New European Commentary


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21:1 Yahweh visited Sarah as He had said, and Yahweh did to Sarah as He had spoken- The double emphasis "As He had said... spoken" emphasizes the fulfilment of His word of promise, and perhaps stands in contrast to her laughing in mockery at that same word. "Spoken" refers specifically to the spoken word; so the "Yahweh" in view is the Angel who had visited Sarah nine months previously. Angels can bear the Name of Yahweh, as can His Son, without being one and the same as God Himself.

21:2 Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him- It could be that the Divine visitation of :1 refers rather to God 'visiting His people' in the sense of getting involved with them and identifying with them, rather than a literal visit. This would mean that the conception was Yahweh visiting Sarah. But it's also possible that the visitation was in order to give Sarah both conception and childbirth at the same time. I suggest this because Paul writes of how Isaac was born after the Spirit, and Ishmael after the flesh (Gal. 4:29). Whilst Isaac was not the only begotten Son of God as the Lord was, all the same it is possible to argue from Paul's language that Isaac was somehow Divinely conceived, by the Spirit, and not as a result of "the flesh" as Ishmael was, i.e. Abraham having intercourse with Sarah. Whatever, her conception is attributed to the visitation of the same Angel who had appeared to her previously. In this case, we have yet another hint at the weakness of Abraham and Sarah's faith. They ought to have slept together, firmly believing the Angelic promise that they would have a child. But if Isaac was born after the Spirit and not after the flesh, we could draw the conclusion that they did not, and the conception and birth were of special Divine intervention, although the resulting child was miraculously of the seed of Abraham.

21:3 Abraham called his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac- The name was a reminder for all time that initially, Sarah had laughed at the promise of Isaac, and been rebuked for it (Gen. 18:12-15). The laughter of joy at his birth was memorialized in his name, but so was Sarah's terrible mocking laughter at God.

21:4 Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him- The circumcision of both Isaac and Ishmael is emphasized; they were both in covenant with God and thereby heirs of the promises, which were at different times made to them both. But Isaac held in with these things, whereas Ishmael pushed off to Egypt and despised them, as Esau was to do later.

21:5 Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him- This was 25 years after the first promise of a seed.

21:6 Sarah said, God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me- The same word is used of how Sarah had mockingly laughed at God at the news of Isaac's conception (Gen. 18:12-15). And we wonder whether her skepticism may still carry through here, as if to say: 'I can't believe this is for true, everyone who hears I bore a child will laugh their heads off in disbelief'. Sarah is saying 'I laughed / mocked when I heard I was supposed to bear a child at 90, and frankly, who wouldn't have done, you would have laughed with me; and now it actually happened, laugh with me too'. This again is far from the paragon of virtuous faith that she is presented as in the New Testament. But Heb. 11:11 must be given its due weight- she did also believe, despite all this surface level disbelief and wrong self justification. We see here how righteousness was imputed on account of faith; and we see too how Sarah and Abraham are examples of faith in that they had our kind of faith- weak, incomplete, coexisting with disbelief. But they held on to that faith. And that is the point.

21:7 She said, Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children! For I have borne him a son in his old age- The answer to her question is "God". Only God would say such a humanly bizarre thing. Likewise Peter reasoned that if it was the Lord Jesus walking on the stormy lake, then the Lord would bid him come unto Him. Nobody else would think of making such an invitation. There is something uniquely challenging about God's way with us, and the possibilities which He alone perceives and seeks to make real for us. Job suffered an incredible 'run of bad luck', and concluded likewise that this was not chance, not 'Satan', but "Who, if not Him?".

21:8 The child grew, and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned- Weaning could take up to three or four years, which would make Ishmael 16 or 17 at this time, and not a toddler.

