Genesis 21: The Birth of Isaac and Expulsion of Ishmael

By Mary Jane Chaignot

It has been almost twenty-five years since Abraham was told to leave the land of his father and was given the promise of many descendants. But now, the text says, “And the Lord, visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken.” Just as the birth of Isaac is announced twice, once to Abraham and once to Sarah, now the fulfillment is stated twice.

It is highly significant that the word used is that the Lord “visited” Sarah. The Lord visits to indicate his special interest in a person or a nation. Although this “visiting” can be for judgment or blessing, here it is for blessing, and it indicates God’s special care and interest in Sarah. The repetition also emphasizes the fulfillment of God’s promise, “…as he said, as he had promised.” God keeps His promises. Just as God did exactly what he said He would, Abraham now does exactly as he is told to do. He names his son, Isaac, and circumcises him on the eighth day.

Then, the focus moves to the joy of Sarah, who bursts forth with poetic form. God has made her laugh and everyone who hears will laugh with her! Of course, both of the words used for laugh come from the same root as the name, Isaac. As a matter of fact, the second one is exactly the same, so some scholars translate this: “everyone who hears will Isaac with me.” It’s as if to say, that everyone who hears this story will remember the laughter of joy surrounding the birth of this child.

But her joy seems to be somewhat short lived. Things really fall apart on the day that the child is weaned. A child was usually weaned around the age of three. It marked the fact that the child survived the first two or three years of life. This was considered a particularly dangerous time, and if the child made it past the infancy period, in all likelihood, he would grow up. At this time, therefore, it looks relatively certain that Isaac will become Abraham's heir.

And so it is that on this very joyous occasion, Sarah finds herself watching her son with his half-brother. She doesn’t identify him this way; she refers to him only as the “son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham.” And then she uses a very ambiguous term. The Hebrew word, itself, is another variation of the name Isaac, yet many translators, in trying to defend Sarah’s forthcoming action, give this word a connotation that Ishmael is mocking Isaac. Some go so far as to say he is abusing him, and throughout history some rabbis made this even stronger by saying he is molesting him. When in fact, the word itself says that the boys are playing together. It could be that the two boys are happily together, enjoying a very peaceful scene.

Yet it is exactly here that Sarah senses danger. It is the sight of these two children playing together, happily, unconcerned with social distinction that arouses Sarah and compels her to dictate harsh demands. For it is true that laws dating back to that time give sons of slave wives an equal inheritance to those sons of free wives. There were also laws, however, which indicate that those inheritance rights were to be relinquished if the slave family members were given their freedom. Some scholars suggest that this is what Sarah had in mind. She wants Abraham to give Hagar and Ishmael their freedom, so that there could be no possible threat to Isaac’s inheritance. This may be a noble and laudable defense of Sarah; yet, that is not what she says. She simply demands that Abraham “get rid of the slave woman and her son.” It does not appear that giving them their freedom is one of her primary concerns.

Once again, Abraham and Sarah seem to have forgotten God’s promises and are trying to take matters into their own hands. God has already said that it will be through Isaac that he will keep his covenant with Abraham. Yet, Sarah’s concern at this point seems more economically based than anything else. She doesn’t want Ishmael to share in the inheritance with Isaac.

Abraham is “greatly distressed and very displeased” with Sarah's request because it involves his son. Putting these two words together intensifies their meaning. Abraham may have exploded in anger, indicating his strong affection and great love for Ishmael. He is so distressed by it all that he can’t even carry it out.

God, however, endorses Sarah’s plan. God’s concern does include both Ishmael and his mother. He refers to them both. Then God tells Abraham to “do whatever Sarah tells him to do.” Now, the last time Abraham obeyed Sarah was back in the beginning of Chapter 16, when she tells him to go into her maidservant. That doesn’t turn out so well, but here God endorses Sarah’s plan and asks Abraham to be obedient to it. God reaffirms the promises. Both of the children are blessed, but the covenant will come through Isaac.

