In The Beginning

Genesis Chapter Twenty One

I

A wise old saying tells us that a promise is only as good as the person who makes the promise. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that some people just can't be trusted to keep their promises at all. The good news is that a promise from God is a promise that you can absolutely rely on, even when the outward circumstances seem to say otherwise. 

We'll see a good example of this truth in Genesis chapter twenty-one as God demonstrates His faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah...

"Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him" (Genesis 21:1-2)

Now if you remember back in Genesis chapter seventeen, God said this to Abraham:

"'As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you'" (Genesis 17:4-6).

Genesis 21:1-2 tells us that the time had come for God to deliver on this promise that He made to Abraham so many years earlier. But before we take a look at that, it's important to recognize that there is a gap of about 25 years between the time when Abraham first received this promise from God and the time when it actually came to pass. 

This reminds us that God will always make good on His promises even when it may seem like He's taking a really long time. Remember that God operates on His own timetable and even though God never misses an appointment, His schedule may not always line up with what we think His schedule should be.

Next, Genesis 21:1 also tells us that "...the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said." The word translated as "gracious" in this verse means, "to be concerned with, to look after, or to intervene on behalf of." (1) The thing to remember about this is that God did not fulfill His promise to Abraham and Sarah because they followed God perfectly. Even though Abraham and Sarah both made some mistakes in their relationship with God, God was still faithful to look after them and deliver on what He had promised.

(1) Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers 

II

"Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him" (Genesis 21:2-3).

So Abraham and Sarah welcomed this brand new addition to their family and gave him the name "Isaac." Isaac's name means "laughter" and while that may seem like an unusual name to give to a baby, his name may be related to two events that happened earlier in the book of Genesis. You see, Genesis chapter seventeen tells us that when God promised Abraham that he would have a son, Abraham responded like this...

"Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, 'Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?'" (Genesis 17:17).

Later on in Genesis chapter eighteen, God spoke to Abraham again and told him that Sarah would give birth to this promised son in the following year. But Sarah was secretly listening in on that conversation- and this was the way that she reacted...

"So Sarah laughed silently. 'A woman my age have a baby... And with a husband as old as mine?'" (Genesis 18:12 TLB).

It's almost as if Abraham and Sarah decided to name their baby "laughter" because that was the way they both responded to the thought of having a son in their old age. In fact, that's basically what Sarah says next...

"When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, 'God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.' And she added, 'Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age'" (Genesis 21:4-7).

So Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. At a time when you would normally expect two people as old as Abraham and Sarah to be living in retirement, they had now become the new parents of baby boy. So Isaac's birth was a time of great joy and laughter for Abraham and Sarah as they showed their appreciation to God for the fulfillment of His promise. 

But we're about to find out that everyone wasn't as happy about Isaac's birth as Abraham and Sarah were.

III

"The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast" (Genesis 21:8).

We know that Genesis 21:8 takes place about 2-3 years after Isaac's birth because Isaac has now graduated from drinking milk to eating solid food. Apparently this must have been a pretty big deal in that culture because Abraham decided to throw a big party to celebrate this event- but not all the guests were celebrating...

"But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking," (Genesis 21:9).

The "son of Hagar the Egyptian" would be Ishmael, whom we met in Genesis chapter sixteen. Ishmael was probably about 16 years old at this time and he apparently didn't feel very joyous over the fact that he was no longer Abraham's only son. In any event, Sarah was definitely not happy about this...

"...she said to Abraham, 'Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac'" (Genesis 21:10).

The fact that Sarah used such emotionally charged terms as "that slave woman" (twice) and "her son" (who was also Abraham's son as well) tells us that Sarah took this very personally. Hagar had been very arrogant towards Sarah when Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael and now it seems that Ishmael was continuing this same behavior pattern with Isaac. So Sarah's solution was to simply get rid of both of them- but that wasn't so easy for Abraham...

"The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son" (Genesis 21:11). 

It's easy to understand Abraham's difficulty in this situation. Ishmael was Abraham's first born son and the thought of sending him away must have been very difficult. But God intervened and spoke to Abraham about what Sarah wanted to do... 

"But God said to him, 'Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring" (Genesis 12:12-13).

Even though Sarah's motives were not necessarily God's motives, what she wanted to do was right in line with God's will. God also reassured Abraham that He had big plans for Ishmael and if Abraham was concerned about sending Ishmael out on his own, he could be confident in God's promise that He would protect Ishmael and eventually build a great nation through him.

IV

"Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba" (Genesis 21:14).

While it might be easy to speed right past this verse, we should stop to consider Abraham's kindness in providing food and water for this trip. Remember that the weather often becomes brutally hot in this part of the world. By making sure that Hagar and Ishmael left early with food and water, Abraham helped to provide them with the best chance of finding a place to stay before the intense heat of the day really began.