21:9 Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking- Ishmael was a mid teenager; and yet his behaviour was judged as sinful. Children and young people can and do sin, such is God's sensitivity to human failure. What he did to the toddler Isaac is called "persecution" (Gal. 4:29). So there may have been more to it than "mocking" a toddler. We observe however that Sarah too had mocked- and mocked God's promise (Gen. 18:12-15). The record carefully balances out the wrongdoing, to stress that it is not the case that Abraham and Sarah were per se more spiritual than others. "Mocking" translates the same Hebrew word translated "caressing" in a sexual context (Gen. 26:8), and when Potiphar's wife accuses Joseph of 'mocking' her (s.w. Gen. 39:14,17), she clearly has sexual behaviour in view. And it's used in a specifically sexual sense in Ex. 32:6, where the people worshipped the golden calf and then "rose up to play", interpreted in the New Testament as sexual immorality. This is why we read that Sarah "saw" rather than simply 'heard' the 'mocking'. It's therefore possible that Ishmael, the "wild donkey of a man", in some way sexually abused the child Isaac. He was now 'weaned' and 'the child had grown'. He may well have been between 3 and 6 years old. This highlights God's grace in hearing the cries of the teenage Ishmael as he lay dying of thirst in the desert, and how "God was with the boy as he grew up" (:20). Rather than seeing God as being mean to Ishmael, we can see him being blessed by a very great grace considering what he had done. Ishmael was 13 when Isaac was born, and weaning took place at any time from 3 to 7 years later. We see here how Ishmael, the teenage pedophile, pervert and sexual abuser was indeed rejected by God- and yet God seems to feel sorry even for those whom He has to reject. He shows Himself far more gracious than man, who would likely have left Ishmael to die in the scrubland, thinking 'and good riddance'. Even though we can infer that God struck Ishmael with some kind of heat stroke, so that his mother dragged the body of her child under some shade. She calls him at that age her "child" simply because your young adult child is always felt as your "child", especially when they are facing death or acute danger.

21:10 Therefore 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!- Sarah's screaming indignation can be well imagined. Consider which words were probably stressed most by her: "Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir (just hear her voice!) with my son, even with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10). This is in harmony with her previous bitterness and aggression to Hagar and Abraham. But both Ishmael and Isaac had received circumcision, the token of the covenant, and identical promises were made to them both. Sarah was out of step with God's intentions. Her attitude in implying that Ishmael was not the seed is gently rebuked by God in his subsequent words to Abraham concerning Ishmael: "He is your seed" (:13). And yet Sarah's words are quoted in Gal. 4:30 as inspired Scripture! Here we see the wonder of the God with whom we deal, in the way in which He patiently bore with Sarah and Abraham. He saw through her anger, her jealousy, the pent up bitterness of a lifetime, and he saw her faith; or even counted righteousness to her, as He did to Abraham and Lot. And He worked through that screaming, angry woman to be His prophet. According to Gal. 4:30, God Himself spoke through her in those words, outlining a principle which has been true over the generations; that the son of the slave must be cast out, and that there must always be conflict between him and the true seed. Sarah in her time of child-birth is likened to us all as we enter the Kingdom, full of joy (Is. 54:1-4); and yet at that time she was eaten up with pride and joy that she could now triumph over her rival. And yet Sarah at that time is seen from a righteous perspective, in that she is a type of us as we enter the Kingdom. God's mercy to Sarah and Abraham is repeated to us daily.

"Cast out" is a word used elsewhere about divorce. Sarah's attitude here is altogether wrong; remember that it was her idea that Abraham should effectively marry Hagar and have a child by her. The contemporary laws were clear that if  man got his slave girl pregnant, he must never divorce her. The law of Moses likewise was careful to allow divorce only for adultery. Hagar had done nothing wrong to Abraham. Her teenage son had apparently wronged baby Isaac. But that was no grounds for Abraham divorcing Hagar.

Apostate Israel are described in the very language of the adversaries / Satans of God's people. Because they acted like the world around them, from which they had been called out, they were ultimately judged by God as part of that world. Consider all the times when God’s apostate people are recorded as acting in terms of their Arab cousins. Thus apostate Israel and the Jewish system were to be "cast out" (Jn. 12:31) just as Ishmael had been (Gen. 21:10). Indeed, Hagar and Ishmael are representative of Israel "after the flesh" and the earthly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:29,30).

21:11 The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son- It is stressed in the record that Ishmael was "his son". Abraham had other sons by Keturah, but clearly Ishmael had a special place for him; for he had been circumcised, and was therefore within the covenant. "Grievous" is the usual word for "evil" and has a definite moral connotation. In Abraham's opinion, he was being manipulated to do something morally wrong.

21:12 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. For in Isaac will your seed be called-  What Sarah was proposing was indeed morally evil ("grievous", see on :11). But God asks Abraham not to take that guilt upon himself. I have argued on Gen. 16:11 that Ishmael means "God hears" because God heard Abraham's request that Ishmael might live before God in covenant relationship, and this was confirmed by Ishmael being circumcised as the token of the covenant and receiving the same promises as Isaac. It was a Divine observation that Isaac would be the one through whom the promised seed would come; rather than saying to the effect that 'Don't worry, you can throw Ishmael away, I'm against him and he's not in covenant with Me, but Isaac will be'.

