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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter details the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7), the weaning feast, and the mockery of Ishmael (Genesis 21:8-10), the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:11-14), the destitution and heavenly rescue of the exiles at Beersheba (Genesis 21:15-21), and the treaty between Abimelech and Abraham (Genesis 21:23-34). The narrative here is closely synchronized with the preceding chapters, and fully in harmony with all that was previously revealed in them. The previous chapter (Genesis 20), which recounted Abraham’s first encounter with Abimelech, was a necessary prelude to this, because it shows how Abraham and his company were amicably settled in southern Canaan, which for many years to come was destined to be Abraham’s permanent base of operations. Isaac was born there (either in Gerar or Beersheba), grew into manhood there, and long continued to enjoy peaceful occupancy of that “No man’s land” between southern Philistia and Egypt, territory claimed by the Philistines, but for a long period under the control of their friendly ally Abraham.

Verses 1-7

“And Jehovah visited Sarah, as he had said, and Jehovah did unto Sarah as he had spoken. And Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham’s son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh; every one that heareth will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Genesis 21:1 and Genesis 21:2 stress the fact that God is a God who keeps and fulfills His promises. Note the recurrence of “as he had said … as he had spoken … at the set time of which God had spoken.” For a full quarter of a century, Abraham and Sarah had awaited this fulfillment, and then it was done.”

“Isaac” means laughter, memorializing Sarah’s laughing incredulity at the time of God’s promise, and also, in a wider context, appropriately referring to the joy that would come to all people through that “Seed singular,” who in the fullness of time would be delivered through the posterity of the same Isaac. It is foolish to seek variant sources on such details as whether the father or the mother bestowed the name on a new child, because in a number of instances, God Himself gave the name, as was true both of Isaac (Genesis 17:19), and of Ishmael (Genesis 16:11).

“Circumcised … when he was eight days old” This continued ever afterward as the invariable custom of the Jews; but the Arabians who descended through Ishmael observe the rite at the beginning of the 13th year, as it was initiated in the instance of Ishmael. Christ also was circumcised the eighth day; and thus Christians are “in Christ” circumcised with the “circumcision not made with hands” (Colossians 2:11-12). For the old Israel, circumcision was not the covenant, but the sign of the covenant; but for Christians, circumcision (in the spiritual sense) is the union with Christ by means of being baptized “into him.”

“Abraham was a hundred years old” Sarah was ninety at the same time when Isaac was born; supernatural gifts were conveyed to both of them in order to make possible the birth of Isaac, “the child of promise” (Galatians 4:28).

“That Sarah should give children suck” Sarah’s speaking of Isaac here as “children” is significant. Willis was doubtless correct in the observation that, “Passages such as this show that a man with one child is suitable to serve as an elder, if his spiritual qualities are on a high godly plane (1 Timothy 3:4; Titus 1:6).”(F1)

All of the happiness that should have come to Abraham and Sarah with the birth of this long-awaited son, however, did not come. The terrible evils of polygamy, and the tangled affairs of their domestic life, resulted almost at once in jealousy, strife, enmity, and division. The climax came on the occasion of the feast given to celebrate the weaning of Isaac.

Verses 8-10

“And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this handmaid and her son; for the son of this handmaid shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.”

“The child grew, and was weaned” “This occurred in his second or third year, as is usual among Orientals.”(F2) The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees has an account of a mother pleading with her son and saying, “My son, have pity upon me, that bore thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age” (2 Maccabees 2:27).

“And Sarah saw the son of Hagar … mocking” It is deplorable that some of the later versions follow the erroneous rendition of this place found in the Septuagint (LXX), and thus translate “playing with,” instead of “mocking,” a manifest absurdity. Seventeen-year old boys do NOT play with infant children three years old! Such renditions are derived from the vain efforts of critical scholars to make an infant out of Ishmael himself in this episode, for the purpose of alleging “contradictions” in the text. First, the Septuagint (LXX) in this place is not original(F3) and was erroneously received into the RSV from that source. As Aalders pointed out, the word here means “mockery, being exactly the same word used to describe the reaction of Lot’s son-in-law when they were told about the coming destruction of Sodom.”(F4) (See Genesis 19:4). But there is more than this. Paul, in Galatians, made the behavior of Ishmael in this episode to be a type of the persecution of God’s people in all the ages to come (Galatians 4:29-30). In light of the inspired testimony of the apostle Paul, the devious efforts to take the mockery out of this place are totally frustrated. It is just as true now, as when Paul wrote, that for men who do not know Christ, “at the reading of the old covenant … a veil lies upon their hearts, and shall remain until they turn to the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18). Many of the scholarly errors being advocated today exist simply because N.T. light is not sought on that which they vainly try to interpret without it. One glorious word from the N.T. on a passage like this forever removes all doubt of exactly what is meant.

