Genesis 21

Mark E. Petersen
Feuds between brothers are the most bitter of all, and when they extend over generations of time, the scars run deep, seeming never to heal.
Are Jews and Arabs really brothers? Is enmity within that relationship at the seat of their present troubles? Can family strife never end?
Today's conflict in Palestine runs back to a celebration held nearly four thousand years ago in the tents of Abraham, the Friend of God. His favorite son, Isaac, was being weaned; and in accordance with the prevailing custom, the fatted calf was killed and the family held a feast…
[Ishmael] mocked Isaac. Sarah saw what he did and was deeply troubled. Enraged by Ishmael's insult, "she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight." (Gen. 21:10-11.)
Thus began the conflict that still rages today. Will the Arabs and the Jews never make peace? Is there nothing that can settle their dispute and leave both parties satisfied?
Palestine—the holy land of promise—is the bone of their present contention. Both peoples lay claim to it since both regard Abraham as their eminent progenitor.
The Jews insist that the land is theirs through divine covenant, given by God to their great forefather. But the Arabs do the same, and insist that they are as much blood descendants of Abraham as the Jews. In addition, they claim their right to the land by actual possession. They took it over when the Jews left.
Israel, scattered and hated, allowed centuries to pass by without making so much as an isolated claim to their homeland. So the Arabs moved in, feeling fully justified. Hadn't the Lord made great promises to Ishmael and told him that he as well as Isaac would become a great people, even with royalty arising in his lineage?
The Almighty certainly said that both Isaac and Ishmael would sire nations, princes, and kings. Many nations were to come from Abraham, not Israel alone. Would God discriminate against any one of them, and if so, why?
The Arabs remind the Jews, and none too gently, that Ishmael was the firstborn of Abraham's children, with Isaac second. They ask in all confidence: Do not firstborn sons always enjoy prior rights over others in the family? Is not the firstborn the legal heir?
The Jews rely on scripture to sustain their position. But so do the Arabs—on their own scriptures, which declare Ishmael to be the Lord's prophet and Abraham the founder of the Islamic religion. So again there is a standoff.
Ever since that feast day four thousand years ago, Ishmael has been the enemy of Isaac, and he still is. The bitterness handed down through the centuries may yet engulf the entire world in war. Will it be Armageddon, involving all nations? It is no wonder that western powers bend every effort to make peace in the Holy Land and avoid further open conflict. (Abraham: Friend of God [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979], 2 - 3)
Genesis 21:2 Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age
Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac was born; Sarah was 90 (Gen. 17:17). That is pretty old. They did live in the days when the age of man was extended, and Abraham ended up living to the ripe old age of 175 (Gen. 25:7). So that would mean 100 years of age in that day was relatively younger than in ours. The same could be said of Sarah but she was certainly post-menopausal (Gen. 18:11). To our eyes, they may have appeared like a couple in their 60’s.
God may have turned the clock back on both of them. For Sarah to give birth, miraculous changes would have to take place internally. Alternate sources tell us these changes were visible externally as well:
“Abraham, old and white-haired as he was, found his hair turning black, and he recovered the vigor of his youth. Sarah, likewise, old and white-haired as she was, found her hair turning black. Abraham became a young man again and Sarah became a young woman again. Thereupon, just about everyone in the world gathered around them and asked, ‘What was so unusual about you both as to have such extraordinary things befall you?’ So Abraham sat down, and beginning with his deliverance from the fire of the Chaldees, told everything that had happened to him in the world up to that very hour. Of the things that befell Abraham, it is said, Who hath raised up one from the East? At whose steps does victory attend? He giveth nations before him and maketh him rule over kings.” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, & Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham [Provo: FARMS, 2001], 76-77)
Genesis 21:3 Abraham called the name of his son… Isaac
The name Isaac means “to laugh” or “to rejoice.” Certainly, the idea that Abraham and Sarah could have a child was laughable when they first were given the promise, but that laughter of incredulousness was turned to a laughter of rejoicing at the fulfillment of the promise.
Genesis 21:4 Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old
It is hard to believe that it is mere coincidence that the Jews circumcise their children at the age of 8 days and Latter-day Saints baptize their children at the age of 8 years. Both are representative of the covenant—the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of baptism. The latter is really a latter-day representation of the former, for every baptized person becomes an adopted member of the house of Israel—thereby becoming an heir of the blessings of the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“Those who are not descendants of Abraham are adopted in the House of Israel when they join the Church and become heirs of the covenant of Abraham, through the ordinances of the gospel.” (Ardeth G. Kapp, LDS Church News, 1991)
And they circumcised him upon the eighth day and from that time the Jews continue the custom of circumcising their sons within that number of days. But as for the Arabians, they circumcise after the thirteenth year, because Ismael, the founder of their nation, who was born to Abraham of the concubine, was circumcised at that age. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 12:2)
Genesis 21:8 Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned
“A great feast [was celebrated] probably in connection with a weaning ceremony. According to the Talmud, children were weaned between eighteen and twenty-four months; the Book of Maccabees puts the age at three years.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut [New York, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981], 139)
“Because of high infant mortality, families celebrated the milestone of a child’s survival at his weaning. The ceremonial event has long been marked in parts of the Middle East by feasting and a ritual offering of soft, solid food to the child. Records of ancient contracts show that wet nurses were hired for as long as three years, indicating Isaac’s approximate age when Sarah weaned him. An apocryphal source cites a mother telling her son, ‘Have pity on me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years’ (2 Maccabees 7:27). Postponing a child’s weaning for three years may also reflect a mother’s attempt to strengthen her child to survive the perilous diseases of infancy.” (Camille Fronk Olson, Women of the Old Testament, [SLC: Deseret Book, 2009], 42)
Genesis 21:9-10 Sarah… said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son
Scriptural characters are real people with real emotions and real struggles. Sarah was jealous and bitter about how Hagar treated her after Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:4-6). Now, when her curse was broken and she had every reason to rejoice, the teenage Ishmael (probably age 15-17 since Ishmael is 14 years older than Isaac) mocks the celebration. Sarah was deeply hurt.
Years ago, Sarah had driven away her pregnant handmaid (Gen. 16:6). In her anger, she determined to do it again. Sarah could have been more forgiving, but the teenager hit a sore spot with her—attacking her son hit a raw nerve in an open wound.
As for Sarah, she at first loved Ismael, who was born of her own handmaid Hagar, with an affection not inferior to that of her own son, for he was brought up in order to succeed in the government; but when she herself had born Isaac, she was not willing that Ismael should be brought up with him, as being too old for him, and able to do him injuries when their father should be dead; she therefore persuaded Abraham to send him and his mother to some distant country.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 12:3)
Genesis 21:11 the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son

