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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 21

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

Verse 1


Isaac is born according to the promise, 1-3;

and is circumcised when eight days old, 4.

Abraham's age, and Sarah's exultation at the birth of their son, 5-7.

Isaac is weaned, 8.

Ishmael mocking on the occasion, Sarah requires that both he and his

mother Hagar shall be dismissed, 9, 10.

Abraham, distressed on the account, is ordered by the Lord to

comply, 11, 12.

The promise renewed to Ishmael, 13.

Abraham dismisses Hagar and her son, who go to the wilderness of

Beer-sheba, 14.

They are greatly distressed for want of water, 15, 16.

An angel of God appears to and relieves them, 17-19.

Ishmael prospers and is married, 20, 21.

Abimelech, and Phichol his chief captain, make a covenant with

Abraham, and surrender the well of Beersheba for seven ewe

lambs, 22-32.

Abraham plants a grove, and invokes the name of the everlasting

God, 33.


Verse Genesis 21:1. The Lord visited Sarah — That is, God fulfilled his promise to Sarah by giving her, at the advanced age of ninety, power to conceive and bring forth a son.

Verse 3

Verse Genesis 21:3. Isaac. — See the reason and interpretation of this name in Clarke's note on "Genesis 17:7".

Verse 4

Verse Genesis 21:4. And Abraham circumcised his sonGenesis 17:10; Genesis 17:10, &c.

Verse 6

Verse Genesis 21:6. God hath made me to laugh — Sarah alludes here to the circumstance mentioned Genesis 18:12; and as she seems to use the word to laugh in this place, not in the sense of being incredulous but to express such pleasure or happiness as almost suspends the reasoning faculty for a time, it justifies the observation on the above-named verse. See a similar case in Luke 24:41, where the disciples were so overcome with the good news of our Lord's resurrection, that it is said, They believed not for joy.

Verse 8

Verse Genesis 21:8. The child grew and was weaned — [-----Anglo-Saxon-----]. Anglo-Saxon VERSION. Now the child waxed and became weaned. We have the verb to wean from the Anglo-Saxon [A.S.] awendan, to convert, transfer, turn from one thing to another, which is the exact import of the Hebrew word גמל gamal in the text. Hence [A.S.] wenan, to wean, to turn the child from the breast to receive another kind of ailment. And hence, probably, the word WEAN, a young child, which is still in use in the northern parts of Great Britain and Ireland, and which from its etymology seems to signify a child taken from the breast; surely not from the Scotch wee-ane, a little one, much less from the German wenig, little, as Dr. Johnson and others would derive it. At what time children were weaned among the ancients, is a disputed point. St. Jerome says there were two opinions on this subject. Some hold that children were always weaned at five years of age; others, that they were not weaned till they were twelve. From the speech of the mother to her son, 2Mac 7:27, it seems likely that among the Jews they were weaned when three years old: O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee SUCK THREE YEARS, and nourished thee and brought thee up. And this is farther strengthened by 2 Chronicles 31:16, where Hezekiah, in making provision for the Levites and priests, includes the children from three years old and upwards; which is a presumptive proof that previously to this age they were wholly dependent on the mother for their nourishment. Samuel appears to have been brought to the sanctuary when he was just weaned, and then he was capable of ministering before the Lord, 1 Samuel 1:22-28; and this certainly could not be before he was three years of age. The term among the Mohammedans is fixed by the Koran, chap. xxxi. 14, at two years of age.

Verse 9

Verse Genesis 21:9. Mocking. — What was implied in this mocking is not known. St. Paul, Galatians 4:29, calls it persecuting; but it is likely he meant no more than some species of ridicule used by Ishmael on the occasion, and probably with respect to the age of Sarah at Isaac's birth, and her previous barrenness. Jonathan ben Uzziel and the Jerusalem Targum represent Ishmael as performing some idolatrous rite on the occasion, and that this had given the offence to Sarah. Conjectures are as useless as they are endless. Whatever it was, it became the occasion of the expulsion of himself and mother. Several authors are of opinion that the Egyptian bondage of four hundred years, mentioned Genesis 15:13, commenced with this persecution of the righteous seed by the son of an Egyptian woman.