Once again, Abraham is very obedient. He provides provisions for Hagar and her son. They are obviously limited by what she can carry. She is given a skin of water, which weighs about 30 pounds. They leave, wandering into the desert of Beersheba, moving in a southeasterly direction towards Northern Arabia.

Not surprisingly, the water runs out, and the threat of death looms large. Hagar places her son under a bush; at least he will die in the shade. She herself moves some distance away so she will not be tormented by his last sighs. But she remains close enough and weeps freely, by herself, emphasizing her loneliness and isolation.

The lad also lifts up his voice and cries out. His name is Ishmael, meaning, “God hears,” and he certainly lives up to his name on this occasion. Once again the angel of the Lord calls out to Hagar.

God gives Hagar several short imperatives. “Don't be afraid, return to the boy, lift him up and take him by the hand.” Along with these demands, however, is a reiteration of the great promise made in 16:10. Her child will not die because God will make of him a great nation. The words of God’s promise are followed by a practical intervention. He opens her eyes, and she sees a well that she hasn’t noticed before. She is able to satisfy the boy's thirst.

There are some additional points worth considering in this story before moving on. Perhaps the most wonderful thing is that God calls out to her by name. God doesn’t treat her like a slave. He treats her as deserving of His comfort and His protection. Through no fault of her own, Hagar is forced to separate herself from Abraham and his family. The blessings to Abraham follow Hagar. She and Ishmael experience God’s care and protection. And what is most interesting is that the last glimpse of Hagar in this situation shows her loyalty to the patriarchal customs. Because Ishmael no longer has a father, Hagar finds him a wife. She chooses a wife for him from among her own people. They continue to live in the desert; now no longer a hostile place, but simply their home.

Even more important, however, than her activity in modeling the patriarch, is her role as the recipient of the identical promise that has been made to a patriarch. She is the only Old Testament woman who experiences a theophany (the visible manifestation of God to man, or in this case, woman)—and it happens twice. She also is the recipient of a promise of land and of many descendants. She is not an Israelite; she is not a man. Yet God makes promises to her. God has proven Himself gracious and dependable. He is faithful to all of His promises. He is faithful to Abraham and Sarah in fulfilling the promise for them to have a son, but He is also faithful to Hagar in fulfilling the promise to her that she will have many descendants.

Scholars have also pointed out parallels between the stories of Hagar and Moses. Hagar lives a double life as wife and slave; Moses lives a double life as prince and slave. Hagar’s transition from slave to wife prompts threats from Sarah; Moses’ transition from prince to liberator prompts threats from Pharaoh. In response, both flee to a well. Both encounter God in the wilderness, and both are instructed to return. God gives Moses a name; Hagar gives God a name. Upon their returns, they each have a new role – Hagar as mother, Moses as liberator. Ultimately, each is again expelled into the wilderness, which is sanctioned by God. It provides their release from slavery, but the wilderness is a lot more treacherous the second time around. With limited provisions, they each face the danger of lack of water, and both cry out to God. God provides water for both of them in a miraculous fashion.

Though Hagar’s story essentially ends at this point, her descendants do not. We read of both Ishmaelites and Hagarites in the Bible. In Judges, the Ishmaelites are noteworthy for having golden earrings. In Psalms, mention is made of their tabernacles and their alliance against Israel. But the Hagarites are the most interesting. In 1 Chronicles they start a war against Saul. Later on, they are defeated by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. This is what it says about their defeat: “And they took away their cattle; of their camels fifty thousand, and of sheep two hundred and fifty thousand, and of asses two thousand, and of men an hundred thousand. For there fell down many slain, because the war was of God. And they dwelt in their steads until the captivity.” (1 Chron. 5:21-22) Clearly this is no small force. In 1 Chronicles 27, both a Hagarite and an Ishmaelite are working for David. Without a doubt, God’s promises to Hagar are fulfilled.