Genesis (Part 85)

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

Genesis: 21:8-14

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.10 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.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 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. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 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.


Isaac grows and eventually weans. Abraham therefore throws a feast… as one does. Ishmael laughs. Sarah notices that he laughs and demands that he and his mother be cast out. Abraham is not happy to cast out his son Ishmael but God tells him to do it anyway.

On the topic of weaning celebrations, let’s look at Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(8) The child grew, and was weaned.—According to tradition, Isaac was two years old when weaned. Three years is the age mentioned in 2 Chronicles 31:162 Maccabees 7:27; and Samuel was old enough at his weaning to be left at the tabernacle with Eli (1 Samuel 1:24). In Persia and India it is still the custom to celebrate the weaning of a child by an entertainment.

A note from The Pulpit Commentaries says much the same thing:

Verse 8. – And the child grew, – καὶ ἠυξήθη τὸ παιδίον (LXX.): imitated by Luke concerning Christ: τὸ παιδίον ηὔξανε (Luke 2:40) – and was weaned. The verb gamal originally signifies to do good to any one, to do completely; hence to finish, or make completely ready, as an infant; hence to wean, since either at that time the period of infancy is regarded as complete, or the child s independent existence is then fully reached. The time of weaning is commonly believed to have been at the end of the second or third year (cf. 1 Samuel 1:22-242 Chronicles 31:16; 2 Macc. 7:27; Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ 2:09, 6). And Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned. Literally, in the day of the weaning of Isaac; probably, therefore, when Isaac was three years old and Ishmael seventeen. “It is still customary in the East to have a festive gathering at the time a child is weaned. Among the Hindoos, when the time for weaning has come, the event is accompanied with feasting and religious ceremonies, during which rice is formally presented to the child” (‘Bible Manners and Customs,’ by Rev. J. A. Freeman, M.A., ‘ Homiletical Quarterly,’ vol. 1. p. 78; cf. Roberts’ ‘Oriental Illustrations,’ p. 24).

Hereafter, though, we get into the middle of Abraham’s family squabble.

David Guzik’s Commentary summarizes the situation and adds some commentary with a Christian perspective:

b. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar … scoffing: This conflict between the two sons was almost inevitable, even though they are some 13 years apart. Abraham found it hard to side with Sarah when he did not want to reject his son, Ishmael.

i. Notice the conflict came from Ishmael unto Isaac. Ishmael was the one scoffing at Isaac. Galatians 4:22-29 describes for us a spiritual application of this conflict between Isaac (the son born of the promise) and Ishmael (the son born of the flesh).

ii. In Galatians 4, the Jewish legalists who troubled the Galatians protested they were children of Abraham and thus blessed. Paul will admit they are children of Abraham, but they are like Ishmael, not Isaac! The legalists claimed Abraham as their father. Paul wants to know who was their mother, Hagar or Sarah? Ishmael was born of a slave, and born according to the flesh. Isaac was born of a freewoman, and born according to promise. Even so, the legalists promote a relationship with God based in bondage and according to the flesh. The true gospel of grace offers liberty in Christ and is a promise received by faith.

iii. Even as Ishmael and his descendants have persecuted Isaac and his descendants, we should not be surprised that the modern-day people who follow God in the flesh persecute those who follow God in faith through the promise.

Let’s look more closely at verse 9 which is the root of this conflict.

The word translated by the ESV above as “laughing” is also sometimes translated as “mocking.”

laughing/mocking = צָחַק tsâchaq, tsaw-khak’; a primitive root; to laugh outright (in merriment or scorn); by implication, to sport:—laugh, mock, play, make sport.

This is not the same word used for Isaac’s name though they are similar in meaning.

יִצְחָק Yitschâq, yits-khawk’; from H6711; laughter (i.e. mochery); Jitschak (or Isaac), son of Abraham:—Isaac. Compare H3446.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary makes the following observation:

(9) Mocking.—The verb used here is the same as that rendered to laugh in Genesis 21:6, but in an intensive conjugation. What exactly Ishmael was doing is not said, but we may dismiss all those interpretations which charge him with abominable wickedness; for had he been guilty of any such criminal conduct, the sending him away would not have been so “very grievous in Abraham’s sight” (Genesis 21:11). On the other hand, we may feel sure that Sarah was not without good reason for her conduct; for St. Paul bears witness that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Galatians 4:29). The LXX. and Vulg. translate playing, sporting, and Gesenius thinks that he was “dancing gracefully; “but if this were all, Sarah’s jealousy would have been most unjust. When, however, we consider that Ishmael had been for fourteen years the heir, and that he now fell back into an inferior position, we cannot be surprised if at this banquet in his rival’s honour he gave way to spiteful feelings, and by word and gesture derided and ridiculed him. Hagar too had probably never regarded Sarah with much affection since her forced return, and now that her son was disinherited, her bitterness would grow more intense. These jealousies are the inevitable results of polygamy; and wherever it exists, the father’s life is made wretched by the intrigues of the women for their children.

