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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 21

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-21

A Son is Born to Sarah and Another Son of Abraham is Cast Out (Genesis 21:1-21 ).

The account of Yahweh’s fulfilment of His promise to Abraham in the giving of a son comes interestingly enough in the covenant made by God with Ishmael. Thus the writing down of the detail was by Ishmael. This explains the flatness of the initial introduction in respect of something that would have made Abraham and Sarah ecstatic. Had it not been for this connection with a covenant the birth narrative could well have been carried down in the oral tradition and may well have not been recorded in writing. But while to Ishmael the birth was rather a misfortune than a blessing to the compiler this is an event of outstanding importance.

The first verse in this chapter, Genesis 21:1, like Genesis 20:18, is introduced by the person who combined the two covenant documents of Genesis 20, 21 together. The former spoke of the fact that Yahweh had closed the wombs of the house of Abimelech, this verse declares that Yahweh has opened the womb of Sarah. He Who can make barren can also make fruitful. It enables the one document to slide into the other.

Genesis 21:1

‘And Yahweh visited Sarah as he had said and Yahweh did to Sarah as he had spoken.’

This introductory clause confirms the faithfulness of Yahweh with typical repetition. For He is the faithful One and the carrying out of His promise is about to be revealed.

But in the whole passage from 21:2 to 21:21 the One Who acts is consistently ‘God’. This is because the covenant is with one, and recorded by one, who feels he is no longer a part of Yahweh’s chosen people, but is cast out. He records it in the name of ‘God’ Whom he will in future worship. This explains the remarkable fact that in the description of Isaac’s birth little religious connotation is brought in. Indeed it is noticeably absent. There is no worship of Yahweh, no message from Yahweh and little of the exultation we would expect at so great a moment. What there is, apart from what is basically necessary, is almost totally secular.

Genesis 21:2

‘And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the set time of which God had spoken to him.’

Even Ishmael and his scribe cannot help but be struck that the baby came ‘at the set time’. As he looks back he recognises the sovereign power of ‘God’. ‘The set time’ is mentioned in Genesis 17:21 and it is significant that this is in the middle of a covenant which very much included Ishmael and for that reason was spoken of as ‘God’s’.

Genesis 21:3-4

‘And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old as God had commanded him.’

The narrative is straight and stiff. It describes the birth, and the circumcision, and stresses that the child was truly Sarah’s and was, by circumcision, made a participator in the covenant previously made in Genesis 17:0 in obedience to God’s command.

The name Isaac means ‘laughter’, but it is very probable that his full name was ‘Isaac-El’, in accord with similar names elsewhere, which means ‘God laughs’, or ‘may God laugh (on the child)’. But it was clearly shortened to Isaac.

Genesis 21:5

‘And Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.’

Again this connects with the covenant chapter 17, where the ninety nine years was fixed by the fact that there was one year to go to the birth of the promised child. The hundred years is a round number indicating the fullness of time.

Genesis 21:6-7

‘And Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, everyone who hears will laugh with me”, and she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would breast feed her own children, for I have borne him a son in his old age”.’

The first part of the sentence would seem to confirm that the official name was ‘Isaac-el’ (yishaq’el). But popularly he was known as Isaac, a reminder of the laughter and joy he had brought. Sarah expresses her thanks to God by declaring the He has given her laughter. Then she immediately goes on to declare how much happiness this has brought to those around who will share her joy. Isaac, she is saying, is well named for he brings laughter. The reader will remember the other kind of laughter mentioned earlier before he was born. But Sarah is now content.

Genesis 21:8

‘And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.’

Isaac would be about three years old when he was weaned (finally eating food other than milk - see 1 Samuel 1:23). In all this, while God is acknowledged, it is hardly the paean of praise to Yahweh that we might expect. Rather it is a brief but honest summary of the essentials preparatory to what is to come with regard to Ishmael, brought to life by the subsequently added introductory phrase (Genesis 21:0:).

Do we detect in all this some bitterness on behalf of one whose birth was not declared to be accompanied by laughter and whose birth was not described as an occasion of general rejoicing, but indeed became an embarrassment rather than being celebrated by a feast? (see Genesis 16:0).

Genesis 21:9

‘And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking (or ‘playing’).’

