Genesis 21

This verse by verse Bible study on Genesis is an inductive verse by verse study with extensive reflections, teaching points, cross-references, and applications. They are the personal study of notes of a very good doctor friend of mine. His native tongue is Mandarin, but his English is amazing as you will see below. It is refreshing to take a look at this important book of Genesis through the eyes of a believer from another culture. Without further adieu: The Scribblings According to David.

Genesis 21 Inductive Bible Study

An Unlikely Man of Faith (X)

Outline

vv.1-7     The Climax – Isaac Born

vv.8-20    A Postlude – Ishmael Banished

vv.22-34  A(n) Prelude/Interlude – The Origin of Beersheba

Textual Summary

At the appointed time, Isaac was born to Abraham through Sarah, as God had promised. But Ishmael, being jaundiced, mocked Isaac. Sarah then asked Abraham to drive out Hagar and Ishmael. The patriarch was rightly grievous at the request, but after being assured by God, he sent them away. When Hagar and Ishmael used up all the provisions and were dying of thirst, God rescued them. The place where Hagar and Ishmael were wandering was the wilderness of Beersheba, the name of which came about when Abraham and Abimelech took an oath to form a parity treaty.

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The Reformation Study Bible makes the following summary on vv.1-7:

The report of Isaac’s birth concludes the story of Sarah’s barrenness begun in Gen. 11:27-32. The covenantal arrangement is underscored: God keeps His promise to give Abraham a son by Sarah (vv.1-2; 17:1-6, 15-16; 18:1-15), and Abraham responds in obedience by naming him Isaac (v.3; 17:19) and circumcising him (vv.4-5; 17:9-14), while Sarah responds with praise (vv. 6-7).

Interpretative Challenges

What does it mean by “God took note of Sarah” (v.1)?
The Hebrew word “take note of” is paqad (Strong#: h6485), which literally means to visit (with friendly or hostile intent), or, by analogy, to oversee, charge, care for, attend to and etc. The HCSB translates it as “The Lord came to Sarah”, and similarly, the LEB and ESV render it “The Lordvisited Sarah”. The NIV, on the other hand, paraphrases it into “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah”. Therefore, the NASB and NIV seem to better reflect the original meaning of the word: God was not to “see” or “visit” Sarah (as if physically as He visited Abraham in Gen. XVIII); He was to show kindness, mercy and grace to Sarah and perform what He has promised.

In 1 Sam. 2:21, the same word paqad was used again for Hannah in a similar situation, where Hannah’s barrenness was to be broken by divine intervention. However, the NASB somehow translates this word into “visit”: “The Lord visited Hannah; and she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew before the Lord”, while the NIV still uses “to be gracious to” to convey this meaning. The birth of Isaac and Samuel were both divinely appointed, for God first paqad their mother.

Another usage of the word paqad is found in Gen. 50:24, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob’”. The NASB renders paqad into “take care of” this time, in a sense demonstrating the versatility of the word.

What does the Bible say about “laughter”?
In fact, laughter in the Bible can carry the connotation of pleasure, as in Ecc. 3:4, which says, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh”, and “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, the Lord has done great things for them” (Ps. 126:2). However, most often the word, when it is attributed to God, is used as a sentiment of rejection or derision in the midst of His judgment, for example:

“… but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming” (Ps. 37:13)

“But You, O Lord, laugh at them; You hold all the nations in derision” (Ps. 59:8)

“I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you” (Pro. 1:26).

The two references from imprecatory psalms show God’s righteous indignation against the evil men, from which the psalmist was praying to be delivered. The verse from Proverbs shows God’s wrath of abandonment against those who deliberately spurn His Word and go down the path of sin, as the preceding verses indicate (Ps. 1:20-25), which is reminiscent of the three “giving-overs” in Rom. I.

