< June 22, 2008 >

Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21

 

This continuation of Genesis 21:1-7 describes the conflict in Abraham's family caused by Isaac's birth.

When Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her son Isaac, she realizes the tenuous nature of Isaac's claim on the promise. Even though the acquiring of a son for Abraham through her Egyptian slave, Hagar, had been Sarah's idea (Genesis 16), she now regrets her suggestion and demands that Abraham cast them out. But God intervenes and eases Abraham's anguish at expelling his son. In the parallel, second half of the story, God eases Hagar's anguish at having to abandon her son and promises that Ishmael will become a great nation.

The story is carefully arranged to display the parallels between Abraham and Hagar:

A Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael out of the house (vv. 9-10)
B Abraham's anguish (v. 11)
C God intervenes (vv. 12-13)
D Hagar and Ishmael in wilderness of Beer-Sheba (v. 14)
A' Hagar casts Ishmael under a shrub (v. 15)
B' Hagar's anguish (v. 16)
C' God intervenes (vv. 17-19)
D' Hagar and Ishmael in wilderness of Paran (vv. 20-21)


Genesis 21:9-14 God comforts Abraham
The interpretation of these verses depends upon the answer to the question, "What was Ishmael actually doing?" Several possibilities have been suggested:

1.Perhaps Ishmael's "play" was what we might term "rough housing," and Sarah was afraid for her young son's safety. This makes Sarah's "solution" of driving mother and son into the wilderness, probably to die, even more appalling.

2.Some hear sexual overtones in the word "playing." Was 15-year-old Ishmael abusing little Isaac? The NRSV has added the words "with her son Isaac" on the basis of some ancient texts (but not the Hebrew Bible), possibly as a result of such an interpretation. Without these added words, Ishmael might be engaging in sexual activity ("playing around") with other members of the extended household.

3.Paul, following some rabbinic traditions, thinks Ishmael is "persecuting" Isaac (Galatians 4:29).

4.We are used to reading the verb translated "playing" in verse 9 as "laughing." This has been a key word in the Isaac stories because "Isaac" itself comes from this word. We might literally translate "playing," however; as "Isaacing," that is, Sarah saw Ishmael "playing the part of Isaac," pretending to take Isaac's place as heir of the promises.

Certainty is impossible, but the view that Ishmael was pretending to be Isaac and usurping his future role would explain Sarah's actions.

Sarah's demand that Hagar and "her son" (Ishmael is never referred to by name in these verses!) be cast out offends our sense of justice (v. 10). In her culture, however, she was within her rights as the primary wife, now that her own son had survived the early years of life. By expressing her demand in the words of God's earlier promise to Abraham (15:4) she effectively justifies her terrible demand.

In verses 11-14, the depth of Abraham's pain is seen in a literal reading: "the thing was very evil in the eyes of Abraham" (v. 11). Possibly, the word "evil" means that Abraham thought Sarah's request was somehow unethical or illegal. But Abraham's earlier love and affection for his firstborn son seems more likely. More surprising to our ears is his apparent lack of feeling for the plight of Hagar. The text only lists his feelings for "his son" as a reason for his great distress. The lack of sensitivity to the plight of Hagar by both Abraham and Sarah is curiously dealt with in God's response (vv. 12-13). Like Sarah, God refers to Ishmael as "the boy/the son of the slave woman" avoiding his name. But unlike Abraham, God attributes Abraham's distress to his feelings of affection for both Ishmael and his mother.

An important part of this text is God's promise to Abraham that though Isaac is the principle heir, God will not leave Ishmael and his mother in the lurch (v. 13). They, too, will receive blessing by becoming a great nation. And all because of God's faithfulness to the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.

Genesis 21:15-21 God comforts Hagar
Just as Abraham had reluctantly cast out Hagar and her son, so now in the mirror image of our story, Hagar is forced to cast her son under a bush (v. 15) The word for "cast" is interesting for the parallel with verses 9-10, but only in the NRSV. This Hebrew word is also used to describe the "casting" of Joseph into a pit by his jealous brothers (Gen 37:20, 22, 24). The fact that texts like Joshua 8:29 use this word in reference to burial practices suggests that Hagar truly believed her son was about to die a horrible death by dehydration.

Again, like Abraham before her, Hagar is distressed over the plight of her son and cannot bear to hear his cries (v. 16). But just as with Abraham, God hears their cries and comforts Hagar with the same reassurance of future nationhood for her son that eased Abraham's distress. And just as Abraham had provided her with a skin of water, God provided a well of water (vv. 17-19).

Though Ishmael's name does not appear in this story, the story is all about Ishmael's name. Genesis 16:11 reminds us that Ishmael means "God will hear" in Hebrew. That is certainly the case, here.

Just as the story in verses 9-14 had ended with Hagar and her son wandering in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, so this paired story concludes with mother and child in the wilderness of Paran, the region between Egypt and Canaan, where Ishmael becomes a nomadic hunter.


The parallels in the telling of this story suggest that God is not only concerned with the chosen people of Abraham's descendants. In God's initial statement of the promise, the purpose behind the choice of Abraham was revealed, namely, that in Abraham "all the families of the earth shall be blessed," (Genesis 12:3b). The promise comes through Isaac, but there is blessing enough for all!