The word translated ‘mocking’ can have a variety of meanings. It really indicates ‘enjoying or amusing oneself’. This could be totally innocent, or at the expense of others (thus ‘mocking’) - compare its use in Genesis 19:14. It can mean (with ’eth) ‘fondling’ a woman (26:8). No final decision can be made on its meaning here. It may simply mean that they were playing together as equals, but this is unlikely in view of Ishmael’s age (he is about 16, and a man). Or it could suggest unpleasantness of either a slight (making a fool of), or of a more abhorrent kind. If Ishmael was responsible for this record then the word may be deliberately used vaguely to give the impression of innocence. What he saw as ‘playing’ others may have seen in a different light.

The fact that Abraham is prepared even to consider expulsion (verse 11), very much against his will until Yahweh intervenes, would suggest it was more than just innocent fun. To send away a slave-wife and a son was a grave act, and in some societies at the time a son born under the method used by Sarah would be sacrosanct and could not be turned out. This suggests that ‘playing’ is a euphemism for something far worse.

It is again emphasised that Hagar is an Egyptian. But that may have been how she was known in comparison with another Hagar. It may, however, contain a hint of rancour as Ishmael remembers how his mother was treated as a foreigner, or even of pride. Egyptians were not short in national pride. They saw themselves as superior.

Genesis 21:10

‘As a result she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac”.’

Sarah had done nothing for three or more years. Furthermore she has always been very submissive to her husband. What then provokes this sudden demand that Abraham deal with matters so drastically against his will. Was it jealousy for her son’s position? But she could have no real doubt that Isaac would take over leadership of the tribe, for God had promised it. Was it a fear of something she saw in Ishmael’s behaviour, some veiled threat to her son? All we know is that something spurred her on to make this demand.

“This bondwoman”. One can see the curl on her beautiful lip as she says it. It is deliberately derogatory, drawing attention to how Hagar is seen, at least by her. The stinging words were clearly remembered by Ishmael.

“Shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” She wanted everything for Isaac. He had the prime inheritance but she wanted more. Happily this attitude was not later maintained between the two sons for they come together to bury Abraham (Genesis 25:9). And there too we learn that although Isaac did receive the prime inheritance, Abraham’s other sons were not forgotten (Genesis 25:5-6).

Genesis 21:11

‘And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son.’

Abraham clearly loved Ishmael deeply. This does suggest that Sarah must have had some sound grounds for what she was suggesting. As patriarch he had to act justly and fairly, and we know he was a just and fair man. He would not have given the matter consideration without just cause.

But this may also reflect the memory that Ishmael carried with him, the certainty that in spite of all his father loved him deeply.

Genesis 21:12

‘And God said to Abraham, “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your bondwoman. In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice. For in Isaac shall your seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed ”.’

God’s approval to the plan must indicate that there were grounds for the expulsion (even granted that it was within His purpose). Such an expulsion would not take place lightly, for Ishmael would no doubt have some support in the family tribe, and external evidence demonstrates that the casting out of a bondwoman’s son would under normal circumstances be frowned on. God is calling Abraham to his duty. And yet in so doing He confirms His promises to Ishmael.

“For in Isaac shall your seed be called”. The future fulfilment of the central promise of God lies in Isaac. This expulsion will not affect the Promise.

Genesis 21:14 a

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning and took bread and a water-skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the boy, and sent her away.’

The emphasis is on the expulsion of Hagar herself. This supports the view that we have here Ishmael’s memory of the picture. He cannot forget that Abraham sent his mother away. He grieves, not for himself for he is possibly aware that he has committed some fault, but for her. The word for ‘boy’ is neutral. It can equally mean a young man. It may also suggest that Abraham sees her as the one with the strength to cope with the situation.

“Took bread --- and the lad, and sent her away.” The blame is put on Hagar’s shoulders. It is she who is sent away at Sarah’s request. The lad goes with her. He is possibly not yet considered to be of age. He is in fact about fifteen years old. (As forty appears to be looked on as the age for marrying a fifteen year old might not then have been looked on as mature).

Abraham arises himself to see to the matter. The detail is all remembered. How could Ishmael ever forget it? The early morning rise. Abraham, with heavy heart, providing food and water and putting them on Hagar’s shoulder. It must be remembered that she is the servantwoman and Ishmael is the patriarch’s son. It is not right that he carries the burden.

Genesis 21:14 b

‘And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.’

Why does she not again make for Egypt as she had done before? (Genesis 16:7). There is no attempt here. Why does she avoid the highways? Is she aware of some shame that will prevent her acceptance in Egypt that was not there before? Or is she determined to stay within reach of her son’s inheritance?

