“Listen to all that Sarah has said to you, hear her voice, for she is a prophetess.” -Targum of Yonatan
Soon after the promise of the heir had been reaffirmed, S’dom was destroyed and Sarah abducted by Avimelech, her promised progeny almost defiled by the seed of Avimelech. However, God protected Sarah’s purity and secured her womb for Avraham’s seed. Now, having suffered many trials, both Avraham and Sarah can rejoice in the delivering of the son and heir, Isaac. But even this event will prove Avraham’s resolve as he is asked to part with his beloved son Ishmael, born to him by Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant.
The literary devices of Hebraic repetition and counterpoint are prolific in this chapter: an indication of things firmly decided and implemented by HaShem. Laughter is given to Sarah in the form of a son and with laughter Ishmael mocks the heir Isaac. Hagar sits a bow’s length away from Ishmael and her son subsequently becomes a bowman. The well of seven is a refuge for Hagar and a place of contention between Avraham and Avimelech, finally secured by Avraham through a sevenfold covenant of rest. The Holy name YHVH begins and ends the account as an allusion to the Mercy of God and the Judge Elohim is seen throughout.
Ultimately God’s will is done and the promised heir is made secure in the bosom of the father of faith, protected from the mocking laughter of his future enemies through the prophetic voice of his mother, the great matriarch and princess of Israel.
Gen 21:1 And HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) cared for Sarah (Princess), visiting her as He had said, and HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) made in Sarah that of which He had spoken. Gen 21:2 For Sarah conceived, and bore Avraham (father of nations, father of trust) a son in his old age, at the set time (moed) of which God had spoken to him.
Tradition holds that Sarah conceived on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh Hashana. 11a.), as a result, the present narrative is the Torah reading for that day.
“God did a wonder or wonders for Sarah.” –Yerushalayim & Yonatan Targums
It is God as Mercy Who begins this important account. He cares for Sarah and fulfills His promise to her.
“In trust also Sarah herself received the ability to conceive seed, and delivered a child when she was past age, because she judged Him Who had promised to be trustworthy.” –Hebrews 11:11
The similarities to the later birth of the Messiah are prophetic in nature. The differences equally important. Sarah, who had doubted HaShem’s angel now gives birth with great joy. While Miriyam (Mary), who received Gavriel’s message with great joy and firm belief, would give birth in a time of turmoil and later suffer the loss of her son, only to receive Him again with even greater joy than any experienced by Sarah. All this illuminates the metanarrative of God’s redemptive plan, which He decided upon before the creation of the world.
Verses 2 & 3, and later 25:19, emphasis the fact that Avraham is the father of Isaac. This is to ensure the reader that despite his age it was his fertile seed that impregnated Sarah and not the wicked king Avimelech.
Gen 21:3 And Avraham called the name of his son that was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Yitzchak (Isaac: he laughs). Gen 21:4 And Avraham circumcised his son Yitzchak at eight days old, as God had commanded him.
The name Yitzchak is the first of many uses of the Hebrew root tz’chok (laughter). Avraham was given the name by God in 17:19. There is much to learn from the ways laughter is used both in joyous proclamation and in sinful mockery. The halakhic applications abound.
Gen 21:5 And Avraham was a hundred years old, when his son Yitzchak was born to him.
The birth of Isaac took place 25 years after Avraham departed from Haran (Genesis 12:4).
Gen 21:6 And Sarah said, “Tzichak (laughter) has been made for me by Elohim (God: Judge), so that all that hear will Tzichak (laugh).” Gen 21:7 And she said, “Who would have said that for Avraham, sons would be nursed by Sarah? Yet my child, a son, I have born him in his old age.”
This laughter is joy, the text intends to convey the idea that a person who brings joy has entered the world, that all who hear of his birth will be filled with joy and respond in laughter. This joy has been introduced by the Merciful Judge of the universe so that all may join in celebrating the fulfillment of His promise. The laughter that accompanies this birth is a response of right action born of God’s mercy.
Rashi observes that this event brings hope and joy to the barren women of Israel, thus the joy shared by those who hear of Sarah’s miracle, forms a foundation for their trust in the God Who is able to bring life forth from a dead womb. This too is a picture of the Messiah and His resurrection.
The neighbors of Elisheva (Elizabeth), the mother of the prophet Yochanan rejoiced in this same way when they heard that she had given birth (Luke 1:58). In that context it is called, “rejoicing” which is synonymous with the term, “laughter” in Genesis 21:6.
Gen 21:8 And the child grew, and was weaned: and Avraham made a great feast the same day that Yitzchak was weaned.