No doubt Abraham had a great love for Ishmael.  To Sarah, Ishmael was not related at all; to Abraham, sending him away meant sending away his own son.  Not only that, but prior to the news that God would give Sarah a son, Abraham had imagined that the promises of his great posterity would be fulfilled through Ishmael (Gen. 17:18). Ishmael was flesh and blood.  He was circumcised and therefore part “of the covenant.”  Now the great prophet is placed in a real mortal dilemma: his wife wants him to send away his own son before he is ready to fend for himself. Such harsh treatment could kill him.

Additionally, Abraham’s natural benevolence would have been grieved at the rash treatment of Hagar. The whole thing is just a mess for him. The family conflict would be not unlike tensions between a step-mother and a step-child in mixed families of today.  Sometimes a step-mother’s resentment towards the biological mother affects the way she treats the child. This is a great example of the marital difficulties that prophets face.  Great and righteous men are not immune from serious disagreements and conflicts in marriage. What can we learn from how Abraham handled this?

Obviously, Abraham received this answer from the Lord after carefully importuning at the throne of grace.  “What do I do?  If I keep Sarah happy, I lose my son and banish my maidservant. If I don’t do as Sarah wishes, my life will be nothing but misery, you can count on that! The feud will only intensify; the heat in the kitchen will become unbearable.  But how can I justify such harsh treatment of my own flesh and blood?” You might imagine that Abraham felt he might be under condemnation from the Lord if he sends them away.  This concern is alleviated by the Lord’s surprising response, “Let them go, I will take care of them. This is all according to my plan.”  Prayer gave Abraham the answer and comfort he needed.

