GENESIS 12-20: THE CONTEXT
Abraham’s story began with his call, when his name was Abram. God told Abram, “Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:1-3). God’s promise to make of Abram a great nation implies that Abram will have a legitimate heir.
Abram was 75 years old at the time of his departure from Haran (12:4). He was married to Sarai (later Sarah), but they had no children—and at their age they had no reason (except God’s promise that he would make of Abram a great nation) to believe that they would ever have a child.
Later, God said, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” But Abram said, “Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, since I go childless, and he who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (15:1-2). God responded, “This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir. Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your seed be” (15:4-5). This promise is very specific. Abram will have a child—a legitimate heir. Abram “believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (15:6).
But Sarai, in anguish because she had been unable to bear children for Abram, told him to go in to her slave-girl, Hagar, so that Hagar might bear a child for him (16:2). She had grown weary of waiting for God to keep his promise to Abram, and felt a need to take matters in her own hands. Abram did as she asked, and Hagar conceived a child. Hagar then began to look with contempt on Sarai, who complained bitterly to Abram (16:5). Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she would with Hagar, and Sarai acted so harshly that Hagar ran away into the wilderness (16:6). An angel found her there and told her that she would bear a son who would have so many descendants that they could not be counted. The angel told her to name her son Ishmael (Hebrew: yismael—”God hears”).
“Hagar bore a son for Abram. Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael” (16:15).
We should take special note of two things in chapter 16, because they will have bearing on our understanding of chapter 21.
• First, Hagar’s wilderness journey in chapter 16 is similar in several respects to her wilderness journey in chapter 21. In both accounts, Abraham accedes to Sarah’s demands. In both accounts, it is Sarah’s anger that results in Hagar’s going to the wilderness. In both accounts, an angel helps Hagar in her extremity and assures her that Ishmael will have many descendants. These similarities have led some scholars to believe that these are two accounts of the same incident written by two different authors. That is reinforced by the different names used for God in the two accounts (Yahweh in chapter 16 and Elohim in chapter 21)—the idea being that the Yahwist (J) wrote chapter 16 and the Elohist (E) wrote chapter 21. It is also reinforced by the change in Hagar, who was contemptuous in chapter 16 but is passive in chapter 21.
• Second, Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (16:15) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (21:5). This means that Ishmael was 14 years old when Isaac was born—a fact that has implications for chapter 21.
In chapter 17, God makes a covenant with Abram, reaffirming the promises that God made earlier. Abraham responded to this promise by falling down laughing (17:17). The motif of laughter repeats throughout this account.
In chapter, 18, God promises Abraham and Sarah (the names conferred by God on Abram and Sarai in 17:5, 15) that they will have a son, and Sarah laughed (Hebrew: sahaq—a word related to yishaq or Isaac, which means “He laughs”).
Chapter 19 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and chapter 20 tells of Abraham’s shameful behavior at Gerar (20:2).
GENESIS 21:1-7. SARAH CONCEIVED, AND BORE ABRAHAM A SON
1Yahweh visited Sarah as he had said, and Yahweh did to Sarah as he had spoken. 2Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham called his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. 4Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was one hundred years old when his son, Isaac, was born to him. 6Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7She said, “Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”
“Yahweh visited (Hebrew: paqad—visited) Sarah as he had said, and Yahweh did to Sarah as he had spoken“ (v. 1). This verse uses two similar phrases to express the same thought. Some scholars conclude that there are two different authors involved here, but it seems more likely that this is simply a poetic way of expressing the exciting truth that Sarah has conceived a child, as God promised that she would.
A divine visit (paqad) is usually to show people favor (Genesis 50:24; Exodus 3:16; 1 Samuel 2:21) but is sometimes to punish them (Exodus 20:5; Isaiah 10:12).
“Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him“ (v. 2). This verse spans a significant measure of time—from the time God promised a son to Abram (17:16: 18:10-14)—to the time of the child’s conception—to the time of the child’s birth nine months later.
This verse mentions Abraham’s old age, but Sarah is also old (18:11-12). It is more unusual for an old woman to become a mother than for an old man to become a father. A woman’s reproductive system typically shuts down much earlier than a man’s. However, this birth doesn’t depend on Abraham and Sarah, but on God. It is God’s will that the child be born. As the Lord asked Abraham earlier, “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” (18:14).