Verse 10

Verse Genesis 21:10. Cast out this bondwoman and her son — Both Sarah and Abraham have been accused of cruelty in this transaction, because every word reads harsh to us. Cast out; גרש garash signifies not only to thrust out, drive away, and expel, but also to divorce; (see Leviticus 21:7); and it is in this latter sense the word should be understood here. The child of Abraham by Hagar might be considered as having a right at least to a part of the inheritance; and as it was sufficiently known to Sarah that God had designed that the succession should be established in the line of Isaac, she wished Abraham to divorce Hagar, or to perform some sort of legal act by which Ishmael might be excluded from all claim on the inheritance.

Verse 12

Verse Genesis 21:12. In Isaac shall thy seed be called. — Here God shows the propriety of attending to the counsel of Sarah; and lest Abraham, in whose eyes the thing was grievous, should feel distressed on the occasion, God renews his promises to Ishmael and his posterity.

Verse 14

Verse Genesis 21:14. Took bread, and a bottle — By the word bread we are to understand the food or provisions which were necessary for her and Ishmael, till they should come to the place of their destination; which, no doubt, Abraham particularly pointed out. The bottle, which was made of skin, ordinarily a goat's skin, contained water sufficient to last them till they should come to the next well; which, it is likely, Abraham particularly specified also. This well, it appears, Hagar missed, and therefore wandered about in the wilderness seeking more water, till all she had brought with her was expended. We may therefore safely presume that she and her son were sufficiently provided for their journey, had they not missed their way. Travellers in those countries take only, to the present day, provisions sufficient to carry them to the next village or encampment; and water to supply them till they shall meet with the next well. What adds to the appearance of cruelty in this case is, that our translation seems to represent Ishmael as being a young child; and that Hagar was obliged to carry him, the bread, and the bottle of water on her back or shoulder at the same time. But that Ishmael could not be carried on his mother's shoulder will be sufficiently evident when his age is considered; Ishmael was born when Abraham was eighty-six years of age, Genesis 16:16; Isaac was born when he was one hundred years of age, Genesis 21:5; hence Ishmael was fourteen years old at the birth of Isaac. Add to this the age of Isaac when he was weaned, which, from Genesis 21:8, (Genesis 21:8- :) was probably three, and we shall find that Ishmael was at the time of his leaving Abraham not less than seventeen years old; an age which, in those primitive times, a young man was able to gain his livelihood, either by his bow in the wilderness, or by keeping flocks as Jacob did.

Verse 15

Verse Genesis 21:15. And she cast the child — ותשלך את הילד vattashlech eth haiyeled, and she sent the lad under one of the shrubs, viz., to screen him from the intensity of the heat. Here Ishmael appears to be utterly helpless, and this circumstance seems farther to confirm the opinion that he was now in a state of infancy; but the preceding observations do this supposition entirely away, and his present helplessness will be easily accounted for on this ground:

1. Young persons can bear much less fatigue than those who are arrived at mature age.

2. They require much more fluid from the greater quantum of heat in their bodies, strongly marked by the impetuosity of the blood; because from them a much larger quantity of the fluids is thrown off by sweat and insensible perspiration, than from grown up or aged persons.

3. Their digestion is much more rapid, and hence they cannot bear hunger and thirst as well as the others. On these grounds Ishmael must be much more exhausted with fatigue than his mother.

Verse 19

Verse Genesis 21:19. God opened her eyes — These words appear to me to mean no more than that God directed her to a well, which probably was at no great distance from the place in which she then was; and therefore she is commanded, Genesis 21:18, to support the lad, literally, to make her hand strong in his behalf-namely, that he might reach the well and quench his thirst.

Verse 20

Verse Genesis 21:20. Became an archer. — And by his skill in this art, under the continual superintendence of the Divine Providence, (for God was with the lad,) he was undoubtedly enabled to procure a sufficient supply for his own wants and those of his parent.

Verse 21

Verse Genesis 21:21. He dwelt in the wilderness of Paran — This is generally allowed to have been a part of the desert belonging to Arabia Petraea, in the vicinity of Mount Sinai; and this seems to be its uniform meaning in the sacred writings.

Verse 22

Verse Genesis 21:22. At that time — This may either refer to the transactions recorded in the preceding chapter, or to the time of Ishmael's marriage, but most probably to the former.

God is with thee — מימרא דיי melmera daiya, the WORD of Jehovah; see before, Genesis 15:1. That the Chaldee paraphrasts use this term, not for a word spoken, but in the same sense in which St. John uses the λογος του Θεου, the WORD of God, John 1:1, must be evident to every unprejudiced reader. Genesis 15:1.

