Genesis 17:25, How Old was Ishmael when Abraham Sent Him Away? Part II of II

And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

//Yesterday, I provided verses that make it sound like Ishmael was an infant when Abraham sent him and his mother Hagar away into the desert. But if we back up four chapters to today’s verse, we read that Ishmael was 13 when he was circumcised. Sometime afterward, another son, Isaac, is conceived. We can figure that nine months after that, Isaac is born. At least 18 months after that, Isaac is weaned (Gen 21:18 – according to Jewish rabbinical tradition, weaning occurs between 18 months and 5 years). At this time, Hagar and Ishmael are still living with Abraham and Sarah (Gen 21:19). Finally, Sarah demands that Hagar be sent away.

So Ishmael is at least fifteen years old when this happens. Definitely not a baby in arms. Did Hagar really carry a 15-year-old boy on her shoulder off into the desert? Did she really lay him down under a shrub to let him die?

Most scholars recognize that we have two independent stories here about Ishmael. If you’re familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis, it is the priestly source which reports that Ishmael grew into a teenager while still with Abraham. It is the Elohim source which reports that he was sent away with his mother, probably as an infant. These two contradictory traditions should not be read as a single story.

7 Comments

  1. What a wonderful gift you have undertaken to clear up these things. Do you know how many inconsistencies have actually turned people away from the bible… for good. You are a blessing Lee.

    • Lee Harmon

      :) thank you, Kathy!

      • Rod Horncastle

        Hmmmm? I say it is one perfect story. Be sure to read it carefully.

        So Abraham got up early the next morning, prepared food and a container of water, and strapped them on Hagar’s shoulders. Then he sent her away with their son, and she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba.

        So Lee, your whole problem with this story is because you assume Hagar put Ishmael on her shoulders? OR that a tired person in the wilderness was placed under a bush?

        Ishmael was (mockingly?) laughing during Isaac’s feast. Many scholars think Ishmael was 16 at this time.
        Lee you really do hate the Bible don’t you? So sad.

        • Lee Harmon

          Haha, Rod, yes, I’m quite aware of your bias against bible scholarship. And you know my usual counter: how sad that you hate what the Bible is so much that you try to turn it into a dry history book.

  2. to me, it sounds perfectly reasonable that it says abraham put supplies on ishmael’s back, not ishmael on hagars

    • Lee Harmon

      You are correct, John, that the wording is ambiguous. Here is the ESV:

      So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away.

      What you will find in every translation, though, is that Abraham doesn’t send Hagar and Ishmael away. He sends just her away after giving her the boy, so Ismael’s young age is implied.

  3. Ashlee OD

    Ellicotts commentary provides good insight to this, (as well as many others) comparing word usage for “child” etc. with other usages in the Old Testament. For instance: “And the child.—Ishmael was now sixteen or seventeen years of age, but the word yeled used in this place has no reference to age, and in Genesis 4:23 is even translated “young man.” It literally signifies one born, and is applied in Genesis 42:22 to Joseph, when he was about Ishmael’s age. So the “children who mocked Elisha” (2Kings 2:23) were doubtless grown young men. In Genesis 21:18, Ishmael is called “a lad;” shortly afterwards he was able to maintain himself and Hagar with his bow (Genesis 21:20), and his mother took a wife for him from Egypt (Genesis 21:21). The narrative, therefore, does not represent Ishmael as a small child, and the idea has probably arisen from the supposition that Abraham placed Ishmael, as well as the supply of food, on Hagar’s shoulder.”

    I think we often read the Bible without the willingness or ability to cast aside our modern sensibilities. The sometimes simplistic (to us) ways that the texts present events can be an obstacle to seeing what is important. It is good to remember that God doesn’t provide every single detail precisely because he chooses to provide those which are important for his purposes. The Bible isn’t meant to be an exhaustive history or everyone or everything, but an account of God’s covenant with man and the ultimate salvation of his people from sin and death. I, for one, would love it if the writers had been more specific in many passages that leave me scratching my head. Some feel like a fly-over at 40,000 feet when I’d love an eye-level view! But the fact that they weren’t more specific here probably has something to do with the fact that those who would be reading or hearing this passage at the time it was written, in the language it was written (using culturally known idioms, referencing already well known events and written in a style that was common for the time and etc.) would likely not have suffered some of the confusion we do. No doubt by the time this was recorded in writing, it was a well-known historical account, passed down orally for many generations.

    Also, this was a time when people’s life expectancy was much longer than ours and it is likely marriage and “adulthood” came at a later age than it would eventually (we can even see this based on the fact that Sarah does at age 120 and Isaac remains unmarried for some time after). So it isn’t all that odd to assume that Ishmael at 17 or so was still considered to be under his mother’s care, especially in semantics. He also may have been somewhat less used to hardship and labor than his maidservant mother, seeing as he was the honored heir prior to issacs birth and was clearly loved by Abraham. Therefore, if we can imagine ourselves as the somewhat sheltered (perhaps) young man now wandering in the desert with his mother, comes to the point of exhaustion and weakness and dehydration, may in fact allow himself to stumble to and be “laid” beneath a bush. It also isn’t difficult to imagine that in such a desperate state, a young man would also cry. I mean, every person in such agony would cry—not just an infant.

    Hagar is told to “lift up the boy and take him by the hand”. Again, imagining them both weak and suffering the ravages of dehydration under the dessert sun, it is not odd that Hagar, who seems to be doing a bit better in this scenario, would have to use her remaining strength to get the boy back on his feet and lead him along to where God is, in turn, leading her. As a mother, it is not strange for me to consider that I would likely (hopefully) be more resilient than my teenage son in such a scenario, if only by sheer will. Responsibility for ones children would drive one to the brink, if only to do as much for them till the last possible moment when they—bearing less responsibility—would have given up. It gives us even more compassion for Hagar’s plight and her anguished sobbing.

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