“Abraham called his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac” (v. 3). It is the father’s duty to name the child. Abraham obeys God by naming his son Isaac (17:19).
“whom Sarah bore to him“ (v. 3b). We must keep in mind that this is not Abraham’s only son. He also has a son by Hagar, the slave woman whom he has taken as a concubine. This new baby, however, is by his wife, Sarah. This makes for confusion with regard to status and succession. Isaac enjoys special standing as the son of Abraham’s legitimate wife, but Ishmael enjoys special standing as Abraham’s firstborn. This will create a serious problem in the near future.
“Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him“ (v. 4). God commanded circumcision at eight days as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (17:10-14). Abraham responded by being circumcised personally and having the males of his household circumcised (17:23-27). Now he continues his obedience by having Isaac circumcised.
“Abraham was one hundred years old when his son, Isaac, was born to him“ (v. 5). As noted above, Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (16:15), so Ishmael is now 14 years old.
Again, no mention is made of Sarah’s advanced age.
“Sarah said,‘God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me'” (v. 6). Keep in mind that Isaac’s name in Hebrew is yishaq, which means “He laughs.” Also keep in mind the laughter of Abraham (17:7) and Sarah (18:12) when God promised them a child. There is wordplay here.
Sarah might be saying that God has transformed her earlier laughter of doubt into laughter of joy (sehoq). However, the meaning of yishaq li is ambiguous. It could mean that people are laughing with Sarah, or it could mean that they are laughing at her.
In any event, the birth of this child whose name is “He laughs” is clearly an occasion of great joy for Sarah, and it provokes laughter (whether joyful or mocking) on the part of other people as well.
“Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age” (v. 7). Sarah has not borne Abraham children (plural), but she has borne him a son.
GENESIS 21:8-14. CAST OUT THIS HANDMAID WITH HER SON
8The child grew, and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking (Hebrew: mesaheq). 10Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this handmaid and her son! For the son of this handmaid will not be heir with my son, Isaac.” 11The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. 12God said to Abraham, “Don’t let it be grievous in your sight because of the boy, and because of your handmaid. In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice. For from Isaac will your seed be called. 13 I will also make a nation of the son of the handmaid, because he is your seed.” 14Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder; and gave her the child, and sent her away. She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
“The child grew, and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned“(v. 8). We aren’t certain how early children were weaned in those days. Probably two to three years old. In that primitive culture, many children would die of various illnesses prior to being weaned, so having the child survive through infancy is occasion for celebration.
“Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking” (mesaheq) (v. 9). As noted above, Ishmael was 14 years old when Isaac was born, so he would be 16 or 17 at the time of Isaac’s weaning.
The meaning of mesaheq is uncertain in this context. Some scholars think that the boys were playing nicely together, and the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) translates it that way. If that is the case, Sarah is angry that they were playing as equals. Other scholars translate mesaheq as “mocking”—indicating that teenage Ishmael was mocking or taunting or teasing toddler Isaac—and Paul interprets it that way in Galatians 4:9.Whether innocent or not, Ishmael provokes Sarah’s anger.
Note that this verse refers to Ishmael only as “the son of Hagar the Egyptian”—a dismissive or contemptuous expression. His name appears nowhere in this chapter. The last time we heard his name was when Abraham and all the males of his household were circumcised (17:25). We won’t hear his name again until Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury Abraham at Machpelah (25:9). Abraham will live to be 175 years old (25:7), so Isaac will be 75 years old when they bury Abraham—and Ishmael will be 89.
“Cast out this handmaid and her son!” (v. 10a). Whether provoked by innocent play or spiteful mocking, Sarah demands that Abraham implement a draconian solution? To cast out Hagar and Ishmael is to force them into a harsh wilderness environment. At best, they will suffer deprivation. At worst, they will die.
Sarah cannot implement this action on her own. She must persuade Abraham to do her dirty work, because he alone has the authority to cast out this woman and her son. But Sarah, as Abraham’s wife, is in an excellent position to influence Abraham’s decision.