The laughter of Sarah was at first a laughter of distrust and incredulity (Gen. 18:12), but now it had been turned into a laughter of joy. Do we often “laugh at” God’s promise at first, only to realize how little of faith we have been? Matthew Henry commented, “When Sarah received the promise, she laughed with distrust and doubt. When God gives us the mercies we began to despair of, we ought to remember with sorrow and shame our sinful distrust of his power and promise, when we were in pursuit of them. This mercy filled Sarah with joy and wonder. God’s favors to his covenant people are such as surpass their own and others ‘thoughts and expectations: who could imagine that he should do so much for those that deserve so little, nay, for those that deserve so ill? Who would have said that God should send his Son to die for us, his Spirit to make us holy, his angels to attend us? Who would have said that such great sins should be pardoned, such mean services accepted, and such worthless worms taken into covenant?”

Why did Abraham throw a party when Isaac was weaned?
Before the dawn of modern medicine, a considerable proportion of infants did not survive into toddlers. Being able to healthily grow and be weaned was therefore no small “triumph”. It was something significant, worthy of celebration. Quoting from the Quest Study Bible:

In ancient times, the weaning of a child was a significant rite of passage. Many children died before they reached this age (usually two or three years old). The weaning indicated that, having survived so far, the child would likely make it to adulthood and become an heir. Because Isaac was the promised son, the event was especially significant for Abraham and Sarah.

Why was Abraham “distressed” (v.11) when Sarah requested Ishmael be driven out?
The Hebrew verb for “mocking” in v.9 is sahaq (Strong#: h6711), which is a primitive root meaning “to laugh outright” whether in merriment or scorn. The verb “mock” is related to the Hebrew name for Isaac, iyshaq, which also means “laughter” or “he laughs” (Strong#: h3327). As the NKJV Study Bible commented, “Here is a bad turn on a wonderful joke.” And in Gen. 21:10 we read, “Therefore she said to Abraham, ‘Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.’”

According to the law codes of ancient Near East, Ishmael’s inheritance right was presumed on behalf of a son accepted by the father. In other words, to “drive out” (garash, Strong#: h1644; the same Hebrew word used to speak of the expulsions of Adam and Cain following their sins, cf. Gen. 3:24, 4:14) the slave woman and her son means to disinherit the son born to the slave woman. The Lexham Study Bible further explains it in details:

Ishmael would therefore have been entitled to a share of Abraham’s wealth. The laws of Lipit-Ishtar contain a clause to the effect that if a slave woman and her children are granted freedom by the male owner who fathered those children, the children forfeit their share in his estate. This is Sarah’s intent. See Jdg. 11:1-3 for a parallel situation involving Jephthah.

Such was the significance of Sarah’s request. Therefore, in that culture, such an action was reprehensible, for the son born to a surrogate wife was not to be automatically dismissed when the first wife later gave birth to a son. Yet, violating social law was only part of the reason why Abraham was greatly distressed. Scripture clearly shows us that Abraham, as a father, genuinely loved and cared about Ishmael (cf. Gen. 17:18). Driving out one’s own son is never a pleasant or sensible thing to do for a loving father. Nevertheless, when God approved and reassured Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away (vv.12-14), the patriarch’s scruples was finally overcome.

The apostle Paul made a reference to Ishmael’s mocking of Isaac when he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, interpreted it as “he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29). And for that matter, the apostle continues to write, “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman’” (Gal. 4:30). Thus, the casting out of the bondwoman and her son becomes a divinely inspired allegory that describes the security of the inheritance of those who are saved through faith.

Who was “the angel of God” (v.17)?
From vv.17-19, we see that “the angel of God” was sent forth by God (signifying a distinct person) yet spoke directly in the first person of God (signifying the same essence). Hence, this was another incidence of Christophony. Cf. Study notes from Interpretative Challenge #4 of Gen. XVI, “What’s so special about ‘the angel of the Lord’?”

Why would God show Ishmael such great mercies as to rescue him and making into a great nation?
Scripture doesn’t give us direct answers as to why God did this or that, including the making of Ishmael into a great nation that will in the end becomes the enemies of Israel. Cf. Study notes from Interpretative Challenge #3 of Gen. XVI, “Why did God preserve and protect Ishmael?”

Why suddenly talk about Abraham’s treaty with Abimelech? What does Beersheba mean and what’s so special about this place?
Gen. XXI is the biblical history of the birth of Isaac, God’s promise son to the patriarch. The first eight verses are the narrative of this key event, and the ensuing passage from v.9 to v.21 records the reaction of Hagar and Ishmael to the birth of Isaac as well as their final outcome. Verse 14 specifically tells us that the Egyptian slave-maid, with her son, “wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba”. And in light of the historical significance of this place, vv.22-34 were likely inserted, either as a prelude or an interlude (to the birth of Isaac), in order to document the origin of this place.

