Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21
For some time now, I have wondered why the editors of Genesis give Hagar and Ishmael so much press among the stories of Abraham and Sarah.
After all, this seemingly insignificant Egyptian maid servant is barely a footnote in redemption history. You could easily tell the story of Abraham and Sarah without mentioning Hagar or by alluding to her in passing reference. Furthermore, her presence doesn’t exactly make Abraham and Sarah look good. She’s a bit of an embarrassment—the foreign slave girl, who Abraham impregnated and who gave birth to his first-born son. In fact, from Sarah’s perspective, Hagar and later Ishmael are clearly a problem to be dealt with, managed, and eventually discarded. She and her son are in the way. Hagar and Ishmael must go.
Older translations fault Ishmael for the breakdown in relationship, depicting Ishmael as mocking Isaac. According to this scenario, Sarah is safe-guarding Isaac because she recognizes that he is the one through whom God would fulfill his covenant promises. Sharing her concern for Isaac, God affirms Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.
But the word metsacheq (a word which shares the same root as the name Isaac) has a range of meanings, one of which is simply “to laugh.” It could very well be that in Genesis 21:9, Ishmael was laughing with joy, celebrating the life of his half-brother with all those gathered. After all, the text doesn’t suggest that Sarah saw anything nefarious … just that she had a sudden urge to protect Isaac’s inheritance. It could be that with Isaac having survived infancy, it was no longer necessary to keep Ishmael around as a back-up plan, and that now, he was just in the way. As the oldest son, Ishmael would have been entitled to a double-portion of the inheritance and certainly would have occupied pride of place among Abraham’s sons. As such, Sarah’s focus seems to be on safeguarding Isaac’s power and privilege, not necessarily his well-being or safety.
But what are God’s motivations, then? Why does God affirm Sarah’s request to send Hagar and Ishmael away if her motivations are less than noble? The text does not tell us. However, based on God’s attention and care for Hagar in Genesis 16 and Hagar and Ishmael in verses 15-21 of this chapter, it seems clear that God isn’t simply trying to dispose of them, get them out of the way. In their distress, God heard their cries and provided the means for their survival. Thus, even though Ishmael isn’t the child who would carry forward God’s covenant promises, God has a plan for Hagar and for Ishmael. They would also become a great nation, much like Isaac. And God would be with them (verse 21). By God’s grace and intervention, Hagar and Ishmael would survive, even thrive and flourish.
According to some ancient near Eastern conventions, Abraham either had to claim the son born to his slave girl as his own, or give him his freedom. It seems likely that this is what is going on here. Abraham wants to claim Ishmael as his son (verse 12). But God has other plans for Hagar and Ishmael, using the situation as an opportunity to give them their freedom. In Genesis 16, Hagar fled from the home of Abraham and Sarah, young, pregnant, alone. But the wilderness is not a kind place for a single woman, much less, a woman with child. Hagar’s survival was at risk. So God sent her home, knowing that Sarah would continue to treat her harshly. Now, however, Ishmael is grown, likely between the ages of 17-19. He is a young man, no longer dependent on his mother for basic provisions but old enough to contribute to the care of both of them. The time is right and ripe for Hagar and Ishmael to strike out on their own.
So back to the question of why include these stories among the narratives of Abraham and Sarah. What do they contribute to our understanding of God and God’s mission in the world? The main theme of the ancestral narratives in Genesis is the fulfillment of the promises God makes to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 for progeny, land, and blessing. But we would be mistaken if we believed that God only had eyes on those who were selected to be God’s chosen people. Scattered throughout the stories of God’s elect are the stories of Lot, Hagar and Ishmael, and Esau, those who have not been chosen. Yet in each case, God is very present in their lives. In fact, of Esau, Jacob declares, “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). God is not only present to Esau, but Esau, as the non-chosen, reflects the love and presence of God to his chosen brother Jacob.
These stories, then, serve as an important corrective to notions of chosenness and election among the people of God. Our chosenness as people of faith does not mean that we have a corner on God. It does not mean that God’s love and care is limited to us. What is striking about Isaac and Ishmael is that God makes the same promise to them both. They would each become a great nation. They would both experience God’s presence and blessing.
The difference between Isaac and Ishmael, then, is not so much chosenness, but calling. Isaac and his progeny were called to the task of being the means through which God would bless the nations. They were to model what a faithful relationship with God looks like, what it means to live out God’s will for his creation. They were to show and tell God’s love for the whole world, and ultimately, to participate in God’s redemptive work by being the people through whom the Messiah of the world would come.
These narratives are in Genesis to remind us of this. God loves the Hagars and Ishmaels of our world. God hears their cries, sees their suffering, and brings about their redemption. This is the gospel story. And the invitation for those of us who are God’s people is to attend to, bless, and embody God’s love and care to those outside of the community of Christian faith, particularly to those who are the most vulnerable. Just as God loves the Hagars and Ishmaels of our world, so should we.