Ismail, Isaac & the Code of Hammurabi
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
According to the Septuagint version of the Genesis text, the first born son of Abram was not Ishmael, but Eliezer of Damascus who was the offspring of Abram by Mesek, his home-born female slave. The term ‘home-born slave’ indicates that Mesek was the daughter of one of Abram’s male relatives and a female slave or concubine. According to the LXX Bible, Genesis 15:
“1 And after these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram, I shield thee, thy reward shall be very great. 2 And Abram said, Master Lord, what wilt thou give me? whereas I am departing without a child, but the son of Masek my home-born female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus 3 And Abram said, since thou hast given me no seed, but my home-born shall succeed me.”
From this Septuagint information, it is clear that Ishmael was not Abram’s first born although he could have been the first of Abram’s offspring to be circumcised into the covenant between El and Abram as described in Genesis 17:
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”… 23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.”
Circumcision allowed Ishmael membership into the Congregation of God aka the community of those who worshipped Yhwh-Elohim, however the ritual did not protect him from paternal rejection as Abram is portrayed in Gen 25:6 as repudiating and exiling his male children by all the concubines but Sarai (aka Sarah). Gen 25:6 states: “But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” This exile or rejection of his sons while he was still alive in order that they would not inherit is from the Code of Hammurabi:
“ If, however, the father while still living did not say to the sons of the maid-servant: “My sons,” and then the father dies, then the sons of the maid-servant shall not share with the sons of the wife, but the freedom of the maid and her sons shall be granted…”
Sarai/Sarah was the offspring of Terah, Abram’s father, and one of his concubines which made Sarai a half sister of Abram (Gen 12:13). Sarai’s status as a ‘half sister’ of Abram indicates that her father, Terah, did not recognize her as a legitimate offspring. Her status as a daughter of a slave allowed Abram to marry her since her social status designated her as neither a true daughter of Terah nor a true sister of Abram. Siblings born of a concubine were not regarded as true heirs of the father, so they lost their status as heirs of their free born fathers. Sarai’s birth limited her social status to that of a concubine; a status which is confirmed the stories in Genesis 12 and 20. These narratives state that Sarai was traded to two royals who compensated Abram with large amounts of wealth. Only a concubine was subjected to such treatment. Such humiliation was never visited upon a wife. In addition, the name Sarai (Sary in Hebrew and Saryh in Arabic) means concubine in Arabic.
Once we understand the slave origin of Sarai, one can conclude that all of Abram’s children, Eliezer of Damascus (mother Mesek), Ishmael (mother Hagar), Isaac (mother Sarai), Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah (mother Keturah) were born of slaves. Their social status as heirs was not determined by the laws of the Torah, whose laws of primogeniture would have designated Eliezer of Damascus as Abram’s heir, but by the Code of Hammurabi, which was in effect when the exiled Hebrews in Babylon wrote certain sections of the Biblical narrative, especially the books of the Torah.
The idea that Abram rejects Eliezer of Damascus as his legitimate heir just as he rejects Ishmael as well as the sons of Keturah as his legitimate heirs indicates that this part of Genesis was written in Babylon as this behavior follows the Code of Hammurabi Section 146 & 171:
“ If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.
“ If, however, the father while still living did not say to the sons of the maid-servant: “My sons,” and then the father dies, then the sons of the maid-servant shall not share with the sons of the wife, but the freedom of the maid and her sons shall be granted. The sons of the wife shall have no right to enslave the sons of the maid; the wife shall take her dowry (from her father), and the gift that her husband gave her and deeded to her (separate from dowry, or the purchase-money paid her father), and live in the home of her husband: so long as she lives she shall use it, it shall not be sold for money. Whatever she leaves shall belong to her children.”
The above sections of the code are played out in the tussle between Hagar and Sarai where Abram allowed Sarai to treat Hagar as a slave even though she bore him a son, which put her on an equal footing with Sarai. Sarai could not abide Hagar’s status as a wife, so she appealed to Abram to take away that status and return Hagar to her former status as Sarai’s slave; a request which Abram fulfilled. So, Hagar was returned to slave status as a slave of Sarai even though Hagar was Abram legitimate wife according to Gen 16:3. Sarai was then able to order Abram to abandon the mother and child and throw them into the desert. According to Genesis 16 & 21:
“16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her…
Gen 21: But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
According to Genesis 21, Abram honored Sarai’s request even though Hagar had gained the status of wife (Gen 16:3), stripped Ishmael of his inheritance to which he was entitled according to Deut 21:15:
15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.
The authors of Genesis clearly repudiated the laws of the Torah and applied the Code of Hammurabi in this Genesis episode. These authors had Abram send Hagar and her son, the first-born son according to the Masoretic Texts, into the desert to die of thirst and starvation. Clearly, the authors of Genesis were attempting to apply the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi in this Genesis episode to legitimize Isaac’s status as sole heir. So, it is not surprising that Abram is portrayed as having a first-born son, Eliezer of Damascus, by a concubine named Mesek. Eliezer of Damascus should have been the designated as the legitimate heir according to the laws of primogeniture mentioned in Deuteronomy. According to the Septuagint, Abram refused to recognize Eliezer just as he refused to recognize seven of his male offspring by Hagar and Keturah. The plight of both Ishmael and Eliezer are both similar as these episodes follow the Code of Hammurabi, which states that the son of a concubine cannot be a legitimate heir unless the father recognizes him as his son before he dies. This code directly contradicts the laws of primogeniture in Deut 21 which insists that the first born son of a wife is the legitimate heir no matter to whom the father’s favors fall. Again, Hagar was Abram’s wife according to Gen 16:3.