Sarah was perfectly within the rights of any perceptive mother who sought to protect the interest of her son. Ishmael was considerably older than Isaac, and Abraham was already of an advanced age, and Josephus was doubtless correct in attributing Sarah’s action to her apprehension that, due to his being so much older than Isaac, Ishmael, “being older, would be able to do injuries to Isaac when their father would be dead.”(F5) The situation was absolutely impossible. Under the laws of the times, Ishmael was indeed an heir of Abraham, and, although he was not on a parity with Isaac, due to the secondary status of his mother, he would nevertheless have been one of the heirs. However, “There was a legal tradition that stipulated that a son of a slave woman could forego his inheritance claim in exchange for freedom,”(F6) and that was exactly the option that Sarah determined to force upon Hagar and Ishmael.

Virtually to the threshold of full manhood, Ishmael had been brought up as the “heir apparent,” and schooled in all the affairs of administration to which his position entitled him, and one can feel total sympathy for him and the attitude that he could not have failed to have, as he saw the feeble infant Isaac being celebrated with a great feast on the occasion of his weaning. Sarah’s determined action is the only thing that could have prevented open warfare between the two half-brothers at some later time. We are not sympathetic to the scornful manner with which some commentators criticize and deplore Sarah’s unkind and jealous actions. One glimpse of the mocking, sneering face of Ishmael as he belittled and made light of Isaac was all that was required to trigger the sudden and dramatic action of Sarah, but she knew what she was doing.

Poor Abraham, however, would have welched out of the task that confronted him, had there been any honorable way to do so, because of his love of Ishmael. However, God spoke to him and left him no alternative, except that of granting Sarah’s wishes.

Verses 11-13

“And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight, on account of his son. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy handmaid; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the handmaid will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.”

Abraham and Sarah were then reaping the bitterness created by themselves when they chose to introduce a slave girl into Abraham’s bedchamber as his wife. How far better it would have been if they had found the faith and strength to await the fulfillment of God’s promise in His own good time! There can hardly be any doubt that Abraham would have avoided freeing the slave woman and sending her away had it not been for the direct command of God that he should “hearken to the voice” of Sarah. What a heart-wrenching decision it was, but Abraham courageously faced the problem and resolved it as God commanded him.

“He is thy seed” Willis and others frequently stress that “seed” in this passage is a collective noun in singular form, but with a plural meaning. “It is clear that the reference is to the Israelite people,”(F7) or, as in the case of Ishmael, the whole people descended from him. However, such a simplistic view of this word is insufficient. There are no less than five definite meanings of this term in the Bible:

(1) “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Genesis 21:12), is a reference to the select Hebrew line, through whom the Messiah would be born, and it did not include Ishmael.

(2) “I will make (Ishmael) a nation, because he is thy seed,” stands for the fleshly posterity of Abraham as distinguished from the line of Isaac.

(3) Also, there are those among the true line of Isaac who were distinguished from the racial Jews of both the lines of Isaac and Ishmael, because they were persons of like faith and purpose of Abraham. In this sense, Zacchaeus was called by Jesus, “a son of Abraham,” (Luke 19:9); but the Pharisees, of exactly the same racial extract, were called “sons of the devil” (John 8:44).

(4) In the specific and ultimate sense, Christ is the “Seed Singular” of Abraham, being called THE SON OF ABRAHAM in the first verse of the N.T. That this meaning is the true one in certain O.T. passages is evident from Paul’s words: “Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

(5) But there is even a more general meaning, having no racial overtones whatever. “And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). Thus, a great deal more must be observed concerning the term “seed” than the mere fact of its being a collective noun and usually understood as plural.

God’s promise to make Ishmael a nation was likely given as an encouragement for Abraham to carry out the divine instructions.

