#42. Is Ishmael 15-17 years old when Sarah expels him and his mother Hagar OR still a mere babe? (Gen 17:25 vs Gen 21: 8-17)


We have already seen on various occasions that the Priestly writer has a vested interest in genealogies, dates, and the ages of the patriarchs. But when this textual tradition with its dates and ages is redacted together with the JE text some interesting narrative tensions arise.

For instance, P informs us that Ishmael “was 13 years old when he was circumcised at the flesh of his foreskin” (17:25)—that is “on that very day” (17:23) when Abraham, who was himself 99 years old (17:24), received the covenant of circumcision from El Shaddai (17:1-14). At Genesis 21:3b-5, the next P text, we are informed that a year later Abraham is now 100 years old and Isaac is born. Therefore, according to this tradition Ishmael is 14 years old at Isaac’s birth.

Yet when this textual tradition (P) is placed before the Elohist’s version of Hagar’s expulsion in Genesis 21:6-21, inconsistencies in the narrative chronology of the now combined JEP text arise.

Following Genesis 21:3-5 above, which we have assigned to P, the text then continues:

5And Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac, his son, was born to him. [P]

6And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me. Everyone who hears will rejoice for me.” 8And the boy grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a big feast in the day that Isaac was weaned. 9And Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing around. 10And she said to Abraham, “Cast out this maid and her son…” [E]

14And Abraham got up early in the morning and took bread and a bottle of water and he put them and the boy on Hagar’s shoulder, and he sent her off. And she went and strayed in the Beersheba wilderness. 15And the water was finished from the bottle, and she thrust the boy under one of the shrubs. . . 16and she said “Let me not see the boy’s death…” [E]

Although E’s version does not give us Ishmael’s age, there are nevertheless enough details in the narrative to deduce this. For we are told that Ishmael is small enough to be carried on Hagar’s back (from Gerar to Beersheba), that he still feeds from a bottle, and that he is small enough and helpless enough to be thrown under a shrub and left for dead. This tradition clearly depicts him as still a mere babe himself or a very young boy—certainly not a late teenager as in the Priestly tradition!

In other words, in the combined text as we now have it (JEP), and say we allow 1-3 years for the weaning of Isaac, Ishmael is 15-17 years old when he is cast out according to the Priestly tradition! But in the Elohist’s account of Ishmael’s expulsion, Ishmael is still a mere babe and could not have been 15-17 years old!

We will see other places where chronological inconsistencies or outright contradictions occur in the narrative due to a later editorial process that stitched together 2 different and variant textual traditions.

12 thoughts on “#42. Is Ishmael 15-17 years old when Sarah expels him and his mother Hagar OR still a mere babe? (Gen 17:25 vs Gen 21: 8-17)

  1. I didn’t judge the agenda of the redactor(s). I just saw half measured jobs. If they thoroughly edited the passages, there won’t be contradictions.

  2. These are crimes against Ishmael the firstborn. The redactor of Gen. 16:12 refers to him as a wild ass!
    Racism (hatred) with an agenda..

  3. Ishmael is a mere babe when Sarai expels him.

    See the Masoretic Genesis 21:14. Ishmael is a baby/child (הַיֶּלֶד) the same age as Isaac in Genesis 21:8. When he is 15-17 years old, as in Genesis 21:12, Ishmael is an adolescence/youth (הַנַּעַר) the same age as the sacrificed child in Genesis 22:5, or as Rebecca in Genesis 24:14. He has passed as a responsible adult which is in later jewish tradition he has Bar Mitzvah.

    The passages Genesis 21:9-21 were full of inconsistencies about Ishmael. He is a baby in passages 14, 15 and 16. Compare with when he is an adolescence in passages 12, 17, 18, 19 and 20.

    If we agree with the redactor that Ishmael is an adolescence of 15-17 years when Sarah expels him and his mother. Therefore, the word “baby child” (הַיֶּלֶד) should be changed to “adolescence” (הַנַּעַר) in passages Genesis 21:14, 15 and 16. Especially, for example, the passage 21:14 should be edited that “the adolescence walk with Hagar” and the passage 21:16 should be edited that “she ordered the adolescence to lay under the shrubs.” In fact, the redactor neglects or forgets these important changes, so that contradictions arise.

    On the other hand, if we believe that passages 21:14, 15 and 16 are original, unedited passages, the episode of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion (Genesis 21:9-21) should be placed between Genesis chapter 16 and chapter 17. Consequently, We have to change Abraham to Abram and Sarah to Sarai.

    Because Isaac was not born. We cannot reason the expulsion because of Isaac’s legacy. The logical reason of the expulsion is mere Sarai’s jealousy. KJV Genesis 21:9 should be read: And Sarai saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abram, mocking (her inability to give Abram a child). Also, we have to put aside all insertions about Isaac in these passages

  4. Here is another piece of evidence to consider. In their book *Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis*, 1964 edition, page 157, authors Robert Graves and Raphael Patai make mention of a Jewish tradition found in Genesis Rabba, a midrash on the book of Genesis. The emphasis is mine:

    Some say that vexed by Hagar’s presumption, Sarai turned her out of Abram’s bed, threw shoes in her face, and cast the evil eye on her, so that Hagar’s first-born, a girl, died at birth…Sarai then cast the evil eye on Ishmael, who grew so feeble and wizened that he could no longer walk. Therefore, when Abram sent Hagar away, she had to carry Ishmael on her back–though already seventeen years, or even twenty-five, of age…

    Obviously, this midrash’s very existence is an unstated admission that there was an inconsistency which needed explaining, and is further evidence that the text stated that Ishmael was indeed placed on Hagar’s back.

