God faithfully honors His promise of a son from 25 years ago which causes Abraham to have to deal with the ramifications of his unbelief from roughly 17 years ago. The birth of Isaac brings celebration and feasting but also causes Abraham to have to painfully part ways with Ishmael. The Everlasting God shows His word is not bound by time or circumstance while short-sighted man shows that doubting God has painful consequences.
Sarah finally gives birth. God told them both roughly a year ago that He would remember them and Sarah would give birth in a year. And it happens just as He said. Sarah gives birth when she is 90 years old and Abraham 100. Twenty-five years after they came to Canaan and 25 years after God first told Abraham he would become a great nation, the first member of that nation arrives.
Note that verse 3 explains his birth in interesting language. It says that Abraham named the son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. The text wants to emphasize that Sarah bore the son of promise. There can be no question about this. Isaac is not just Abraham’s son; he is Sarah’s son also. The great nation through whom all the world will be blessed is a product of both Abraham and Sarah exactly as God said.
Sarah celebrates Isaac’s birth by exulting in what God has done. She references Isaac’s name (which means “he laughs”) and says, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (it is not entirely clear in the Hebrew if she means that others will laugh with her in celebration or laugh at her in ridicule – perhaps she thinks people will mock because of her age?). She knows how amazing it is to have a son at her and Abraham’s ages. She also knows that both she and Abraham laughed in disbelief when God said a year ago that this would happen. Their mocking laughter has now turned to the laughter of joy. God was faithful and miraculous and she is a nursing mother. She is what she has longed for her whole life.
While the first seven verses of this chapter describe a wonderful event and Abraham and Sarah are likely ecstatic over God fulfilling His promise, the timing of Isaac’s birth presents an interesting question. Why did God make them wait 25 years for Isaac? Why promise them descendants as numerous as the stars and then keep them barren for two-and-a-half decades?
There is no way to answer these questions definitively, but several things are worth considering. Number one, by making them wait God ensured that the birth was more miraculous and more obviously of His doing. With every year that went by the likelihood of them becoming pregnant became more and more laughable. By waiting until Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90, God brought more glory to Himself than if Sarah would have conceived at 65. They ultimately waited for the sake of God’s glory (WE MUST NEVER FORGET THAT GOD’S PRIMARY MOTIVATION IS ALWAYS HIS OWN GLORY). Number two – and this goes along with point number one – the long wait showed God’s faithfulness. Abraham (and likely Sarah) seemed to think that Ishmael was the son of promise (17:18) and neither of them believed God a year ago when He said they would still conceive. Yet God remained true to His original promise and their unbelief did not affect His actions at all. God showed that time does not affect His word and He is faithful whatever the circumstances or year.
A third reason – and this also comes directly out of the first two – is what the long wait now does for Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith. How much more do they appreciate God’s love and provision in their lives after waiting 25 years? How much stronger is their faith as a result of giving birth at 90 and 100 as opposed to 65 and 75? God brought more glory to Himself by putting Isaac’s birth off for as long as He did but He also ensured Abraham and Sarah would have a greater appreciation for His work (we always benefit when God glorifies Himself). Another aspect to this point is what the miraculous birth will mean to Isaac when he is old enough to understand it.
So what’s the lesson here? We cannot give up hope in God’s promises regardless of circumstances or time. We cannot lose sight of God’s faithfulness even in a world that is upside down. During their 25-year wait Abraham and Sarah had no idea what God was doing and saw absolutely NOTHING that pointed to their having a son. Yet God did everything He said He would. In the same way we may have times in our lives when God’s actions (or inaction) seem totally confusing or His presence and authority in the world seem questionable. But our limited view must never affect our faith and we must never lose confidence in a God who cannot be unfaithful.
What would be fun to ask Sarah and Abraham at this point is – was it worth it?
Not everyone is thrilled with Isaac’s birth. Suddenly, Hagar and Ishmael are in an awkward position. Ishmael very clearly is no longer the son of promise or the main heir. And with Sarah giving birth Hagar no longer has anything to set her apart. The family situation with two sons and two mothers is now very complicated.
It is interesting that God’s faithfulness causes Abraham’s and Sarah’s short-sightedness to come back to haunt them. Their impatience and unbelief years ago now cause problems simply because God patiently did exactly what He said He would. If they would have believed instead of taking matters into their own hands they could now celebrate Isaac’s birth unreservedly. Instead they have to confront the consequences of their actions and realize that a joyous event that should unite them has the potential to rip the family apart.
