As we come to Genesis 21 this morning I want first to remind you again of whose story this is. We think of these chapters—from Chapter 12 to Chapter 25—as the story of Abraham, but fact is that the Bible isn’t the story of any man or women, it’s ultimately God’s story. The whole Bible is God’s story: his revelation of himself to sinful men and women who have rejected him; his revelation of himself so that those who rejected him might once again know him; his revelation of himself and his offer of redeeming grace through the offering of his own Son; and ultimately his revelation to us of his glory that we might give him the glory he is due. Sometimes we see the way in which the biblical writers tell a certain story or we see several accounts, one after another, and we wonder what they have to do with each other. Genesis 21 is one of those places, but when we remember that this is God’s story, not Abraham’s, it gives us the perspective we need to understand.
The first part of Chapter 21 runs from verse 1 to verse 7. For eight chapters we’ve been hearing God make promises to Abraham that he will be a great nation. As the time has passed we’ve seen God make that promise more and more specific, going from childless Abraham becoming a great nation; to making it clear that the child will not be the son of Hagar, the slave woman, but the son of Abraham’s true wife, Sarah; and finally we saw God visit Abraham and Sarah and make the promise in person that within a year he would return, that they would have a son, and that he would be named Isaac.
In verse 1, God visits again. This time he visits Sarah. There’s significance in the word “visit”. When God “visits”, it’s a Hebrew way of saying that God is taking a special interest in someone. God visits to bring judgement and he visits to bring salvation. In Exodus 4, God visits Israel in order to save her from her Egyptian slavery. In Jeremiah 29, God promises that he will visit his people to rescue them from their Babylonian exile.
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7)
Everything’s that was promised is here: Sarah conceives and bears a son; Abraham names him Isaac, meaning “laughter”; when the boy is eight days old, Abraham circumcises him in accordance with God’s command. We know the boy is going to be raised as a child of God’s covenant. And we see Sarah bursting into song as she declares her joyful laughter over the son born to this poor, barren woman in her old age.
And yet the account of Isaac’s birth is so short. The story has been leading up to this for eight chapters—and that’s not to mention that ever since Chapter 3 we’ve been waiting for the “seed of the woman”, whom God promised would crush the head of the serpent. We know Isaac has something to do with that promise. And as Christians we know that the birth of Isaac is one of the lynchpins in the history of redemption. Through him will come the Jewish nation and, more specifically the king in the line of David, the Saviour himself. Eight chapters lead us up to the birth of Isaac, but only seven verses report the miracle itself. It seems kind of anticlimactic.
But remember, this isn’t Abraham’s story or Sarah’s story or Isaac’s story. It’s God’s story. It’s his revelation of himself and from that perspective it’s not so much baby Isaac who is important, but God’s demonstration of his covenant faithfulness. Notice what these verses focus on: not once, not twice, but three times we’re told here that God did as he had said or did as he had promised. And both Abraham and Sarah respond to the birth by affirming the fulfilment of God’s promise. In faith, Abraham circumcises his son, demonstrating his trust in God’s covenant promises. In joyful praise Sarah, who was for so long a doubter of God’s word, now affirms that all this has happened just as God had promised. And the details—even if they aren’t as elaborate as we might expect—underscore that all this has happened just as God said it would. Again, the point of the story is God’s faithfulness. This is what you and I need to hear. God offers us a promise of redemption from our sins if we will only take hold of that promise by faith. These stories of his faithfulness in the past underscore that our faith is not blind; we take hold of faith today because God has demonstrated since the very beginning of his story that what he promises he always brings to pass.
We see more of this as the story now jumps ahead two or three years and shifts to Hagar and Ishmael. We move to another act, new players walk onto the stage, but the story is the same: God’s faithfulness. Look now at verses 8 to 10.
And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
Children then were usually weaned at about two or three years of age. Infant mortality was high and this was a time for celebration; the child had lived through infancy. Isaac was now officially Abraham’s heir apparent. But where does this leave Ishmael? He’s now about fifteen or sixteen years old. He was raised by Abraham as his heir. Until Isaac came along, Abraham had assumed that Ishmael was the child of promise. The story now turns to Ishmael. The ESV says that Sarah saw him “laughing”. It would be better to translate the passage as saying that Ishmael was mocking Isaac. It’s a different stem (or form) of the same verb we’ve seen all along—the one for laughter and the one that makes up the name “Isaac”—but in this form it has the negative sense of “mocking”. While everyone celebrates the boy named laughter, Ishmael laughingly mocks him. It looks like Ishmael’s figured out that he’s going to be missing out on his inheritance because of his little brother.
Sarah sees Ishmael mocking her son and goes to Abraham, demanding that Hagar and her son be cast out. It’s true that Ishmael is an obstacle in the way of God’s promise. Just as Lot was an obstacle to God’s promise of the land to Abraham, Ishmael is an obstacle to the promise that Isaac would be the great nation descended from Abraham. And yet that doesn’t seem to be why Sarah is upset. Some it is surely the defensiveness of a mother who sees her little boy being treated badly, but there seems to be a good measure of jealousy here too. This family isn’t big enough for her son and Hagar’s son; one of them has to go. And yet even though Sarah is acting spitefully, God uses the situation to deal with the obstacle blocking the fulfilment of his promise.
