Genesis 21:1-21 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
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 Beer-sheba.
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.
I’d like to introduce this sermon by giving you two sets of questions to consider.
First, what’s the longest time you’ve ever had to wait for the fulfillment of a promise—from the time someone told you they’d give something to you or do something for you and the time they actually delivered? What was going on inside of you as you waited? Did your trust grow or shrink as time passed?
Second, what’s the least amount of time that has lapsed between someone blessing you and you feeling a sense of discontentment—from the time you’ve felt significant joy at receiving some gift and a return to frustration? Have any of you lasted less than a minute? Coming at it from a different angle, have you found any relationship between the size of the blessing and the length of time between it and your next bout of discontentment?
Well, in this passage we find a bit of both. After 25 years the child of the promise was finally born! According to God’s promise, Isaac finally arrived. Sarah in particular was filled with joy. All seemed to be right. Can you imagine the sense of gratitude and gladness and relief Abraham and Sarah must have felt? After all of that, how could they ever doubt again? And yet, within a paragraph another conflict had already arisen. In all of this, this passage reveals to us one of the greatest blessings ever given, but it also reveals to us how corrosive sin is. And in both this passage reveals our need for the grace of God and God’s relentless determination to give it to His people.
The larger issues raised by this text are: 1) God always keeps His promises, 2) Salvation comes by the grace of God, not our own effort, and 3) God is concerned with the plight of the outcast. Let’s pray that God would grant us full assurance of His promises to us in Jesus and a risk-taking willingness to live entirely in light of them and share them with the world.
THE CHILD OF THE PROMISE IS BORN (1-7)
Again, it had been 25 years since God first promised Abraham a son through Sarah. Back in Genesis 12, when Abraham was a mere 75 years old, God told Abraham that He would make a great nation out of him—that God would provide Abraham with more descendents than he could count and a land of their own to dwell in. Since then Abraham and Sarah worshiped and doubted, they lied and confessed, they wandered, they endured a famine, they gained so much livestock, money, and servants that they were forced to split up from their nephew, Lot, Abraham rescued Lot from capture, experienced multiple covenant reminders and renewals, dealt with conflicts within his home, was visited by God on several occasions, was circumcised, watched God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and duped two world leaders. That’s a lot. And all the while Abraham and Sarah seemed to come in and out of faith that God would remain true to his promise. Thus, by the time we get to 21:1 there’s a lot on the line.
The Child Was Born by the Hand of the LORD
Well, the wait was finally over. Isaac was born! God kept His word. The first thing for us to see in this is the simple fact that the child of the promise was born by the hand of the LORD.
1 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.
The promised child was not conceived according to human biology (Sarah was past the age of childbearing) or human cunning (the son born to Sarah’s handmaiden would not do). The only way God’s covenant promise would be fulfilled was through God’s direct intervention. And so God directly intervened. God visited the barren womb of Sarah. And in the course of that visit, just as he had “said,” “promised,” and “spoken” (three times, in three ways, Moses mentions that it was according to God’s word), God caused Sarah to conceive by Abraham. God put a child in her womb in such a way that all would know it was the hand of the LORD that brought this to pass.
Grace, for the I-don’t-know-how-manyth time, listen to me… God always keeps His promises. He never lies, fails, over-promises, exaggerates, delays, or comes up short. Every word of the LORD always proves true. What’s more, there’s nothing else in the universe that can say the same thing. God alone is perfectly trustworthy in all He says. Therefore, the only thing we can safely build our lives upon (moreso our eternal lives upon) is the promises of God. I plead with you, then, to do that, Grace Church. Forsake everything else and build your entire life upon the promises of God. Every time Abraham and Sarah chose a different path they needed rescue. Likewise, every time you and I choose a different path we need rescue.
Now that the child was born, how would this couple respond? At this point nothing should surprise us. What, then, did they do? Consider first Abraham’s response.
3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
The first two things the text tells us that Abraham did were direct acts of obedience. God had commanded Abraham to name his son Isaac (17:19) and so he did. And God had commanded Abraham to circumcise everyone in his household (17:10) and so he did. There is something so simple in this that it almost seems childish. And yet, child-like obedience is (as our Lord, Jesus Christ would later tell us [Mark 10:15]) our highest form of worship and the greatest testimony that we belong to God. At 100 years old, Abraham was perhaps never more child-like than he was here; and that was pleasing to the LORD.