It is quite clear in all this that Hagar is the dominant person. It is she who takes over and makes the decisions. It has been clear from the beginning that she was very strongminded, and years of servitude have hardened her as she has carried her grievance through the years. Ishmael may be a little bewildered at the turn of events, but not Hagar. She takes control.

Genesis 21:15

‘And the water in the water-skin was spent and she heaved the lad under one of the shrubs.’

The water runs out and even the hardiest person cannot do without water. As they become more and more parched their strength fails, the young man’s first for he is not yet fully matured and he has not had to fight for himself as Hagar has. Then at length he collapses and Hagar has this further burden to bear. Yet bravely she struggles on with him until she knows her cause is lost. (Like many strong women she may have been a very awkward person, but we cannot help but admire her now, as the writer does as well. He does not have to fill in the details. All his readers know the perils of the burning sun and the wilderness).

“She heaved the lad under one of the shrubs”. A last desperate effort. The only shelter within reach. And she does what she can for her son.

Genesis 21:16

‘And she went and sat down in front of him a good way off, as it were a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of my boy.” And she sat opposite him and wept.’

She cannot bear to watch him die, yet she cannot bear to leave him. She must be within sight if his eyes open again. Yet she cannot remain too close. Her deep grief is clear. It is almost more than she can bear.

Genesis 21:17

‘And God heard the voice of the young man, and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said to her, “What is wrong with you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. For God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Get up. Lift the lad up and support him firmly with your hand. For I will make him a great nation”.’

The name Ishmael meant ‘God has heard’. In the extremity he is in the lad prays, and God hears. Note that it is his prayer that is heard. He is a son of Abraham, and God will hear for Abraham’s sake.

“The angel of God”. Similar to the ‘angel of Yahweh’, but ‘Yahweh’ cannot be used here for Ishmael is now outside the covenant line. It is to ‘God’ that he will henceforth look.

“What is wrong with you Hagar?” It is as though God says, ‘this is not like you, Hagar, to give up, and especially when there is help within reach. The lad needs you now as never before. Do not let him down’.

“For I will make him a great nation.” Does she not remember His covenant? Does she think He will let the lad to whom He has made these great promises die? The promise renewed under these circumstances (and in verse 13) is the original reason for the writing of the record.

Genesis 21:19

‘And God opened her eyes and she saw a spring of water, and she went and filled the water-skin with water and gave the lad drink.’

In all her struggles and wanderings a hand had unknowingly guided her. Where she thought there was nothing there was salvation. Unknowingly she had struggled to where there was a small spring. But without the voice of God she would never have known.

She has no thought for herself. Her one concern is for her son. She immediately fills the wine-skin and gives water to her son. In all this her toughness too comes out. She is a survivor. Without her Ishmael would have been doomed.

The detail in the narrative stresses that it is recorded at the instigation of one who was there. It is not overplayed, yet it conveys the heart of the matter. And the subtle nuances are too deep to be just an invention of a storyteller. All through this account was written from experience of the events, and from a particular viewpoint. The comparative briefness of the birth of Isaac, that event that should have been written in gold, compared with the detail of the experiences of Ishmael, even to the awareness of his deepest feelings, confirm that we have here a record compiled by him. And the renewal of the covenant under the most difficult of circumstances explains why it was put into writing.

Genesis 21:20-21

‘And God was with the lad and he grew, and he dwelt in the wilderness and became an archer. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.’

This clear addition to the account, with its local colour, was no doubt either added to the covenant tablet at a later date or when it was combined with others to form a connected sequence.

“He dwelt in the wilderness and became an archer”. He soon learned to adapt to his surroundings and became a wilderness wanderer, and a hunter both of man and beast as he lived out his precarious existence. The wilderness in which he established himself, and later his tribe, (Abraham’s sons were born to be leaders) was the wilderness of Paran, between Palestine and Egypt in the Sinai region near the Gulf of Aqabah.

“And his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt”. The hand of his strong-minded mother continues to influence him. She is proud of her Egyptian background and does not want him to marry just anyone. His relatives are closed to him and she takes the only possible alternative.

Hagar stands out throughout as a strong minded, resourceful woman. Later we read of a tribe called the Hagrites who were connected with the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, and Moab (Psalms 83:6). See also 1 Chronicles 5:10; 1 Chronicles 5:19 where they are connected with Jetur and Naphish, sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:15). It may be that she even established her own tribe, although the connection may be a coincidence.

Abraham Renews His Covenant With Abimelech in ‘the Land of the Philistines’ (Genesis 21:22-34).

