George Segal’s Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael focuses on the parting of Abraham and Ishmael, but it invites us to witness the tension and trauma within Abraham’s wider family. Although the biblical text does not provide details of their leave-taking, Segal captures a moment in time that permits the viewer to engage different perspectives on the family.
Hooded with hands clasped, Abraham’s first wife Sarah stands alone, waiting and watching dispassionately as Abraham and Ishmael say their final good-bye. Hers is a confident, supervisory posture; she is overseeing the execution of her second scheme to have the family she desires. The first was the use of Hagar as a surrogate which led to the birth of Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child, Isaac, she wants Ishmael out of the picture.
Though Isaac is absent from Segal’s depiction of the family, he is the future, while Ishmael is part of the past. The die is cast.
Like Sarah, Hagar stands alone, but she faces away from the others. Appearing paler than the rest of the group, her prominence and her separateness are underscored. According to the text, Abraham has provided her with bread and water for her and her son’s journey. With a single bag slung over her shoulder, one realizes how meagre are these provisions. Despite Abraham’s wealth (Genesis 13:2), no retinue of servants or caravan of donkeys will accompany her and Ishmael into the wilderness. Her arm and hand placement mimic that of Abraham, but her arms are empty as she hugs only herself.
Abraham and Ishmael appear emotional as they linger in a warm embrace with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. Wearing shorts, Ishmael looks both very contemporary—perhaps like a young adult leaving for college—and also vulnerable. Although God has reassured Abraham that Ishmael will become a ‘nation’, Abraham is exposing his second wife and his first son to an uncertain future. Sarah’s plan, which is now God’s plan (Genesis 21:12–13), has been set in motion.
Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (New York: T&T Clark)
8 And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. 13And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. 20And God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.