“For the son of this handmaid will not be heir with my son, Isaac“ (v. 10b). Now we get to the bottom line, so to speak—inheritance. God has not yet given the Mosaic Law yet, so Abraham is not subject to it. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at the provision that would apply if it were in effect. Deuteronomy says:
“If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated,
and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated;
and if the firstborn son be hers who was hated;
then it shall be,
in the day that he causes his sons to inherit that which he has,
that he may not make the son of the beloved the firstborn
before the son of the hated, who is the firstborn:
but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the hated,
by giving him a double portion of all that he has;
for he is the beginning of his strength;
the right of the firstborn is his” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
Even if Hagar is a slave-woman—chattel—Ishmael is Abraham’s legitimate son. When Sarah despaired of conceiving a son for Abraham, it was her suggestion that Abraham “go in to my handmaid … that I will obtain children by her” (16:2). Sarah’s words in that verse make it clear that she expected Hagar’s child to have legitimacy as Abraham and Sarah’s son.
As nearly as we can tell, even in the absence of the Mosaic Law, prevailing custom requires Abraham to give his firstborn son a double portion of the inheritance. If he does so, Ishmael will receive two-thirds of the inheritance and Isaac will receive one-third. It would be a bitter pill for Sarah to see Ishmael enriched at Isaac’s expense.
But there is another issue here as well—more than money is involved. God promised Abraham, “You will be the father of a multitude of nations” (17:4)—and “I will give you a son by her (Sarah). Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples will come from her” (17:16). Sarah might be even more concerned about this inheritance than about money.
“The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son”(v. 11). Abraham loves Ishmael, and does not want to dismiss him and his mother. He also has a responsibility to his son—and to Hagar, for that matter. He might be distressed at the prospect of violating social norms regarding their care.
However, as in chapter 16, Abraham seems passive in the face of his wife’s demands. He fails to stand up to her, but is simply distressed. It sounds as if he is dithering—trying to decide what to do—trying to decide whether to stand up to his wife or to accede to her demands. We are reminded of his shameful deception at Gerar, where he tried to avoid conflict by saying that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife (20:1-18). We think of Abraham as a great man, and he was great. However, his failure to act decisively to thwart Sarah’s plan shows us that his clay feet.
“God said to Abraham, ‘Don’t let it be grievous in your sight because of the boy, and because of your handmaid. In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice'” (v. 12a). God intervenes to take Abraham off the hook. God tells Abraham to do whatever Sarah wants him to do, which is very much like his action in chapter 16, when he told Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes” (16:6). In this case, Sarah’s desires dovetail with God’s plan to bless the world through Isaac and his descendants.
“For from Isaac will your seed be called” (v. 12b). This is the bottom line for Abraham. God has determined to channel the blessings of heritage through Isaac.
“I will also make a nation of the son of the handmaid, because he is your seed” (v. 13). Later, God will reaffirm this promise to Hagar (21:18), but that promise will not compromise the promise to Abraham to channel the blessings of heritage through Isaac.
“Abraham rose up early in the morning” (v. 14a). Why early in the morning? Perhaps to get the terrible deed done and over with. Perhaps to help Hagar and Ishmael begin their journey during the cool part of the day.
“and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder; and gave her the child, and sent her away” (v. 14b). Having been reassured by God, Abraham gives Hagar the small measure of bread and water that she can carry and sends her away with Ishmael. He does not give her a donkey to carry her supplies or sheep to insure her survival. God has promised to make a nation of Ishmael, and Abraham is placing Ishmael’s life in God’s hands.
Scholars have debated whether Hagar also carries the child on her shoulders, and the Hebrew language in this verse would allow that interpretation. However, as we have seen, Ishmael must be 16 or 17 years old by this time, so it would be impossible for Hagar to carry him as well as the bread and water.
“She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba” (v. 14c). Later, Beersheba will be a city at the southern extremity of Israel. “From Dan even to Beersheba” will mean, “all the tribes of Israel” (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; 2 Samuel 3:10, etc.). However, Hagar and Ishmael do not go to a city, but to a desert wilderness area called Beersheba, located southwest of the Dead Sea, at the north edge of the Negeb wilderness. It is the kind of place where few people live, because it is difficult to sustain life there. Experienced bedouins can survive in such a place, but only God can save Hagar and Ishmael.
GENESIS 21:15-19. DON’T BE AFRAID
15The water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. 16She went and sat down opposite him, a good way off, about a bow shot away. For she said, “Don’t let me see the death of the child.” She sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17God heard the voice of the boy.
The angel of God called to Hagar out of the sky, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. For God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.
18Get up, lift up the boy, and hold him in your hand. For I will make him a great nation.” 19God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, filled the bottle with water, and gave the boy drink.
