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Genesis 21:8-34

We return this morning to Genesis and to the 21st chapter. Last time we read the first 7 verses and now pick it up again at v. 8. Isaac had finally be born, the long awaited son had arrived and we pick up the story with his weaning.

Text Comment

v.8       Weaning took place regularly as late as three years of age in the ANE. An Egyptian document from the period speaks of the mother’s breast in the mouth of a child for three years. [Sarna, 146] In a time and place when infant mortality was high, to have survived to weaning represented an important milestone. Isaac was looking more and more the heir of his father God had promised he would be.

v.9       The key word in the opening paragraph of chapter 21, as we noticed last time, was the verb to laugh, occurring five times in the first seven verses. Now, it occurs again, but this time with a very different meaning. The form of the word used suggests mockery or snide laughter. [Waltke, 295] Sarah’s laughter was the laughter of joy, Ishmael’s at someone else’s expense. We have noticed before how deftly the biblical author reveals the facts of life in this world. Today as then, one person’s joy can so easily become the cause of another’s jealousy! [Wenham, ii, 87]

v.12     “Boy” is the translation of a word that can refer to a little child or a young man old enough to take care of himself. Ishmael was thirteen years old in 17:25 when he was circumcised and at least four years had passed since then.

v.15     Presumably Hagar set out for Egypt, her homeland, but lost her way. Had she not lost her way the supplies that Abraham had given her would have been sufficient. [Sarna, 147]

v.16     Given that Ishmael was sixteen or seventeen years of age, Hagar’s sitting down away from her son was a way of avoiding having to watch him suffer from thirst as he died of dehydration.

v.17     As we have noticed before, the Lord has plans for all people and bestows blessings on multitudes of them who do not love or trust in him. The Lord is not uninterested in any single human being! In fact, it is interesting to note that both sons of Abraham will be saved at the last minute by a voice from heaven: Ishmael here and Isaac in the next chapter. [Sarna, 148]

v.34     The last paragraph of our chapter 21 serves in a way to sum up all that has happened so far. The promised son having arrived, Abraham was now a less timid man, more confident of his place in the Promised Land. He acquired his first permanent possession, a well at Beersheba, and was recognized as an equal, if not a superior by one of the chiefs of the land. Like so many of these narrative units, it is a masterpiece of Hebrew narrative art. Both names of the principal characters, Abraham and Abimelech occur seven times. There are seven ewe lambs mentioned. And both the verb “to swear” and the name Beer-sheva contain the same Hebrew stem as the word for seven. [Sarna, 148]

We considered last time Sarah’s expression of faith and her happy recognition of her own failure of faith now that the promised baby had been born. For years she had watched other women have children; her own husband had a son by her concubine, Hagar; but she had remained barren and bereft of hope. The narrator laid emphasis on Sarah and her joyful state of mind in the few verses that begin our chapter 21. But after the years of delay, after the tension that filled the narrative over the preceding chapters that cover those years of waiting, the birth itself is reported in just a few verses and immediately the narrative descends into conflict once again. What is more, after the momentous lesson had been taught and, seemingly, had been learned – that God’s people can count on his promises no matter how unlikely circumstances may make them seem – we read not of a triumphant faith but of what seems to be jealousy, bitterness, and internecine squabbling. Is this what the miraculous power of God brings to pass?

Indeed, Abraham seems immediately and intuitively to have understood that the bitterness between Sarah and Hagar and her determination to be rid of Ishmael was indefensible. He loved Ishmael. Notice that Sarah here calls Ishmael “the son of this slave woman,” while, as we read in v. 11, to Abraham he is simply “his son.” Even if not legally his heir, he was his son and Ishmael had grown up in Abraham’s house as his son. I know something about how much fathers can love their sons!

I don’t suppose there has been a thoughtful and sympathetic reader of the Bible who has not been bothered by the fact that the Lord seems to have rewarded Sarah’s spitefulness at the expense of Hagar and Ishmael. Some of you children, as you listened to me read this chapter, wondered about that. Sarah seems to be unkind and God seems to back her up in her unkindness.

