1718 Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live in your presence!”
19 God said, “Sarah, your wife, will bear a son for you, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him and with his seed as a covenant for the ages. 20 As for Ishmael, I’ve heard you. I will bless him and make him fruitful and abundantly multiply him. He will beget twelve tribal leaders, and I shall make a great nation of him. 21 But my covenant will be established with Isaac, who will be born to Sarah by this season next year.” 22 When God finished speaking to him, God ascended from beside Abraham.
23 Abraham took Ishmael, his son, and all those born in his household, and all those purchased with silver—every male in Abraham’s household—and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins on that very day, just as God had spoken to him. 24 Abraham was 99 years old when the flesh of his foreskin was circumcised. 25 Ishmael, his son, was 13 years old when the flesh of his foreskin was circumcised. 26 On that same day, Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 All the males of his household, whether house-born or money-bought with silver from foreigners, were circumcised with him.
Having heard of a son coming from Sarah, Abraham not only laughs but raises a request regarding Ishmael, his son from Hagar.
G*D first confirms a next son, who is to be called Isaac (“Laughter”). The Hebrew word for “laughter,” here, carries with it multiple valences, “joyous laughter, bitter laughter, mockery, and sexual dalliance.” [Alter, p. 55]
Then G*D, like Isaac later, pronounces a blessing for the first born when it is clear that the second born has carried away the birthright. Fruitfulness and multiplication to the point of nationhood are continued for Ishmael, though they contain conflict and defiance. Ishmael has his blessing but without a promise of a continued preference or presence of G*D. If it becomes a choice, G*D will favor Isaac, his laughing boy.
With a reference to G*D leaving by ascending, it is important to ask if this is a deus ex machina lowered on ropes to appear and disappear. Is this G*D’s story or our attempt to make sense of an impossible adventure we are on to wrestle meaning from happenstance and reactive responses to previous reactions to particular circumstances?
As abruptly as Abram left Haran, so Abraham, following Noah, sets to enacting the latest vision—off with foreskins! A circumcision line is set up for all the males in Abraham’s household (Welcome Back, Ishmael!). Abraham is included in the lineup. The cadence of the passage suggests that Abraham may have led the way in this first call for circumcision. Age (Abraham, 99) before Beauty (Ishmael, 13).
Note that even though Ishmael was circumcised, he was conceived before Abraham was circumcised. If this is a new requirement, Isaac is the first sired by a circumcised parent and also circumcised on his 8thday—True lineage, favored son.