When Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael away in Genesis 21, Ishmael is referred to several times as a child:

15When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy, 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 boy where he is. 18Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into 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 boy a drink. 20And God was with the boy, and he grew up...ESV

However in Genesis 17:25 when Ishmael was circumcised (3 chapters before), it says he was 13 years old:

And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.ESV

Was Ishmael a teenager when he and Hagar were sent away by Sarah? Or was Ishmael a child?


The word translated "child" in the verses 15 and 16 is yeled which means "boy, child, youth, offspring." It can even be used of adults to indicate they are descendants of someone else, e.g. the common phrase "the children of Israel." English can do the same thing. The word translated "boy" in the following verses is nyr which means "boy, lad, or youth." If I were translating this passage, I would use "youth" for yeled and "lad" for nyr to show they were different words.

Genesis 21:15 and following aren't trying to be specific that he is very young, just that he is not a grown man.

  • 2
    Thank you for clarifying, Frank. I was commissioned to paint a picture of Hagar pulling water out of the well with Ishmael. Originally, I painted Ishmael as a small child. Then, I realized my mistake. Thanks again for clarifying the scripture. – B6431 Oct 24 '12 at 19:12

Please think about this: we should be careful in correlating the chronological age of people living in times of the patriarch with our modern understanding of physical growth. Back then, people lived a very long life and got married much later (Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah, Gen. 25:20. Then age 40 could be the equivalent of age 14 in later times). This could very well mean that Ishmael, though a teenager in chronological age when cast out, had the physique of a little child! This could explain why Genesis 21:12-20 gave the picture of Hagar travelling with a small child instead of a teenaged Ishmael.

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