So God asks Abraham not to take that guilt upon himself. There was wrong, but God is saying that in the end, Ishmael will survive and He has a potential purpose with him. But the higher level surely would've been for Abraham to refuse any part in this evil treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. It's a case of different levels and God's willingness to be sympathetic to those who feel they are caught up in a situational ethic... As we should be.

As discussed on Gen. 20:13, Abraham is presented as obedient to Sarah, whereas 1 Pet. 3:5,6 praises Sarah for being obedient to Abraham. We see here again how the Spirit in the New Testament seeks to present God's servant as positively as possible.

21:13 I will also make a nation of the son of the handmaid, because he is your seed- The promises to Ishmael are very similar to those to Isaac and the seed of Abraham; God is surely saying that sending Ishmael away didn't of itself mean that the promises could not apply to him. In this, God was as it were disallowing Sarah's desire to disinherit Ishmael. This confirms that the comment in :12 that Abraham's seed would be called in Isaac is not saying that Ishmael was not Abraham's seed. He was, and the record often stresses that Ishmael was Abraham's son.

21:14 Abraham 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- There is a much repeated characteristic of God's servants: that they 'rose up early in the morning' and did God's work. In each of the following passages, this phrase is clearly not an idiom; rather does it have an evidently literal meaning: Abraham (Gen. 19:27; 21:14; 22:3); Jacob (Gen. 28:18); Job (1:5); Moses (Ex. 8:20; 9:13; 24:4; 34:4); Joshua (Josh. 3:1; 6:12; 7:16; 8:10); Gideon (Jud. 6:38; 7:1); Samuel (1 Sam. 15:12); David (1 Sam. 17:20; 29:11); Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:35; 2 Chron. 29:20). This is quite an impressive list, numerically. This can be a figure for being zealous (Ps. 127:2; Pr. 27:14; Song 7:12; Is. 5:11; Zeph. 3:7). God Himself rises up early in His zeal to save and bring back His wayward people (2 Chron. 36:15; Jer. 7:13,25; 11:7; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14,15; 44:4). Yet the above examples all show that men literally rose up early in their service to God; this was an expression of their zeal for God, in response to His zeal for us. I'm not suggesting that zeal for God is reflected by rising early rather than staying up late; but it wouldn't be too much to suggest that if we are men of mission, we won't waste our hours in bed. Get up when you wake up.

There is a word play here, where the word shawkam occurs twice. Abraham "rose up early" (shawkam) in the morning, took bread, water and Hagar's child, and "laid [them] on her shoulder" (shawkam). I understand from this that Abraham really fellowshipped with the suffering laid upon Hagar; he did it with a very sad heart, feeling for Hagar to the point of realistic empathy.

Abraham's behaviour towards Hagar and Ishmael was actually illegal in terms of the near Eastern legal codes. Those of Lipit-Ishtar and Hammurabi, as well as the laws of Nuzi amongst the Hurrians, all specifically stated that a husband with a barren wife may take a concubine through whom he could have offspring, but if his wife then has children, he must not ever disinherit or expel from the family the concubine and her children (Angel Gonzales, Abraham: Father of Believers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967) p. 74). Yet Abraham did exactly this, effectively casting out Ishmael and Hagar into the desert, to walk until they perished of heat exposure. Perhaps God's later demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son, "your son, your only son, Isaac" (Gen. 22:2), when he had other children apart from Isaac, was an implicit criticism of Abraham for having rejected Ishmael as his son; and he was asked to enter into the loss of a child, of how Hagar felt for her only son, as he had effectively sacrificed Ishmael to the desert.

She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba- Abraham and Sarah had also been caused to wander by God (see on Gen. 20:13). Again the point is being made that the supposedly holy family were not radically different from Hagar and Ishmael. God wanted them too; but they chose to step out of God's program and return to Egypt.