“The water in the bottle was spent” (v. 15a). A skin of water will not sustain two people in a hot desert climate for long—two or three days, perhaps. Once the supply of water is gone, death can be expected to follow—a slow, miserable death.
“and she cast the child under one of the shrubs” (v. 15b). This sounds as if Hagar throws a small child under the bushes, but Ishmael is no small child at this point. Hagar sends Ishmael to take cover from the sun under some bushes—a feeble last effort to help him.
“She went and sat down opposite him, a good way off, about a bow shot away. For she said, ‘Don’t let me see the death of the child.’ She sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept“ (v. 16). This is a very poignant picture of a mother who has done everything possible to save her son, but to no effect. She knows that she and her son are going to die, but it is her son’s death that grieves her. “Don’t let me see the death of the child,” is every mother’s prayer.
“God heard the voice of the boy.The angel of God called to Hagar out of the sky, and said to her, ‘What ails you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. For God has heard the voice of the boy where he is'” (v. 17). We have been hearing Hagar’s cry—but God hears the voice of Ishmael—and then the angel of God responds to Hagar. “God has heard the voice of the boy” implies that God is going to come to the boy’s rescue.
“Get up, lift up the boy, and hold him in your hand” (v. 18a). God asks for a response from Hagar—to lift up Ishmael and to take his hand. It isn’t clear how those actions will help Ishmael, but the Bible is full of stories about people whose lives are turned around when they obey some apparently inconsequential commandment of God. Moses striking the Nile with his staff comes to mind—as does Gideon blowing his trumpet—and Joshua causing the people to march and shout. The power isn’t in the action of the person, but in the God who blesses the obedience. Without the small obedience, would anything have happened? Probably not! There are preaching possibilities here.
“For I will make him a great nation” (v. 18b). God made this same promise to Abraham earlier (17:20), but to our knowledge this is the first that Hagar has heard of it.
“God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (v. 19a). God opens Hagar’s eyes to see what was there all the time—a well of life-giving water—salvation! When God helps us out of a difficult spot, he sometimes creates a new solution, but at other times simply opens our eyes to see what was there all the time. There are some preaching possibilities here, too.
In the next chapter, Abraham will be faced with sacrificing Isaac. When he starts to comply, an angel will stop him. Then Abraham will look up and see a ram, caught in a thicket. He will offer the ram as a sacrifice in place of Isaac. Abraham will name that place “Yahweh Will Provide” (Genesis 22:13-14). So God will rescue both of Abraham’s sons from certain death at the last minute.
“She went, filled the bottle with water, and gave the boy drink” (v. 19b). Thus begins the salvation of mother and child.
GENESIS 21:20-21. GOD WAS WITH THE BOY
20God was with the boy, and he grew. He lived in the wilderness, and became, as he grew up, an archer. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran. His mother took a wife for him out of the land of Egypt.
“God was with the boy, and he grew” (v. 20a). Beyond the provision of water in verse 19b, the text doesn’t tell us the details of his survival. It takes water to survive in the desert wilderness, but it also takes food and shelter. But “God (is) with the boy,” and God will insure his survival.
“He lived in the wilderness, and became, as he grew up, an archer” (v. 20b). In verse 16, Hagar distanced herself from Ishmael a bowshot—the distance that an arrow would travel when shot from a bow. Now Ishmael grows up and becomes an expert with the bow. This expertise will give him the ability to secure game for food, and it will also allow him to protect himself and his family from wild animals and marauding humans.
“He lived in the wilderness of Paran” (v. 21a). The desert wilderness of Paran is southwest of Beer-Sheba in the Sinai Peninsula—between Canaan and Egypt. The people of Israel will later spend part of their wilderness wanderings in Paran (Numbers 10:12; 12:16; 13:26, etc.).
“His mother took a wife for him out of the land of Egypt“ (v. 21b). We were told earlier that Hagar was Egyptian (16:1, 3). Her dwelling place in Paran places Egypt within easy reach. We aren’t told how she gets a wife for Ishmael, but it is a tribute to her resourcefulness (and to God’s help) that she does so.
We know little about Ishmael’s subsequent life. Many years later, he will come to Machpelah to bury Abraham (25:9). He will live to be 137 years old (25:17). Arabs venerate him as their forefather.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan