Hayei Sarah—Isaac & Ishmael: Hebron’s Complicated Legacy

About The Author

Dr. Lisa D. Grant

Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She is co-author (with Ezra Kopelowitz) of Israel Education Matters: A 21st Century Paradigm for Jewish Education (Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education: 2012). She is also co-editor of the International Handbook of Jewish Education (Springer: 2011) with Helena Miller and Alex Pomson. Dr. Grant is also a Fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (, a resource center for institutions and individuals seeking to build collective Jewish life, with a focus on Jewish Peoplehood and Israel education.

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Parashat Hayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18, is read during the week that ends on Shabbat, November 26, 2016.

וַיִּגְוַ֨ע וַיָּ֧מָת אַבְרָהָ֛ם בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה זָקֵ֣ן וְשָׂבֵ֑עַ וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו׃

וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֶל־שְׂדֵ֞ה עֶפְרֹ֤ן בֶּן־צֹ֙חַר֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא׃

הַשָּׂדֶ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־קָנָ֥ה אַבְרָהָ֖ם מֵאֵ֣ת בְּנֵי־חֵ֑ת שָׁ֛מָּה קֻבַּ֥ר אַבְרָהָ֖ם וְשָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Genesis 25:8-10)

Around fifteen years ago I saw a documentary called What I Saw in Hebron, made by a descendant of a Jewish family who had lived in Hebron for generations until they fled after the riots in 1929. The film layered reminiscences of Jewish survivors with a cinema verité-style documentation of the few hundred current Jewish settlers (and almost as many soldiers who guard them against the 40,000 Palestinian residents of the city).  

One of the most powerful moments of the film for me was when the filmmaker asked a young Jewish woman who lives in the tiny Jewish enclave surrounded by Palestinians and soldiers what she thought about the Palestinians. “I don’t really see them,” was her reply.

For hundreds of years, a small, pious community of Sephardic Jews had lived in relatively peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors in Hebron. The late 1920s, however, saw a period of unrest between Arabs and Jews that began in Jerusalem and spilled out into other areas. In August 1929, Arabs murdered 67 Jews and injured several hundred others in several days of rioting. After the riots were quelled, the survivors left Hebron and settled elsewhere in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in the Land of Israel).  

After the Israelis captured Hebron in the 1967 Six Day War, Jews began to return. These new settlers were among the most right-wing of Ashkenazi Religious Zionists. Most notorious among them was Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a member of Meir Kahane’s extremist Kach party that openly advocated the expulsion of Arabs.  

In February 1994—when Purim coincided with Ramadan—Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs, gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers, and wounded dozens of others.  Today, Goldstein’s grave is in the Meir Kahane Memorial Park of Kiryat Arba, a Jewish overlooking Hebron.  The park was built and is maintained by Israeli tax shekels.

Hebron is a sacred site to Jews because of the Cave of Machpelah that Abraham purchased as a burial plot for his wife Sarah.  This first real estate transaction in the Bible serves as the opening scene of Parashat Hayei Sarah (Genesis Chapter 23). But Hebron is also holy for Muslims who honor Abraham as a prophet and the father of Ishmael.  It is the center of ongoing conflict between Muslim and Jew.

During the Second Intifada, numerous violent incidents took place in Hebron. The Israeli military establishment decided the best way to deal with this cycle of violence was to expel the Arab residents from the city center. Today what was once a bustling marketplace, filled with merchants and residents, is a ghost town. There are long stretches along main thoroughfares where Palestinians are forbidden to walk or drive. Streets are barricaded by concrete blocks.  Homes are closed in by heavy metal sheets bolted onto the front doors. Porches are lined with wire-mesh cages to protect against stones and bullets.  The only access and egress for the few remaining Palestinian families on this main corridor is by ladder up and over the rooftops.

One of the most unsettling parts of this Kafkaesque place is a stretch of road leading away from the Cave of Machpelah that is divided by concrete barriers.  The wider expanse is for Jewish foot and vehicular traffic.  The narrower band is for Palestinian pedestrians.  Indeed, Jew and Arab can walk side-by-side, virtually not seeing each other, on this separate-and-not-at-all-equal road.

