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.