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B'resheet/Genesis 25:17 And these are the years of the life of Ishmael: a hundred years and thirty years and seven years.
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This statement comes after a list of the names of Yishmael's sons and tells us that Yishmael - the son that Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian slave girl, bore to Avraham - lived for one hundred and thirty seven years. Why, given that rabbinic tradition so often sees Yishmael as a wicked man and that this is his last appearance in the scriptural narrative, is this important? Why does the Torah include this information?
Many commentators have pointed out that the texts reporting the lives of Sarah - "Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah" (B'resheet 23:1, ESV) - and Avraham, Yishmael's father: "These are the days of the years of Abraham's life, 175 years" (25:7, ESV) repeat the concept of years or mention days. Avraham's obituary even adds, "Avraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years" (v. 8, ESV). The commentators compare this to the short account of Yishmael's life and conclude that while Avraham and Sarah had good, full lives, Yishmael's life was short and full of bad things.
On the other hand, the Sages of the Talmud ask the same question and come up with a different answer. Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba1 said: Why were the years of Ishmael mentioned? The answer given starts with, "So as to reckon by them the years of Ya'akov" (b. Megillah 17a), and then goes on to link events in the lives of Avraham, Yitz'khak, Esau, Ya'akov, Laban and Yosef in a web of related dates. TheRamban refers to this list, saying, "In the midrash of our rabbis there are many reasons for the scriptural account of Yishmael's years. The correct one among them is that he was righteous, a man of repentance and Scripture tells of him as it does with all righteous people." The Rashbam and the Radak both say that his lifespan is recorded in honour of Avraham. Nahum Sarna comments that, "from the patriarchal period on, the Bible only records the life spans of the heroes of Israel. This notice about Yishmael is exceptional and appears because of two earlier chronological notes, namely, Avraham's age at his birth and the boy's age when he was circumcised." These texts indeed are: "Avram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Yishmael to Avram" (B'resheet 16:16, ESV) and "Avraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised ... And Yishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised" (17:24-25, ESV).
The Torah seems to make a habit of this. Almost back at the beginning, it told us, "Noah lived after the Flood 350 years. And all the days of Noah came to 950 years" (9:28-29, JPS), and in a few more chapters, we'll hear Ya'akov telling Pharaoh, "The years of my sojourn on earth are one hundred and thirty" (47:9, JPS). And in between, there are lots of other dates such as, "Yosef was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (41:6, JPS), not to mention the seven years of plenty and famine that followed. The primary history continues the habit: "Tola son of Puah son of Dodo ... led Israel for twenty-three years" (Judges 10:1-2, JPS); or "Now Eli was ninety-eight years old ... he had been a chieftain of Israel for forty years" (1 Samuel 4:15,18, JPS). How about, "David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years" (2 Samuel 5:4-5, JPS). The prophets too contain calendar and event data: "From the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day -- these twenty-three years -- the word of the L-RD has come to me" (Jeremiah 25:3, JPS); or "The words of Amos, a sheepbreeder from Tekoa, who prophesied concerning Israel in the reigns of Kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake" (Amos 1:1, JPS), probably the same earth tremor mentioned by another prophet: "The Valley in the Hills ... was stopped up as a result of the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah" (Zechariah 14:4, JPS).
The gospel writers are not going to be outdone. After the first act of his story, simply dated "In the days of Herod, king of Judea" (Luke 1:5, ESV), Luke tells us, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:1-2, ESV), while Matthew chips in with, "Now after Yeshua was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king" (Matthew 2:1, ESV). Luke has Yeshua commenting on local events: "those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them" (Luke 13:4, ESV). This last is a chreia - a mnemonic device invented by Diogenes about five hundred years before the gospels were written, to enable people to recollect events by quickly condensing the facts into an easy-to-remember one-sentence saying - the collapse of the tower while Pilate was governor is confirmed by Tacitus and Josephus. Later in the book of Acts, Luke recounts the words words of the prophet Agabus that "that there would be a great famine over all the world" (Acts 11:18, ESV), adding that "this took place in the days of Claudius" (ibid, ESV), also confirmed by Seutonius and Josephus.