There is no doubt that Sarah’s conduct lacks grace. You can see it in the language she uses. She wouldn’t even condescend to use these peoples’ names: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son…” Surely she could have used a term less harsh than “get rid” or, literally, “drive out.” Further, she showed no concern for Hagar’s own maternal interests and instincts — after all, who more than Sarah could understand the strength of feeling with which a mother loves and protects an only child! We have just read in vv. 6 and 7 of Sarah’s great joy in being the mother of her son. Could she not of all people muster some fellow feeling for Hagar? But, what is more and what seems even worse, she seemed to have no sympathy for Abraham’s — her own husband’s — feelings for his son. He loved Ishmael, as was natural and right. He too was a son of Abraham’s old age. At first Abraham had entertained the hope that Ishmael might be his heir. In any case, v. 11 indicates that Abraham was broken hearted at the thought of saying farewell to Ishmael. He had watched his son grow up. He had hopes and dreams for his life. The thought of banishing his own son from his home, the only home he had ever had, had never occurred to this good man.

Couldn’t Sarah have said something like “Honey, I’m concerned about Hagar and Ishmael, and much as I know how you love the boy, and much as I, of all people, understand how much Hagar loves him and wants the most for him, and much as I realize that it was my idea in the first place for you to bear a child by her, I’m afraid there must now come a parting of the ways? How can we affect this parting in a way that does justice to the interests of love?” But instead we have “Get rid of that slave woman and her son…for he’s never going to get what belongs to my boy!” It makes us cringe as, apparently, it made Abraham cringe.

Verse 11 suggests that Abraham’s response to Sarah’s demand was something more than mere disappointment. One commentator refers to Abraham’s “explosive reaction” to Sarah’s demand. [Wenham, ii, 83] The narrator leaves it to our imagination how Abraham expressed his displeasure at what his wife had said. Knowing Christian husbands, as I do, I am sure he was very patient and very understanding and very sympathetic!

But then God came down on Sarah’s side! The Lord himself told Abraham to do precisely what Sarah had demanded of him. Surely this fact is the striking feature of this all too human narrative: that the Lord approved of Sarah’s plan. What are we to make of this?

Well, to begin with, we need to notice that, however unhappy we may be with Sarah’s attitude, her demand was prompted by Ishmael’s mockery of her God-given son. Ishmael was old enough to know better and, what is more, knowing how Hebrew narrative was written, how much is said in so few words, we may safely conclude that Ishmael’s mockery is mentioned precisely because it revealed the character of the boy. What is more, we already read back in chapter 16 that Hagar had manifested a very similar attitude. As soon as her son was born, she looked down upon her mistress Sarah, still childless, with contempt. In other words, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Ishmael had formed a contemptuous attitude toward the rest of the family from observing his mother. Ishmael was making fun, apparently cruel fun, over the fuss being made over this three year old boy at his weaning. He had no appreciation of the fact that this was a very special boy, granted miraculously to an aged father and mother or that Isaac was God’s own gift to them. The impression is so strong as to be virtually unavoidable that Ishmael was giving vent to real hatred, to his jealousy of this boy whom he now knew was going to supplant him as the apple of his father’s eye.

Further, we are not to suppose that Sarah’s concern for Isaac’s place in the family was imagined and not real. Perhaps we should give Sarah the benefit of the doubt, at least to assume that she was not making a mountain out of a molehill. Clearly she thought her son’s inheritance was put in jeopardy by what she saw Ishmael doing. And now we know that the legal circumstances that prevailed in such situations, illuminated in some ancient near eastern documents unearthed and translated, were legitimate grounds for Sarah’s concern.

