Genesis (Part 84)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis: 21:1-7

21 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.”

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After a long wait for Abraham and Sarah, God gives them a son together.

From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(1) And the Lord (Jehovah) visited Sarah as he had said.—See Genesis 17:19, where it is Elohim who gives the promise. So here in Genesis 21:2 the name Elohim is interchanged with Jehovah.

From The Pulpit Commentary:

Verse 1. – And the Lord – Jehovah; not because the verse is Jehovistic (Knobel, Bleek, et alii), but because the promise naturally falls to be implemented by him who gave it (vide Genesis 18:10) – visited – remembered with love (Onkelos), ἐπισκέψατο (LXX.; cf. Genesis 50:24Exodus 4:311 Samuel 2:21Isaiah 23:17); though it sometimes means to approach in judgment (vide Exodus 20:5Exodus 32:34). Alleged to be peculiar to the Jehovist (the term used by the Elohist being זָכַר: Genesis 8:1Genesis 19:29Genesis 30:20), the word occurs in Genesis 1:24, which Tuch and Bleek ascribe to the Elohist – Sarah as he had said (Genesis 17:21Genesis 18:10, 14), – God’s word of promise being ever the rule of his performance (cf. Exodus 12:25Luke 1:72) – and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken – i.e. implemented his promise; the proof of which is next given (cf. Numbers 23:19Hebrews 6:18).

visited = פָּקַד pâqad, paw-kad’; a primitive root; to visit (with friendly or hostile intent); by analogy, to oversee, muster, charge, care for, miss, deposit, etc.:—appoint, × at all, avenge, bestow, (appoint to have the, give a) charge, commit, count, deliver to keep, be empty, enjoin, go see, hurt, do judgment, lack, lay up, look, make, × by any means, miss, number, officer, (make) overseer, have (the) oversight, punish, reckon, (call to) remember(-brance), set (over), sum, × surely, visit, want.

as He had said = אָמַר ʼâmar, aw-mar’; a primitive root; to say (used with great latitude):—answer, appoint, avouch, bid, boast self, call, certify, challenge, charge, (at the, give) command(-ment), commune, consider, declare, demand, × desire, determine, × expressly, × indeed, × intend, name, × plainly, promise, publish, report, require, say, speak (against, of), × still, × suppose, talk, tell, term, × that is, × think, use (speech), utter, × verily, × yet.

did = עָשָׂה ʻâsâh, aw-saw’; a primitive root; to do or make, in the broadest sense and widest application:—accomplish, advance, appoint, apt, be at, become, bear, bestow, bring forth, bruise, be busy, × certainly, have the charge of, commit, deal (with), deck, displease, do, (ready) dress(-ed), (put in) execute(-ion), exercise, fashion, feast, (fight-) ing man, finish, fit, fly, follow, fulfill, furnish, gather, get, go about, govern, grant, great, hinder, hold (a feast), × indeed, be industrious, journey, keep, labour, maintain, make, be meet, observe, be occupied, offer, officer, pare, bring (come) to pass, perform, pracise, prepare, procure, provide, put, requite, × sacrifice, serve, set, shew, × sin, spend, × surely, take, × thoroughly, trim, × very, vex, be (warr-) ior, work(-man), yield, use.

as He had spoken = דָבַר dâbar, daw-bar’; a primitive root; perhaps properly, to arrange; but used figuratively (of words), to speak; rarely (in a destructive sense) to subdue:—answer, appoint, bid, command, commune, declare, destroy, give, name, promise, pronounce, rehearse, say, speak, be spokesman, subdue, talk, teach, tell, think, use (entreaties), utter, × well, × work.