Verse 23

Verse Genesis 21:23. Now therefore swear unto me — The oath on such occasions probably meant no more than the mutual promise of both the parties, when they slew an animal, poured out the blood as a sacrifice to God, and then passed between the pieces. See this ceremony, Genesis 15:18, and on Genesis 15:9; Genesis 15:10.

According to the kindness that I have done — The simple claims of justice were alone set up among virtuous people in those ancient times, which constitute the basis of the famous lex talionis, or law of like for like, kind office for kind office, and breach for breach.

Verse 25

Verse Genesis 21:25. Abraham reproved Abimelech — Wells were of great consequence in those hot countries, and especially where the flocks were numerous, because the water was scarce, and digging to find it was accompanied with much expense of time and labour.

Verse 26

Verse Genesis 21:26. I wot not who hath done this thing — The servants of Abimelech had committed these depredations on Abraham without any authority from their master, who appears to have been a very amiable man, possessing the fear of God, and ever regulating the whole of his conduct by the principles of righteousness and strict justice.

Verse 27

Verse Genesis 21:27. Took sheep and oxen — Some think that these were the sacrifices which were offered on the occasion, and which Abraham furnished at his own cost, and, in order to do Abimelech the greater honour, gave them to him to offer before the Lord.

Verse 28

Verse Genesis 21:28. Seven ewe lambs — These were either given as a present, or they were intended as the price of the well; and being accepted by Abimelech, they served as a witness that he had acknowledged Abraham's right to the well in question.

Verse 31

Verse Genesis 21:31. He called that place Beer-sheba — באר שבע Beer-shaba, literally, the well of swearing or of the oath, because they both sware there-mutually confirmed the covenant.

Verse 33

Verse Genesis 21:33. Abraham planted a grove — The original word אשל eshel has been variously translated a grove, a plantation, an orchard, a cultivated field, and an oak. From this word, says Mr. Parkhurst, may be derived the name of the famous asylum, opened by Romulus between two groves of oaks at Rome; (μεθοριον δυοιν δρυμως, Dionys. Hal., lib. ii. c. 16:) and as Abraham, Genesis 21:33, agreeably, no doubt, to the institutes of the patriarchal religion, planted an oak in Beer-sheba, and called on the name of Jehovah, the everlasting God, (compare Genesis 12:8; Genesis 18:1), so we find that oaks were sacred among the idolaters also. Ye shall be ashamed of the OAKS ye have chosen, says Isaiah, Isaiah 1:29, to the idolatrous Israelites. And in Greece we meet in very early times with the oracle of Jupiter at the oaks of Dodona. Among the Greeks and Romans we have sacra Jovi quercus, the oak sacred to Jupiter, even to a proverb. And in Gaul and Britain we find the highest religious regard paid to the same tree and to its misletoe, under the direction of the Druids, that is, the oak prophets or priests, from the Celtic deru, and Greek δρυς, an oak. Few are ignorant that the misletoe is indeed a very extraordinary plant, not to be cultivated in the earth, but always growing on some other tree. "The druids," says Pliny, Nat. Hist., lib. xvii., c. 44, "hold nothing more sacred than the misletoe, and the tree on which it is produced, provided it be the oak. They make choice of groves of oak on this account, nor do they perform any of their sacred rites without the leaves of those trees; so that one may suppose that they are for this reason called, by a Greek etymology, Druids. And whatever misletoe grows on the oak they think is sent from heaven, and is a sign that God himself has chosen that tree. This however is very rarely found, but when discovered is treated with great ceremony. They call it by a name which signifies in their language the curer of all ills; and having duly prepared their feasts and sacrifices under the tree, they bring to it two white bulls, whose horns are then for the first time tied; the priest, dressed in a white robe, ascends the tree, and with a golden pruning hook cuts off the misletoe, which is received into a white sagum or sheet. Then they sacrifice the victims, praying that God would bless his own gift to those on whom he has bestowed it." It is impossible for a Christian to read this account without thinking of HIM who was the desire of all nations, of the man whose name was the BRANCH, who had indeed no father upon earth, but came down from heaven, was given to heal all our ills, and, after being cut off through the Divine counsel, was wrapped in fine linen and laid in the sepulchre for our sakes. I cannot forbear adding that the misletoe was a sacred emblem to other Celtic nations, as, for instance, to the ancient inhabitants of Italy. The golden branch, of which Virgil speaks so largely in the sixth book of the AEneis, and without which, he says, none could return from the infernal regions, (see line 126,) seems an allusion to the misletoe, as he himself plainly intimates by comparing it to that plant, line 205, c. See Parkhurst, under the word אשל eshel.