Whether Isaac or Ishmael would be Abraham’s heir was not determined by the simple fact that Isaac was Sarah’s son. That status depended on whether his father recognized Ishmael as his legitimate son and legal heir. Up to this point it seems clear that Ishmael would have retained some right of inheritance. After all, as you remember, it was Sarah’s plan in the first place that Ishmael should become Abraham’s heir. But God had told Abraham that he would not be and that Sarah would bear the son who would be Abraham’s heir. The law also granted the father the right to give his slave woman her freedom and freedom to the children she had born to him. If he did that, concubine and child would forfeit any share in the father’s inheritance. What Sarah was demanding – however we might have wished for a better attitude on her part – was in fact that Abraham formally recognize the situation that God himself had promised would prevail upon the birth of Isaac. Indeed, it may be to Sarah’s credit that she didn’t propose this plan for some years after her son was born and even then not until she witnessed Ishmael mocking her little boy. What Sarah did, that is, was to ask Abraham to exercise his legal right to clarify Isaac’s status as his heir by removing Ishmael from the family circle. [Sarna, 146-147] And it was this that the Lord agreed should be done.

Sarah may not have cared what happened to Hagar or Ishmael – though we may be doing her a disservice in thinking she didn’t – but God did. There is nothing of the harsh spirit of Sarah’s “Cast out this slave woman” in the Lord’s instructions to Abraham to send them away. Indeed at the time he tells him to do that he assured him with a promise that he would also make of Ishmael a great nation. So when the Lord told Abraham to send the two away, he as much as promised him in v. 13 that Ishmael would live and would become a great man. Finally, when they were in trouble in the desert, he sought them out, provided them with water, and saw to their safety. Abraham perhaps was too numb to appreciate what was being said to him, but God did, in fact, promise Abraham that no harm would come to the two. If God approved Sarah’s plan to separate Isaac and Ishmael, he certainly did not do so with a spirit of indifference or cruelty.

In any case, the Apostle Paul confirms this reading of the story, for in Galatians 4:29, commenting on this very episode, Paul writes that “the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son who was born according to the Spirit.” He means that a fundamental spiritual division is illustrated in this history, a division between those who live by faith and those who don’t, those who trust themselves to the promises of God and those who rely on themselves. Then Paul goes on to say,

“So also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman. So, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman.”

In other words, Paul sees in this history the fundamental division between faith and unbelief and between the children of God and those who are not. Sarah and Hagar are thus “types,” or a kind of picture of faith and unbelief in the world, and, in particular, faith and unbelief in the family of God. In Galatians, as you remember, Paul was fighting against teaching that had arisen in the church that was undermining the gospel of free grace. Hagar, he saw, as a type or picture of unbelieving Israel, the Jews of his day. As he put it in earlier in that same 4th chapter:

“…these two women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. …she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, [That is, of course, a reference to the Jerusalem that had rejected the Lord Jesus Christ, that had refused to welcome the Messiah when he came among them.] for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free and she is our mother.”

Sarah, in other words, stands for true believers and Hagar stands for those who though belonging in some way to the family of God nevertheless trust themselves for their peace with God, who think they deserve God’s favor though they have not submitted their hearts or their lives to him.

In any case, Ishmael showed himself here someone who did not love the God of Abraham or trust in his Word or treasure his covenant. S.G. De Graaf was a celebrated Amsterdam preacher who died in 1955. His lasting influence resulted from a great three volume work published in Dutch with the title The History of the Covenant and brought into English in four volumes with the title, Promise and Deliverance. The book is a re-telling of the Bible stories, the historical narratives of the Bible from beginning to end, but in a decidedly covenantal way. That is, De Graaf does not do what so much Sunday School material has done through the years, viz. turn the stories into simple moral lessons. Rather he sees them as disclosures of God’s plan of salvation, the revelation of the grace and judgment of God, and, especially, as the unfolding revelation of Jesus Christ our Savior.

De Graaf’s work has been influential over this last generation in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles, not only among writers of Sunday School material, but among ministers who have come to value De Graaf for his insight into how texts such as this one we are considering this morning ought to be preached, that is, what their first importance and real burden should be understood to be. I have learned a great deal from his work. I think he sometimes overstates his case and surely there are moral lessons taught in these narratives, important moral lessons, but I am sure that he is right in general. We do not understand the history of the Bible if we do not understand it as theological instruction, as teaching of the faith.