This passage contains the first mention of ‘Philistines’ as being in the land. Some have doubted this on the grounds that the Philistines arrived later in 12th century BC in the wave of Sea Peoples invading among others the coasts of Lebanon, ancient Phoenicia, sweeping down through the coastal plains of Palestine (named after them) and troubling Egypt, where they are referred to as Prst.

It is, of course, true that in the sense of the Philistines as a ruling nation and a threat to others in Palestine, the 12th century BC is the commencement of their presence, but the peoples from whom they came were certainly evidenced in the Ancient Near East before that.

There is clear archaeological evidence of trade between Caphtor (home of the Philistines - see 10:14: Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7) and the mainland around this time, including trade with Ugarit and Hazor, and also Egypt; and a tablet from Mari (18th century BC) records the sending of gifts from the king of Hazor to Kaptara (Caphtor). There is therefore nothing unlikely in a trading set up being established in Palestine around this time, on the trading route between Mesopotamia and Egypt, by people from Caphtor, whence came the Philistines (Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). They were a sea people.

“Philistines” may be a later modernisation of an archaic term for them originally found in the text, so that the reader could identify them, but as we do not know the origin of the name, it may easily have applied to a section of the people of Caphtor in the time of Abraham, some of whom came as peaceful traders to Palestine long before their later arrival. On the whole people only get mentioned in inscriptions when they have made their presence felt.

The reference in Genesis 21:0 to ‘the land of the Philistines’ may thus simply be an indication of the presence of a trading group from Caphtor who have established themselves there, not necessarily very numerous, but very noteworthy in that part of Canaan. It is possibly significant that Abimelech is called king of Gerar in 20:2 but king of the Philistines in 26:1, 8; suggesting either a later increase in the Philistine presence, or that Abraham did not know who they were until later, which would be evidence of the genuine ancient provenance of the accounts. (He first arrives in the region of Gerar and meets an unknown people, he later learns that the area is called by many ‘the land of the Philistines’, he then discovers that it is Philistines with whom he has been dealing at Gerar, and all this is discovered between the recording of the different covenants).

Verses 22-23

‘And so it was at that time that Abimelech, and Phicol the captain of his host, spoke to Abraham saying, “God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son. But in accordance with the kindness that I have done to you, you shall do to me and to the land wherein you have sojourned ”.’

While it is clear that this has in mind Abraham’s reputation as a ‘prophet’, who thus has extraordinary powers and influence with the divine, gained in Genesis 20:0, it would not have arisen unless Abraham’s family tribe with its private army had been seen as a real threat (Genesis 21:23), and that clearly indicates that the ‘host’ over which Phicol is captain is not all that large. They are not speaking as a powerful nation but as a fair sized but vulnerable group (compare Genesis 26:16).

The names Abimelech and Phicol occur again in Genesis 26:0 (see especially Genesis 26:26). This may be because young men have grown old, or because the names Abimelech and Phicol were titles assumed by the leader and military captain of the group. We can compare the Egyptian title ‘Pharaoh’ which was used as a name and how ‘Tartan’ was the name applied to Assyrian generals (2 Kings 18:17; Isaiah 20:1) - as we know from inscriptions.

Abimelech is a Semitic name meaning ‘Melech (or ‘the divine king’ - later known as Molech to the Israelites because the vowels were changed to indicate abomination) is my father’. It is used of Achish, the Philistine king of Gath, in the superscription to Psalms 34:0, demonstrating its connection with the Philistines. It would be prudent for the leader of foreign traders to have a Semitic sounding name. Phicol is of unknown provenance.

“God is with you in all that you do”. Abraham’s local reputation as a prophet has never been forgotten. The group are somewhat afraid of his divine connections.

“Now therefore swear to me here by God --”. The specific aim of the approach is a treaty, confirming the previous treaty and expanding it. In return for certain rights yet to be agreed the tribe were to swear friendship with Abimelech and his people. ‘The kindness that I have shown to you’ covers some of those rights.

Verse 24

‘And Abraham said, “I will swear”.’

Abraham confirms that he wishes to live at peace and is happy to agree to a renewal of the treaty, but takes the opportunity to deal with certain matters that need sorting out.

Verse 25

‘And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away.’

The well, clearly fed by a powerful spring, must have been of great importance for it to come up at this point, which was why both groups wanted it. Indeed regular supplies of water were always important in all periods, but this must have been exceptional. That is why Abraham wants it brought within any covenant. It was so important that it in fact became the centre of their operations.