And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. (Genesis 21:11-14)
As we see Abraham’s response to Sarah it underscores the reality that Ishmael is a threat to the promise. Abraham doesn’t want to send him away. As much as he surely loves Isaac, he also loves Ishmael and had raised him for thirteen years believing he was the son God had promised. And so even though Sarah’s heart isn’t in the right place, God tells Abraham to do what she says. That’s saying something, because Ishmael himself is the result of Abraham listening to his wife when he shouldn’t have. Now, to remove Ishmael as an obstacle to the covenant, God tells Abraham to do as his wife tells him. He assures Abraham that even though Ishmael is not the son promised and that he needs to go, he will still bless him and make him a great nation.
The next morning Abraham gives Hagar water and food and legally gives her the boy. The language used shows Abraham’s compassion for Hagar as he not only gives her what she will need to survive on her journey, but he hangs the waterskin on her should himself. The Hebrew word used here as Abraham “sent her away” doesn’t have the sense of him angrily casting her out. It’s a word used when a master frees his slave and sends him out in the world after generously providing for him. And Abraham’s giving Ishmael to her, his putting his son in her care, suggests that he’s giving her a divorce. Legal documents and law codes we have from that period prohibit a first wife from expelling the children of a second wife. This would explain why Sarah had to appeal to Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. One of those law codes also stipulates that the son of a slave-woman who is freed loses his claim to inherit from his father. In directing Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, God is removing yet another obstacle that stood in the way of his promise. Again, despite human sin, God is faithful.
But remember, too, that this isn’t the first time God has made promises to Abraham about Ishmael. When the announcement came, back in Chapter 17, that Isaac was to be born, Abraham’s first thought was for Ishmael. Look now at verses 15 and 16:
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
In verse 14 we were told that Hagar departed and wandered in the wilderness. That she wandered tells us that she was lost. Now we read that her water has run out. The wilderness around Beersheba borders on the northernmost part of the Arabian Desert. This wasn’t a good place to be lost without water. She and Ishmael are on the point of collapse. She helps him to lie down in the shade of a bush, but can’t stand to hear her son’s anguished cries so she goes just far enough away that she can still see him, but can’t hear his cries. She sits there weeping and waiting for death. But look at verses 17 to 21:
And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Ishmael cried out and God heard. It may be that Ishmael repented his tormenting of Isaac and God heard him. Whatever was going through Ishmael’s mind as he lay dying of thirst, God heard his cries. Why Ishmael and not Hagar? Hagar was a victim of circumstance. It was Ishmael who had mocked little Isaac. It was Ishmael experiencing the reality of God’s promise to Abraham: “Him who dishonours you I will curse.” It was Ishmael who had got them into this mess and so it is to his cries that God listens. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Ishmael’s sins were what caused him to be sent away and it’s now his prayers that bring God’s salvation. It’s a reminder to us that God never plugs his ears to the prayers of those who are penitent. But in Ishmael’s case, God still has promises to fulfil and that’s the key to the story. God hears his prayer and comes to Hagar. He reassures her. He tells her to “fear not”. He assures her that Ishmael is not going to die, but that he will become a great nation, just as he had promised her all those years before. And then he opens her eyes and directs her gaze to a well that had been there all along, but that she’d been unable to see. On the verge of death, God restores life. Then we’re told how the boy grew up in the wilderness, becoming a great hunter.
The story is so similar to the events describes in Chapter 16, when Hagar ran away from Sarah, that some Bible scholars have argued that these are simply two different accounts of the same event. It makes more sense, however, to understand the similarities as underscoring the fact that what we read here in Chapter 21 is the fulfilment of the promises that had been made to Hagar in Chapter 16. What God promised God now brings to pass and the storyteller makes this clear to us by presenting both the promise and the fulfilment in parallel so that we can see how each part of the promise is fulfilled. Again, the point isn’t Hagar and Ishmael being sent out to fend for themselves; the point is the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises.
We see this theme again in the last section of the chapter. We started with the birth of Isaac, then we read about Hagar and Ishmael; the second story naturally follows the first. But in the next scene Abimelech, the king of Gerar, is suddenly back on stage. What does Abimelech have to do with Isaac or Ishmael? Again, remember that this is God’s story. Look at verses 22 to 24:
At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
In the last chapter we saw Abimelech give Abraham leave to setup camp anywhere he desired within his territory. He’s now had several years to watch and observe Abraham and his family. His relationship started out with the clear message from God that Abraham was special, but Abimelech and his military commander have now seen God’s blessing in Abraham’s life, perhaps especially in the miraculous birth of Isaac. Maybe Abimelech has even heard the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Whatever it was that Abimelech had seen or heard, he affirms that God is with Abraham in all things and so he approaches Abraham to establish a treaty of some kind. It sounds as though Abimelech has developed a healthy respect for the God who was able to close and open all the wombs in his house. And so he asks Abraham—who is clearly backed by a powerful God—to deal as kindly with him as he had dealt with him. Abraham agrees to a treaty or covenant between the two of them, but first there’s a little matter that Abimelech needs to address.