As for the meaning and significance of Beersheba, quoting from the Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

Beersheba: well of the oath, or well of seven; a well dug by Abraham, and so named because he and Abimelech here entered into a compact (Gen. 21:31). On re- opening it, Isaac gave it the same name (Gen. 26:31-33). It was a favorite place of abode of both of these patriarchs (21:33-22:1, 19; 26:33; 28:10). It is mentioned among the “cities” given to the tribe of Simeon (Josh. 19:2; 1 Chr. 4:28). From Dan to Beersheba, a distance of about 144 miles (Judg. 20:1; 1 Chr. 21:2; 2 Sam. 24:2), became the usual way of designating the whole Promised Land, and passed into a proverb. After the return from the Captivity the phrase is narrowed into “from Beersheba unto the valley of Hinnom” (Neh. 11:30). The kingdom of the ten tribes extended from Beersheba to Mount Ephraim (2 Chr. 19:4). The name is not found in the New Testament. It is still called by the Arabs Bir es- Seba, i. e., “well of the seven”, where there are to the present day two principal wells and five smaller ones. It is nearly midway between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.

What did the giving of seven ewe lambs signify?
Abraham said to Abimelech, “You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand so that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.” (Gen. 21:30) Therefore the animals were a kind of pledge of a treaty between the two parties, possibly used as sacrifice for a covenant ceremony. Abraham had “dealt falsely” (v.23) with Abimelech in the previous chapter by telling a half-truth about Sarah, but at this point he was asked to make a covenant to deal honestly with Abimelech. Purely from a worldly perspective, Abraham’s consent could have been motivated by guilt (because he had just done Abimelech wrong) or profit (because immediately after the signing of the contract, he filed his complaint about the well). And if this happened before the birth of Isaac (which is highly likely), both possibilities seem reasonable to me, because right then the patriarch was in the weakness of his faith (perhaps not long after the Gen. XX event).

Quoting from the Quest Study Bible:

The giving of animals was the ancient equivalent of writing a contract. It was a visible sign that an agreement had been reached. With no police, courts of law or layers, people of Abraham’s era used this way to conclude agreements – especially for an issue like water rights in an arid land.

Lessons and Reflections

Great is His faithfulness.
“Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him” (Gen. 21:1-3; emphasis mine)

Those phrases in boldtype speak of God’s faithfulness, one of His most significant attributes. The psalmist cried out, “Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies” (Ps. 36:5). Also, “For the word of the Lord is upright, and all His work is done in faithfulness” (Ps. 33:4). And also, “O Lord God of hosts, who is like You, O mighty Lord? Your faithfulness also surrounds You” (Ps. 89:8). God is faithful; and His work is done in faithfulness. All that He has spoken shall come to pass; all that He has promised shall be fulfilled. We know people change all the times. Sometimes they don’t feel like being willing to keep their promises; sometimes, due to circumstances, they are simply not capable in keeping them. Not so with God. He does keep His Word. All the promises He has made in the Bible will be fulfilled in the end, for He is not only sovereignly willing, but also sovereignly capable.

The faithfulness of God is, in fact, the most reassuring attribute of God for believers to contemplate in times of distress. The prophet Jeremiah, sitting in the desolate city, gently whispered, “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him’” (Lam. 3:22-24).

Redemptive history is a witness to God’s faithfulness. We must never forget that Christ is the convergence and culmination of all of God’s covenantal faithfulness. As the apostle Paul wrote, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). It is in Christ that all of God’s promises become YES and through Christ that we say AMEN to the glory of God.

The MacArthur Topical Bible has an extensive concordance for faithfulness. Please refer to the appendix.

The age-old Great Is Thy Faithfulness has always been my favorite hymn.

Verse 1

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been,Thou forever wilt be.

Verse 2

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

Verse 3

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Refrain

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Personal Applications

Contemplate more on the faithfulness of God.
Assume responsibilities and accept the consequences for the decisions I have made, whether wise or foolish.

Study Genesis 22

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