Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21
We are accustomed to talking about the “sacrifice of Isaac,” but this story could be called the “sacrifice of Ishmael.”
The Isaac story is the topic for next week. This week, Ishmael is the focus and it is worth noting that his story in many ways mirrors (or foreshadows) the other.
Abraham has two sons. The first, the son of a slave woman, is born out of Abraham’s and Sarah’s understandable doubt that God’s promise will be fulfilled. (“God helps those who help themselves” isn’t a new concept.) The second, a miracle child, is born to them in their old age against all odds.
In Genesis 18, we hear the story of God’s impossible promise that Sarah would conceive a child in her old age. She laughed till she cried when she heard the promise, but sure enough, she conceived and bore a son and they named him “Laughter.” In this week’s reading, the miracle child is now old enough to wean, and Abraham throws a party to celebrate the occasion.
But all is not well. “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac” (Genesis 21:9). In the Hebrew, the words, “with her son Isaac” don’t appear, though the Septuagint adds that phrase. The rabbis, perhaps to soften the blow of Sarah’s and Abraham’s subsequent actions, ascribe sinister motives to Ishmael; he is jealous of his little brother and torments him. The biblical phrase, however, has no such connotation. In fact, the word translated “playing” is a pun on Isaac’s name. Ishmael is simply laughing, enjoying himself at the feast.
But Sarah does not want to see this son of a slave woman, this reminder of her own long sorrow, to inherit along with her son. Her disdain for Hagar and Ishmael are apparent in the way she refers to them: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (21:10).
Abraham does not want to do it. Ishmael is, after all, his son. But God tells Abraham to do what Sarah wants “for through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (21:12). And God reassures Abraham that Ishmael, too, will be the father of a nation.
Then, in language that foreshadows the following chapter, Abraham rises “early in the morning” (21:14; 22:3), puts food and a skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder (21:14; 22:6), and sends away his son with the boy’s mother.
It’s not the first time Hagar wanders in the wilderness. In chapter 16, pregnant, she flees a conflict with Sarah and ends up speaking with the LORD and even naming God: “A God of seeing” (16:13). This time, however, she has nowhere to turn. She has no option to return to Abraham and Sarah, so she wanders into the wilderness, to almost certain death.
This story in chapter 21 does not seem to know the genealogical notes of 16:16 and 21:5, which would make Ishmael a teenager when Isaac is born. A mother could not carry a teenager on her shoulder (21:14), nor would she be able to “cast” him under a bush (21:15) when the water runs out. Ishmael here is best understood as a young child, one who cries from thirst and fear as his mother sits a distance off, unwilling to watch as her son dies.
But for the second time in her life, Hagar is visited by God (or an angel of God; often in Genesis the line between the two is blurred). “And God heard the voice of the lad” (21:17). In Hebrew, the first few syllables of this verse are the name “Ishmael” — “God heard”. And it is the only time in the whole story that Ishmael’s name appears, as if to emphasize the meaning of that name — God hears. God hears the cries of the outcast and abandoned. God hears and has compassion.
The angel of the LORD speaks to Hagar and says what angels always say, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, though things seem hopeless. Take the child in your arms. I have heard his cries. I will save him and will make of him a great nation.
God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water nearby, just as Abraham in the next chapter will see the ram caught in the thicket (21:19; 22:13). And in both cases the seeing leads to new life for Abraham’s sons.
Ishmael grows up in the wilderness and becomes the father of a great nation, the Ishmaelites. He also becomes the father-in-law of Esau, that other overlooked son (28:9). His descendants appear a few other times in the biblical text. It is the Ishmaelites, for instance, who sell Joseph the beloved son into slavery in Egypt (37:28; 39:1). Muslim tradition, of course, claims Ishmael as the father of Islam.
But all of that will come later. For our purposes this Sunday, perhaps it is enough to note an easily overlooked phrase in the story: “and God was with the boy” (21:20). God is with the boy, this outcast son of Abraham. God is with his mother, too, an Egyptian slave woman cast out by the father of her child. It is worth noting that Hagar sees God not once, but twice, and even names God. It is a privilege not many have, not many even of the chosen people.
God’s choosing of one particular people, and one particular line of that people (Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau) is a scandalous matter for many. The scandal of election is difficult for we who value fairness and egalitarianism. And yet, that seems to be how God works in Genesis and in the rest of the Old Testament. The chosen people are called to high standards and to difficult trials (witness the story next week). They are blessed in order to be a blessing (Genesis 12:3). They are to be a “priestly kingdom” and a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). It is not an easy thing to be chosen, according to the biblical witness. It is both a privilege, and a great responsibility.
But it must also be noted that election, according to this story, does not entitle one to exclusive claim on God’s care or on God’s presence. “God was with the boy.” Jon Levenson, a Jewish scholar, puts it this way, “Ishmael is read out of the covenant but emphatically included in the promise that is larger than the covenant and preceded it.”1 God cares about and provides for this son of Abraham, too. God was with the boy.
It is easy to overlook this story of Ishmael, set as it is between the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth and the story of his (near) sacrifice. Yet, it is worth pausing and considering what Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence. As the old hymn reminds us, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves.
1 Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (Yale University Press, 1993) 102. Levenson here refers specifically to the promise in Gen. 12:2 that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a promise fulfilled in both his sons.