When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines.
Beersheba wasn’t quite desert, but it was very dry. Water was important, especially when you consider that Abraham was a shepherd. When Abimelech’s men had—unbeknownst to Abimelech—stolen the well Abraham had dug, Abraham had borne the wrong silently, but since Abimelech now wants a treaty, Abraham brings the problem to his attention. Abimelech makes everything right and the two men come to an agreement that ends with Abraham essentially making payment for his own well, just to be sure that there could be no further disputes over it.
What’s the point of the story? First, it highlights the fact that Abraham is still a sojourner in the land of promise. It’s not his. Even when he digs a well in territory in which he has the king’s blessing to live and to care for his flocks and herds, the king’s men steal it from him. And yet even though God hasn’t yet given Abraham ownership of the promised land, we see that he’s still taking care of Abraham. Abimelech may be a pagan, but he’s a God-fearing pagan who has seen Abraham’s God at work and wants to live at peace with Abraham and his God. John Sailhamer writes, “The picture of Abraham in exile is exemplary of God’s caring for the righteous who must suffer while waiting to enter the land.” Consider the encouragement that these stories gave to the Israelites who first heard them as they camped in the wilderness of Sinai, waiting for God to lead them into the promised land. Think of what these stories meant to the Jews who collected and edited them in, more or less, the form we have them today as they sat in exile by the waters of Babylon. These were people without a home and yet they lived in hope because they could trust in the God who had promised them a home. They could trust in the God who had been the hope of Abraham: who had promised him a legacy of nationhood and land and made good on it.
Brothers and sisters, consider what these stories mean to us. We too live as exiles awaiting a future hope in a home we have yet to see. We catch glimpses of it in the Scriptures, we catch glimpses of it as we live our common life together in Christ Jesus, and we catch a glimpse of it every Sunday as we gather at the Lord’s Table for a foretaste of the great marriage feast that awaits us, but the reality and the consummation of our hope—that day when faith becomes sight—is still future for us. Life in exile is difficult. It’s full of pain and tears as we struggle with the workd the flesh, and the devil; but like Abraham, like those newly freed Israelite slaves, and like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, we can live in hope, we can live the reality of Jesus Christ here and now, because we have God’s promises and we have history itself to demonstrate that our God keeps his promises. Notice what Abraham did after Abimelech left. Look at verses 33 and 34:
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
A tamarisk tree was very practical. They can grow six to nine metres high and are good for shade. The livestock can graze on the leaves and the wood was often used to make charcoal. More importantly, in the religious thought of Abraham’s day, the tamarisk was thought to have purifying qualities and was associated with cosmic stability. With that in mind, planting the tree was for Abraham something much like building an altar. God had made his promise of a son and of the land that much more sure and so Abraham planted a life giving tree symbolic of the very things he associated with God. And there it says he called on the name of the Lord. As we’ve seen before, to call on the name of the Lord is to worship him: to give him praise, to thank him for his provision, and to walk in trust. And at this point, having received an ever-growing down payment on God’s promises, there under a tree that represented cosmic stability, Abraham worships God as ?l ôl?m, as God Who Endures. We see a similar form used by Isaiah (40:28), for whom it refers to the God who holds history, the nations, and the destiny of his people in his hands. The God Who Endure is the God of Genesis 1, the God of the Sabbath, the God who established the cosmos as his temple and has taken up his Sabbath rest in that temple, keeping all things in order and providentially seeing that all things work according to his plan and for his glory. That’s the God Who Endures. And so while we’re told that Abraham sojourned for many days in this land held by the Philistines—a land not his own—he worshipped God in hope of the promised life to come. God’s promises weren’t completely fulfilled—in fact their fulfilment was centuries away—but Abraham lived his life in faith that they would be. Dear friends, you and I are called to live the same way. God has promised us a hope and a future with him. On the day of Pentecost he gave his people his own Holy Spirit as a down payment on his promise. We have yet to be resurrected, but in the meantime he has given us new life through his Son and empowered us by his indwelling Spirit. Someday that promise will be fulfilled. That day could come in a year or ten thousand years; we don’t know. But consider that Abraham had no idea that the fulfilment of God’s promise to him would come to full fruit in Jesus more than a thousand years later, but he had faith anyway. By faith he lived the life God had called him to live. We too can live by that same faith as we live out the new life God has given—as we live in holiness, as we exhort one another to love and to good works, and as we proclaim the Gospel message until our Lord returns.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we asked in the collect that you would stir up the wills of your faithful people, that we might produce abundantly the fruit of good works. Strengthen our faith, strengthen our trust in your promise, open our eyes to life you have given, let us see the life-giving wells we’ve been blind to, that we might walk in the new life you have given and do great things to build your kingdom as we await the coming of our Lord, through whom we ask all things. Amen.