Digging a well satisfactorily could be a difficult and time consuming task, and when it was completed and the well producing satisfactorily it gave great satisfaction. It was not a happy thing therefore that it had then been snatched from them by force.

The incident does indicate that all was not necessarily well between the two groups. Presumably Abraham has not retaliated because he has considered the effect on the relationship between the two groups, or it may be that it was very recent and he was still considering what to do, but it clearly rankled. Now the opportunity had come to solve the matter.

Verse 26

‘And Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing, nor did you tell me, nor yet have I heard of it until today.”’

This may be politician’s talk or it may be true. But his approach in itself suggests that Abimelech is aware of a certain uneasy feeling between the two groups. Now he has at least a partial explanation.

Verse 27

‘And Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and they two made a covenant.’

Abraham makes a payment to Abimelech. He recognises that this is Abimelech’s territory and that compensation must be paid for the use of certain facilities (compare the tithes paid to Mechizedek (14:20). ‘And they made a treaty’. Terms of agreement are hammered out.

Verses 28-30

‘And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. And Abimelech said to Abraham “What do these seven ewe lambs which you have set by themselves mean?” And he said, “You will take these seven ewe lambs of my hand that it may be a witness to me that I have dug this well”.’

The well is so important that Abraham wants it confirmed by a specific ceremony. The ceremony does not necessarily mean that Abimelech does not know the significance of the seven lambs. Indeed we are probably to recognise that he does. There is no point in a ceremony if it is not understood. They are going through the formal ceremony in a generally recognised procedure with stereotyped questions and answers. Abraham sets aside the ewe lambs, Abimelech asks what they mean, then Abraham confirms their significance.

So a solemn agreement is concluded within the larger covenant. It was an ancient custom that the acceptance of a gift included recognition of the just claim of the giver.

The seven ewe lambs were probably intended to signify the whole price paid by Abraham in Genesis 21:27, seven being the number of divine perfection and completeness. Alternately they may have been the price paid for use of the specific well. From now on both sides will recognise that the well has been dug by, and its use officially guaranteed to, Abraham and his group.

Verse 31

‘Wherefore he called that place Beersheba, when there they swore, both of them.’ Beersheba means ‘the well of seven’, and is the name given to that particular well. The name is given to remind both sides of the treaty that has been made about it, sealed by the giving of the seven ewe lambs.

Genesis 21:14 refers to the wilderness of Beersheba. It could be that Abraham takes the well known name of the wilderness and applies it to the well because it is appropriate. Alternately it may be that the wilderness originally had another name, altered to Beersheba when Beersheba became well known, for the name Beersheba is eventually applied to a city. (Genesis 26:33 refers to a city of Beersheba, whose name appeared subsequently to that time, and that is the general meaning of Beersheba later on).

Verse 32

‘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.’

The treaty having been satisfactorily concluded the pair return to their land which is called ‘the land of the Philistines (see above prior to verse 1). In a sense, of course they are already in the land of the Philistines (Genesis 21:34) but the differentiation is made to demonstrate that now this part they have left is under Abraham’s jurisdiction, with their agreement. We may possibly differentiate between the land actually occupied by the Philistines and that over which they have final control.

Verse 33

‘And Abraham planted a Tamarisk tree at Beersheba and called there on the name of Yahweh, the Everlasting God - El ‘Olam.’

It may be that the Philistines in Gerar worshipped El ‘Olam whom, because of the significance of his name Abraham accepted as being Yahweh for he knew Yahweh to be God from everlasting to everlasting (there was no concept of ‘eternity’. ‘Olam meant from time past to time future), compare El Elyon (Genesis 14:22).

The Tamarisk tree was native to the area. It was to mark and possibly to provide shelter over the well. Thus the thirsty passer by, needing water, would see the well was there.

“Called there on the name of Yahweh”. As priest of the tribe he originated cult worship there. It became a shrine to the goodness of God, the central place of worship for his family tribe.

Verse 34

‘And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.’ Notice the stress on the fact that he is a sojourner. Though he has settled down there the land is not his people’s, as one day it will be. He still has to walk by faith.

“In the land of the Philistines.” It is clear that the area where they were was acknowledged to be under the control of the Philistine group. This may not be the name of the area but just an acknowledgement of the facts.

“Many days.” The idea of Abraham wandering continually around from place to place is incorrect. Here ‘many days’ probably means a number of years. He was there when Isaac was born. He was there when Isaac was a growing lad (Genesis 22:0). Of course, the flocks and herds had to be moved about to find grazing, but this was done from a permanent centre.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 21". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-21.html. 2013.
 
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