Abraham is at the center of this drama, no doubt loving and caring for his son Ishmael and perhaps also Hagar quite deeply. Looking at the Pulpit Commentary for verse 11:

Verse 11. – And the thing (literally, the word, i.e. Sarah’s proposal) was very grievous (literally, evil exceedingly; for the contrary phrase vide Genesis 20:15) in Abraham’s sight (literally, in the eyes of Abraham) because of his son – who, besides being bound to him by the ties of natural affection, had for years been regarded as the Heaven-appointed heir of the promise (vide Genesis 17:18).

grievous/displeasing = יָרַע yâraʻ, yaw-rah’; a primitive root; properly, to be broken up (with any violent action) i.e. (figuratively) to fear:—be grevious (only Isaiah 15:4; the rest belong to H7489). has a compelling argument with more insight regarding the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar:

Genesis Rabbah and Rashi

Following the midrashic tradition in Genesis Rabbah (53:11), Rashi implicates Ishmael with the three cardinal sins: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder, based on the resonances throughout the Tanakh with the root tzḥq.[4] This would certainly explain—and justify!—Sarah’s repugnance to the boy, but, to invoke Hamlet’s mother, “Methinks the midrash doth protest too much!” Nothing in the text justifies such a harsh reading of the verse.

Robert Alter – Fear of Usurpation

The literary scholar Robert Alter offers a more compelling reason for Sarah’s decision to banish Ishmael:

Given the fact, moreover that she is concerned lest Ishmael encroach on her son’s inheritance, and given the inscription of her son’s name in this crucial verb, we may also be invited to construe it as “Isaac-ing-it” [מְצַחֵֽק, metzaḥeq]–that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.[5]

The banishment of Ishmael, then conforms to the pattern of the “overturn of primogeniture,” the younger son as the chosen heir to the covenant, trumps the right of the firstborn. Unlike the scene of blessing between Isaac and Jacob (27:18-29), where the blind father does not realize Esau, the firstborn, is being displaced, this definitive scene of exclusion entails a conscious complicity on the part of the patriarch to cut his firstborn son out of the inheritance and out of the covenant.

Throughout this passage Ishmael is not once mentioned by name. The passage maximizes his anonymity, reducing the “heir apparent” to the level of a passive object, a mere pawn in the divine plan.[7]

The article is a fascinating read and I encourage you to read all of it. It goes on to compare the banishment of Ishmael in Chapter 21 with the binding of Isaac in Chapter 22. In both cases, Abraham was asked to do something that grieves him. The article also examines the faith of Hagar and the perceived cruelty of Sarah.

This section of verses does not end on an upbeat note. Looking again at Ellicott’s Bible Commentary for verse 14:

(14) And the child.—Ishmael was now sixteen or seventeen years of age, but the word yeled used in this place has no reference to age, and in Genesis 4:23 is even translated “young man.” It literally signifies one born, and is applied in Genesis 42:22 to Joseph, when he was about Ishmael’s age. So the “children who mocked Elisha” (2 Kings 2:23) were doubtless grown young men. In Genesis 21:18, Ishmael is called “a lad;” shortly afterwards he was able to maintain himself and Hagar with his bow (Genesis 21:20), and his mother took a wife for him from Egypt (Genesis 21:21). The narrative, therefore, does not represent Ishmael as a small child, and the idea has probably arisen from the supposition that Abraham placed Ishmael, as well as the supply of food, on Hagar’s shoulder.

She departed, and wandered.—Her dismissal had come upon Hagar suddenly, and so she had no plan or purpose, but went hither and thither till the water in the skin was spent.

The wilderness of Beer-sheba.—As yet this region had no name (see Genesis 21:31). It lay about twenty Roman miles or more below Hebron, and was the most southerly part of Palestine, while beyond it lay the vast desert of Et-Tih, of which the wilderness of Beer-sheba formed a part. Gerar, which place Abraham had now evidently left, was situated upon the western side of Beer-sheba, but at no great distance from it. (Seo Genesis 21:22Genesis 26:26.)

We will see how God cares for Ishmael and Hagar in the wilderness in our next set of verses.

