SARAH AND ISHMAEL

A midrash

by Rachel Smith Cobleigh


On the day that Isaac was weaned, Sarah felt a kind of sadness, a break between herself and her child. From that day hence, Isaac would no longer be dependent upon her for his very substance; he would be separate from her, and oft times under the care of his doting father. She saw that morning that she could hold him in her arms, but that he would continue to grow older, away from her, to fulfill the promise that the almighty, blessed be He, had made to Abraham. She feared what her husband would do with the boy, and how he would take him away from her, farther from her with each passing day.

She looked out through the open flap of the tent, at the sun's rays casting across the sandy hills, and saw her husband leading baby Isaac and the son of Hagar around on the camel that was Isaac's weaning-day gift. Ishmael had sprung into rapidly-growing adolescence only a year before, and his limbs were still racing ahead of the rest of him in their growth, giving him an over-long, ungainly appearance. He was holding on to little Isaac's waist with great care, however, while the baby cooed and laughed and giggled on the camel's back. Ishmael tickled the baby's belly, eliciting a new round of shrieks and giggles, and Abraham laughed, speaking fondly to Ishmael.

A movement from a tent nearby drew Sarah's eye away from the scene before her, and she saw her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, pointing with pride and satisfaction at the three men and the camel. Other maidservants standing nearby were nodding at her words, carrying empty water-skins to fill for the morning meal. There was a bout of whispering and giggling in the cluster of younger women, and their words carried clearly through the dry air. They made comments about Ishmael--"how big he's grown, he's almost a man!"--and about Abraham's strength and kindness to Hagar... Several of the women glanced over at Sarah's tent with those words, and seeing her silhouetted in the doorway, turned quickly away with soft laughs.

Sarah heard Ishmael's shouts of pleasure, mingling with the shrill cooing of Isaac, and the deeper tone of Abraham's laughter. She saw their bonds and closeness, and she saw Hagar, watching the trio with pride, and she felt as if she were watching a happy family from the outside.

Isaac, the rightful heir, was her son, not Hagar's! How could that woman presume to look so proud? Ishmael was nearly a man; soon Abraham would be drawing up his plans of inheritance, including that son of an Egyptian slave as his first-born heir! The darkness boiled thickly in Sarah's heart that morning, the sky darkened in her vision, and when the sound of female giggling came to her ears again, she turned her fury on the maidservants.

"You useless dung-hills! Get you now and fill the water-sacks! Your lord Abraham will be angry to find his breakfast not ready!" She glowered and threw up her hands at them, and after another fit of giggles--the girls had no respect, she thought darkly--they moved away from Hagar, bringing the sacks with them. Sarah lowered her hands, looking at the veins visible under the skin, the gauntness of her wrist. She was an old woman, and her beauty had passed away with sands, long ago. The high-pitched giggles of the servants were a constant annoyance to her. Casting one last glance at the scene before her, for she refused to look at Hagar, who now stood alone, her ebony skin strong and smooth in the sunlight, she swept the folds of her garment over her thin arms and went back inside the tent.


Baby Isaac sat on Sarah's lap during his weaning-day celebration, and the excitement wore him out quickly. By midday, she had laid him in the cool corner of the tent, and he curled up contentedly, and went to sleep. She brushed the soft curls from his forehead, once again caught by his beauty. The heir of Abraham. She heard a roar of laughter from the men seated in the feast tent, and gathering her robes about her, she left the child to rejoin her husband.

Upon drawing closer, however, she saw a sight that chilled her blood: young Ishmael was wearing a robe of Abraham's, and walking mockingly with his staff. His boyishly handsome face was turned up in a wide grin, as his father laughed at his antics. The other men in the tent laughed, bowing and making raucous comments of his manhood. The men caught a beautiful young servant girl who was pouring wine from a skin, and teased her until she stood holding the skin and blushing. Then they began laughing and calling for young Ishmael to take her.

Sarah had seen this girl before, had heard her ask Hagar if she might be allowed to serve Ishmael his meal. Hagar had agreed, and Sarah had shaken with anger at the brashness of them both. At the presumption that they could determine the event, and event for Sarah's son!

In the end, the girl was one of several who served the tent, and she stood now, trembling--though with a coquettish smile upon her lips, Sarah thought--as Ishmael drew closer to her. The roar of the men in the tent grew louder, and Abraham was among them, looking proudly on as his son took the girl in his arms, and leering, kissed her forcefully. The girl tried to struggle, and the men reacted with renewed shouts of encouragement. Ishmael pulled her against him and she pushed him, pummeled him with her fists, suddenly panicking. The roar rose higher.

Sarah chose that moment to sweep into the tent, and her presence caused a sudden hush. Her eyes focused upon Abraham, but he did not turn. He kept his gaze fixed ahead, though she knew he felt her eyes boring into him. He made a small hand motion, and Ishmael, with a spoiled pout, released the girl. She hugged the wineskin to her body and ran from the tent. Still no one spoke.

"Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac," Sarah said, venom heavy in every syllable.

A tense silence hung for several moments, and then Abraham made a small hand motion. Ishmael quickly removed the cloak and laid it, with the staff, beside his father. Slowly, the other men in the tent rose, gathered their belongings, bowed in thanks to their host, and left, each passing Sarah with a nod of acknowledgement--none dared to touch her, so dark was her expression. Ishmael left last, keeping several feet between him and her.

Abraham still had not risen, and he looked wearily at the sand in the midst of the tent. After several long moments of dark silence, Sarah swept her robes about her and left the tent. Abraham's heart was heavy, for he knew that Sarah was right. Through the open flap on the far side of the tent, he could see Hagar, her eyes pleading with him, for she had heard every word. His heart aching, he looked away.


Copyright 1999 Rachel Smith Cobleigh