In the first ages of the world the worship of God was exceedingly simple there were no temples nor covered edifices of any kind; an altar, sometimes a single stone, sometimes consisting of several, and at other times merely of turf, was all that was necessary; on this the fire was lighted and the sacrifice offered. Any place was equally proper, as they knew that the object of their worship filled the heavens and the earth. In process of time when families increased, and many sacrifices were to be offered, groves or shady places were chosen, where the worshippers might enjoy the protection of the shade, as a considerable time must be employed in offering many sacrifices. These groves became afterwards abused to impure and idolatrous purposes, and were therefore strictly forbidden. See Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 12:3; Deuteronomy 16:21.

And called there on the name of the Lord — On this important passage Dr. Shuckford speaks thus: "Our English translation very erroneously renders this place, he called upon the name of Jehovah; but the expression קרא בשם kara beshem never signifies to call upon the name; קרא שם kara shem would signify to invoke or call upon the name, or קרא אל שם kara el shem would signify to cry unto the name; but קרא בשם kara beshem signifies to invoke IN the name, and seems to be used where the true worshippers of God offered their prayers in the name of the true Mediator, or where the idolaters offered their prayers in the name of false ones, 1 Kings 18:26; for as the true worshippers had but one God and one Lord, so the false worshippers had gods many and lords many, 1 Corinthians 8:5. We have several instances of קרא kara, and a noun after it, sometimes with and sometimes without the particle אל el, and then it signifies to call upon the person there mentioned; thus, קרא יהוה kara Yehovah is to call upon the Lord, Psalms 14:4; Psalms 17:6; Psalms 31:17; Psalms 53:4; Psalms 118:5, c. and קרא אל יהוה kara el Yehovah imports the same, 1 Samuel 12:17; Jonah 1:6, c. but קרא בשם kara beshem is either to name BY the name, Genesis 4:17; Numbers 32:42; Psalms 49:11; Isaiah 43:7; or to invoke IN the name, when it is used as an expression of religious worship." CONNEX. vol. i., p. 293. I believe this to be a just view of the subject, and therefore I admit it without scruple.

The everlasting God. — יהוה אל עולם Yehovah el olam, JEHOVAH, the STRONG GOD, the ETERNAL ONE. This is the first place in Scripture in which עולם olam occurs as an attribute of God, and here it is evidently designed to point out his eternal duration; that it can mean no limited time is self-evident, because nothing of this kind can be attributed to God. The Septuagint render the words Θεος αιωνιος, the ever-existing God; and the Vulgate has Invocavit ibi nomen Do mini, Dei aeterni, There he invoked the name of the Lord, the eternal God. The Arabic is nearly the same. From this application of both the Hebrew and Greek words we learn that עולם olam and αιων aion originally signified ETERNAL, or duration without end. עלם alam signifies he was hidden, concealed, or kept secret; and αιων, according to Aristotle, (De Caelo, lib. i., chap. 9, and a higher authority need not be sought,) is compounded of αει, always, and ων, being, αιων εστιν, απο του αει ειναι. The same author informs us that God was termed Aisa, because he was always existing, λεγεσθαι - Αισαν δε, αει ουσαν. De Mundo, chap. xi., in fine. Hence we see that no words can more forcibly express the grand characteristics of eternity than these. It is that duration which is concealed, hidden, or kept secret from all created beings; which is always existing, still running ON but never running OUT; an interminable, incessant, and immeasurable duration; it is THAT, in the whole of which God alone can be said to exist, and that which the eternal mind can alone comprehend.