It is worth pointing out that the narrative of what happens with Ishmael is different in Islam. I suspect that a lot of Western Christians are unfamiliar with this information so I want to include it here as well. From Wiki:


Ishmael was the first son of Abraham; his mother was Hagar. The story of the birth of Ishmael is rarely assigned special significance in Islamic sources. There are many versions of the story, some of which include a prophecy about Ishmael’s birth. One such example is from Ibn Kathir (d.1373) whose account states that an angel tells the pregnant Hagar to name her child Ishmael and prophesies, “His hand would be over everyone, and the hand of everyone would be against him. His brethren would rule over all the lands.” Ibn Kathir comments that this foretells of Muhammad’s leadership.[2]:42

Ishmael and Hagar taken to Mecca by Abraham

Ishmael and Hagar being taken to Mecca by Abraham in Islamic texts[4] is an important part in the story of Ishmael, as it brings the focus to Mecca and is the beginning of Mecca’s sanctification as a holy area.[2]:61 Islamic tradition says Abraham was ordered by God to take Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, and later Abraham returned to Mecca to build the Kaaba.[5] In many of these accounts, the Sakina (something like a wind or spirit sent by God), or the angel Gabriel (Jibral) guides them to the location of the Kaaba, at which point Abraham builds it and afterwards, leaves the other two there (other versions discussed below say the construction of the Kaaba occurred later and that Ishmael took part in it). Generally, it is said that Hagar asks Abraham who he is entrusting herself and Ishmael to as he leaves them. He answers that he is entrusting them to God, to which Hagar then makes a reply that shows her faith, stating that she believes God will guide them. Hagar and Ishmael then run out of water and Ishmael becomes extremely thirsty. Hagar is distressed and searches for water, running back and forth seven times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. Hagar is later remembered by Muslims for this act during the Hajj, or pilgrimage, in which Muslims run between these same hills as part of the Sa’yee.[6] When she returns to Ishmael, she finds either him or an angel scratching the ground with their heel or finger, whereupon water begins flowing and Hagar collects some or dams it up. This spring or well is known as Zamzam. At some point, a passing tribe known as the Jurhum sees birds circling the water and investigates. They ask Hagar if they can settle there, which she allows, and many versions say as Ishmael grew up he learned various things from the tribe. There are numerous versions of this story, each differing in various ways. The versions used in this summary, as well as others, can be found in al-Tabari’s history[7] and are recounted in Reuven Firestone’s Journeys in Holy Lands.[2]


Ishmael’s place as the “founder of the Arabs” was first stated by Josephus.[21] As Islam became established, the figure Ishmael and those descended from him, the Ishmaelites, became connected, and often equated, with the term Arab in early Jewish and Christian literature.[22] Before Islam developed as a religion, Ishmael was depicted in many ways, but after its establishment, Ishmael was almost always seen in a negative light in Jewish and Christian texts, as he becomes the symbol for the “other” in these religions.[23]:2–3 As the Islamic community became more powerful, some Jewish midrash about Ishmael was modified so that he was portrayed more negatively in order to challenge the Islamic view that Ishmael, and thus the Muslims, were the favoured descendants of Abraham.[23]:130 This became the genealogy according to Jewish sources and the Bible, in contrast with the genealogy of Arabs according to Muslims.[22] The development of Islam created pressure for Islam to be somehow different from Judaism and Christianity, and accordingly, Ishmael’s lineage to Arabs was stressed.[23]:117

Today, some Christians believe that God fulfills his promises to Ishmael today by blessing the Arab nations with oil[24] and political strength.[25] In pre-Islamic times, there were three distinct groups of Arabs- the Ba’idaAriba, and Musta’riba. The Ba’ida were the “legendary Arabs of the past,” while the Ariba were the “Southern Arabs.” Ishmael’s descendants became the Northern Arabs known as the Musta’riba or the “Arabized Arabs.” The Musta’riba were described as Arabized since it is believed Ishmael learned Arabic when he moved to Mecca and married into the Arabic tribe of Jurhum. Ishmael’s line is then traced from his son Kedar, then down through to Adnan, then to the Musta’riba, to the Quraysh.[23]:118 In this manner, Muhammad’s ancestry leads back to Ishmael, joining “original biblical ancestry of Abraham with a distinctively Arab afinal stock,”[26]:147 and connecting Muhammad with Mecca and the Kaaba.[26]:152

These family fissures (complete with competing accounts of what happened) – and to some extent the reconciliation we see when Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury Abraham in Chapter 25 – are still felt today. The recent Middle East Peace deals used the name, The Abraham Accords. The name is a reference to the notion that Jews and Arabs are both descendants of the same man – Abraham. The disputes (decades of war, bloodshed, and violence) therefore are in this context family disputes and perhaps capable of a familial reconciliation.