The age of weaning cannot be determined with certainty. The rabbinical views range from three years to twelve years, citing various sources. Though some modern readers may find the idea of lengthy weaning periods to be distasteful (no pun intended), it was not unusual in ancient times for children to be nursed well into their formative years. When we add to this the fact that at the time of these events people were still living much longer than we do today, it seems reasonable to split the difference and settle on an approximate age of seven (Philo: De his Verb. Resipuit. Noe, p. 275) for Isaac’s weaning.
Rashi (Tanchuma) claims that the feast was great because the great men of that generation attended: Shem, Eber and Avimelech. Note the names: Shem (Name), Eber (Beyond) and Avimelech (My father is King). Each name describes God, The Name (Mercy), Messiah, Who enters the world from beyond, and My Father the King of worlds.
Gen 21:9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar (flight) the Mitzree (Egyptian: double distress), which she had born to Avraham, m’tzacheik (laughing, mocking).
The Hebrew, “m’tzacheik” is a play on Isaac’s name, “Yitzchak”. The text can be read, “And Sarah saw the son Hagar the Egyptian, who she had born to Avraham, playing (m’tzacheik laughing, mocking).” We could say that Ishmael was Isaacing, or playing at being Isaac. This is yet another hint at the type of mockery that was taking place and illuminates the reason for Sarah’s firm resolve regarding Ishmael’s removal from the camp of Avraham. It seems that Ishmael was, at his mother’s prompting, seeking to usurp Isaac’s position as heir. This is of course confirmed by 21:10.
Ishmael is now a young man (17-27) and is fully aware of his moral responsibility. From the text we can discern that Hagar’s influence and his own delusions of grandeur are responsible for his mocking of Isaac (21:10). Ishmael could have chosen to laugh in joy at the honoring of his new brother, however, he instead seeks to humiliate Isaac in the presence of those over whom he will rule as heir. This is not the innocent mocking of a child rather it is the intentional sin of a young man.
This same kind of mocking laughter (tz’cheik) is linked to the sins of idolatry (Exodus 32:6), adultery (Exodus 39:17) and murder (2 Samuel 2:14). Rashi notes that this infers the complete corruption of Ishmael and sees his being sent away as a necessary act for the sake of Isaac’s spiritual character and protection.
“Keep not Your silence, O Elohim: don’t hold Your peace, and don’t be still, O Elohim. For, behold, Your enemies make a tumult: and they that hate You have lifted up their heads in pride. They have taken crafty counsel against Your people (Israel), and consulted against the ones You protect. They have said, ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel shall be remembered no more. For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against You: The shelters of Edom, and the Ishmaelites; of Moab, and the Hagarenes;”
Gen 21:10 So she said to Avraham, “Cast out this maid-servant and her son: for the son of this maid-servant shall not be heir with my son, even with Yitzchak (Isaac: he laughs).”
“Now we, fellow Jewish brothers and sisters in Messiah, are as Isaac was, the children of promise. But as it was then, he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless, what does the scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’ So then, fellow Jewish brothers and sisters in Messiah, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” –Galatians 4:28-31
As the matriarch of Israel, Sarah saw the danger that Ishmael posed to her son and his Godly mission. Sarah’s response is not one of vindictiveness but of protection.
Gen 21:11 And the thing was very grievous in Avraham's sight because of his son.
Avraham was grieved both by his son Ishmael’s behavior and due to the resulting need for expelling him from the camp.
Pirke Eliezer calls this the most difficult of Avraham’s trials (Pirke Eliezer, c 30 ).
Gen 21:12 And God said to Avraham, “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the boy, and because of your maid-servant; shema listen to all that Sarah has said to you, hear her voice; for in (through) Yitzchak your seed will be called (identified).”
The Targum of Yonatan reads, “Listen to all that Sarah has said to you, hear her voice, for she is a prophetess.”
The Talmud refers to Sarah’s protection of Isaac’s rights as evidence of the fact that she is a prophetess (b. Meg. 14a).
The Hebrew, “Shema”, listen, hear, understand, comprehend; is used here in the present continuous or perfect tense of the Hebrew. It is the positive counter to the use of the same word in the past tense in Genesis 3:17, where Adam has listened (Shema’ta) to the flawed advice of Eve. By listening to Eve’s advice Adam invited sin into the world, whereas by listening to Sarah’s advice (via HaShem) Avraham invites light into the world. That is, Isaac was to be the heir who would produce the struggling people Yaakov/Israel. Israel in-turn was to be light to the nations, a calling that was fulfilled by the Mashiyach Yeshua, born to the line of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov according to His humanity.
God affirms Sarah’s instruction, which is an act of righteous trust. With these words Sarah becomes Israel’s second prophet. God reminds Avraham that Isaac is the chosen seed who will perpetuate the ministry of light to the nations through his son Yaakov, Israel.
Gen 21:13 And also of the son of the maid servant will I make a nation, because he is your seed.
By way of consolation God comforts Avraham with the knowledge that He will also take good care of Ishmael, making him a great (subservient) nation.