Genesis 21:12 Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman

Other translations say Abraham was greatly distressed, that he “thought it [was] an instance of greatest barbarity to send away a young child and a woman unprovided of necessaries.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 12:3)  The problem Abraham faces is grave indeed.  His wife asks him to banish his son and concubine.  He knows it is wrong.  There is nothing in his character which would justify such an action, but he is the one who has to live with Sarah.  What should a righteous person do when a spouse asks them to do something which is unkind or hurtful?  Intuition suggests Abraham should just say, “No,” but in prophetic fashion he takes the problem to the Lord.

We are still left to ask, “Why”?   How can Sarah demand this?  How can Abraham consent to it?  And how can God condone it?  The answer is that the whole affair was according to the Master plan of the Lord.  In order for Abraham’s next test to symbolize the sacrifice of the Only-Begotten of the Father, Abraham has to have only one son.  God will ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son.  The symbolism isn’t right if there are two.   The banishment of Ishmael means that he becomes dead to Abraham.  Isaac is all he has left.  The promises will have to come through him.   The symbolism is so important that Hagar and Ishmael must be sent away.  In classic fashion, the Lord will make it up to them.

One Jewish commentator correctly declared, “In the story, His ultimate designs prevail; He directs the actions of men in His own mysterious way.  What on a human plane appears as Sarah’s harsh and overprotective behavior is on the divine level part of God’s plan.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 142)  Ironically, this commentator could see the hand of God directing events but he couldn’t see the symbolism of Abraham and Isaac prefiguring Elohim and Jesus!