    1. John, This is a nice addition, and is typical of many modern attempts to “harmonize” these discrepancies based on an a priori faulty premise—that the text of the Bible as a whole was authored by a single individual, be it Moses or god Yahweh. Obviously, as this site has repeatedly revealed, such discrepancies are the result of a long editorial process which eventually amounted to the collection and codification of a diverse array of ancient texts, and with them variant traditions and stories—as no doubt you are well aware of.

  5. Speaking of errant translations, here is the NIV of Genesis 21:14:

    14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and
    gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.

    Even if we assume that only bread and water were placed on Hagar’s shoulders, the obvious question is why Abraham loaded down Hagar with the supplies if there were a teenager available to carry some. Why would Hagar have to carry everything (keep in mind that water weighs 8 pounds per gallon and there were two people using it) while Ishamel simply walked beside her? If Ishmael were just a child, it is understandable why Hagar would shoulder the load, but it is not so easy to understand why a teenager was exempted from this duty. At least the NAB and the LXX retain the meaning present in Eliyahu’s translation, which clearly says that Ishmael was placed on Hagar’s shoulders.

  6. As noted on the project-reason web site, I noted that you may be watering down your mission by including “assumption people make” with “textual contradictions.” This is one of them. The translation you used has affected this by having a bent to making him appear little. Just google the images for ISHMAEL ABRAHAM and you will see medeival paintings where he is made to appear much younger, which is based on perceptions. But it isn’t a contradiction (granted, there are many). Since Hebrew is my language (long story from a closet atheist like myself) here is a better translation based on my reading of the Hebrew text that you forced me to look at! ;)

    “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian making sport (מצחק in modern Hebrew is in the pi’el form, not the kal, so a “mocking” with Sarah being the inferred object rather than “playing” is a better translation). And she said to Abraham “Cast away” (גרש means to divorce oneself or cut oneself off from another) this servant woman and her son…”
    “And Abraham arose early [from his bed] in the morning and he took bread and a vessle (gourd) of water and he gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulders (think of upper middle back) and also the lad and he sent her away. And she went and wandered in the desert area of Be’er Sheva. And when the gourd/skein of water was finished, she sent the lad to be (lay) under one of the bushes….”

    As I noted at the other forum, I want you to excel in your task, and so I picked apart this one to demonstrate a couple of things. First, it is better to retain your focus on what you set out to do, which is contradictions. Like, Be’er Sheva was a place where Abraham will end up living after the sacrifice of Isaac event. How come there was no water? (“Be’er means “a well”). But even that migh not be contradictory enough. Second, don’t rely one translations, since, as we see, they often play a bit loose with the text.

    All the best.
    E.G. (Closet Atheist)

    1. E.G. Your comments are highly appreciated and I look forward to others. Thank you. I humbly submit to your expertise on the Hebrew (confessedly I’m still a student). But this is a good example where a misleading translation and extended commentary on that translation has deterred us from the actual contradiction, which regardless of the translation problems, is clearly present—namely the depiction of Ishmael and his implied age in the account in Gen 21:6-21 [E] and the age specified for Ishmael in Gen 17:25 & 21:3-5 [P]. Ishamel could hardly be 15 or 17 years old in the E account. But, by all means keep me honest.

  7. I also enjoy your blog, overall very informative but I do agree with Paul on this one, your choice of words were a bit off on that verse, also most bibles and the interlinear make it appear that the bread and water were thrown on Hagar’s shoulder but not the boy. That aside, you’re 100% correct regards v15, since at 15 the boy would be closer to a man than a defenseless boy.

  8. I am enjoying these posts. Sometimes there is little to say on these, but I am definitely reading them all. It is like a free secular commentary. I miss this stuff. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you John. I can understand why what I’m doing here might be more receptive to and representative of a secular reading, but in essence I’m trying to (in a limited context, i.e., contradictions) offer up a historicized reading—that is we read the text and try to understand what, and why, the author says this-and-that from within his own historical and literary context. That said, true, this historicized reading most often contradicts (our last contradiction!) with how these very texts are read from the centuries-later theological viewpoint of an exterior framework which we call “the Bible.”

      Paul, yes, perhaps my choice of words here are misleading. It still doesn’t disrupt the fact that in P Ishmael is 15-17 years of age when cast out, and in E he is small enough to be put on Hagar’s back, hid under some shrubs, and be helpless as to not even fend for himself.

  9. “that he still feeds from a bottle”
    Really? The biblical text you quoted mentions a bottle of water, but not milk. Besides, would women of this time period have been bottle-feeding their children? Surely breastfeeding was the only option…

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