Gen 21:14 And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder with the child (young man), and sent her away: and she departed, and teitah (strayed, practiced error) in the wilderness of Beer-sheva (Well of seven, sevenfold covenant, well of blessing, covenant of rest).”
The act of waking early is a sign of immediate obedience on Avraham’s part. Regardless of his own grief at the loss of Ishmael, Avraham trusted God and acted in prompt obedience.
The Hebrew v’teitah indicates Hagar’s return to idolatrous practice as she sought a place of solace in the wilderness near Beer-sheva (a well which will be illuminated in the latter section of this account). Rashi suggests that Hagar returned to the idolatrous practices of her father’s house.
Ishmael is thought to be between 17 (Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 2. 2) and 27 (Pirke Eliezer, c. 30. Bereshit Rabba, sect. 53. fol. 47. 4.) years of age at this point in time.
Beer-sheva is approximately 19 kilometres from Gerar and 32 kilometres from Hebron to the south.
Gen 21:15 And the water ran out, so she cast (threw off) the child (young man) under one of the shrubs. Gen 21:16 And she went, and sat down at a distance from him, a bowshot (0.8km) away: for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child (young man).” And as she sat there she lifted up her voice, and wept.
Bereshit Rabba, records a bowshot distance at about half a mile (.8 Kilometre), saying that two bowshots make a mile (1.6 kilometres) [Bereshit Rabba, ut supra. sect. 53. fol. 47. 4].
The term, “Child” here could be misunderstood to mean, “Young child”. However, a child remains the child of his mother regardless of his age, and this is what is intended here. Infact we know from both the chronology of Biblical events and from tradition that Ishmael is between 17 and 27 years of age at this point in time.
The great irony of Hagar’s lack of water, is that her blindness has come about through her own spiritual decay. Both her expulsion from the camp of Avraham and her subsequent suffering are directly related to her continued attempts to seek Isaac’s inheritance for her own son Ishmael.
Rabbi Hirsch wisely observes that, “Hagar’s behavior is disgraceful… Rather than comfort her child in his dying moments, she thought only of herself and the discomfort she would feel in the presence of his agony.” This is why the following verse begins with the words, “God heard the voice of the boy;”
Gen 21:17 And God heard the voice of the boy (young man); and the angel of Elohim (God, Judge) called to Hagar out of the heavens, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not; for Elohim (God) has heard the voice of the boy (young man) where he is.”
God’s communication with Hagar differs greatly from the way He has met with Avraham. We note that the angel of Elohim (God), rather than the angel of YHVH, calls to her from the heavens rather than meeting her in humanoid form on earth as He had done with Avraham. It is Elohim, the Judge and Ruler, Who attends to Hagar’s son. Mercy (YHVH) is with Avraham (Isaac and Yaakov) but Judgement (Elohim) has come to Ishmael and his decedents.
Gen 21:18 Arise, lift up the boy (young man), and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation. Gen 21:19 And Elohim (God) opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the water-skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Some suggest that this well was made to appear supernaturally, however, the context suggests that the well finds its symbolic form in the origin story of verses 23-33, where Avraham presents ewe lambs as an offering that testifies to his right to its water through the cutting of a covenant before the Judge, Elohim. Due to the fact that the agreement for, and the naming of the well (v.23-33) is considered to have preceded the events of verses 1 through 21, it is safe to conclude that the limited supplies given to Hagar by Avraham were intended to last her the short distance to Beer-sheva, a well that Avraham had already redeemed for the use of his household.
The sages say that this well has ancient origins and was in fact, “Created between the two evenings, that is, on the evening of the seventh day of the creation.” (Pirke Eliezer, ut supra. c. 30)
It is by the Word of Hashem that Hagar’s eyes are opened and she receives living water. Hagar had returned to idolatry (v.14) and was therefore, not only physically but also spiritually blind. Yeshua said, “Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again.” This well is Beer-sheva, the well of sevenfold blessing, rest and covenant promise. By trusting in God’s Word, Hagar receives life for both herself and her son.
Gen 21:20 And Elohim (God) was with the boy (young man); and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
Hagar had sat a bow shot away from her son. Now her son becomes an archer. Both Ishmael’s role and the role of his descendants are emphasised by the symbol of the bow (warfare).
“And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brothers.” –Genesis 16:12
Jewish tradition says that Ishmael, “Was born with a bow, and brought up with one, and that he shot an arrow at his brother Isaac, with the intention to kill him, while he was in Abraham's house;” (Pirke, c. 30 Ammian. Marcellin. Hist. l. 14)
Gen 21:21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran (Beautiful caverns): and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt (Mitzrayim: double distress).
