Death of Infants II


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: Dear Mesora,


I was just reading your response to a question by a reader.  It is titled "Killing Infants: G-d's Justice". 


You gave an explanation, which you mentioned should suffice alone.  Then you added as an additional thought- "...Below thirteen, Maimonides teaches, “…such a child is considered as man's property, and may be taken from his parent(s) as a punishment.” (Laws of Repentance, 6:1)  You continued, “This child has not reached an age where he is responsible, so he is not meritorious, nor is he guilty. His death is not a punishment to him, but to his parents.”


My question is, if it is true that a child under the age of thirteen years is neither meritorious nor can we explain young Ishmael in the desert?  Wasn't it G-d himself who heard the boy’s cries and asked the angels of Ishmael’s merit at the time when they reminded him what Ishmael would do to Israel in the future?  My understanding was that G-d allowed Ishmael to live because at that very moment, he was a good soul. 


Thank You, James




Mesora: James, Primary to your question is an essential fact you have overlooked. At this time, after Abraham had sent Hagar and their son Ishmael, and the water had run out causing Ishmael to cry, Ishmael was well older than thirteen years of age. We know this, as it is distinctly stated earlier, (Gen. 17:25) that Ishmael was already thirteen when Abraham circumcised him. As Abraham sat in his tent, in pain of his circumcision performed together with Ishmael, the angels announced Isaac’s birth to Abraham. Isaac was to be born a year after Abraham circumcised his household, himself, and Ishmael. In our story, Isaac is now present. Ishmael is then above fourteen years of age, and may be judged based on his own merits and sins. We now understand G-d’s response to the angels regarding the merit or sin of Ishmael. 


As always, we must refer to the sources and study the exact phraseology, as G-d - in His Torah - and the Rabbis, wrote with an exactitude, which teaches additional ideas. Let us examine the texts to learn of any additional concepts.


When Ishmael cried out of thirst, the Torah states as follows:


(Gen. 21:17) “And G-d heard the voice of the lad, and there called an angel of G-d to Hagar from the heavens and he said to her, ‘What is to you Hagar? Do not fear, for G-d has heard the voice of the lad, as he is there.” 


The angel assures Hagar that no harm will befall Ishmael. On the last words, “as he is there”, Rashi comments as follows:


“As he is there, (means) in accord with his current actions he is judged, and not in accord with that which he is yet to do in the future. For the ministering angels accused and said, ‘he whose seed (Ishmael’s seed) will eventually kill your children (Israel) with thirst, You elevate a well?’ And G-d responded, ‘Right now, what is he, righteous or wicked?’ The angels said ‘righteous.’ G-d said to them, ‘in accord with his present actions do I judge.”  G-d then proceeded to show Hagar a well. Ishmael was saved.

We have a few questions: What was the accusatory argument of the angels, and what was G-d’s response? G-d cannot be wrong, but how can G-d’s creation, the angels, possess faulty reasoning? We must also endeavor to understand the senses of justice belonging to both G-d and the angels.


We do notice a similarity to this medrash (metaphor) and another. When G-d was drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea, the angels desired to sing. G-d responded, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you desire to sing?” Again, the angels sought to condemn the wicked and G-d came to their ‘defense’ in a manner. True, in Ishmael’s case he was not yet wicked, but I sense the general parallel applies.


Following the credo that saying the least is safest, I would suggest this one idea to explain the apparent conflict between the angels and G-d: Nothing in ‘creation’ possesses absolute knowledge – and angels are created things. G-d lays exclusive claim to this knowledge. G-d alone possesses the ultimate truth about justice, and all areas. Even the angels – whatever they may be – have deficient knowledge. This is the concept that we can safely derive, making no assumptions.


Now, there are two roads to take when interpreting “angels”; 1) we may view them as intelligent beings, as we see instances where angels praise G-d with speech, “And they called to one another, and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, G-d of hosts, the entire earth is full with His honor”, or 2) we may view them as inanimate creation, as David says, “He makes the wind (nature) His angels, and His ministers, burning flames.”  (Isaiah 6:3, and Psalms 104:4 respectively)


Here, we must take the first approach that angels are meant to imply intelligences. Therefore we understand these two medrashim as follows: Even these angels cannot fathom G-d’s knowledge, as we see they required correction on these two occasions - at the least. In Ishmael’s case, the angels new the future and sought punishment even before it occurred. What is this theory of justice? It would appear that the angels held that although Ishmael’s descendants had not yet committed a crime, the seeds of corruption were already realized in Ishmael - at this early point. For if even these seeds were not present, there would be no justice imaginable by the angels demanding Ishmael die without sin. “Each man I his own sin shall die” cannot be violated. (Deut., 24:16) The angels would only desire punishment when a flaw is in reality already.


Perhaps, G-d foresaw the sentiment man would have, when reading of G-d saving Ishmael with the well. Years later, when Ishmael’s descendants would kill the Jews with thirst, some subsequent generations would read of G-d’s salvation of the murderers’ forefather Ishmael. These Jews might be troubled with G-d’s kindness to a progenitor of evil, and feel that G-d should have left Ishmael to die. As G-d was not killing Ishmael “with His hands”, but only passively allowing thirst to take its course, some Jews might feel G-d is justified in His lack of producing water, which kills a known cause of evil. However, G-d’s justice must be what we ascribe to, so G-d’s Torah cites the words “as he is there”, referring to why G-d saved Ishmael. “as he is there” means that “at that time”, Ishmael had not sinned. The Rabbis then formulated this medrash to clarify this right philosophy. They interpreted G-d’s words into a discussion between G-d and His angels.


At the Red Sea the angels desired to praise G-d for the destruction of the wicked. Now, although the Jews were correct in following Moses’ Song of praise, this is because as humans, we function in a relative framework. It was indeed a good that the Egyptians did not attack us, and that they were destroyed…from our perspective. But G-d’s rebuke of the angels is simultaneously proper, and not contradictory to our praises. G-d was telling the angels that in the ultimate reality, it is an evil that G-d’s creations – the Egyptians – had not reached their potential as intelligent beings. They lost their chance to come close to G-d. This, G-d told the angels, cannot be responded to with song.