The Jewish claim to the Cave is clearly described in the biblical text.  After some negotiation, Abraham pays an exorbitant price to assure legal possession of the burial ground. Commenting on the purchase, Robert Alter notes that Abraham’s concern with legal status seems to stand in “ironic tension with his inward consciousness that the whole land has been promised to him and his seed.”[1] (Indeed, this ironic tension remains with us to this day, as evidenced most recently by the executive board of UNESCO’s attempt to adopt a motion saying the Temple Mount was sacred to Muslims alone, not Jews.[2])

For many Jews, the Cave of Machpelah is second only to the Temple Mount in sacred significance. This begins with the biblical claim and is reinforced later in rabbinic literature: There are three places where the nations of the world cannot taunt Israel in saying ‘You stole them,’ and they are:  the Cave of Machpelah, the Temple Mount, and the Tomb of Joseph.”  

And yet Jews are not the only ones who lay claim to this holy site. Muslims also call Abraham their patriarch, father of their prophet Ishmael.  A mosque has stood on the site for over a thousand years.  Archeological evidence from even farther back shows a Herodian structure from the Second Temple period and ancient Israelite artifacts over 3000 years old. Even if the Jewish right to the site is older and stronger, we are still confronted with the question: At what cost? How much do we need a physical site to remember and honor our dead?  To what extent do we honor the dead at the expense of the living? How many more deaths in the name of access to a holy grave must we witness before the preciousness of life itself prevails?

At the close of the parasha, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. The text relates: "[Abraham’s] sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . ." (Genesis 25:8-9). This is the first time the biblical text reports the brothers meet since Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael at Sarah’s demand (Gen. 21:10).  Both brothers have been traumatized at the hand of their father, yet they come together after Abraham’s death, quite literally to bury the past.  

Is this a reconciliation or détente?  The text can’t help us. There is no record of the conversation between them, even at this poignant moment.  We can only imagine what the brothers were feeling and what they might have said.  The JPS Etz Hayim commentary speculates about this, noting that both Ishmael and Isaac seem to have forgiven or at least come to terms with their “less-than-perfect father.”  The commentary continues by asking: “Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts?  And can it not be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find ground for forgiveness and reconciliation?”[3]

Rabbinic interpretation affirms and justifies the legitimacy of Isaac’s inheritance of the Covenant and the Land. The tradition struggles, however, with understanding Ishmael. While he is sibling rival to Isaac, he is also Abraham's son. 

In some texts, the rabbis attempt to discredit Ishmael, saying he worshiped idols, and that he even might have tried to kill Isaac early on. But the Midrash also imagines that Abraham never stopped loving Ishmael and that he even visited him in secret, despite Sarah’s strong objection. There also are several sources that suggest that by the time Abraham died (or perhaps even beforehand) Ishmael repented of his past ways and accepted Isaac as the rightful heir.

These rabbinic texts give shape to a story that assures the primacy of Isaac over Ishmael. But they are incomplete. For reconciliation to truly occur, we should return to biblical text itself and reimagine the conversation that might have taken place.

Can we imagine what Isaac and Ishmael might have said to each other to put their past behind them as they showed their father this final kindness? Can we imagine them having the courage to do the challenging and painful work of moving forward together into a different reality than the one they left behind? 

It is this kind of re-interpretation that might allow us to co-author the next chapter of the intertwined story of Israel and Palestine without privileging the past at the expense of the future.


Sources for Further Study



וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו

And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him… (Gen. 25:9)

מִכַּאן שֶׁעָשָׂה יִשְׁמָעֵאל תְּשׁוּבָה וְהוֹלִיךְ אֶת יִצְחָק לְפָנָיו

From here we see that Ishmael repented and placed Isaac before him.

                RaSHI (1040-1105, Troyes, France)

לשון בראשית רבה (סב ג) כאן בן האמה חולק כבוד לבן הגבירה

The son of the servant gave the place of honor to the son of the matriarch.

                Maimonides (1135-1204, Spain->Egypt)

אף על פי שישמעאל היה גדול בשנים הקדים הוא ליצחק אחיו, לפי שהיה בן הגבירה והוא היה בן השפחה.

Even though Ishmael was older in years, he placed Isaac his brother in front, because he [Isaac] was the son of the matriarch and he [Ishmael] son of the servant.

                Hizkuni (13th C., France)



In Midrash:

הנסיון התשיעי נולד ישמעאל בקשת ונתרבה בקשת שנ' ויהי אלהים את הנער ויגדל ונטל קשת וחצים והיה יורה אחר הפנות וראה את יצחק יושב לבדו וירה חץ להרגו וראה זה הדבר שרה והגיד לאברה.