21:15 The water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the bushes- Travel in the desert was done by moving from well to well, rather like a light aircraft flies between beacons. The Bedouins only carry as much water as is required until they reach the next well. Hagar had apparently missed her way; or more likely, the Angel had closed her eyes from seeing the well, which is why when her eyes were "opened" she immediately saw the well (:19). Ishmael had been thirteen when Isaac was born, and they were cast out by Sarah when Isaac was weaned, which would likely have been at 3 or 4 years old. So Ishmael was a mid teenager. He apparently fainted because of the lack of water. Hagar tried to carry him, but unable to do so any longer, left him under a bush to die. This tragic situation was brought about not as punishment, but to attempt to intensify her relationship with God, in the hope she would now raise a Godly seed.

21:16 She went and sat down opposite him, a good way off, about a bow shot away. For she said, Let me not see the death of the child. She sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept- Her voice of weeping was heard as "the voice of the boy" (:17). Ishmael was about to die and had likely lost consciousness. Our prayers can be heard as the prayers of others, which is how the Lord's prayer intercession for us is described in Rom. 8. The language however is similar to how God heard Israel's cry in Egypt. The cry of distress at a situation is read by God as prayer; it is our inner spirit or attitude which is read as prayer (Rom. 8). This is comfort for those who feel they cannot well verbalize things in prayer. God hears the spirit of our situation rather than the verbalization.

 21:17 God heard the voice of the boy- As noted on :16, the voice or situation of someone is heard by God as if it is their prayer; and there is also the possibility that the prayer of another for us, in this case Hagar (:16), is read as prayer by God.

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- The fact we read a phrase like "the Angel of elohim" here suggests that individual angels can be messengers of other Angel-elohim, and that there is a degree of hierarchy in the Heavenly organization.

21:18 Get up, lift up the boy, and hold him in your arm. For I will make him a great nation- Ishmael was  around 16 or 17. The lifting up was therefore the language of sacrifice- for that is the idiom used for sacrifice and prayer. Again we see a parallel with Isaac, whose parent was also commanded to lift up his beloved son to God. As she looked into the eyes of her helpless, dying son, probably unconscious or delirious, it would have seemed such a juxtaposition with such a great promise. And so it was with the promise repeated to the helpless baby Isaac. But we are brought to know our weakness, that God's grace might be the more revealed. As discussed above, we see here how the passionate prayer of the mother for her delinquent, punk, abusive son was still answered. The young man is described as a boy or child, perhaps because we are being given the perspective of how his mother saw him. Yoour suffering adult child is always 'your little boy'. And thereby we again sense the sympathy of God for Hagar.

21:19 God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, filled the bottle with water, and gave the boy drink- See on Ps. 119:18. I suggested on :15 that travel in the desert was done by moving from well to well, rather like a light aircraft flies between beacons. The Bedouins only carry as much water as is required until they reach the next well. Hagar had apparently missed her way; or more likely, the Angel had closed her eyes from seeing the well, which is why when her eyes were "opened" she immediately saw the well.

21:20 God was with the boy, and he grew. He lived in the wilderness, and as he grew up he became an archer- We read in :22 that God was also "with" Abraham. We are being taught that Ishmael was potentially just as much within the covenant purpose of God. God was not against Ishmael, the record really emphasizes this. Despite Abraham having other sons by Keturah, Ishmael and Isaac are mentioned as his sons in 1 Chron. 1:28. He was circumcised, part of the covenant; God was with him; but Ishmael chose the way of his mother and stepped out of the purpose of God, resigning, effectively, the covenant relationship into which he was born.

21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran. His mother took a wife for him out of the land of Egypt- Hagar was an Egyptian, and when she fled from Sarah in Gen. 16 she began on the road back there. And she takes a wife for her son from there. Egypt clearly represents the world; she was driven out from association with the Abraham family, thanks to Sarah's awfully wrong attitude, but failed to hold on to the covenant which Ishmael had been given.

21:22 It happened at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his army spoke to Abraham, saying, God is with you in all that you do- Sarah has effectively tried to kill Hagar and her son Ishmael as she did in chapter 16, apparently because of the teenage Ishmael mocking the baby Isaac. Whilst this incident is symbolic of the persecution of the righteous by the wicked (Gal. 4:29), this in no way justifies Sarah's behaviour. And yet straight after this shameful business, God blesses Abraham in all that he does, and Sarah would have benefitted from this. Clearly material blessing is not related to spirituality.