The location of the ancient wilderness of Paran is debated and manipulated by Islamic scholars, however, it seems most likely that the location of Paran is below the Sea of Salt (Dead seat) to the south-west near the border of Modern Israel and Jordan. There are a number of factors that support this location, including the name itself relative to the geography of the region.
One Jewish tradition suggests that Ishmael had two wives; the first he divorced, and then married the Egyptian; his first wife, they say, he sent for, and took out of the plains of Moab, whose name was Aishah, and the other Phatimah (Pirke Eliezer, ut supra. c. 30).
“And he (Ishmael) dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and took to wife Adisha, whom he divorced, and then his mother took him Phatimah to wife, out of the land of Egypt:'' –Yerushalayim & Yonatan Targums
Gen 21:22 And it came to pass at that time, that Avimelech (My father is king) and Phichol (Peh-col: Mouth of all, strength) the chief captain of his army, spoke to Avraham, saying, “Elohim (God) is with you in all that you do:” Gen 21:23 “Now therefore, swear to me here by Elohim (God) that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son: but according to the kindness that I have done to you, you shall do to me, and to the land where you have sojourned.” Gen 21:24 And Avraham said, “I will swear.”
These events can be understood to have been set in the past and read as, “And it was in the past at that time…” This seems consistent with the previous identification of the wilderness of Beer-sheva in the account of Hagar’s expulsion. The establishing of the well of Beer-sheva prior to Hagar’s wandering shows that the blessing of God comes to her via Avraham’s trust.
It is worth noting that Avimelech does not seek a covenant with Avraham because of his wealth but with the words, “God is with you in all that you do.”
It seems that the Philistines observed this oath until the days of the judge Samson, when they began to attack Israel for the first time (Sotah 10a).
Gen 21:25 And Avraham rebuked Avimelech because of a well of water, which Avimelech's servants had violently taken away.
If there was to be a covenant Avraham wanted it to be established with truth and integrity. This is why he placed his cards on the table regarding the continued violent behaviour of Avimelech’s men. With peace comes responsibility and openness. Any peace devised outside of these parameters is a false peace.
Gen 21:26 And Avimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this thing: neither did you tell me, nor have I heard of it, until today.”
Avimelech’s claim seems unlikely, given that it had been his practice to send his men to commit crimes against others (the abduction of Sarah).
Gen 21:27 And Avraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Avimelech; and both of them karat (cut) a covenant. Gen 21:28 And Avraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. Gen 21:29 And Avimelech asked Avraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs which you have set by themselves?” Gen 21:30 And he said, “These seven ewe (female) lambs shall you take from my hand, that they may bear witness of me, that I discovered (chafar) this well.” Gen 21:31 So he called that place Beer-sheva (Well of seven, sevenfold covenant, well of blessing, covenant of rest); because there they both swore. Gen 21:32 Thus they karat (cut) a covenant at Beer-sheva: then Avimelech rose up, and Phichol (Peh-col: Mouth of all, strength) the chief captain of his army, and they returned into the land of the Pilishtiym (Immigrants).
The seven (Shiv’ah) female lambs correspond to the oath (Sh’vuah) and emphasize the completeness, longevity and rest that the oath will bring. Allegorically speaking, based solely on the meaning of the names, the father of trust is making an agreement with his father the King. Thus the well is named quite literally, “Well of Seven” or, “Well of Oath”.
Avraham’s insistence that Avimelech accept the lambs as a gift is an ancient means of verifying ownership, much like the transaction carried out in Ruth 4:7. It is a symbolic act, intended to be witnessed by all present as a mark of future legal security.
Gen 21:33 And Avraham planted an orchard (tamarisk) in Beersheva, and called there on the name of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy), the everlasting Elohim (God). Gen 21:34 And Avraham sojourned in the land of Pilishtiym (Immigrants) many days.
The account ends with the planting of an orchard representing shade and respite for weary desert travelers and the unity of the God-head in Mercy (YHVH) and Judgement (Elohim).
The planting of trees, possibly tamarisk (an evergreen tree that common to the Middle East, it can reach heights of 15.2 meters) is an act of remembrance. Infact trees are still planted today in Israel in memory of loved ones and to mark special events. Therefore, the planting of these shady trees near a well in an arid location are best understood to represent a memorial to the God Who has provided and heir, life-giving water and shelter in the wilderness for Avraham.
Avraham is said to have sojourned in the land of the Philistines for twenty-six years (Yarchi & Bereshit Rabba, sect. 54. fol. 48. 4)
Rashi says that it is important to read this as a sojourning because the years from the birth of Isaac are to be counted in the 400 years during which Avraham’s descendants would be aliens in a land not their own. However, the land in which Avraham is now sojourning has already been promised to him and his descendants, therefore, Rashi’s assertion is incompatible with the prophetic word of God. The four hundred years can only refer to the years Israel will spend in Egypt as slaves to Pharaoh.
© 2016 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.