In all languages words have, in process of time, deviated from their original acceptations, and have become accommodated to particular purposes, and limited to particular meanings. This has happened both to the Hebrew עלם alam, and the Greek αιων; they have been both used to express a limited time, but in general a time the limits of which are unknown; and thus a pointed reference to the original ideal meaning is still kept up. Those who bring any of these terms in an accommodated sense to favour a particular doctrine, c., must depend on the good graces of their opponents for permission to use them in this way. For as the real grammatical meaning of both words is eternal, and all other meanings are only accommodated ones, sound criticism, in all matters of dispute concerning the import of a word or term, must have recourse to the grammatical meaning, and its use among the earliest and most correct writers in the language, and will determine all accommodated meanings by this alone. Now the first and best writers in both these languages apply olam and αιων to express eternal, in the proper meaning of that word and this is their proper meaning in the Old and New Testaments when applied to God, his attributes, his operations taken in connection with the ends for which he performs them, for whatsoever he doth, it shall be for ever - יהיה לעולם yihyeh leolam, it shall be for eternity, Ecclesiastes 3:14; forms and appearances of created things may change, but the counsels and purposes of God relative to them are permanent and eternal, and none of them can be frustrated; hence the words, when applied to things which from their nature must have a limited duration, are properly to be understood in this sense, because those things, though temporal in themselves, shadow forth things that are eternal. Thus the Jewish dispensation, which in the whole and in its parts is frequently said to be לעולם leolam, for ever, and which has terminated in the Christian dispensation, has the word properly applied to it, because it typified and introduced that dispensation which is to continue not only while time shall last, but is to have its incessant accumulating consummation throughout eternity. The word is, with the same strict propriety, applied to the duration of the rewards and punishments in a future state. And the argument that pretends to prove (and it is only pretension) that in the future punishment of the wicked "the worm shall die," and "the fire "shall be quenched," will apply as forcibly to the state of happy spirits, and as fully prove that a point in eternity shall arrive when the repose of the righteous shall be interrupted, and the glorification of the children of God have an eternal end! Genesis 17:7; Genesis 17:7; "Genesis 17:8".

1. FAITHFULNESS is one of the attributes of God, and none of his promises can fall. According to the promise to Abraham, Isaac is born; but according to the course of nature it fully appears that both Abraham and Sarah had passed that term of life in which it was possible for them to have children. Isaac is the child of the promise, and the promise is supernatural. Ishmael is born according to the ordinary course of nature, and cannot inherit, because the inheritance is spiritual, and cannot come by natural birth; hence we see that no man can expect to enter into the kingdom of God by birth, education, profession of the true faith, c., c. Those alone who are born from above, and are made partakers of the Divine nature, can be admitted into the family of God in heaven, and everlastingly enjoy that glorious inheritance. Reader, art thou born again? Hath God changed thy heart and thy life? If not, canst thou suppose that in thy present state thou canst possibly enter into the paradise of God? I leave thy conscience to answer.

2. The actions of good men may be misrepresented, and their motives suspected, because those motives are not known and those who are prone to think evil are the last to take any trouble to inform their minds, so that they may judge righteous judgment. Abraham, in the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, has been accused of cruelty. Though objections of this kind have been answered already, yet it may not be amiss farther to observe that what he did he did in conformity to a Divine command, and a command so unequivocally given that he could not doubt its Divine origin and this very command was accompanied with a promise that both the child and his mother should be taken under the Divine protection. And it was so; nor does it appear that they lacked any thing but water, and that only for a short time, after which it was miraculously supplied. God will work a miracle when necessary, and never till then; and at such a time the Divine interposition can be easily ascertained, and man is under no temptation to attribute to second causes what has so evidently flowed from the first. Thus, while he is promoting his creatures' good, he is securing his own glory; and he brings men into straits and difficulties, that he may have the fuller opportunity to convince his followers of his providential care, and to prove how much he loves them.

3. Did we acknowledge God in all our ways, he would direct our steps. Abimelech, king of Gerar, and Phichol, captain of his host, seeing Abraham a worshipper of the true God, made him swear by the object of his worship that there should be a lasting peace between them and him; for as they saw that God was with Abraham, they well knew that he could not expect the Divine blessing any longer than he walked in integrity before God; they therefore require him to swear by God that he would not deal falsely with them or their posterity. From this very circumstance we may see the original purpose, design, and spirit of an oath, viz., Let God prosper or curse ME in all that I do, as I prove true or false to my engagements! This is still the spirit of all oaths where God is called to witness, whether the form be by the water of the Ganges, the sign of the cross, kissing the Bible, or lifting up the hand to heaven. Hence we may learn that he who falsifies an oath or promise, made in the presence and name of God, thereby forfeits all right and title to the approbation and blessing of his Maker.

But it is highly criminal to make such appeals to God upon trivial occasions. Only the most solemn matters should be thus determined. Legislators who regard the morals of the people should take heed not to multiply oaths in matters of commerce and revenue, if they even use them at all. Who can take the oaths presented by the custom house or excise, and be guiltless? I have seen a person kiss his pen or thumb nail instead of the book, thinking that he avoided the condemnation thereby of the false oath he was then taking!

Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Genesis 21". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/acc/genesis-21.html. 1832.
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