Let’s look at the verses where the promise to Sarah was previously made:

Genesis 17:17-19 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”

Genesis 18:10 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” 

There are several non-textual beliefs regarding Sarah’s physical transformation when she became pregnant. From Chabad.org:

Although she was ninety and had obviously aged, her hair turned black again.15 It is also said that she experienced no pains during childbirth.16 To disprove wagging tongues, Isaac was created in the image of his father.17 Further, G‑d dried up the breasts of all noblewomen, so that they had to bring their babies to Sarah to nurse. She had an abundance of milk and nursed them all. It is said that the infants nursed by her were rewarded in this world, and grew to be rulers. All of these miracles were performed by G‑d to ensure that the parentage of Isaac would be indisputable as being both legitimate and miraculous. And only this allowed her to truly begin the dynasty of Abraham and Sarah, thus fulfilling her destiny of being a princess to the nations.

*15 Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 6.

From The Pulpit Commentary, verse 2:

Verse 2. – For Sarah conceived, – through faith receiving strength from God for that purpose (Hebrews 11:11); the fruit of the womb, in every instance God’s handiwork (Isaiah 44:2), being in her case a special gift of grace and product of Divine power – and bare – the usual construction (Genesis 29:32Genesis 30:5) is here somewhat modified by the Jehovist (Kalisch); but the clause may be compared with Genesis 30:22, 23, commonly assigned to the Elohlst – Abraham (literally, to Abraham) a son in his old age, – literally, to his old age; εἰς τὸ γῆρας (LXX.) – at the set time (vide Genesis 17:21Genesis 18:10, 14) of which God had spoken to him. God’s word gave Abraham strength to beget, Sarah to conceive, and Isaac to come forth. Three times repeated in two verses, the clause points to the supernatural character of Isaac’s birth.

After the Lord does to Sarah “what He had said” Sarah conceives and bares a son to Abraham.

Something somewhat interesting happens in Verses 1 and 2.

In Verse 1, The Lord (Yahweh / Jehovah) visited Sarah. In Verse 2, when we read “of which God had spoken” the word for God is Elohim. Yahweh is singular whereas Elohim is plural. There is a deeper mystery within the text related to which name of God is used when, and why.

Returning to Ellicott’s Commentary in verse 3:

(3) Abraham called the name of his son.—Attention has been called to the fact that we have here two things contrary to subsequent usage: for, first, the father names the child, and not the mother; and, secondly, he names him at his birth, instead of waiting until his circumcision. It might be enough to answer that the child was really named by God (Genesis 17:19), and that Abraham only acknowledges that the son born was the promised Isaac; but really, as we have seen before, there was as yet no settled rule as to either of these points.

Isaac.—This name not only recorded the fact of the laughter of the father (Genesis 17:17) and of the mother (Genesis 18:12), but was a standing memorial that Isaac’s birth was contrary to nature, and one of which the promise was provocative of ridicule in the sight even of his parents.

called = קָרָא qârâʼ, kaw-raw’; a primitive root (rather identical with H7122 through the idea of accosting a person met); to call out to (i.e. properly, address by name, but used in a wide variety of applications):—bewray (self), that are bidden, call (for, forth, self, upon), cry (unto), (be) famous, guest, invite, mention, (give) name, preach, (make) proclaim(-ation), pronounce, publish, read, renowned, say.

The verb choice here is important as God is the one who named Isaac. Abraham calls his newborn son by the name given to him, by God, in Genesis 17.

In verse 4, Abraham circumcises Isaac when he was eight days old – as God commanded. We are only a couple of chapters in Genesis (and only one year in time) from the practice being implemented among Abraham’s people.

Genesis 17:24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

Looking back at Ellicott for verses 6 and 7:

(6, 7) God hath made me to laugh.—Sarah’s laugh was one of mingled emotions. Joy was uppermost in her mind, but women do not laugh for joy at the birth of a child. Doubtless she called to mind the feelings with which she listened to the announcement of her bearing a son, made by those whom she then regarded as mere passing wayfarers (Genesis 18:12), but whom she had now long known to be the messengers of God. And still the event seemed to her marvellous and astonishing, so that “all that hear,” she said, “will laugh with me”—Heb., for me, or over me—not “will ridicule me,” but will be merry at the thought of an old woman of ninety having a son. Deeper feelings would come afterwards, and the acknowledgment that that which was contrary to nature was wrought by Him whom nature must obey; but surprise is uppermost in the little poem in which Sarah gives utterance to her first feelings:—

Who would have said unto Abraham

Sarah suckleth sons?

