Genesis 21 (ESV)
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. 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 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. 22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.” 25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
Genesis 21:1-2 notes: 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.
Something that we need to do when we’re reading the Scriptures is remember that the text brings forward characters for the purpose of teaching us something. Sometimes we can get lost in the story itself and not keep track of what is said or done. Notice how the story emphasizes that the Lord visited Sarah “just as He said” and did to her “just as He promised”. One of the refrains of the Scriptures is how things come about just as God has promised or just as He said. In your reading of the Scriptures, start taking note how often it is recorded that things happen just as the Lord said or promised they would. I was struck, when we were studying Exodus together in Sunday School, how it seems that everybody had forgotten that God had promised that, after 400 years, He was going to lead the people out of Egypt.
But God didn’t forget. God never forgets. His Promise is going to come to pass. It doesn’t matter much whether His people want it to come to pass. It will happen.
Here, of course, it is a joyous occasion. Abraham, a 99 year old man, and Sarah, his 89 year old wife, were told by God that they would conceive and bear a child. One year later, as the Lord Promised, a child was born. This occurred, as verse 2 states, “…at the time which God had spoken to him.”
God said it.
Doesn’t matter much who believed it, because…
That settles it.
Now, you don’t have to have a medical degree to realize how remarkable that is. That’s why it’s so important to note that God “visited” Sarah. Everybody understood that this couldn’t have happened by just natural means. Of course every birth is by the sustaining power of God because He upholds the universe by His power. It’s only our lack of spiritual discernment and gratitude that we think of the sun rising or the birth of a child as some natural event according to some law outside of God.
But, if the fact that the sun came up this morning and even now utters forth speech about God or that every birth is an occasion to thank God, how much more so was everyone reminded that this birth was very clearly the power of God at work and could never be thought of as being under Abraham and Sarah’s power to bring about in the strength of their flesh? In fact, Romans 4 notes that the birth of Isaac is to be thought of as God bringing the dead to life. It’s a picture of faith and the fact that it is God who saves. It is God who brings life. The Promise was going to come about in such a way that only God could get the glory.
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.
Isaac is the first infant to receive the sign of circumcision. This was not only a sign of God’s Covenant with Abraham but a seal that God would most certainly bring that Promise about. Even as his baby boy screamed in pain as Abraham performed a bloody act, Abraham understood that this member of Isaac’s flesh was going to bring forth the Promised Seed in the fullness of time. Abraham was Promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens and here it was, in his hands. He only saw one of that great number promised but understood that this was a sign and a seal that, through him, all the nations of the Earth would be blessed.
In fact, the sign being applied to infants was a very visible signification that this Covenant was about grace. Isaac couldn’t promise on that day that he was going to believe. He couldn’t promise that he would bring this great promise about. Rather, a helpless 8-day old child received this Promise in his flesh and, throughout his life, he would have a very visible reminder that it was God that was strong to save and it did not depend upon, begin, or end with him.
Everything about this story just overflows with grace. It overflows with God’s Promise. It overflows with God’s goodness. What other response could there be than joy? What other name is more appropriate for God to give Isaac than “laughter” as God’s grace causes an overflow of joy in His servant Abraham and his wife Sarah? Sarah says it all: “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.”
Nobody, except God, that’s who. Who would have thought to walk up to a 90 year old woman and ask her to be a wet nurse? 90 years old and she’s nursing Isaac! Can you imagine the joy for a barren woman to receive a child at the age of 90?! Anyone that loves the things of God wants to walk up to this aged woman and simply laugh with her and share her joy over what a good God has done for her. Indeed, those who love God want to laugh with her over what God has done for them in confirming His promise in such a remarkable way to leave no doubts for our wavering hearts!
But not all the laughter at the downpayment of this Covenant Promise was the laughter of joy: 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.”
The weaning period of a child in the Ancient Near East was about 3-4 years and the culture normally celebrated this occasion. Why? Not because the mother was done nursing but because many children did not make it to the age of 3-4 during this period. So Abraham threw a party to celebrate that the boy was growing in stature and the text simply indicates that Ishmael was laughing at Isaac and, for some reason, Sarah flew off the handle. Even though previously we rejoiced over Isaac’s birth being a cause for laughter, we all know the difference between being laughed with and being laughed at.
Ishmael’s was the laughter of scorn.
But something in our minds wants to say: “Come on Sarah! Get some perspective. Ishmael is only 16 years old. You want to throw them out just for laughing at your son Isaac?”
It’s tempting to soften the blow on this point but I think we need to realize, first of all, that the Scriptures actually paint what Ishmael was doing as very serious. Perhaps we need to be challenged by the Scriptures at this point where we tend to view youthful sin as less serious than adult sin. The Apostle Paul brings this episode to the forefront as an example of unbelief in Galatians 4. He presents it as an allegory of the sons of the flesh – those that trust in the flesh – as persecuting those that are the children of the Promise. To put it bluntly, Ishmael’s sin was one of unbelief.