One other thing should be noticed here. Although wives in the N.T. are commanded to be “in subjection” to their own husbands, the example of Sarah who stood up against the wishes of her husband, is a rightful qualifier of that apostolic instruction. There are times when wives should indeed take things in their own hands despite the wishes of their husbands, and here is a glorious example of a beloved wife who did so. She is a type of “The Jerusalem which is above, which is our mother” (Galatians 4:25-26).

Verses 14-16

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and gave her the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not look upon the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”

“Bread and a bottle of water” It should not be supposed that this was the total endowment given to Hagar and her son when Abraham sent them away. It would be totally out of character for Abraham to have sent them away without sufficient provisions, or monies with which to procure them, sufficient for the journey she was compelled to make. The love of Abraham for Ishmael would have prevented such an injustice. Besides that, when Abraham sent away his concubines, near the end of his career, it is written that, “Unto the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:6). There is no room for doubt that Abraham also bestowed gifts upon Hagar and Ishmael. The cryptic mention of “bread … and water” here indicates only the load that she carried with her, but not any money or silver which would not have been carried on her shoulder. This whole narrative is extremely abbreviated. One other thing about this is that even the water supply did not give out because of any unusual limitation of it, but because she had been lost and had “wandered” in the wilderness (Genesis 21:14).

“The wilderness of Beersheba” This was southward from the home of Abraham in the direction of Egypt, which had been Hagar’s home before Pharaoh had given her to Abraham. It was only natural that she should have attempted to go back home. One has to be without pity to view the narrative here without sorrow and concern for this woman and her son so suddenly thrust out of the affluent circumstances to which they were accustomed. One redeeming factor of Hagar’s expulsion, however, should not be overlooked — her freedom, and that of her son, were the glorious corollaries of the hardships to which they were exposed. With that in view, it was worth it.

“Beersheba” was situated some 50 miles southwest of Jerusalem, “about half way between the Mediterranean and the southern portion of the Dead Sea.”(F8) The entire area there appears to have had a sparse population in the times of Abraham, and it served somewhat as a buffer area between Egypt and the Philistines. The principal importance of Beersheba with its wells lay in the fact of its being a watering place on the trade route to and from Egypt.

“And gave her the child” These words “and gave her” are supplied by the translators to make the meaning clear. Their omission would make the passage seem to say that Abraham had placed the child, along with the bread and water, on Hagar’s shoulder. The critical scholars have proposed all kinds of emendations, substitutions, and rearrangements of the text here for the purpose of setting up “contradictions” of other Biblical passages, but as one of them freely admitted, “The various emendations that have been proposed merely substitute one set of problems for another. An acceptable solution is yet to be discovered.” There are places in the Hebrew Bible where the text is uncertain, due to the antiquity of it, and to human error visible in places where the text is uncertain, but God has seen to it that the meaning is almost always perfectly clear anyway. Take the alleged “problem” here, for example. Speiser defined it: “The real problem is Ishmael’s age at the time (of this episode).”(F9) That is really no problem at all. The reading of the previous chapters makes it perfectly clear that he was 16 or 17 years of age. Besides that, the efforts of source-splitters to make this passage assert that Ishmael was a little child during this episode are frustrated by the dates for the circumcision of Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was age 13 when circumcised, and Isaac, circumcised on the eighth day, was three years old at his weaning. Therefore, the age of Ishmael here was 16 or 17. Both these dates are memorialized perpetually in the various customs of the Arabians and the Hebrews, so there cannot be any doubt of the age of Ishmael here. Thus, two independent sources attest the validity of our conclusion, those of the Genesis record, and the monumental testimony of the rite of circumcision, observed by literally millions of people all over the world, conforming to the dates given. Note too that Ishmael was circumcised the very first day that God gave the ordinance, that he was then age 13, and that Isaac was born after Ishmael, and was three years of age when this episode occurred. Thus, 13 plus three equals 16, a figure that might vary a year due to the Hebrew method of calculating birthdays.

“She cast the child under one of the shrubs” This too is pressed into service to prove an untruth. But Keil said, the word for “child” here is actually “lad.” “It does not mean an infant, but a “boy” or a “young man.”(F10)

Verses 17-21

“And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of the heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thy hand; for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became, as he grew up, an archer. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.”