Now, I mention this because De Graaf is the only one whom I read on this passage who concerned himself with the fabulously important question: what would have happened if Ishmael had not mocked Isaac? And his answer I think immediately changes our sense of what we have read. De Graaf answers his own question this way: “If [Ishmael] had acknowledged God’s choice of Isaac as heir to the promise, he too, would have shared in the promise. But he refused to bow to God’s will. Because he wanted to be his own man, he rejected the covenant for himself.” [I, 133] “Ishmael’s struggle is the struggle of all of us when we have to acknowledge that life is not in us but in the Christ.” [131]

According to De Graaf Ishmael was old enough and well enough informed to know what God had promised and the significance of what had happened when Abraham and Sarah, two very old people, had conceived and given birth to a son. With Abraham as his father, Ishmael knew about God’s covenant with him and about what Abraham had been called to be and do as partner to God’s covenant. As Abraham’s son, Ishmael also knew what his calling was: to walk with the Lord as his father was doing. What was required of Ishmael was that “he subdue his own desires and bow to the Lord’s will…” [131] But Ishmael would not and did not do that.

Isaac was the promised seed, Ishmael wasn’t. That had to hurt at some level, but it was God’s will and that was that. It was the reality that Ishmael was called upon to accept. Isaac wasn’t simply his half-brother. He was the first of that succession that would lead to Jesus Christ and the salvation of the world. So Isaac was a kind of foretaste, a prophecy in flesh and blood of Jesus Christ himself, the promised seed. What we have in this account therefore, this account of Ishmael’s mockery of Isaac and its aftermath, is a description of Ishmael as an unbeliever, as someone who had no interest in the promises of God’s covenant, or the seed of Abraham who would eventually bring the promised salvation to the nations of the world.

This is an account, therefore, of Ishmael’s lack of faith in Christ and his indifference to God’s plan for salvation. So when Ishmael mocked Isaac and gave vent to his jealousy of Isaac, he was as much as rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ, exactly the point the apostle Paul makes of this history in Galatians 4. Paul is not stretching the point: Ishmael showed himself an opponent of the covenant, an opponent of God’s promise, and an opponent of the way of salvation in just the same way the Jews of Jesus’ day had done. He wanted to be the man; he didn’t want to bow before the one the Lord had chosen instead of him. He wanted his way, not God’s way: which is a very simple way of describing what unbelief is according to the Word of God.

Well, still we ask ourselves: wasn’t there some way in which both Hagar and Ishmael could have remained in the household? Did the solution to the problem have to be so draconian and final? Couldn’t a way have been found in which they could remain under the umbrella of God’s covenant while still, at the same time, protecting Isaac’s rights as heir?

The answer seems clearly to be “No!” This is the by the way the question people ask still today. Must we make such a hard and fast distinction between believers and unbelievers? Can’t everyone go to heaven? But God himself required Abraham to effect the separation and surely the Judge of all the earth does right!

The explanation for this seems to be this: God, and perhaps Sarah as well, saw that the difference between Ishmael and Isaac was really far greater than could be seen or measured at that moment, certainly far more serious than could be explained simply as adolescent jealousy and strife. Because of the difference between the two boys, consequential and fundamental as it was, the two principles they represented, and the two futures that lay before them in the plan and purpose of God, there could never be peace and harmony in that household so long as Ishmael remained. Ishmael simply did not belong as Isaac did. And if he had remained the danger was that he would destabilize that covenant household and threaten its future.