There’s a part of us, because we are so carnal, that can hardly blame him. Which of you, if you were the firstborn son of the father of a mighty promise, would rejoice at the idea that your kid brother, by another mother, is the heir to that mighty promise?
I’m the firstborn. I’m stronger. I’m smarter. This kid is barely out of diapers and I’m supposed to be excited that he’s God’s choice?!
I’ve witnessed many people mishandle the story of Ishmael as if God, in His choice of Isaac as the Promised line, seemed to almost force Ishmael to unbelief. But Abraham was never told to keep the things of God from Ishmael. Ishmael was circumcised with the rest of the family years earlier. Ishmael could have recognized the sign of circumcision in his own flesh and rejoiced even at the idea that it was his baby brother through which this promise of salvation would come to pass. He could have been willing, like King Saul’s son Jonathan, to give up everything knowing that blessing was to be found by clinging to God’s Promise and not to the claim of the flesh.
It’s never a minor thing when a child does not believe in the things of God. I fear we’re so accustomed to the way we view “religion” in our country that we confuse civil freedom concerning religion with the ultimate judgment of God. We need to remember that all unbelief is sin. Our children are sinners and under the wrath and curse of God unless they are in Christ. This should not evoke terror in believing parents but it should evoke seriousness about the things of God because it’s very clear in Scripture that God takes unbelief very seriously. All sin bears the penalty of the wrath and curse of God.
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.
This broke Abraham’s heart. I think the distance in time removes the pain that is in this story but this is sad. God commanded Abraham to separate Ishmael from Isaac for Isaac’s good. It telescopes the separation that the people of Israel would have from the unbelieving people in the land. These kinds of separations are not meant to make us happy that we’re better than others but to remind us that we live in a fallen world and that the things of God often break up families because of the devastating effects of Sin that were introduced by the Fall. How many here, like me, can relate to the heartbreak that Mother, Father, Sister, and Brother do not share the love of Christ?
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.
Don’t feel guilty about having compassion for Hagar and Ishmael here. I don’t want to minimize how sad this story is. Hagar and Ishmael wandered in circles in the desert and ran out of water. Can you imagine the pain in a mother’s heart as she had to put her son under a bush and walk off into the distance so she didn’t have to watch him die?
As she wept, however, God once again visited Hagar. Remember, God had promised Hagar, years before in the desert, that Ishmael would become a mighty nation. For the sake of Abraham, God would make this boy great. In one sense, how could Hagar have thought the boy was going to die because God had promised, years earlier, that he was going to become a mighty nation? Yet, it’s the pattern over and over, that God Promises something and we look to our circumstances, as painful as this was, and measure reality by them instead of what God has said. It was impossible that Ishmael was going to die and notice how the text says that God “opened her eyes” and she saw a well of water directly before her. Right at the very spot that she sunk into depression convinced she was going to perish is the very spot God planned to save them from death.
And the text relates that the boy flourished. Ishmael became an expert with a bow and his descendants long after were known for their ability with that weapon. As God had promised, for the sake of His love for Abraham, he did make Ishmael great as a nation. But don’t make the mistake that this blessing was fundamentally one of salvation. He didn’t become great in terms of his faith, according to the text, but became mighty in strength and number. We need to remember that God gives every intellectual and spiritual gift that men enjoy but, sadly, Ishmael and his descendants didn’t see this as a matter of grace and seek to worship God for their blessing. Instead, his descendants measured their blessedness according to their own strength and, like so many of us, didn’t glorify God and worship Him for their many gifts.
The closing portion of Chapter 21 is another fitting contrast between grace and human strength. This great king Abimelech had been cursed for taking Sarah into his harem when he thought she was Abraham’s sister. He knew enough of the power of God not to mess with Abraham and returned Sarah to him. Now he appeared again to Abraham desiring to make a Covenant with him.
Abimelech sensed that Abraham was going to become a mighty nation and wanted to make a Covenant with him to ensure that, when he did become great, that his descendants wouldn’t be on the short end of the stick. In other words, he measured the worth of what Abraham had according to power. Abraham had been promised to become a mighty nation and a blessing to all nations through peace with God but all Abimelech could see is the “cash value” of making a treaty with a great nation. Beloved, while it is true that Christianity can improve the blessedness of life under the sun, we are not to proclaim the value of a good life now to a lost and dying world. It is peace with God that we proclaim.
Abraham had to add a special addendum to that Covenant by giving sheep so it would be clear to Abimelech that this well that he dug in Beersheba was his. Beersheba became the dwelling place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when he returned before going into Egypt. You’ll even see, throughout the Old Testament, the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba” as shorthand for all of Israel as Beersheba marked the southern extent of the Promised Land.
We have in this Chapter the contrast of God’s Promise of grace compared to the Sons of Men who measure themselves by strength. We see Isaac, a son of such joy that we break into laughter that God’s Promises are so wonderful as to confirm them by bringing life out of death. We see God showing forth His grace in the circumcision of an infant. We see the surety of God’s Promises throughout to confirm, in real history, that He is Who He says He is and that, despite all the waiting, God is trustworthy.