But even so, its true that Abraham could have given Hagar and Ishmael a lot more for this journey if he really wanted to. After all, Abraham was a very wealthy guy- he could have provided them with money, additional food, and animals to ride on if he wanted. While it was nice of Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out with some food and water, why didn't he provide them with any more supplies for this trip?

Well, as strange as it may seem, this may be another example of Abraham's faith in God. Remember that God was the one who told Abraham to act on Sarah's desire to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God also promised Abraham that He would build a great nation through Ishmael's descendants. This meant that God personally guaranteed that Ishamael would be OK wherever he went- and Abraham seemed to realize that if God didn't come through on that promise, then there was nothing that he could really do to help him anyway.

However, God's promise to build a great nation through Ishmael's descendants was still a long way off. For the time being, things were about to get pretty bad...

"When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, 'I cannot watch the boy die.' And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob" (Genesis 21:15-16). 

The good news for Hagar was that she was free to go anywhere she wanted. The bad news was that she was now lost in the desert. It seems that Hagar and Ishmael must have been trying to get to a settlement or outpost but somehow got lost along the way- and being lost in the desert without any water is a dangerous place to be.

V

"When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, 'I cannot watch the boy die.' And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob" (Genesis 21:15-16). 

There's something behind this event that seems a little strange when you stop to think about it. 

You see, Ishmael was approximately 16 years old and his mother Hagar was probably somewhere between 30-40 years old as they made this trip into the desert. Yet notice that Ishmael is the one who seems to be so physically drained that he just couldn't go any further. Now it's safe to say that a typical 16 year old guy could probably survive longer than his mother if the two of them were walking around in the desert. So why did Hagar have to drag, carry, or otherwise put Ishmael into the shade? 

Well, one possibility is that Hagar was a lot more accustomed to the challenges of that environment than Ishmael was. That doesn't say very much for Ishmael, but there is another possibility that reflects much better on him. You see, it's also possible that Ishmael stepped up and let his mother have most (or all) of their remaining water until he finally became so dehydrated that he just couldn't make it any further. 

In any event, the end seemed to be near for both Hagar and Ishmael- until God stepped in to make good on His promise...

"God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.' Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink" (Genesis 2:17-19). 

The name "Ishmael" means "God shall hear" (1) and that's exactly what God did in directing Hagar and Ishmael to a water source that they couldn't find without His help. Like many people today, it seems that God also allowed Hagar and Ishmael to come to a point where they could no longer make it on their own- and that put them in a position where they could learn to trust and rely on Him.  

(1) "Ishmael" International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia

VI

"God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt" (Genesis 21:20-21).

You have to wonder why Hagar chose to go back to Egypt to get a wife for her son when she already had so much experience with God through her relationship with Abraham. That experience was something that should have led her to make a better relationship choice for her son.

For example, Hagar saw how God miraculously fulfilled His promise to Abraham and Sarah when Isaac was born. She was also with Abraham when God demonstrated His power in punishing Sodom and Gomorrah. Not only that, the angel of the Lord spoke directly to Hagar twice- once when she first ran away from Sarah (Genesis 16:7) and once more as we saw earlier in Genesis 21:17-19. 

Hagar's knowledge of God should have led her to make a better choice for Ishmael instead of looking for a wife for him in Egypt, a place where seemingly few people (if any) followed the one true God. At the very minimum, Hagar could have sent a message back to Abraham asking him to select a Godly marriage partner for his son. But she didn't, and we have no idea what Mrs. Ishmael's spiritual beliefs were or if she had any concern for God at all.

This helps remind us that it's a bad idea to get involved in dating/marriage relationships with people who don't really follow God. The experience of Israel's King Solomon also helps to demonstrate this as well...

"The LORD did not want the Israelites to worship foreign gods, so he had warned them not to marry anyone who was not from Israel. Solomon loved his wife, the daughter of the king of Egypt. But he also loved some women from Moab, Ammon, and Edom, and others from Sidon and the land of the Hittites. Seven hundred of his wives were daughters of kings, but he also married three hundred other women. As Solomon got older, some of his wives led him to worship their gods. He wasn't like his father David, who had worshiped only the LORD God" (I Kings 11:1-4 CEV).

That was a bad move... 

"In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done.... The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, 'Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants'" (I Kings 11:6, 9-11 NLT).

This is a problem you can avoid simply by making the choice to enter dating relationships only with those people who honor God and encourage your relationship with Jesus.

VII

"At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, 'God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you.' Abraham said, 'I swear it'" (Genesis 21:22-24). 

