This question asserts that Ishmael was an evildoer (rasha). However, based on a simple (p'shat) reading of the relevant texts (in Genesis), neither he nor Esau nor Nimrod appear to do anything "evil." # Why, then, do most assume that they were evildoers?

Follow-up: Why do the Midrashim vilify them?

Follow-up to the follow-up: Does it have anything to do with the association of Edom with Rome?

Third follow-up: Similar biblical characters, such as Yehuda and Shimon & Levi do things that seem pretty evil (sell their brother, kill an entire city), yet are considered "righteous." How can this be?

  • # Yes, it says Esav married Canaanite women, which angered his parents. So did Yehuda. And Yaakov married sisters. Yes, he threatened Yaakov. But he didn't carry out his hot-headed threat, unlike Yehuda, Shimon, and Levi, who did. | Yes, it says Yishmael was מצחק, and that Sarah didn't like this. But מצחק is not evil - in fact, Sarah just 3 verses earlier says צחק is a good thing - "וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה--צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים: כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי."
    – Shmuel
    Apr 18, 2014 at 5:59
  • Ibn ezra interprets pshat in Nimrod like you. Also Targum Pseudo Jonathan says Nimrod refused to participate in the tower of babel, at great personal cost. Targum does also interpret him as villifiers do.
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 18, 2014 at 15:55
  • See Gen. 25:34 about Esau's attitude toward his firstborn status. Rashi says this attests to his wickedness. Also the verse doesn't say that Jacob got mad at Judah for marrying a canaanite.
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 18, 2014 at 16:02

2 Answers 2


The short answer to this question is that the midrashim read history backwards.

That is, since we know, for example, that Yishmael is not chosen over Yitzchak to be the "carrier" of God's blessing and promise to Avraham, the author of the midrash assumes that there must have been something undeserving in him or he must have done something wrong. Therefore, they will try to "read into the text" wrongdoings or flaws of Yishmael to justify his destiny.

The same is true with Esav. We know that Esav was not chosen (or even "co-chosen", like the tribes) as Yitzchak's primary progeny; in fact, God even says, " הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם-יְהוָה וָאֹהַב אֶת-יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת-עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי" (Malachi 1:2-3) - God hated Esav. "But why?", wonders the midrash. He must have been a bad person to deserve God's hatred. So the midrash will not hesitate to interpret slight nuances in the text or come up with back-stories that explain Esav's evildoing.

Of course, this holds in reverse as well. Yehuda is known to be one of the twelve tribes to inherit the promise of Avraham and all the blessings of God that came with it. In fact, history gives Yehuda's descendants a large slice of the pie of prosperity. Again, why? With the belief that God is just, the midrash needs to explain this. So it will judge Yehuda extremely favorably under the assumption that he must have been righteous. Anything that looks bad in the text is reinterpreted or downplayed, and anything good is emphasized and glorified.

This sometimes leaves the uninitiated reader of the midrash perplexed or even put-off. But with this understanding, the midrash tends to make much more sense.


If you look in Rashi and the Gemara you will see that he did some very bad things on a very regular basis. Midrash does not make stuff up. Midrash is just a word to refer to parts of the Gemara. You are right that without the Oral Torah (shebaal peh) it makes no sense, but that is a foundation of our faith; God gave Moshe the Written Torah (shebichsav) and Oral Torah (shebaal peh), both are from God and you can't have one without the other. That is why not "believing in" the Oral Torah (shebaal peh) such as Midrash makes one a kofer, or heretic. You need both parts of God's word and in addition without the Oral Torah (shebaal peh) you get very wrong ideas such as Esav seeming not actually so bad at all. Midrash doesn't read backwards and make stuff up. Chazal have tradition from Moshe, and anything they "extrapolate" is based on very specific rules for reading the text which are also straight from god.

As for yehuda and such, you are reciting questions straight out of Rashi and other Mefarshim; look there for the answers.

Lastly, I must warn you Jakes answer which involved arbitrary "downplaying" and "reinterpreting" based on how they wanted it to look is EGREGIOUSLY incorrect and very clearly tantamount to kfira, or heresy. If you look at the 13 principles of faith and the discussion thereof in the rambam and such, along with the FIRST MISHNA in Pirkei Avos Jake's so called "answer" contradicts several of the 13 core beliefs of Judaism.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. Consider taking the following short tour of the site. First of all, we have certain standards of politeness here, so try to keep those in mind. Declaring other users heretics and the like is not generally the advised mode of conduct.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:31
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    Second of all, answers should generally be sourced; the more specific the source (e.g. chapter, page number, etc.) the better. Without that all we have is your personal opinion which does not mean that much to us, given that we don't know you.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:32
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    Third of all, this seems like more of a comment to another user's answer, than an independent answer. As such, it should be presented as such. Once you earn 50 rep. points you will be able to comment on others' comments.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:33
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    Fifth, and on to the substance of the answer. If you are still reading after the last sincere warning, consider reading the answers to this related question: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/53349/belief-in-midrashim which present a variety of views of Geonim Rishonim, and Acharonim.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:46
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    Regarding your assumption that Midrashim are included in Torah Shabaal Peh, the Rambam defines Torah Shebaal Peh as the particulars of mitzvos; this would not include Midrashim. To quote his opening to the intro. to Mishneh Torah: כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁנִּתְּנוּ לוֹ לְמשֶׁה בְּסִינַי בְּפֵרוּשָׁן נִתְּנוּ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה. תּוֹרָה זוֹ תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב. וְהַמִּצְוָה זוֹ פֵּרוּשָׁהּ. וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹרָה עַל פִּי הַמִּצְוָה. וּמִצְוָה זוֹ הִיא הַנִּקְרֵאת תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:48

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