DIG: From Sarah’s perspective, why must Hagar and Ishmael be sent away? From God’s perspective? How is Abraham’s distress due to past mistakes? How did God use human emotions to further His plan? How did God help Ishmael, even though he was not the son God had promised Abraham? Why is Ishmael's name never actually used in this section, but only references like, the son, her son, or her son or the boy?
REFLECT: Who, like Hagar or Ishmael, is the one with whom you don’t get along? How are you handling the discord? What can you do to change the situation? Is there something or someone you need to separate yourself from? Like Hagar, where do you need God’s comforting in your life?
Isaac had brought so much joy to Abraham and Sarah. It seemed the laughter that had filled their household would go on forever. The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast (21:8). The weaning was regarded as a joyous occasion, as we find with Samuel, who on being weaned was taken by his mother to the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Children were weaned between the ages of two or three in those days. But in the midst of the laughter, apparently, Hagar and Ishmael were almost forgotten. By this time Ishmael was in his mid teens, probably around sixteen years old (16:15-16). One person’s cause for joy is another’s cause for resentment.
Anger welled up in Ishmael as he saw Isaac become the center of attention. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking Isaac (21:9). The animosity of Hagar toward Sarah had been instilled in Ishmael toward Isaac. The rabbis teach that Sarah assumed that Ishmael’s mocking was the echo of what he had heard from his mother. The Hebrew word for Isaac or laughter, yitzchak, and the Hebrew word for mocking, metzachek, have the same root. Literally, it means he was isaacing Isaac. He was not playing with Isaac as some have suggested. In the New Testament, Paul says he persecuted him, or pursued him with hostility (Galatians 4:28-31). Children often do this to each other. The problem here was that Ishmael, who was around sixteen years old, was mocking Isaac, who was two to three years old. Metzachek is found several times in Genesis where it is used in the negative sense of ridicule (19:14, 39:14 and 17). It is interesting that Ishmael’s name is absent from this entire section. He is referred to as the son, his son, her son, or the boy, but never Ishmael. It is as if he was not even there, and as far as being the son of promise, he was absent from the mind of God.
Up to this point Ishmael seemed to be a pretty nice young man, but now, with the birth of Isaac, he revealed his true character. The prophecy of the Angel of the Lord would begin to be fulfilled. He would live in hostility toward his brother; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him (16:13a). As he displayed aggression, he would bring retaliation upon himself. Consequently, Sarah, in all her humanness, had been pushed too far and demanded that Abraham get rid of, or drive out, that slave woman and her son. Her concern was one of inheritance. The Code of Hammurabi said that the son of a slave woman had a legal claim on the father’s inheritance. But even knowing that, Sarah said that Hagar and Ishmael had to go, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac (21:10). This same verb, garas, is used to describe Adam being driven out of the Garden (3:24), and Cain being driven out of the presence of the Lord (4:14). Sarah couldn’t even bear to call Hagar by name. She just referred to her as that slave woman. But most importantly, she didn’t want Ishmael to receive any portion of the spiritual inheritance that was rightfully Isaac’s. The whole situation was a tangled web of jealousy, anger and malice that bore bad fruit.
Abraham was a kind and generous man; however, this matter distressed him greatly because it concerned his son Ishmael (21:11). But, Elohim, the God of righteousness, made it clear to Abraham that He was not going to accept Ishmael as the son of promise. It was not possible for the two families to live together. In His sixth of seven appearances to Abraham (12:1-7, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-21, 18:1-33, here and 22:1-18), God said: Do not be distressed about the boy and your maidservant (21:12a). In every age God’s message to His people has been: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God (John 14:1). He said further: Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned (21:12b). Without a doubt Ishmael’s presence in the home would have made it extremely difficult to fulfill God’s purposes for Isaac. There could be no doubt about it, Ishmael had to go. Discipleship always involves discipline, and discipline is always necessary for spiritual blessing. God was taking the tangled threads of Abraham’s life, weaving them into His own Divine pattern, and overriding everything for good. Happy for us if, like the Apostle Paul, we can rely on the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Romans 11:33)!343
As Abraham’s son, Ishmael would receive his own special blessings from God (17:18), but he would not, and never could have been, the child of promise. After Sarah’s death, Abraham would have six other sons by a new wife, Keturah (25:1-2); but like Ishmael, none of those could have been the child of promise. Later, Paul would quote Moses and say: It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned (Romans 9:7-9).344 However, Muslims teach that it is through Ishmael that the promises of God are fulfilled. But the Apostle Paul teaches the spiritual lesson that as far as salvation goes, between law and grace, the flesh and the spirit cannot coexist (Galatians 4:21-31). Paul argues that those who are born after the flesh, are the spiritual descendants of Hagar, great in number but nevertheless under the Law, and they seek salvation through the impossible task of making sinful flesh keep the Law of God. The Law speaks of God’s Covenant with Moses, a conditional covenant, given on Mount Sinai in Arabia where Ishmael lived.