So now we have the return of two people we met in the last chapter- Abimelech, and his military commander named Phicol. You might remember that Abimelech served as the king over the area where Abraham was staying at this time. Abimelech was also the guy who brought Abraham's wife Sarah into his harem because Abraham mislead him into believing that Sarah was really his sister instead of his wife (Genesis 20:1-2). It took a personal visit from God to Abimelech in a dream before that mess got straightened out (see Genesis 20:3-7).

When we last saw Abimelech, he left Abraham with this offer: "Look, here's my land. Live anywhere you like" (Genesis 20:15 GW). So Abraham apparently took this invitation and settled in an area that was under Abimelech's control. But if this was the case, then why would Abimelech now approach Abraham with an offer of a peace treaty? 

Well, remember that God's earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had surely become common knowledge among the people of that area by this time. If that wasn't enough, Abimelech's dream about the harem incident with Sarah provided him with his own personal experience with Abraham's God as well. This apparently led Abimelech to decide that it would be a good idea to set up a political alliance with Abraham. It seems that Abimelech wanted to make sure that there was no way that he could end up on the wrong side of Abraham's God.

There might be another reason to explain this offer as well. Remember that Abraham had gotten Abimelech into trouble with God by telling him that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife. So when Abimelech said, "Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me..." we might understand his meaning to be, "Abraham, promise me that you're never going to lie to me again like you did the last time." As mentioned earlier, this should serve as both a warning and example for those who claim to follow God today. As representatives of God, we should be careful not to misrepresent Him to anyone who doesn't know Him. 

VIII

"Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech's servants had seized. But Abimelech said, 'I don't know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.' So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. 

Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, 'What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?' He replied, 'Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.' 

So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there. After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines" (Genesis 21:25-32). 

So Abraham promised Abimelech that he would live peacefully in Abimelech's territory and that he would not lie to him again. But then Abraham took the opportunity to bring up a subject that was bothering him: "Some of your servants have taken over one of my wells" (Genesis 21:25 CEV)

Apparently, some of Abimelech's workers claimed ownership over a well that Abraham's men had built and then prevented Abraham's men from drawing any water from it. Now as the king over that area, it's probably safe to say that Abimelech did not have personal knowledge of every single construction project that was going on in his nation. So he responded just as you would expect a high government official to respond to a local issue:"'This is the first I've heard of it... and I have no idea who is responsible. Why didn't you tell me before?'" (Genesis 21:26 TLB).

Now it may be easy to think, "Why is Abraham even bringing this up?" Well, remember that having a reliable source of water in the desert was (and is) very important. Back in those days, anyone who had possession of a well had the right to any unoccupied property in that area as well. But if a broken or unmaintained well was repaired by someone else, then the person who fixed the well obtained the right to use it. 

So to resolve the situation, the two men agreed on a deal in much the same way that people today would settle a dispute. The big difference is that people today would usually exchange money as part of their agreement, but physical possessions were more valuable back then. Because of this, their agreement specified an exchange of livestock and the two men agreed on the transaction.

IX

"Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time" (Genesis 21:33-34).

So Abraham put together something that we would refer to as a "memorial" today. A tamarisk tree is a small tree with thick foliage and spikes of pink blooms. (1) This tree made a good choice to serve as a memorial to God because, "...its long life, hard wood, and evergreen leaves (made) this tree... a type of the ever-enduring grace of the faithful, covenant-keeping God." (2) 

This section also introduces us to another name for God- "the eternal One." In the original language used to write this section, the term used for "eternal God" is "Yahweh El Olam" which means, "the forever One" or "God of eternity." This term helps to identify God as a being whose eternal, never-ending existence transcends the distant past and the future yet to come. 

You see, there is a major difference between human beings and God. As human beings, we are finite- that means that each of us had a beginning. For instance, if you are reading this sentence then it means that you exist today, right? But that wasn't always so, was it? There was a time when you did not exist, but then your parents got together and "you" began. This is true for every human being who has ever lived.

One of the big differences between you and God is that God is infinite. Unlike human beings, God has never "not existed." Because God has always existed, He did not need a beginning as every member of the human race does. This is why scholar-types like to say that God is "uncaused." In other words, God did not need anyone else to cause His existence like human beings do.

This idea can be illustrated in a conversation that God once had with Moses... 

"Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?' God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:13-14). 

That term "I AM" is very important because it identifies God as the self existent, eternal Being. This means that God is the only Being who can say in every time and in every place, "I AM." Because of this, God can rightly be described as "the forever One," "God of eternity" or "The eternal God."

(1) "Tamarisk" Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers

(2) "Tamarisk" The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright 1988.

Next

Previous