Genesis 21:12 in Isaac shall thy seed be called
Mark E. Petersen
Nations, kings, princes, and multitudes were to come from Abraham through both Isaac and Ishmael—but the Lord's covenant would be with Isaac.
This was confirmed when the Lord spoke further to Abraham as he grieved over the dispute between Sarah and Hagar, and the future of his son Ishmael. The Lord said: "Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad [Ishmael], and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called." (Gen. 21:12.)
There was no misunderstanding that language. Ishmael would be greatly blessed, but the covenant was to be with Isaac. The Lord was obviously selecting a particular parentage for his chosen people, and Ishmael's descendants were not included.
This principle was repeated in the selection of Jacob over Esau. Again the covenant was only with Jacob. Esau too was to become a great people, but as the Lord had said to Abraham, "In Isaac thy seed shall be called," even so now it was in Jacob that "thy seed shall be called." (Gen. 27.) Only in Isaac! Only in Jacob!
There was a definite narrowing of the "the seed." The lineage of Abraham, though accounting for many nations, had but one select line in which the special blessings were promised.
Why were some thus favored over others? Was not the Lord always just? The scriptures make it clear that he is no respecter of persons. What is the explanation?
President Joseph Fielding Smith, in his book The Way to Perfection, says: "Our place among the tribes and nations evidently was assigned to us by the Lord. That there was an assignment of this kind before earth-life began, is a declaration in the scriptures. Certain spirits were chosen to come through the lineage of Abraham, and this choice was made in the beginning. Other selections were also made and the nations determined upon by the councils in the heavens." (Abraham: Friend of God [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979], 12 - 13)
Genesis 21:13 also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed
“According to Genesis 25:12-18, Ishmael was the father of 12 sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. Each son became the head of his own Ishmaelite tribe, and the tribes ‘settled from Havilah to Shur’ (Genesis 25:18).
“The Old Testament refers to the Ishmaelites several times. In Genesis 37:25-39:1, Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites, who then take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar; in Judges 8:24, Gideon receives Ishmaelite jewelry; and in 1 Chronicles 27:30, an Ishmaelite is said to have been in charge of King David’s camels.” (Barry J. Beitzel, ed., Biblica: The Bible Atlas, [Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2006], 109)
Ishmael’s descendants populate the Arab nations and are revered in the Koran.
“According to the Koran, Abraham brought Ishmael and his mother to Arabia and settled them near what was to become the great city of Mecca. Eventually the descendents of Ishmael’s twelve sons began to fill the Arabian peninsula. The Biblical account, though it differs in specifics, suggests also that Hagar and Ishmael were directed in their wanderings. Genesis recounts that an angel of the Lord comforted and preserved them, and that ‘God was with the lad [Ishmael].’ (See Gen. 21:14–20.)
“We are familiar with the history of Jacob’s twelve sons—the twelve tribes of Israel; but we are not equally familiar with the history of the twelve sons of Ishmael, a great and noble tradition that has created one of the truly great cultures of the world—the Islamic culture.” (James B. Mayfield, “Ishmael, Our Brother,” Ensign, June 1979, 27)
Genesis 21:14-18 Abraham… sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness
“The thought of Hagar and her son, expelled from their home and driven into the desert with nothing more than a bottle of water, can easily excite more sympathy than the harsh Sarah, who, for what seems a trifling offense, demanded such severe retribution. Abraham himself must have seen error and misunderstanding on both sides. But the Lord confirmed Sarah's request. Offering Abraham consolation in the promise that he would protect and preserve Ishmael and make him also a mighty nation, the father of twelve princes, the Lord commanded Abraham to listen to his wife.
“I feel a touching sympathy for the way Abraham sacrificed his own feelings and let his elder son go. He had flocks, herds, servants, and great wealth, but he gave none to Ishmael. The Lord had promised to provide for the boy; what could he add to that? Taking bread and a bottle of water and placing it on Hagar's shoulder, he sent the two into the desert.
“Hagar wandered until the water was gone. Then, not wanting to see her child die, she left him under a bush and went away to weep. She was a slave, praised by none and loved by few except God, who comforted her whenever she asked. He sent her angels and wonderful promises. I can think of few women who could claim to be better blessed than Hagar.
“An angel appeared saying, ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not.’ Repeating the promise that Ishmael would become a great nation, God opened Hagar's eyes; she saw a lifegiving well of water, and she and her son drank.
“The scriptures add that God was with Ishmael as he grew and dwelt in the wilderness. Ishmael became an archer, and Hagar found him a wife among her own people.
“The fact that the Lord watches over, protects, and has purposes for all nations of the earth is confirmed repeatedly by the prophets: ‘Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtar, and the Syrians from Kir?’ (Amos 9:7.) And again, ‘I remember one nation like unto another.’ (2 Nephi 29:7-8.)
“As God promised, Ishmael became a great nation. Hundreds of years later the Moslem prophet, Muhammad, praised and acknowledged God for the preservation of his ancestress Hagar.” (Jerrie W. Hurd, Our Sisters in the Bible [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 13-14)
Genesis 21:15 she cast the child under one of the shrubs
We suggested the age of Ishmael was between 15 and 17 when banished.  Yet this passage says Hagar cast him under a shrub like he was a two-year old.  Most likely, this is an embellishment of the scribe to make the case of Ishmael’s condition completely helpless—as a mere infant. 
Let’s review the chronology of Genesis.  Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:16).  Abraham was 99 and Ishmael 13 when they were both circumcised (Gen. 17:24-25).  Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born (Gen. 21:5), making Ishmael 14. 
Ishmael gets in trouble at the weaning party.  Now if Sarah had waited so long for a son, she may have weaned her child much longer than women do today. 
“At what time children were weaned among the ancients, is a disputed point. St. Jerome says there were two opinions on this subject. Some hold that children were always weaned at five years of age; others, that they were not weaned till they were twelve. From the speech of the mother to her son, 2 Maccabees 7:27, it seems likely that among the Jews they were weaned when three years old: O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee Suck Three Years, and nourished thee and brought thee up. And this is farther strengthened by 2 Chronicles 31:16, where Hezekiah, in making provision for the Levites and priests, includes the children from three years old and upwards; which is a presumptive proof that previously to this age they were wholly dependent on the mother for their nourishment.” (LINK)
Certainly, Ishmael is over age 15 when he is banished in spite of the fact that the language of Genesis makes it sound like his is still a small boy, “she cast the child under one of the shrubs,” and “Arise, lift up the land, and hold him in thine hand” (v. 18).  Was Hagar strong enough to hold a teenage boy in her hand? 