Those who are to share in God’s heavenly promises, centered in Jerusalem, are children of faith, like Isaac. The Law can never give life; but God’s promise, received by faith, gives eternal life. These children of faith are not in bondage to God’s covenant with Moses, whose terms are impossible to obey. But they are under God’s covenant with Abraham, given unconditionally and appropriated solely by faith in the promises. Those who live by faith are free, like Sarah. However, those who live by the flesh are slaves, like Hagar.345 Therefore, they cannot coexist; when Isaac showed up, Ishmael had to go!
But because Ishmael was Abraham’s son, Elohim, the God of creation, would make him into a nation also. He need not worry that Hagar and Ishmael would die in the desert. God said: I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also because he is your offspring (21:13). Ishmael would benefit from the blessing aspect of God’s covenant with Abraham, and Abraham showed no signs of rebellion.
As painful as it was to do, he did not procrastinate. Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. Her lack of remorse is striking. It was an ancient Egyptian custom for the women to carry burdens on their shoulders, so he set the food and the skin of water on her shoulders and then sent her off with their son (21:14a). In view of Abraham’s wealth, this wasn’t very much to send off with them. But Abraham had faith that God would take care of them. He knew that no matter how much he gave them, it would not be enough; but with God, they would not lack. Quite possibly, he knew it would be for their own good if they would quickly learn they must depend on God, and no longer on Abraham, to supply their needs. Abraham loved that boy and I don’t think he ever saw him again. Ishmael was his son and it was heartbreaking for Abraham to have to give him up. For about sixteen years he had been the joy of his life. But Hagar went on her way with Ishmael and wandered in the desert of Beersheba (21:14b). The food and the skin of water was no doubt enough to enable them to reach another settlement, had they not become lost.346
Archaeology has revealed that there were numerous settlements at this time in the vicinity of what would later become known as Beersheba, and it seems that Hagar and Ishmael set out in this direction. However, they lost their way. After wandering for some time, when the water in the skin was gone, she put her son under one of the bushes because Ishmael was at the point of death (21:15). He had probably given most of the water to his mother. Finally, he fell down. Unable to continue, Hagar went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought to herself: I cannot watch my son die. And as she sat there nearby, she began to pray and sob (21:16). God brought them to the point where they could no longer continue in their own strength. They, like Abraham, would need to learn to trust Him.
Then God heard Ishmael crying and the Angel of God, the preincarnate Christ, called to Hagar from heaven. This is the second time that the preincarnate Christ had rescued Hagar. Earlier, when she ran out into the desert because of her mistreatment at the hand of Sarai, He found Hagar near a spring in the desert (16:7a). There, He was called the Angel of the Lord, the redeemer, because she was still under the roof and protection of Abraham. Here, He is called the Angel of God, the Elohim of creation and destruction, because Hagar was then a foreigner to the covenant of promise (Ephesians 2:12). But He is the God of all mankind, and he graciously said to her: What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there (21:17). Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink (21:19).
He said: Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation (21:18). And God would fulfill His promise, because He was with the boy as he grew up. Ishmael provided for himself and his mother by becoming an archer as they lived in the desert (21:20). This is not a positive portrayal in Genesis; Nimrod also became a mighty hunter before the Lord (10:8-9).
While he was living in the Desert of Paran, a desert region in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt, the idolatrous land of her upbringing (21:21). She became so identified with this region that Paul would say of her: Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia (Galatians 4:25). Obtaining a wife for a son is still the common practice in the Near East. Genesis 10 tells us that the Egyptians were descendants of Ham, who were anti-Semitic, which only adds to the antagonism that was already there. At this point Ishmael drops out of the picture until we learn of his death after bearing twelve sons (25:12-18). But the great nation that God had promised had begun.
In a sense, Ishmael was a symbol of Abraham’s and Sarah’s lack of faith. God knew that they should have faithfully waited for the promised son. However, when Ishmael was conceived, God did not angrily reject him and toss him aside. Instead, God loved the boy and agreed to bless Him. When our frail faith results in costly mistakes, God can turn our penitent regret into blessing for His own purposes.347
The Muslims teach that Abraham took Ishmael and Hagar and made a new settlement in Mecca, called Paran, because of a divine instruction given to Abraham as a part of God’s plan. They teach that Hagar ran around seven times between two hills, Sofa and Marwa, looking for water; this became then an Islamic ritual for the annual Pilgrimage in Mecca by millions of Muslims from all over the world. The well of water (21:19) is still present, now called Zamzam. They also teach that both Abraham and Ishmael later built the holy stone Ka’bah in Mecca. The supposed spot where Abraham used to perform prayers near the Ka’bah is still present, now called Maqom Ibrahim, or the Station of Abraham. Therefore, during the day of Pilgrimage, Pilgrims in Mecca and Muslims all over the world commemorate the supposed offering of Abraham and Ishmael by slaughtering cattle.348