8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. – Genesis 21:8-21 ESV
The birth of Isaac brought great joy to Sarah and Abraham. But his long-awaited arrival also rekindled some bitter animosities that lay hidden in Sarah’s heart. For the last 14 years, she had been forced to put up with the presence of Ishmael, the son that Hagar, her handmaiden, had born to Abraham. Every time she saw him, she was reminded of her ill-fated plan to have Hagar serve as her surrogate, providing Abraham with the son she was incapable of providing. But his presence soon became a constant irritant to her. In fact, not long after his birth she had forced Abraham to send he and his mother away, hoping to rid herself of this unfortunate reminder of her own insufficiency. But God had other plans. He demanded that Hagar and her newborn son return to Abraham’s household. And while that prospect probably didn’t sit well with Hagar, God provided her with a powerful promise that served as ample motivation for her to obey.
The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV
Hagar did return, and for the next 14 years she raised her son in Abraham’s household. But with the birth of Isaac, things would take a dramatic turn for the worse. Moses mentions Isaac’s weaning, which would have taken place some two to three years after his birth. So, when Ishmael had reached the age of 16 or 17, he suddenly found himself facing Sarah’s full wrath. It all took place at a celebratory feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning.
During this festive occasion, Sarah saw Ishmael “laughing.” While the Hebrew word can refer to mocking or coarse jesting, it was most commonly used to refer to laughter. There is nothing in the text that would suggest that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac. Since the overall atmosphere was that of a festival, it seems much more likely that Ishmael was simply enjoying himself. But the embittered Sarah took exception to his presence and found his behavior irritating and unacceptable. So, once again, she demanded that Abraham get rid of this thorn in her flesh.
“Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!” – Genesis 21:10 NLT
Sarah’s strongly worded statement speaks volumes about the state of her heart. She was a jealous and angry woman. She was vengeful and vindictive. Despite God’s incredible blessings and the miraculous gift of a son, she displayed a remarkable level of animosity and ungratefulness. While it seems quite obvious that she despised Hagar and Ishmael, her real motivation was an unwillingness to give Ishmael any hope of sharing in Isaac’s inheritance. She could care less that Ishmael was a son of Abraham and a rightful heir to the family inheritance. She was demanding that Abraham disinherit Ishmael and kick he and his mother to the curb.
Abraham’s joyful feast had suddenly turned into a disturbing family feud, and it left him troubled and torn. After all, Ishmael was his son and he had been a part of the family ever since his birth. Yet now, Abraham was facing the prospect of having to case aside one of his own children or refuse, and face the wrath of his highly volatile wife.
There had been a time when Abraham thought Ishmael would be the son through whom God would fulfill all His promises. But God had made it clear that His plan would not include Ishmael. And yet, God promised to bless Abraham’s first-born son.
“No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” – Genesis 17:19-20 NLT
And, in an effort to comfort Abraham, God reiterated this promise concerning Ishmael.
“Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.” – Genesis 21:12-13 NLT
Basically, God was informing Abraham that Sarah’s jealousy-motivated demand was all part of His grand plan. In order for God to fulfill His plans concerning Isaac, there needed to be a physical separation of the two sons. And now, some 16-17 years after his first exile from Abraham’s home, Ishmael was old enough to survive life in the outside world. And God assured Abraham that Ishmael would not only survive, but he would thrive, eventually fathering a great nation of his own.
In a disheartening case of déjà vu, Hagar suddenly found she and her son wandering in the wilderness yet again. Abraham had graciously provided them with food and water but it was not longer before those provisions ran out.
When the water was gone, she put the boy in the shade of a bush. Then she went and sat down by herself about a hundred yards away. “I don’t want to watch the boy die,” she said, as she burst into tears. – Genesis 21:15-16 NLT
Moses’ description of this heart-wrenching scene almost portrays Ishmael as a small child, but he was likely a strapping young teenager. Yet, regardless of his age, Hagar, like any loving mother, viewed her son as innocent and helpless. She knew that it was just a matter of time before she and Ishmael succumbed to the harsh conditions of the wilderness. So, she removed herself some distance and waited for the inevitable to happen. But God had other plans.
It’s interesting to note that Moses describes Hagar as lifting up her voice and weeping. Yet, in the very next verse, he states that “God heard the voice of the boy” (Genesis 21:17 ESV). Perhaps Ishmael, like his father, had learned to call upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 13:4). But rather than speaking to Ishmael, God addressed Himself to Hagar.
“What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” – Genesis 21:17-18 ESV
God was letting Hagar know that He was watching over her son. He knew what was happening and He had a plan in place. She had no reason to worry or fear. God assured this loving mother that she could hold fast to her son because he was in the highly capable hands of his loving heavenly Father. Abraham may have disinherited Ishmael but God had not.
In the midst of her heartache and despair, just when she thought all was lost, God showed up. And the gracious and all-merciful God gave this Egyptian handmaiden a powerful promise of future blessings on her son. He would make of Ishmael a great nation. And, as God opened Hagar’s ears to hear His promise, He opened her eyes to see the miraculous presence of a well in the middle of the wilderness.
God protected and provided for Hagar and her son. They both lived to see another day. He grew to become a mighty warrior and eventually found a wife who was an Egyptian just like his mother. Ishmael would go on to father 12 sons, just like Isaac (Genesis 25:13-16). And his descendants would eventually become the Arab nations that would prove to be a constant source of conflict for the people of Israel. This was all in keeping with the promise that God had made to Abraham sometime earlier.
“He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.” – Genesis 17:20 ESV
And Ishmael would fulfill the promise that God had made to Hagar some 16-17 years earlier.
“This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” – Genesis 16:12 NLT
God was working His plan to perfection. And little did Sarah understand that her hatred for Hagar and Ishmael would produce a centuries-long feud between their two nations.
But all throughout this passage, we see the sovereign will of God being displayed as He accomplishes His plan and distributes His blessings as He sees fit. There is a method to God’s seeming madness. He knows exactly what He is doing and is not caught off guard or forced to change plans based on the actions of His fallen creatures. God sees. He hears. He acts. He orchestrates. And He methodically and systematically accomplishes His righteous purposes.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.