Why does the Bible spend so much time and so many words on historiographical data that might have had some relevance to the people in whose days it was written, but seems to have very little application or relevance to readers in the centuries that followed? For the Bible to be so consistent, there must have been some purpose in all that precision and detail. Two main theories have been proposed; the first is that the data makes the accounts verifiable - they can be cross-checked against archaeology, other writers, what people remember. This really happened. The second proposal is that it makes the people and events real: just as we go to college, get married, have children, and our relatives and people around us are born, live and die, all at ages and dates that we can remember, so the Bible's dates allow us to identify with the people and events and have an understanding of how long it was between times by comparing it to our own lives. They are just like us - or should that be, we are just like them!
I suggest a third and compelling theory. Years and ages - even the calendar, with its careful divisions into months and days, with the festivals spread around the year - mark the intersections between our lives and G-d's plans. These are the way markers that anchor our lives - give our lives meaning, purpose and duration - in His overall master plan and show the order and sequence of other lives and events beyond ourselves of which we become a part at special times and places. Just as the early rabbis linked the patriarchs together in a web of intersecting dates and periods, so we are linked to those around us, our families, the physical world that we inhabit and the age or period of history in which we live. We are linked with other people whenever we interact with them and whenever we share events and experiences with them. Who was with you when you came to faith? Who was there when you were baptised? Who heard you read from the Torah for the first time at your Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Who was present at the birth of your first child or visited you afterwards? How old were you when all those events took place - can you remember? These are all interlocking events that connect us in time and place with other people and to G-d's amazing plan and calendar for His creation. Each day, each shabbat, each festival brings us nearer to the days of Messiah and pulls the pieces of the jigsaw closer together until everything will be visible as it really is.
I know someone who won't use the underground (trains) in London because when they were a child, during the time of the troubles in Northern Ireland, they were held up in a bomb alert on the underground for an hour or more, stuck between two stations on the Central Line, waiting for the issue to be resolved. I know someone else who hasn't eaten meat of any kind in more than twenty five years because they heard a radio program about the working of a commercial abattoir and meat processing factory. These too are connections and events that are part of a picture that is larger than ourselves. One day, we will find out what happened next in the story, or off stage out of our view so that we can see not only what happened at the time but all the ripples that spread across the fabric of time because of those events. As we Jewish people say: Gam zot l'tovah or (in Yiddish) Es vet zein gut - This too is for the good.
Yishmael lived for one hundred and thirty seven years, by G-d's grace, and made a number of significant connections with Avraham and Sarah, with Yitz'khak and Hagar, not to mention all those in Avraham's household. He connected significantly with his wife and had twelve sons who became a nation. He turned up with Yitz'khak to bury his father Avraham at the cave of Machpelah in Hebron. You and I are living now and have had and will continue to have connections and shared events - some more significant than others, some rather less so - with other people until we go to be with the L-rd or until Yeshua returns. We need to make sure that we - and the other people involved - remember the connection not just with each other, but with the L-rd and His plans for all of our lives.
1. - Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba was a third generation Israel-based Amora. Born in Babylon, he immigrated to Israel in his youth and became a student of Rabbi Yohanan.
Further Study: D'varim 32:7-8; Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
Application: Can you remember significant moments in your life that have dramatically affected you and other people? Look back and see if you can see a connection with G-d and His purposes in those events - where was He and what was He doing? Ask Him to show you how His plans are unfolding in your life.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
Comment - 17:15 20Nov16 Tom: Yes: leaving school, passing out of Sandhurst and so forth. It felt like the hand of God on my life. Your last sentence is very relevant -- a good idea to ask God to show me how his plans are unfolding in my life.
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