“Hold him in thy hand” The literal meaning of this clause is, “Bind fast thy hand to him.”(F11) It is an idiomatic expression meaning, “Give him thy support now, and take care of him until he reaches manhood.”(F12)

This extremely abbreviated account closes out the story of Ishmael here, to return as quickly as possible to the story of Isaac. One other important thing would be related first, and that regarded the establishment of Abraham in a settled dwelling place until Isaac should reach manhood. The part that Abimelech played in that shows how necessary were the events of the previous chapter in order to accomplish such a thing.

Verses 22-24

“And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest: now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned. And Abraham said, I will swear.”

Abraham’s increasing power and prosperity had evidently raised a certain fear in the mind of Abimelech that future conflict might develop between them. Therefore Abimelech sought by honorable and peaceful means to guard against any such possibilities. Abraham promptly took the requested oath, remembering, no doubt, that Abimelech had indeed granted manifold favors to him, including the rich gifts upon the occasion of his intended marriage to Sarah. Abraham seized upon the occasion to resolve a conflict over possession of a well which had been claimed by some of Abimelech’s servants.

Verses 25-27

“And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. And Abimelech said, I know not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but today. And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant.”

This free exchange of the principal figures in the narrative resulted in a happy resolution of potential difficulty. A water well on the edge of the desert was the power of life and death in the hands of the persons controlling it. And that famous well at Beersheba is reported to be still in use after the passing of millenniums. There are many descriptions of it:

“The great well has an internal diameter at the mouth of 12 feet 6 inches, a circumference of 40 feet! The shaft is solid masonry of high quality to a great depth until it reaches rock, where a spring perpetually feeds it … A second well, about 600 feet further south is 5 feet in diameter, but of equally good construction.(F13) The digging of this well involved cutting through 16 feet of solid rock. It is 38 feet from the top to the surface of the water.”(F14)

Verses 28-31

“And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which thou hast set by themselves? Those seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well. Wherefore he called the place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.”

There is much scholarly discussion on the meaning of the well’s name, Beersheba. Unger pointed out that the name features three vital elements connected with this episode: “[~Beer] means `well’; [~sheba`] means `seven’; and [~nishba`] means `swear’.”(F15) It is somewhat ludicrous that various references to the well as “the well of the oath,” “the well of the seven,” etc., lead some of the critics to “discover” multiple sources! The word may mean either. “Seven,” of course, has reference to the seven ewe lambs.

Verses 32-34

“So they made a covenant at Beersheba: and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and called there on the name of Jehovah, the Everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.”

“And they returned into the land of the Philistines” Some would make this deny that Beersheba was also in the land of the Philistines, but the very fact of Abimelech’s servants having taken Abraham’s well by violence is proof enough that the place was considered Philistine territory. Moreover, it will be noted that Abraham continued to live there, where it is called in the very next verse, “the land of the Philistines.” A study of the whole chapter reveals that Hagar was not very far from where she had started when she was in the wilderness of Beersheba.

“And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree” Speiser’s opinion that such a tree “ties the worship of Jehovah to the symbolism of a sacred tree,”(F16) is unsupported by anything, either in the Bible, or out of it. It would be just as reasonable to assume that when Sam Houston planted a bois d’arc tree in Arkansas that it tied the worship of Jehovah to that!


God’s great mercy and blessing were poured out upon Ishmael and his posterity, despite the fact of their not being members of the covenant. Nevertheless, God loved them, as indeed he loved the whole world, “So that he gave his only begotten Son.” We wish to close this chapter with a paragraph from a homily by F. Hastings:

“God cares for those outside the pale of the Church, even as for those within. Those without have not taken up their privileges, nor do they see how Christ loves them. They are suffering great loss, and are in danger of even greater losses; but God loves them, cares for them, and pities them. `He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’“

God pitied the people of Nineveh and sent them a warning; he healed Naaman; he sent Elijah to dwell with the woman of Sarepta, thus honoring her; he brought Nebuchadnezzar to his right mind by a judicial affliction; Jesus praised the Syrophoenician woman, and the centurions of the Roman garrison in Capernaum — all these things were loving mercies poured out beyond the boundaries of the Covenant! Oh, how much more widely flows the channel of Divine love and mercy than many are inclined to think!

Whoever, whatever, wherever any man is, let him remember that God loves him.(F17)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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