Commentary on Genesis 21:1-21

Last updated: August 1, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

8And 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, laughing. 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 boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring 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 Beersheba.

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. 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.

Notes

1 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised.

The predictions of 17:16-21 and 18:10-15 have been fulfilled.

3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

Abraham names his son Isaac as he was instructed in 17:19. The name Isaac means “he laughs.”1 Note the emphasis on Sarah being the mother.

4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.

Abraham circumcises his son in accordance with the commands of God in 17:12.

6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”

Previously the name Isaac had been associated with the laughter of incredulity (17:17-19; 18:12-15) but here it is the laughter of joy. The Hebrew phrase behind “everyone who hears” contains the sound in “Ishmael” and may be a “jab at the rival mother and child, calling them to rejoice with her over the birth of the rightful heir.”2 The Hebrew root for “laugh” is a play on Isaac’s name.3

8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

The weaning probably took place when Isaac was two or three years old (2 Maccabees 7:27).

9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.

Based on Sarah’s reaction we are probably to envision a mocking laugh. What exactly occurred is unstated.

10 So 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.”

The legal position of Ishmael is quite clear. Sarah had undertaken to recognize as her own the male offspring of the union of Abraham with Hagar, a match that she herself had initiated and imposed on her husband (16:2). Abraham, for his part, undoubtedly recognized Ishmael as his legitimate son, a fact repeatedly attested by a variety of earlier texts (16:15; 17:23, 25f.) and affirmed here (v. 11) as well as later on (25:9, 12). Did this status assure Ishmael automatic inheritance rights even after the birth of Isaac? Sarah’s formulation of her demand and the extreme length to which she was prepared to go point to an affirmative answer. The laws of Hammurabi (par. 170f.) and of the still earlier Lipit-Ishtar (par. 25) implicitly make inheritance rights a legal consequence of the father’s acceptance of the infant as his legitimate son. There is no doubt that Ishmael was entitled to a share of Abraham’s estate. The key to Sarah’s demand lies in a clause in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar where it is stipulated that the father may grant freedom to the slave woman and the children she has borne him, in which case they forfeit their share of the paternal property (cf. Judg. 11:1-3). Sarah is asking Abraham to exercise that legal right (cf. 25:6).4

Her entreaty is strongly worded: “get rid” (gares) describes the evictions of Adam (3:24) and Cain (4:14), the removal of Moses by Pharaoh (Exod 10:11), and the dispossession of Canaan’s population (e.g., Exod 23:29-30; Josh 24:18). In a demeaning way, she refers to Hagar as simply “that slave woman” and denies her son (“never”) any possible claim on Abraham’s inheritance. “With my son Isaac” is the mother’s manner of asserting that Isaac alone is the genuine heir. By “inheritance” (yrs), alluding to 15:4, Sarah appeals to the divine word itself.5

11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.

The following verses make it clear that Abraham is concerned about Ishmael.

12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

The elect line of Abraham runs through Isaac, not Ishmael (17:19). “Here is an instance of God using the wrath of a human being to accomplish his purposes. A family squabble becomes the occasion by which the sovereign purposes and programs of God are forwarded.”6

13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

This reiterates the promise of 17:20 and comforts Abraham by letting him know how Ishmael will fare.

14 So 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 Beersheba.

The Hebrew of v. 14 is difficult and subject to two different interpretations of Ishmael’s age. Either (1) Abraham places both the provisions and the child on Hagar’s shoulders, hence indicating Ishmael is an infant (e.g., NRSV, NJPS, NJB, NAB, REB), or (2) he places only the provisions on her shoulders and gives over the boy, permitting Ishmael to be older (e.g., NIV, NLT, ASV, HCSB, NASB, NKJV). The former reading creates a contradiction with the earlier depiction of Ishmael, who is a teenager (17:25; 16:16 and 21:5). This contradiction is usually explained as the result of two conflicting sources (E-21:6-21; P-16:16; 17:25). The redactor attempted to harmonize his sources by the “clumsy” dislocation of the phrase “and with the child.” The ancient versions, however, support the MT as the original reading. The author’s awkward Hebrew has created two positive effects: (1) the troubled language captures the anguish of the moment, and (2) mention of “the boy” is delayed in the sentence so as to suggest that the transference of the boy from Abraham’s hand to hers is undertaken at the last possible moment. When we recognize that this “syntax of delay” is a feature of this passage, it is best to accept the MT text, translating “the boy” as the second object of “gave,” thus “and [he] gave her the boy” (NASB).7

Being “sent away” is not as harsh as being “cast out” (v 10). The term “wandered” means Hagar did not know where she was going. Beersheba and its well (not initially seen by Hagar) are the subject of verses 22-34.

17 And 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.

The angel of God’s question is clearly rhetorical for he does not give Hagar a chance to respond. This passage never mentions the name of the boy but the phrase “God has heard” recalls the origin of his name in 16:11.

21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

The “wilderness of Paran” is the main desert in the eastern Sinai peninsula.8

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 266-277.

2Ibid., 268.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 80.

4Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 146-147.

5Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 269.

6Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 81.

7Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 272.

8Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 85.

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