The most likely scenario is that the banishment of Ishmael was a story carried down by an oral tradition.  The oral tradition may have been separate from the written tradition of the age of the sons.  We might imagine that as the story was told over and over again, Ishmael got younger and younger.  It makes for a better story that way.  Consider the pathos!  Hagar tosses her infant under a shrub to die.  God tells her to go pick him up and carry him to the well shown to Hagar.  While the oral tradition preserves the important element that both Hagar and Ishmael were utterly dependent upon the Lord, it warps the age of the child by exaggeration.

Genesis 21:19 God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water
In our hour of greatest need, when we like Hagar are wandering in the wilderness, ready to give up, sapped of strength, and dried up like the weed—when we have abandoned any hope of survival and expect the worst for our children, we need to look to God for relief. If we look to God as Hagar did, He will open our eyes and show us the power of his saving grace. Whether it is a well of water or comfort from the Spirit—whether the comfort food is spiritual or temporal, He will meet our needs if we look to him in faith.
Aileen H. Clyde
We are told, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Gen. 21:19; emphasis added). We, like Hagar, are required to see “a well of water.” We, like the woman at the well, must ask of the Lord: “Give me this water, that I thirst not” (John 4:15). This is the purpose of Relief Society. It teaches us as daughters of God how to see and how to ask for that which we need of the Lord so that we need not thirst again. (Conference Report, Oct. 1995, 97)
Brigham Young
May God open your eyes and the eyes of every honest person, that we may see things as they are and secure for ourselves that eternal rest we are looking for. (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 7: 160)
Genesis 21:27 Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech
Now wait a minute! Abimelech is the one who offended Abraham. Why does Abraham then make such a generous gift to his neighbor? “Your servants stole my water rights,” could have been Abraham’s cry. He was straightforward with Abimelech and reproved him to his face but it could have been much uglier. He could have armed his servants and started a war. Abraham’s example as a peacemaker echoes down through the ages. If Abraham’s children could get along with each other as well as their father got along with his neighbors, there would be much less conflict in the world. Next door neighbors arguing over property lines, farmers arguing over water rights, or ward members holding grudges that last for decades, we see it almost every day. Abraham was too smart to make that mistake. In fact, all the patriarchs follow this pattern of carefully getting along with the neighbors (Gen. 34:30). It just makes life so much more pleasant.
Hugh Nibley
The wonderful thing about Abraham is that he always does the right thing no matter what anybody else does. He had to get along with all sorts of people, most of them rascals, and he treats them all with equal courtesy. He never judges any man. And then there are various examples. We go through quite a number of them. And the saying from Midrash Rabbah, "If Abraham does not play fair, who will?" His passion for fair play breaks all records in his pleading for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to whom he owed nothing but trouble. He knew all about their awful wickedness, but still, Josephus observes, he felt sorry for them because they were his friends and neighbors. (Ancient Documents and the Pearl of Great Price, edited by Robert Smith and Robert Smythe [n.p., n.d.], 9)
Genesis 21:34 Abraham sojourned in the Philistines’ land many days
“The idea that the Philistines were already in Palestine before the time of Abraham is erroneously derived from Gen. 21:32 and other passages in Genesis and Exodus, where the ‘land of the Philistines’ is mentioned. But modern archaeology has proven that the Philistines, as one of the ‘sea peoples’ that invaded the Near East at the end of the Bronze Age, did not enter Palestine until the twelfth century B.C.-­long after the days of Abraham. The statement in Gen. 21:32 is thus anachronistic. It identifies the place where the Philistines dwelled to a Hebrew audience hundreds of years after the events of that verse occurred, using a designation that they would understand. It is the same as saying, ‘Columbus discovered America,’ even though America got its name after Columbus's voyage.” (Philip J. Schlesinger, Isaiah and the Book of Mormon a Study Guide for Understanding the Writings of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon (Victor L. Ludlow), FARMS Review of Books, vol. 3 (1991), 148.)