Poem of the Week / What if Ishmael Were Isaac?

Inspired by an Old Master painting, Simon Lichman imagines the boy Ishmael.

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Jan Steen’s Boy

Simon Lichman

After "The Dismissal of Hagar," Jan Steen, c.1660

I suppose I’ll miss the old man.

We’ll have to catch our own food now.

I’m good with the bow

And the dog can chase a quarry down.

Oh, can’t I take the dog?

Well, I’d prefer him to new clothes.

I see, not mine.

Yes. I have marked your eyes of late.

A sadness lingering there

But never wondered

To which landscape I’d be the heir.


This poem is from an unpublished manuscript entitled “Entertaining Angels” and a version was published previously by Dennis Silk in his column “Poets Cornered” in August 1992 in The Jerusalem Post. 

Simon Lichman was born in London in 1951 and has lived in Israel since 1971. He directs the Center for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage, which brings together Jewish and Arab communities through education programs based on folklore.

“I was given the Phaidon Bible in Art for my bar mitzvah by a close friend of the family,” Lichman wrote to Haaretz in an email. “At home in Jerusalem many years later, when my children were asleep, I was leafing through the book and found myself writing poems after some of the paintings – maybe 20 or so in the one sitting – which became the basis of the collection in which the Jan Steen poem appears.”

The incident here is recounted in the Torah portion for this week, Vayera (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24): In a previous chapter, the barren Sarah, lacking means like in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, resorted to the only technology available at the time, another woman, and gave Abraham her handmaiden Hagar, who bore him a son, Ishmael. Now Sarah, having finally borne Isaac, demands of Abraham: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son” (Genesis 22:10-11).

Later in the portion God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. In a rare near-confluence of Jewish and Islamic observances, last week Muslims celebrated the Feast of the Sacrifice, based on Surat As-Saffat in the Koran: “And when he [Ibrahim] reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, ‘O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.’ He said, ‘O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast’" (37:102). Most Muslims believe the son is Ishmael rather than Isaac, though not all scholars agree.

The speaker in the poem is the boy Ishmael. As boys will, he makes heroic plans, but then the pain that led to endless strife sets in: “Oh, can’t I take the dog? / Well, I’d prefer him to new clothes. / I see, not mine. / Yes. I have marked your eyes of late – / A sadness lingering there…”


*In the painting, what are Abraham and Hagar saying? 

Detail from Jan Havicksz. Steen - The dismissal of Hagar.
Simon Lichman.Credit: Rivanna Miller

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