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Ishmael on the Border

Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab

Carol Bakhos

Publication Year: 2006

Explores rabbinic views of Ishmael, the biblical figure seen as the first Arab. Ishmael on the Border is an in-depth study of the rabbinic treatment of Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael. This book examines Ishmael’s conflicted portrayal over a thousand-year period and traces the shifts and nuances in his representation within the Jewish tradition before and after the emergence of Islam. In classical rabbinic texts, Ishmael is depicted in a variety of ways. By examining the biblical account of Ishmael’s life, Carol Bakhos points to the tension between his membership in and expulsion from Abraham’s household—on the one hand he is circumcised with Abraham, yet on the other, because of divine favor, his brother supplants him as primogenitor. The rabbis address his liminal status in a variety of ways. Like Esau, he is often depicted in antipodal terms. He is Israel’s “Other.” Yet, Bakhos notes, the emergence of Islam and the changing ethnic, religious, and political landscape of the Near East in the seventh century affected later, medieval rabbinic depictions of Ishmael, whereby he becomes the symbol of Islam and the eponymous prototype of Arabs. With this inquiry into the rabbinic portrayal of Ishmael, the book confronts the interfacing of history and hermeneutics and the ways in which the rabbis inhabited a world of intertwined political, social, and theological forces.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab builds on and develops the ideas explored in my doctoral dissertation, Rabbinic Portrayals of Ishmael. Although this work for the most part retains the overarching framework of the former, and reaches some of the same conclusions, the...

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pp. 1-12

More than any other figure in the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael evokes a variety of associations from nomads to Moby Dick. A recent question put to me by a rabbi highlights the unusual place Ishmael has in Jewish thought: “So, your work is not about Rabbi Ishmael, but the Ishmael of Islam?” Though Ishmael is a prominent figure in Islam’s...

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1: Ishmael and Esau: Marginalized Men of the Bible

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pp. 13-29

The displacement of the firstborn by the younger sibling is a recurring motif found throughout the book of Genesis.1 Indeed, the central theme of Genesis, as Sarna states, is “the fortunes of those who are heirs to God’s covenant”2 and as Robert Alter asserts, the entire book of Genesis “is about the reversal...

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2: Ishmael in Tannaitic and Amoraic Literature

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pp. 31-45

In the course of examining rabbinic texts on Ishmael, Esau, the Ishmaelites, and the children of Keturah, themes such as their unfit status and the election of Israel figure prominently. In the sources of the tannaitic and amoraic periods, these marginalized figures come to represent the Other rather than specific others, despite some instances where...

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3: The Rabbis and Their Others

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pp. 47-84

The idea that the Other is a creation of the subjective self and not a discrete, objectively existing entity has been the topic of several works in various fields and disciplines.1 Indubitably, the study of the conception of Other in its myriad manifestations has contributed inordinately to our understanding...

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4: Ishmael in Later Midrashim

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pp. 85-128

In our study of Gen. Rab. 48:13, the midrash on “and Abraham took a calf tender and good and gave it to one of his servants,” we had the occasion to see that reading this midrash through a historical lens is difficult but not impossible.1 We thus came to the conclusion that several...

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pp. 129-133

This examination of midrashim on Ishmael, and to a lesser degree on Esau, the Ishmaelites, and the children of Keturah, gives us the opportunity to make several significant observations about rabbinic biblical interpretation and the interfacing of historical phenomena and exegetical concerns. To begin with, the rabbinic portrayal...


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pp. 135-181


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pp. 183-199


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pp. 201-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780791481653
E-ISBN-10: 0791481654
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791467596
Print-ISBN-10: 0791467597

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion
Series Editor Byline: Michael Fishbane See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 70869482
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ishmael on the Border

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Bible. O.T. Genesis -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Esau (Biblical figure).
  • Ishmael (Biblical figure) -- In rabbinical literature.
  • Arabs in the Bible.
  • Esau (Biblical figure) -- In rabbinical literature.
  • Ishmael (Biblical figure).
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