We also see, however, a young man who can’t stomach the idea of his baby brother being the heir to that Promise. We see him becoming strong and skilled in his own strength. We see a local monarch who visits Abraham to make a treaty because all he cares about Abraham’s God is that it “works for Abraham” and makes him someone worth befriending.
A couple of weeks ago I saw one of the books entitle Do Hard Things laying on a chair. I joked to one of the teens: “Is there a shorter version of this book that I can read? This one seems kind of long?”
The irony was lost on him because he helpfully explained there was a workbook that neatly summarized the contents.
Rebellion, sloth, and low expectations may be the cultural good of the teen years these days but the Bible still teaches otherwise. My wife and I enjoy watching American Idol and I’m always dumbfounded that young adults come forward to sing and are genuinely devastated when Simon tells them that they cannot sing. Mom always heaped false praise upon their accomplishments and this is the first time in their life that they haven’t been praised for failure. At least Paula leaves them with the thought that they still look beautiful.
Consider our movie heroes as well. Something I’ve never liked about the Harry Potter movies is that everybody thinks Harry is so cool because magic comes to him so naturally and easily. He’s good at it with virtually no effort compared to the hard work that his friends put in to their schoolwork: the first day at Hogwart’s and he’s on the broom flying polo team. Real life isn’t like that. Wasted genius is practically a proverb in real life.
But, with everything we just learned in this passage, I want to make sure each of you young people understands something that needs to drive you to your knees. I want to ensure all of us parents and older people understand the same thing that we might pray earnestly with concern for the children of our own Covenant community.
Kids listen to me.
Teenagers pay attention.
Adults, if you remember nothing else, remember this:
Ishmael did hard things.
Ishmael started with his Mom and a well in a desert and made a great name for himself as an archer and a warrior. He became a mighty nation. He became great by any human standard. He wasn’t a slacker. He applied himself to everything he did.
But did He know God? Did he ever know the surpassing riches of His grace? Did he ever look down at his own circumcision that was a daily reminder that God saves all those who put their trust in Him? Did he ever learn to laugh at the incredible Promise of God and the amazing birth of his baby brother and rejoice that God was doing something amazing that would bless the nations? Or did he simply think: “I don’t need that, look at what I’ve done by my own hands?”
Parents, do you pray for your kids? Do you ever talk to them and tell them: “Son, I want you to apply yourself because God wants us to glorify Him in our hard work but, more than anything, I want you to believe in Christ.”
Do you ever think to yourself: “More than anything else, I want to see my children’s children call upon the name of the Lord.”
Does the thought of your child forsaking the Covenant of Grace that he or she has been baptized into drive you to your knees?
“Oh heavenly Father, help me teach my children to call upon the name of the Lord. I have no strength within me to convert their heart. Please, Lord, call them to yourselves. Salvation is in Your mighty Hands. Cause them to cling to Christ all the days of their lives!”
You see, that boy Isaac grew and had two sons and one of them ended up just like Isaac’s big brother.
A hunter. A warrior. A mighty nation.
Oh, how Isaac loved his son Esau.
But then one day Esau sold his Promised birthright for a bowl of soup!
The Promise of God on the one hand. Soup on the other.
“What good is the Promise of God to me? I’m famished. Give me the soup!”
But, in spite of all the sin of men, that everlasting Promise unfolded inexorably until 2000 years later, in the fullness of time, God’s grace burst forward in a dazzling array that took away the breath of the entire world.
God became flesh and dwelt among us.
And, oh, how He did hard things.
He did impossible things.
He came down from glory and took upon Himself the form of a servant. Despised and rejected of men who loved their sin, God veiled Himself in human flesh and came near to Sinful man to be obedient in their place. The Promised Seed walked right into the teeth of sin and misery and obeyed with a perfect righteousness that only He could accomplish. Nearly all of those who were heirs to that Promise rejected Him and many saw only in Him an ability to achieve political power.
But, in the end, Christ had come for a totally unexpected purpose. So unexpected was His mission that the entire Nation turned against Him, slapped the Son of God across the face, and yelled “Crucify Him!”
Embracing the place of Curse that His own deserved, He hung between heaven and earth and took upon Himself the sins of all who look to Him, away from themselves, and believe. With His death, He put to death Sin as power and on the third day, because death could not hold Him, He rose again so that all who trust in Him might have eternal life.
Paul reminds us in Romans 5: “6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Beloved, THAT’S the Promise. In God’s perfect time, the Seed of Abraham did everything we could not do so that God could bring us to Himself and make us His children: children not of the flesh but of faith according to that glorious Promise.
Does that stun you?
What does this kind of grace evoke in you?
God has brought you from death to life.
You, who were once an enemy of God, God has died for to make you His friend.
Let us exult together with Sarah: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me!”