21:23 Now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son. But according to the kindness that I have done to you, you shall do to me, and to the land in which you have lived as a foreigner- Abimelech had first encountered Abraham when he lied about Sarah, and Abimelech reproved him for his immorality. It must've been a strange experience- to begin relationship with this man realizing he was a hypocrite and didn't walk his talk, and yet coming to see that God was with this man. Abimelech is presented as a God fearer, contrary to what Abraham initially thought. He saw through the weakness of God's representatives, as we should, and came to perceive that this one true God is characterized by grace- working with and blessing those who were not worthy of it.

21:24 Abraham said, I will swear- This is the first time this Hebrew word for "swear" is used, and we will now read an unusually elaborate ritual of 'sevening' or swearing, involving seven lambs to represent the 'sevening'. This swearing to a covenant was to be kept carefully and seriously. It was to set Abraham up for God 'swearing' to him in even more solemn terms that the promises to Abraham would really come true (Gen. 22:16). God likewise uses circumstances in our lives in order to prepare us for the next stage in our lives.

21:25 Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a water well, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away- Earlier, Abimelech had rightly reproved Abraham for what he had done wrong in deceiving Abimelech about Sarah. Perhaps psychologically, Abraham wanted to get equal with Abimelech, although again, as in the incident with Sarah, Abimelech has sinned in ignorance. The similarities point up a comparison between the two which consistently leaves Abimelech in the more positive light. And yet Abraham was the one whom God chose.


21:26 Abimelech said, I don’t know who has done this thing. You didn’t tell me, neither did I hear of it, until today- As noted on :25, again Abimelech is finding himself involved in a sin of ignorance. The same Divine hand was at work in his life; and we likewise find situations repeat in life, to teach us. Abimelech's implication is: 'And why ever didn't you tell me about this matter earlier?'. This was exactly what he said to Abraham regarding the deception over Sarah. Abimelech must have had the impression that Abraham was a strange, furtive guy, somewhat lacking in integrity; and yet the God of all grace was strangely with him. See on :23.

21:27 Abraham took sheep and cattle, and gave them to Abimelech. Those two made a covenant- One can't help but notice that God stressed to the later children of Abraham that since they had a covenant with Him, they were not to make covenants with the people who lived around them in the land- time and again God references His covenant with His people, and in that context tells them not to make covenants with the peoples of the land (Ex. 34:10-12,15,27; Dt. 7:29; Jud. 2:1,2,20). Yet Abraham made covenants with those very people (Gen. 14:13; 21:27,32)- perhaps indicating his lack of appreciation of his covenant relationship with Yahweh?

21:28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves- The idea was that they were separate from the two men, observing them ["by themselves"], but witnesses. Seven is the number of perfection; or perhaps he had in view the 'plural of majesty', the one great, perfect lamb. Did Abraham perceive that there was some 'perfect lamb', perhaps his future promised seed, who would be the ultimate witness between men?

21:29 Abimelech said to Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which you have set by themselves?- This way of swearing was unknown to Abimelech and the surrounding culture. As noted on :24, Abraham had thought up a new ceremony in order to emphasize the gravity and utter dependability of his 'swearing'; and this was then used by God in Gen. 22:16, to show Abraham that now God Himself was going to 'swear' to Abraham.

 21:30 He said, You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand, that it may be a witness to me, that I have dug this well- As noted on :31, to seven oneself was to swear, and Beer Sheba was literally the well of the sevens. This was perhaps the reason for the seven lambs. For the meaning of the seven lambs, see on :28.

21:31 Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because they both swore there- Literally, the well of the sevens; to seven oneself was to swear.

21:32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Abimelech rose up with Phicol, the captain of his army, and they returned into the land of the Philistines- The sober gravity of this covenant was to prepare Abraham for the wonder of God making a covenant with him in the next chapter.

21:33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and called there on the name of Yahweh, the Everlasting God- AV "grove". The idea was of a roofless temple; and the tamarisk was hard and had evergreen leaves and plants growing on it, rather like mistletoe. Groves of such trees were typically associated with idol worship. We note that Abraham didn't build an altar for worship, but rather this grove; and we wonder whether he was not mixing Yahweh worship with idolatry, as Jacob and his family also did.

21:34 Abraham lived as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines many days- I noted on Gen. 20:1 that Abraham is described as both living temporarily, and yet also permanently dwelling. No matter how stable our living place may appear, even if we lived in the house we were born in all our lives, it is still a passing through, as a foreigner, just temporarily- because the true permanence is yet to come, when the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. And no matter how long Abraham lived in an area, even for "many days", he "lived as a foreigner", just as we should, realizing that we are only passing through.