Genesis 21:15 – 21:34

21:15 Rashi answers that question by saying that the water was used up because sick people, in this case, Ishmael, drink more water than normal.

Rashi does not consider the possibility that Abraham gave them insufficient water for the trip. Therefore, he comments that the water ran out ‘due to Ishmael’s unusual thirst’. However, the question arises, if Ishmael was obviously so sick that Abraham had to ‘place him on her shoulder’, why didn’t he provide additional water? The answer is either that Ishmael’s illness became worse or that Abraham mistakenly thought that his illness was not physical but a result of his temporary depression at being forced to leave his home.

“..cast off the boy..” – According to the Midrash, she had been carrying or supporting the ill Ishmael from the time they had left. Now that the water had run out and the child was dying, she gave up hope and cast him off.

21:16 Hagar’s behavior was disgraceful; it clearly revealed her flawed Hamitic character. A Jewish mother would not have abandoned her child even though her presence would have done no more than provide momentary comfort. For Hagar to leave because she could not bear to see his suffering is not compassion but selfishness. She considered not Ishmael, but herself. Therefore, although both Hagar and Ishmael wept, it was only the cry of the youth which God heard (verse 17). Her self-pitying tears were worthless in God’s eyes   (Hirsch)

“..lifted her voice and wept.” – The Torah emphasizes that she ‘threw’ away the child in utter despair rather than gently place him down, but like all compassionate women she reviews her plight and is driven to tears.

21:17 Ishmael, weakened from thirst cried out, “Master of the Universe, if You plan to grant me water, please do so and let me drink now rather than suffer from thirst, for death from thirst is the cruelest of all deaths. Then God hearkened to his prayer.

Interestingly, God is here named in His Attribute of strict Justice: Elohim. Even in this Attribute, He was aroused to answer the boy’s prayers. God judges a person according to his present state, regardless of past or future wickedness. At that moment, Ishmael deserved compassion even under the Attribute of Justice.

This translation follows Rashi who explains that God told Hagar not to fear because Ishmael will be judged ‘according to his present deeds’ and not according to what he would become in the future.

Rashi continues to say that the angels protested with God: ‘Will You create a well for him whose descendants will one day kill Your descendants by thirst?’* God said to them: ‘But at the present, is he wicked or righteous?’ ‘He is righteous’, they replied. ‘Then I will judge him according to his present deeds.’

*When did Ishmael’s descendants kill Israel with thirst? At the destruction of the First Temple when Nebuchadnezzar carried the Israelites into exile, they were brought near the Arabs (Ishmael’s descendants). The thirsty Israelites begged their captors to lead them to their cousins, descendants of Ishmael who, they thought, would certainly pity them. They begged for water, and instead the Ishmaelites brought them salted meat and fish, and water-skins inflated with air. Believing that these skins were filled with water, they put them to their mouths, and the air pressure distended their stomachs and killed many of them. (Rashi; Midrash)

Mizrachi states that when the angels referred to Ishmael as righteous, they meant that he was innocent in terms of their particular accusation, for he had not yet slain anyone by thirst but he was guilty of the several transgressions implied by ‘mocking’ (verse 9). The angels did not cite those transgressions, however, either because the question at hand was whether or not he should be allowed to die of thirst and they therefore cited a transgression concerning thirst although it had not yet happened.

21:19..God opened her eyes..” – In reference to Adam and Eve in 3:17, Rashi explains that the passage ‘the eyes of both of them were opened’ is not to be taken literally, but refers to their eyes being opened with newfound intelligence and awareness.

21:20 “God was with the youth..” – Not only was God with the youth, but also with all that eventually were his: his donkey drivers, camel drivers, and household; they all prospered. (Midrash)

21:21 While in the desert of Peran, Ishmael married a woman by the name of Adisha, and ultimately he divorced her. Ishmael’s first, ill-fated marriage had been with a woman taken, apparently, without his mother’s consent. Hagar now chose for him a new wife by the name of Fatima from the land of Egypt. (See note written at Chapter 22)

21:22 The Alliance with Abimelech Knowing all the miracles which God did for Abraham, Abimelech came to seal a covenant with him. (Rashbam)

“..God is with you in all that you do.” – Abarbanel interprets Abimelech: ‘As evidenced by your departure from the locality of Sodom in safety; your defeat of the kings (Chapter 14); the birth of your child in your old age (Rashi); and also by the fact that your wife was saved from two powerful kings (Pharaoh and myself) ~ it is only because God is with you that I fear you and desire a treaty; not because of your wealth or might.’

Abimelech is surely not addressing Abraham as an individual, for nations did not seek treaties of peace with elderly people who may soon die. Abimelech plainly knew that God had promised that an entire nation would descend from Abraham and therefore sought the friendship of the nation’s ancestor. This was after the expulsion of Ishmael, Abraham was an old man who may not live long, the future lied with his barely weaned child, and the king of the land came seeking a treaty with the nation represented by the little boy. (Hirsch)

21:23 Abimelech realized that an oath taken by Abraham in the name of God would be the most binding oath possible.

The Hebrew word for oath is related to ‘seven’. Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, is the eternal symbol of God’s continuing connection with the universe as its Creator and Master. Thus, the person who violates an oath, calls down upon himself the wrath of God, Who is symbolized by the number of seven. Therefore, if someone say, as did Abimelech, ‘swear to me by God’, he says in effect, if you carry out this forbidden act, you will bring God’s wrath upon yourself.