We certainly need to be careful to understand what God has commanded, but it can be so easy for us to overly-complicate things. It’s easy for me to imagine not knowing how to respond to such a great gift. Simply naming my son and removing his foreskin as God had commanded probably wouldn’t seem sufficient. And yet it was perfect. Grace, let us be people of child-like obedience in the knowledge that it pleases God immensely.
Well how about Sarah? How would she respond? Would she respond in a similarly God-glorifying way, or would she respond (as we’ve seen her do several times already) in a less-than-faithful way?
6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Sarah’s response was laughter. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Laughter has played a significant part in the reactions of the characters in this story—both good and bad (we’ll see another kind in the next section as well). Sarah herself had already laughed in disbelief (at God’s promise to bear a son through her) and been rebuked by God for it (18:12-15). Again, then, was Sarah’s laughter a sign of mistrust or God-honoring gladness?
Every indication is that this was laughter of simple and pure joy. Her husband responded in child-like obedience and Sarah responded with child-like laughter. What’s more, Sarah couldn’t imagine anyone hearing this story and not responding in the same way. Who could think up, much less bring about such a thing besides the LORD Almighty? And who would believe such a thing except one who had faith in God? When something seems too good to be true, when something seems too marvelous to believe, when something seems too fantastical to imagine—but is true by the hand of God—laughter is good and pleasing to the LORD.
After waiting for a quarter of a century God delivered (pun) on His promise to Abraham and Sarah. They had a son. And God filled them with obedience and gladness. May He do so to us as well.
PROBLEM # 1 – CONFLICT BETWEEN SARAH AND HAGAR (8-14)
Well, it’s sunshine and roses from there, right? God had been miraculously faithful to Abraham and Sarah—faithful in such a way that the rest of their lives would be marked by nothing but glad-hearted faithfulness even in the face of opposition, right? I mean, after such a spectacular work of God, how could they possible struggle ever again? After all, as I tried to point out in the introduction, that’s exactly how it works for us, isn’t it?
A Problem Arises
As you know, that’s not how it works. Thus, in the next section we find the first of two problems that the birth of Isaac created.
8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
Though only separated by a paragraph, Isaac’s birth (1-7) and the events of this section are probably around three years apart. Children were generally weaned around three years of age. And, as you can tell from this passage, it was a pretty big deal. To celebrate this milestone in Isaac’s life Abraham threw a “great feast”. It was a happy day for Abraham and Sarah, but not for everyone.
9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.
Once again, as I mentioned earlier, laughter plays a significant role in the story of Abraham. This time it’s Ishmael who is laughing. It’s interesting to note that the exact nature of this laughter isn’t known. Some have suggested that Ishmael was laughing with Isaac as an equal and that was what upset Sarah. More likely, though, Ishmael’s laughter was a form of mocking. This is the more likely interpretation for a few reasons. First, the word used in v.9 for Ishmael’s laughter has the same root as the word for mockery. This understanding gains even more traction in light of the Apostle Paul’s choice of words in Galatians 4:29. There he referred to Ishmael as having “persecuted” Isaac. And the idea of mocking laughter gains even more support when we consider God’s response below. In other words, on the day of Isaac’s weaning celebration, his half-brother, Ishmael, mocked him.
Well, that’s not good, but certainly Sarah would have been full of grace and mercy since she had been given so much grace and mercy from God, right? Not so much.
Sarah Called for the Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael
Feeling threatened, Sarah called once again for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
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.”
It’s important for us to see something here that is easy to miss. Back in 16:1 we read, “Now [Sarah] … had a female Egyptian servant [or handmaid] whose name was Hagar.” Here, though, Sarah refers to Hagar as “this slave woman”. The slave was significantly lower than the handmaid. Sarah’s contempt for Hagar was growing. What’s more, her understanding of Ishmael as a threat to the inheritance of her son, Isaac, was growing as well. Thus, although Ishmael was Sarah’s idea (16:2), he was not her son and he was not the son of the promise.
And yet Ishmael was Abraham’s son and by all accounts Abraham seems to have had genuine affection for him. Thus, it is of no surprise that …
11 … the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.
So what was Abraham to do? How was he to respond to his wife’s plea? Would he send his son away for a second time? Remember, in jealousy Sarah had earlier demanded he allow her to do so when Ishmael was born (16:6). Remember as well that although Abraham complied, God intervened and brought Hagar and Ishmael back to Abraham’s house (where they lived for another 15 years). Would Abraham give in again, and if so would God bring them back again?
God Approved of Sarah’s Plan
Perhaps surprisingly, God condoned Sarah’s plan. He called on Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael off. What’s more, God determined not to accept them back this time.
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.