For I have borne a son to his old age.

I’m not sure that I agree with the note’s statement that women do not laugh for joy at the birth of a child.

If we take a moment to look back in the last few chapters, we run into some confusion. Sarah is told she will have a child. She wonders how she can have one and even goes so far as to describe herself as withered. Then… in chapter 20, she is kidnapped by Abimelech who has the intention of lying with her. If God restored her to a youthful appearances, did it happen here in Chapter 21 or earlier?

From thetorah.com:

Noticing the problem that Sarah is withered and old in chapter 18 but young and beautiful in chapter 20, Rav Chisda (b. Baba Metzia 87a), suggests that God performed a miracle:

Rav Chisda said: “After the flesh became weak (נתבלה) and filled with wrinkles it became young again (נתעדן) and the wrinkles were erased, and her beauty returned to what it was.”

In order to understand the timeline, Rav Chisda returns to Sarah’s comment and offers a novel interpretation of it. According to Rav Chisda, the root ע-ד-נ is not about pleasure or delight, but about the smoothness or delicacy of her skin. Sarah, in this reading, is not referring to the absurdity of an elderly woman beginning to function sexually (including, presumably, a return of menstruation) like a young woman, but also to her body looking young again.

According to this interpretation, immediately upon the declaration by the visiting angels that Sarah would have a child, her skin became smooth and she miraculously returned to her youthful figure. This is why she laughed and this is what she expressed by saying, “how can it be that a wrinkly old woman now has smooth and delicate skin?”

This interpretation, however, does not fit what Sarah said upon the birth of Isaac (21:7):, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!”[5] Sarah does not appear to be referring to her miraculously restored youth, but speaks to the wonder or even impossibility of an old woman like her functioning like a young woman.

The article also provides a different potential explanation for the story of Chapter 20:

Accordingly, the academic perspective suggests that the reason Sarah’s age and appearance in chapter 20 doesn’t work with that of chapters 17 and 18 is that it comes from a different source.[8] Once the division is made, the overall storylines for each source become clear, and the timeline problem of Sarah’s age is solved.

* P source (ch. 17) – Sarah and Abraham begin their journey at the ages of 65 and 75 respectively. By the time God promises Sarah a child, she is 90 years old and Abraham 100. Thus, the birth of Isaac in this source is miraculous. This source contains no story with Sarah as a young wife.

* J source (ch. 18) – Sarah begins as a young woman, and is even kidnapped by Pharaoh for her beauty (ch. 12). She remains childless throughout her younger years. By the time God promises her a child, she is already post-menopausal and too old to conceive. Thus, in J, like in P, the conception of Isaac is miraculous.

* E source (ch. 20) – This source does not intimate that Sarah was old. Abimelech takes Sarah because she is a young attractive woman. Thus, in E, the birth of Abraham’s son is not miraculous.[9]

The non-miraculous interpretation of course has the problem of conflicting with much of the other surrounding text. Chapter 20 also seems to be a subject matter lead-in to Chapter 21 inasmuch as God answered Abraham’s prayer and re-opened the wombs of the women in Abimelech’s household. If one considers Chapter 20 an out of place chapter, from an alternate source, wedged into the larger story for compilation purposes, would it not have made more sense for this chapter to have been added earlier?

It makes more sense – in my opinion – to come to different conclusions regarding the trip to visit Abimelech. 1) Abraham traveled south because of what had just happened with his nephew and the cities God destroyed (either he wanted to distance himself from Lot or he wanted to distance himself from the recently destroyed cities), 2) the explanation that her youthful appearance was restored in Chapter 18 and that her ability to conceive was restored in Chapter 21… makes sense.

It may also be that Sarah could not have conceived a child by Abimelech but that God did not want any questions regarding the child’s parentage later.

If you would like to read some more about the mystery of Sarah’s pregnancy, I will point you in the direction of an another article at thetorah.com by Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser wherein he discusses the divine nature of Isaac’s birth. It’s a fascinating read and it even ties in with the Second Temple period and early Christianity.

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