Ishmael was born with (the prophecy of the) bow, and he grew up with the bow, as it is said, And God was with the lad, and he grew… and he became an archer (Gen. 21: 20). He took bow and arrows and began to shoot at the birds. He saw Isaac sitting by himself, and he shot an arrow at him to slay him. Sarah saw (this), and told Abraham.


עמד אברהם והיה מתפלל לפני הב"ה על בנו ונתמלא ביתו של ישמעאל מכל טוב ממין הברכות וכשבא ישמעאל הגידה לו את הדבר וידע ישמעאל שעד עכשו רחמי אביו עליו כרחם אב על בנים.

Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, for his son. And Ishmael's house was filled with all good things of various blessings. When Ishmael came home his wife told him [that an old man had come looking for him], and Ishmael knew that his father's love was still extended to him, as it is said,  As a father shows compassion to his children… (Psalm 103:13).

                Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 30 (9th C.)


אמר רבי יודן בר סימון: זה אחד משלושה מקומות, שאין אומות העולם יכולין להונות את ישראל לומר: "גזולים הן בידכם" ואלו הן: מערת המכפלה ובית המקדש וקבורתו של יוסף מערת המכפלה, דכתיב (בראשית כג): וישמע אברהם אל עפרון, וישקול אברהם לעפרון. בית המקדש, דכתיב (ד"ה א כא): ויתן דוד לארנן במקום וגו'. וקבורתו של יוסף (בראשית לג) ויקן את חלקת השדה, יעקב קנה שכם.,

Rabbi Yudan bar Simon said: “There are three places where the nations of the world cannot dispute Israel in saying “You stole them!” They are: The Cave of Machpelah, the Temple [in Jerusalem] and the grave of Joseph.

The Cave of Machpelah, as it is written, And Abraham heeded Ephron and Abraham weighed out to Ephron the silver (Gen. 23:16).  

The Temple, as it is written, So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site (I Chronicles 21:25). And Joseph’s grave: And [Jacob] bought a parcel of land, Jacob purchased Shechem (from Gen. 33:19).

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 49:7


שכן מצינו בישמעאל, שהיו לו געגועים על אברהם אביו ולא רדהו ויצא לתרבות רעה ושנאהו, והוציאו מביתו ריקם. מה עשה ישמעאל כשהיה בן חמש עשרה שנה? התחיל להביא צלם מן השוק והיה מצחק בו ועובדו כמו שראה מאחרים, מיד (בראשית כא, ט): ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצרית אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק וגו', ואין מצחק אלא עבודת כוכבים

Thus we found with Ishmael, who behaved wickedly before Abraham his father, but Abraham did not punish him so he began to follow evil ways, so that [Abraham] hated him and cast him out empty-handed from his house.  What did Ishmael do?  When he was fifteen years old, he began to bring idols from the marketplace, he played (מצחק)  with them and worshipped them as he had seen others do. So, when Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing…..(Genesis 22.9). Playing (מצחק) is none other than idolatry.

Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:1



Abraham & Ishmael in the Quran:

The almost-sacrifice of Ishmael:

When he [Ishmael] was old enough to go about with him [Abraham], he said:  ‘O my son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Consider, what you think? He replied: ‘Father, do as you are commanded. If God pleases you will find me firm’ 103: When they submitted to the will of God, and (Abraham) laid (his son) down prostrate on his temple, 104: We called out ‘O Abraham, You have fulfilled your dream.” Thus do We reward the good.

Sura 37:102-105

Abraham and Ishmael build the Ka’bah in Mecca:

 “Remember, We made the House (of Ka’bah) a place of congregation and safe retreat, and said: “Make the spot where Abraham stood the place of worship;” and enjoined upon Abraham and Ishmael to keep Our House immaculate for those who shall walk around it and stay in it for contemplation and prayer, and for bowing in adoration… 127: And when Abraham was raising the plinth of the House with Ishmael, (he prayed): ‘Accept this from us O lord, for you know and hear everything;”

Sura 2:125-127



[1] Robert Alter, (2004). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary.  W.W. Norton and Co., p. 113.

[2] Barak Ravid, Jack Khoury, “UNESCO Back Motion Nullifying Jewish Ties to Temple Mount” Haaretz, October 14, 2016

[3] Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, The Jewish Publication Society (2001), p.140.