While there might have been a good deal of sinful jealousy driving Sarah’s demands, it seems that there was also enough truth—that Ishmael was an unacceptable threat to Isaac’s promise—that God accepted Sarah’s demands and called Abraham to as well. In fact, in essence God further commanded Abraham to be glad to do it (“be not displeased”), even going so far as to accept the new title Sarah gave (“slave woman”).
That is not to say, however, that God was indifferent to the fate of Hagar and Ishmael. Therefore, in v.13, for Abraham’s sake, we find the first of several divine promises of blessing to ease Abraham’s conscience and to comfort the exiles.
13 … I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”
Abraham Obeyed Sarah and God
Therefore, without knowing the full story, but fully trusting in God…
14 … 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 Beer-sheba.
All of this seems harsh pretty harsh, doesn’t it? How could God allow this and how could Abraham go along with abandoning his child? To understand God’s mind and heart in this we need to understand its place in the larger story of the bible.
For those of you who were here for Hosea, do you remember what an enacted prophecy is? It’s when God calls His people to do something physical and visible in order to depict something spiritual and invisible. God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute in order to show Israel the adulterous nature of their sin against God. Likewise, God commanded the prophet Ezekiel to lie on his side for 430 days in the middle of town as a sign of God’s coming judgment. The prophet Isaiah was commanded to walk around naked for three years as a visible sign of the judgment that God would inflict upon Egypt and Cush. These were all enacted prophecies meant to drive home God’s dire message.
In Galatians 3-4 the Apostle Paul teaches that God responded the way He did (commanding Abraham to send out Hagar and Ishmael) as a sort of enacted prophecy. What sort of prophecy? What message of God required this level of harshness? It was the gospel message that salvation would come by faith, not works of the law. It was the gospel message that salvation would come by the Spirit and not by the flesh. It was the gospel message that salvation would come by God’s promise, not our family line. There had to be a clear and sharp line between Ishmael and Isaac as a means of making God’s means of salvation as clear as possible.
For that reason, Paul concludes, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar… 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:22-26).
God’s response (along with Sarah’s) to Ishmael and Hagar was indeed harsh, but it needed to be to demonstrate the stark contrast between faith and works, promise and flesh, Christ and the law.
PROBLEM #2 – HAGAR AND ISHMAEL IN A PERILOUS POSITION (15-21)
Again, although it was good and right of God to do as He did, that didn’t mean that He was unconcerned for the exiles. Indeed, as we saw earlier, God promised to bless Ishmael for Abraham’s sake. Therefore, when a second problem arose, God was not indifferent to it.
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.
What was the second problem? It was that Hagar and Ishmael’s provisions had run out and they could see no way of replenishing them. Moms, can you image Hagar’s fear and discouragement and hopelessness? Could there be anything more awful? Can you imagine a situation in which you would be more desperate for God’s help? Remember, whatever shenanigans Hagar had witnessed in Abraham’s house, she had seen God’s miraculous faithfulness more than once. Would God do to her what He’d done for her masters?
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.
Grace, in all of this do not miss three critical things. First, don’t miss the fact that God’s plans are not limited to Israel. When the bible tells us that God works all things for good for those who love Him, it really means all things. Every Middle Eastern conflict, every coronavirus infection, every marital or parenting struggle, every financial difficulty, every everything. We’re meant to find great hope in this.
Second, don’t miss the fact that God means to bless the world through His people. We are, once again, blessed to bless. Because Abraham was among the people of God, God would bless those who blessed Abraham. Because you are a child of God through faith in Christ, God means to bless the people around you through you. Find ways to live this out.
And third, don’t miss the fact that in listening to the prayers of Hagar and Ishmael, God was showing Himself to be particularly mindful of “the outcast, the rejected, the abused, the dying” (Ross, CB, 381). This is a repeated theme throughout the bible, even into the NT ministry of Jesus and the apostles; and even into their commands for us. We must join God in caring for the hurting. Would you consider how you might become involved in one of the ways Grace is already doing this (missions week, Together for Good, orphan care, etc.) or start a new one?
The larger issues raised by this text are 1) God always keeps His promises, 2) Salvation will come by the grace of God, not our own effort, and 3) God is concerned with the plight of the outcast. Even if these are not new to you, would you consider afresh how your life needs to change because of them? Likewise, even as you do, would you consider afresh that Jesus death on the cross (if you are looking to Him in faith) has already forgiven all of your failures to do so and guaranteed that you will grow in them? He is your hope not only for forgiveness, but also for true righteousness.