Abraham obeys Sarah—Genesis 21:10-12

Hagar knew that the God of Abraham and Sarah was a powerful God; she herself had met and obeyed the angel of the LORD (Gen 16:7-11). Indeed, Abraham and Sarah believed what the angel told her, for her son was named Ishmael (16:11). She also could not but recognize that Sarah’s elderly birth (21:1-5) indicated God’s action, divine favor, and the fulfillment of God’s promise. She could not, therefore, have assumed that her son would supplant Isaac’s role even though her son was born first.

There was, however, a Mesopotamian custom that complicated matters. If a slaveholder acknowledged as son one born through a slave, that son would be reckoned as son, affecting the inheritance. Yet God’s promise and plan was for Isaac to be the heir. The only way to secure that fully now, especially if Abraham and Sarah did not survive until Isaac reached maturity and secured the loyalty of their followers, would be to liberate Hagar and Ishmael and send them away. (Abraham also sent later sons away to avoid any competition with Isaac; 25:6.)

Sarah demands that Abraham protect Isaac and God’s promise, by sending Hagar and Ishmael away (21:10). Abraham loved his son Ishmael too much to have considered the idea on his own, but Ishmael was not Sarah’s son, and she was closer to her newborn Isaac. Abraham was naturally distressed about sending away his son (21:11); they had bonded for years, when Abraham expected Ishmael to be his only son and heir (17:17-18) for Ishmael’s first thirteen years (17:25).

But Abraham discovers that Sarah’s advice is not mere jealousy or rivalry, but wisdom. God instructs Abraham to “heed” Sarah’s voice (21:12); this is the same verb used for Adam wrongly heeding Eve’s voice (3:17) and Abram heeding Sarai’s voice in taking Hagar as a concubine to begin with (16:2). Heeding one’s spouse can be good or bad, depending on the content of their advice! (Think how much trouble Isaac would have saved his family had he listened to Rebekah’s word from the Lord; 25:23.) In this case, however, Sarah has spoken wisely, and God instructs Abraham to heed her. (Sarah called Abraham “my lord” [18:12], a familiar title for husbands in that era; 1 Pet 3:6. But, as Gen 21 illustrates, her valuable example of respect does not mean that godly husbands should not also heed their wives!)

God confirms her warning: the concubine’s son will not share Abraham’s line of promise or the inheritance of Sarah’s son (21:12). God would nevertheless take care of Ishmael (21:13). Next post: Was it cruel for God or Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away?—Genesis 21:14.

What did Ishmael do wrong to Isaac?—Genesis 21:9

What provoked Sarah to ask Abraham to send away Hagar and Ishmael in Gen 21:10? The text tells us only that Sarah saw Hagar’s son doing something (I leave “something” ambiguous for the moment, since the verb has a range of meaning). The term might mean “laughing,” since a few verses (and a few years) earlier Sarah has announced that everyone will laugh with her, sharing her joy (21:6).

But if the verb has anything to do with Sarah’s reaction (that is, if Sarah is not simply reacting to seeing Ishmael at the feast for Isaac’s weaning), it may suggest something more malevolent. Maybe instead of laughing with Sarah he was laughing at Isaac.

This was a feast for Isaac’s weaning; he was past the most physically dangerous period of infancy. If Isaac was weaned around age two, Ishmael would now be a young man of about sixteen. Because Paul, like most ancient Jewish interpreters, understood “play” negatively here (Gal 4:29-30), I will explore some of the negative possibilities. (I borrow this material from my forthcoming Galatians commentary, which at the time of this post is merely a rough draft, which will also incorporate my present study on this passage.)

The verb that can be translated as innocently as “play” in Genesis also has other meanings in less innocent contexts. It can mean to scorn or mock, or treat lightly; historically some interpreters have inferred this, viewing this as ridicule opposing God’s promise (so e.g., Calvin). Perhaps Ishmael showed contempt as his mother once had for Sarah (Gen 16:3); perhaps, given Sarah’s strict response in 21:10, his disdain included Isaac’s birthright (so the Reformer Rudolf Gwalther). (At least later in life, Ishmael became hostile toward many people; 16:12.)

Negatively, the verb does refer to Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12-15) laughing at God’s promise. Most negatively, Lot’s sons-in-law laughing at his warning from God, leading to their destruction (Gen 19:14). The typical Greek translation of Gen 21:9 uses the word paizô. This verb can be positive, but also applies to young men competing and dying in 2 Sam 2:14 and to the abuse of Samson in Judg 16:25. In the Pentateuch this verb appears only at Gen 26:8—Isaac caressing Rebekah—and Exod 32:6. Paul seems to interpret the latter passage sexually in 1 Cor 10:7, his only use of the Greek term.

The masculine singular piel participle of this verb, however, the form here, appears only three times in the OT, all within five chapters of this verse. One is for Lot’s sons-in-law, noted above (19:14); the other is Isaac fondling his wife (26:8). The other biblical uses, also in the piel, are these: Gen 39:14, 17, where it claims that a foreign slave “made sport” of Potiphar’s household by trying to rape his wife; Exod 32:6, where it may (as just noted) have sexual connotations; and Judg 16:25, where Samson’s Philistine captors summon him as foreign slave to “entertain” them. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that Ishmael is taunting from a position of superiority, and that possibly Genesis employs a euphemism here for some sexual innuendo.

Physical molestation is highly unlikely at a public feast (Gen 21:8). (Some scholars find a euphemism for sexual activity in Gen 9:22, possibly for voyeurism; but the writer of Genesis was also capable of being much less euphemistic, as in 19:31-36.) It is not impossible, however, that the adolescent Ishmael, still learning social propriety, could have taunted his just-weaned half-brother as sexually inferior or finally graduating from seeking his mother’s breast.

Whatever the specific action that raised the concern at this point, Sarah’s primary concern is Isaac’s line being Abraham’s heir (21:10; cf. 21:12). The next two posts will explore this concept, including the propriety of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away.