The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned his son…And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. (Genesis 21-14)

The composition of Rembrandt’s etching of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael reflects the dynamic between the participants involved. The imposing figure of Abraham has been given center stage. Abraham’s body is interposed between the two families who are to be fatefully separated. Sarah will remain in the house of Abraham with her son Isaac (barely visible, sheltering in the doorway). Their gloating facial expressions are a telling indicator that Sarah has succeeded.

Abraham’s body language exhibits his ambivalence. The weight of his body is balanced on his left foot, towards Hagar and his first-born son Ishmael. Yet his right foot draws him back into the house. His left hand reaches out, perhaps to bless the departing woman and child, but unable to do more than grasp at air since they have already begun their journey. Rembrandt demonstrably portrays Hagar’s pain. Her weeping is made audible through the blowing of her nose. He also evokes the pity of the viewer by transforming Ishmael – who in the biblical narrative is at least 13 years old – into a little boy.

Note how Rembrandt has slung a quiver of arrows over the boy’s back. This seemingly refers to Genesis 21-20, which describes Ishmael as growing up to become a skillful bowman in the wilderness. It may be that Rembrandt has, through this detail, subtly explained the motivation behind the banishment of Ishmael, hinting at his violent tendencies and his destiny to forever be at odds with his kinsmen.

Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy

Photo courtesy of Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam.