped, Hagar would have a child. Sarai would help raise him. In that way, Sarai would do
her part in participating in the fulfilment of Heaven’s plan.
After repeated requests from Sarai, Abram acceded to Sarai’s pleas. Abram married Hagar, and she
conceived. Verses tell us that Hagar also grew conceited. She looked down on Sarai. The domestic scene
between Sarai and Hagar became more than just sticky; it was toxic.
Abram’s two wives couldn’t get along. At all. Strife tore the patriarch’s family apart. Hagar ran away.
While wandering in the adjacent desert, an angel of God appeared to Hagar. Several communications
passed between them. See the verses quoted above.
Abravanel focuses, among other things, on the son that Hagar would soon bear: Ishmael. What will
become of him, Abravanel asks. Bible aficionados believe the answer to be a simple one, as per the
verse: “And he shall be a will ass of a man.” Clearly, the description of Ishmael as a “wild ass” is not open
to interpretation, we would think.
Readers will be surprised by Abravanel’s approach, one that paints Ishmael, the patriarch’s first son, in a
positive light. Here is how:
The angel of God chided Hagar for leaving the creature comforts of home. He told her, in so many
words, to return to Abram and Sarai, come what may. Among the arguments that the angel put forth to
coax Hagar back was one of environment. What will she gain for her or her son should she decide to
adopt a nomadic existence, traipsing from wilderness to wilderness? Is a barren desert any place to live,
let alone raise a son?
If Hagar was to call the desert home, then the prospects would be bleak, said the angel of God. Do you
want to raise your son, he continued, to be a societal outcast? Do you think it’s in Ishmael’s best
interests to grow up without social skills, uncouth and uncivilized? In this manner, did the angel bring
about a change in Hagar’s heart.
To be sure, Abravanel uses finesse, with a stress on intonation: “And shall he be a wild ass of a man?”
Abravanel reads the verse rhetorically, as we have translated it.
The angel of God threatened that undesirable outcome, if Hagar relocated to the desert. Next, the angel
from above showed how Hagar could opt for a better life for her and her son, predicating it on her
return to Abram’s and Sarai’s holy household.
“His hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him…” These are the angel’s words
should Hagar take the high road home. The angels expressed the following. To the question, “And shall
he be a wild ass of a man” came the answer from above. NO!
“His hand shall be against every man.” It means that Ishmael will be cultured. He will develop healthy
ties with his fellow man. He’ll be cultured. Moreover, the verse teaches that he’ll conduct commerce
with others, partnering up with them. Finally, the angel foretells that Ishmael, in time, will be close with
his half-brothers (children born to Abraham and Keturah).
Based onAbravanel’s World of Torah, by Zev Bar Eitan