Why did Abimelech request that the oath extend only as far as his grandchildren? According to Chizkuni, when Sarah gave birth, the kings of the earth were convinced that God would keep His oath to give Abraham and his descendants the Land, as He promised in 15:18. Abimelech, therefore, proposed that as a reward for the kindness he had shown Abraham, they undertake a pact that the land would not be taken from him, his son, or his grandson. More than this he could not ask because God had specifically said that in the fourth generation Abraham’s descendants would return to conquer the land. (15:16)

Ramban notes that Abimelech did indeed deal kindly with Abraham as evidenced by the fact that Abraham’s only complaint concerned the theft of some wells by Abimelech’s servants.

21:24 “..I will swear..” – According to Rashbam in 22:1, this alliance by which Abraham covenanted to forgo part of the land which had been promised to his descendants was a cause for the Akeidah.

The Talmud comments that this oath between Abraham and Abimelech remained valid until it was abolished by Philistine violations in the days of Samson. Not until Samson’s time do we find that the Philistines persecuted Israel although they later became bitter enemies of the Jews. In his time, the Jews were evil, and God gave them into the hands of the Philistines for a period of forty years (see Judges 13:1).

Note: The Sages considered it improper for Abraham to enter into a treaty whereby he limited his descendant’s rights to the Promised Land. In fact, the oath is credited with having prevented the Israelites in the days of Joshua from conquering Jerusalem where the Philistines had settled. Midrash Or Ha’Afeilah notes that when these seven sheep died, idolatrous images of them were placed at the entrance of Jerusalem, and when the Jews came to conquer the city, the Philistine inhabitants displayed this representation of Abraham’s covenant and prevented the Jews from possessing the city. These were the ‘blind and the lame’, which David ordered removed so the city could be taken (II Samuel 5:6-8).

21:25 Abraham’s servants had dug a well in the area of Beer Sheba which was on the extreme border of Philistia; but Abimelech’s servants came and took the well by force claiming they were the owners.

Abraham accordingly rebuked Abimelech for tolerating flagrant violence in his country, and also for harboring such wicked people in his household. (Sforno) Abraham uttered his displeasure at the lack of fear of God – that very God by whom Abimelech wished Abraham to take an oath – which allowed such violence to prevail in the land.

21:26 Abimelech responded to Abraham’s accusation by saying, ‘I do not know who did this thing.’ Further responding to Abraham’s insinuation that as king, Abimelech should have been aware of everything happening in his kingdom. Abimelech accused Abraham, too, of impropriety in not asking the king to intercede on his behalf. Therefore, it is Abraham’s fault that Abimelech remained ignorant of it until this very moment.

21:27 Having expressed his complaints, Abraham prepares the covenant. The commentators explain the ratification of the covenant took the form of an exchange of gifts. Abraham wished to be under no obligation for the gifts Abimelech had given him (20:14), so now that he was entering into their alliance in equality with him, Abraham made it a point to present gifts to the king.

Midrash notes that slaves and maidservants were not included among the reciprocal gifts which Abraham gave Abimelech, although they had been among Abimelech’s earlier gifts to him. This teaches that slaves who have undergone circumcision and midservants who have undergone ritual immersion, thereby converting to Judaism may not be given by their Jewish master to a non-Jew.

Abraham took seven female sheep and set them aside to symbolize the seven/oath significance of their word in their alliance. (Radak)

Note: The Midrash consistently stresses that God was displeased with this treaty. God said to Abraham:

‘You gave him seven ewes: As you live, I will delay the joy of your children for seven generations’ (for the Jews were not able to conquer Eretz Yisrael until seven generations had passed – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kahath, Amram and Moses.)

‘You gave him seven ewes: As you live, Abimelech’s descendants will slay seven righteous men of your descendants’: Hofni, Phineas, Samson, and Saul with his three sons. (See Judges 16:30; I Samuel 4:11; and 31:2, 4).

‘You gave him seven ewes: According your descendants seven sanctuaries will be destroyed’ (or cease to be used): The Tent of Appointment, the sanctuaries at Gilgal, Nob, Gibeon and Shiloach, as well as the two Temples.

‘You gave him seven ewes: My ark will therefore be exiled for seven months in Philistine territory’ (I Samuel 6:1).

21:30 “..that I dug this well.” – Rashi, drawing on the Midrash explains that to settle the disputed ownership of the well, it was agreed that the well would belong to whomever the water would rise up for when he approached the well. At the approach of Abraham and his flock, the water immediately rose up.

Thus, in Rashi’s interpretation of the events, these seven sheep were those at whose appearance Abraham’s rights in the well were clearly settled. He therefore set them aside to present to Abimelech, as testimony to his undisputed ownership.

21:31 Beer Sheba means ‘well of seven’ or ‘well of oath’. That place (the well or the region) was called Beer Sheba at that time. The city itself did not receive that name until the days of Isaac. (26:33)

21:33 Radak, in I Samuel 31:13 explains an eshel in a literal sense as a name of a tree. Abraham’s action of improving the site was a public demonstration of his now undisputed ownership of the well. And in the Rabbinic sense, it tells how he instilled in the residents of Beer Sheba that they, too, should greet visitors with every amenity: food, drink, and escort (attendance to their needs).

The mere planting of an orchard would not have been recorded in the Torah were it not that Abraham’s purpose was spiritual ~ to feed travelers and bring them close to him for spiritual nourishment as well, as the verse proceeds to inform us “And there he proclaimed the name of Hashem, God of the Universe”. Therefore the eshel is interpreted in its figurative sense as well.

Through that eshel the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, came to be called “God of the entire Universe’ by every passerby. For after the guests ate and drank at that eshel, they would get up to bless Abraham for his generosity. But he would say to them, ‘Bless God of Whose possessions you have eaten! Do you then think that you have eaten of what is mine? You have eaten from His, Who spoke and the world came into being!’

The Name ‘God of the Universe’ is unusual and does not appear again. A similar form, however, appears in Isaiah 40:28 where He is called ‘The Eternal God’.

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