This is, of course, the point that Paul drew from this episode, so we can be sure we are handling the text correctly and are drawing from it its primary lesson. Isaac and Ishmael represent two different and contrary worlds, two different principles of life, two different loves, two different interests, or, as Paul puts it, two different covenants — the covenant of grace, of salvation by grace, of the love of God, and of trust in Christ on Isaac’s part, and, contrarily, the covenant of self-reliance, of the worship of self and man, and of salvation by works on Ishmael’s part. Just as there was no way peace and harmony could be maintained in the Galatian church if the Judaizers were allowed to continue teaching that sinners are put right with God partly by God’s grace and partly by their own effort, so the two boys represented warring and irreconcilable principles that could never be at peace in Abraham’s home.

It was perhaps not so easy to see all of that when the boys were young, though Sarah at least had some intuition of it. But how profound the rift between them would become clearer as the years passed. And, of course, the same rift within the people of God, the chasm that separates real believers from the hangers-on in the church, is one of the principal themes of Holy Scripture.

Do we have an example of the young man that Ishmael should have been? Yes we do. Perhaps you’ve already thought of him. He is one of the most attractive characters in the Bible. Nothing is said about him except to his praise. Saul’s son Jonathan understood what Ishmael did not. He understood what really mattered to God. He understood what it meant to be in covenant with God. He was more loyal to that covenant in his heart and in his behavior than his father was and he appreciated the difference, painful as it must have been to a son who must have admired his father when he was chosen by the Lord himself to be Israel’s first king.

But then David was chosen to replace Saul and, for that reason, to replace Jonathan as heir to the throne. Jonathan was, in these respects, in almost the same place spiritually, emotionally, and theologically as Ishmael. He was being shunted aside by a newcomer. He who was to be his father’s successor was now being asked to step aside and make way for someone else God had chosen instead of you. Can you imagine a harder thing in life? You know what Jonathan did! He stepped aside. He acknowledged the will of God. He not only accepted David as the Lord’s anointed, he became his best friend. Not only his friend, but his defender even at court, when defending David was taken to be high treason. Every true believer has no difficulty understanding the temptation that Jonathan faced or admiring the man for his humility and faith. But Ishmael was no Jonathan! He resented the fact that the Lord had chosen another to be the ancestor of the King of Kings and was unwilling to give up his place. He would not bow the knee, would not be grateful that he was, after all, a member of Abraham’s household and a party of his covenant with God, even if not his father’s heir. Ishmael is as perfect a picture of unbelief in the family of God as Jonathan is of living faith.

There is a terribly important truth in all of this for you and me to face. It is this: the fundamental difference between human beings is not whether or not they belong in some way, some measure to the people and family of God. It is rather the difference that separated Isaac and Ishmael: namely the posture, the position, the attitude toward God and his way of salvation illustrated in the lives of these two boys and then men. Is a man or woman, boy or girl in covenant with God in heart and in behavior? Is he or she a friend of God or an enemy? Has he or she embraced God’s offer of life or does he or she prefer another way. I don’t suppose Ishmael ever regretted the fact that he had left Abraham’s family to make his way elsewhere. That is the difference, the divide that separates the human race.

It is not a difference the world can see very easily, but it is the only absolutely decisive difference between one human being and another. Most people don’t see the difference Paul saw between Isaac and Ishmael, between Sarah and Hagar, but it is the difference, always and only the difference. Are you with God or not? Will you submit to God or go your own way? To be sure, we cannot always see the difference as clearly as we see it in Ishmael’s life or in Jonathan’s. The difference becomes only obvious as the principle works itself out over time. But difference it is, the difference between life and death. When we finally come to the outcome of Ishmael’s life, in Genesis 25:18, it should not surprise us to learn that all of his descendants “lived in hostility toward all their brothers.” The seed had become the flower. And, of course, the all-knowing God (back in Genesis 2l) already saw in Ishmael what the principle of his life would eventually produce in attitude and behavior.

The great summons of this paragraph of Holy Scripture, addressed to us all and to every human being is thus this: whether or not you understand what God is doing in your life or why; whether you find it easy or difficult to submit to him, he is God and his will must become your will, his purposes must become your purposes, and his promises must become your hope for life in this world and the world to come. In everything and all the time Ishmael was unwilling to submit to God and that is why he could not and did not remain among God’s people.