When Isaac is weaned – roughly two to three years after his birth – Abraham has a big feast to celebrate. During the festivities Ishmael does something to Isaac that is not entirely clear in the text. It could be that he mocks Isaac or it could be that he does something more serious. Paul will later say that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Gal 4:29). Whatever it is, Sarah witnesses it and becomes enraged. She says to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” Note her disdain in refusing to even mention their names and how she refers to Hagar as this maid instead of a wife or concubine, and refers to Ishmael as Hagar’s son instead of Abraham’s.
It is not hard to read between the lines here and assume that the relationship between Hagar and Sarah has never recovered from Hagar’s pregnancy. Remember that after Hagar conceived she made no secret of her contempt for Sarah and her barrenness (16:4), and that Sarah treated her so badly as a result that Hagar ran away (16:6). It has now been roughly 16 or 17 years since Hagar returned and gave birth to Ishmael (Ishmael was 13 when he was circumcised and his circumcision took place roughly one year before Isaac’s birth – 17:25; Isaac is now probably two or three years old), and based on these verses it looks like the women have never gotten along well throughout those years (which has probably been really fun for Abraham). Sarah is furious over what she saw Ishmael do, but it probably doesn’t take much for her to insist that Abraham throw him and his mother out.
Abraham does not react happily. Regardless of Sarah’s feelings, Ishmael is his son. Ishmael is the one he wanted as his heir even after God told him Sarah would conceive (17:18). The boy is not just the son of the maid, and to throw him out will affect Abraham the same way it would affect any father who has raised his son almost to manhood. What Sarah demands is ruthless and heart-wrenching.
Interestingly, however, God agrees with Sarah. He tells Abraham to listen to her voice and do what she says. The reason he must remove Ishmael is because it is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants shall be named. Isaac is the son of promise and Ishmael is not; therefore, Ishmael must go. God does reassure Abraham that He will bless Ishmael (interestingly God does not use his or Hagar’s name either – just like Sarah) and make of him a great nation because he is Abraham’s descendant.
The morning after God speaks to him, Abraham does in fact send Hagar and Ishmael away (notice that he doesn’t put off the unpleasant act – he obeys quickly). He takes some bread and a skin of water and gives them to Hagar along with her son (Ishmael is in his late teens, so the text does not mean that Abraham hands him to her – it means that he gives the boy over to her charge so they both can go – he also presumably gives Hagar her freedom). This at first seems like a fairly callous dismissal. He sends them into the wilderness with nothing other than enough water and food to last for a short time. She has no escort, no way of defending her and the boy, no means of support, and nowhere to go.
It is hard to explain what Abraham’s thought process is here. Perhaps he simply trusts that God will provide for them. God just told him He will make a great nation of Ishmael so obviously the boy will live into manhood. If that’s the case, then God will watch over them in the wilderness. Still, it seems a little odd that he does not better provide for them or perhaps send someone to take them back to her homeland in Egypt. Instead, he gives them a little water and food and says goodbye. He obeys God and his wife to the letter – he sends them away.
Not surprisingly, Hagar and Ishmael wander in the wilderness for some time and their food and water eventually run out. The situation becomes so hopeless and dire that she leaves Ishmael under a bush and goes away from him so she won’t witness his death. God hears Ishmael crying, however, and comes to comfort her. In a scene very reminiscent of what happened when she ran away from Sarah during her pregnancy, God appears to Hagar at her time of crisis. He tells her He has heard Ishmael (remember that ‘Ishmael’ means “God hears” – 16:11) and that she does not have to fear because God will make a great nation of him.
God then opens her eyes and she sees a well nearby. It is not clear if the appearance of the well is supernatural or if the well has been there all along and God did not allow her to see it. It could also be that she simply did not see it because she was so upset. Whatever the explanation, the well saves their lives and they are able to continue their journey.
God is with Ishmael as he grows into manhood and becomes an archer. He settles in the wilderness of Paran (to the south of Canaan) and Hagar takes a wife for him from her home country of Egypt (similar to what Abraham will do for Isaac).
The chapter ends with a somewhat obscure story about a dispute over wells with Abimelech, king of Gerar. Remember that Abimelech is the king Abraham recently (probably in the year before Isaac’s birth) deceived by telling him Sarah was his sister. Once the truth about Sarah came out, Abimelech told Abraham to feel free to settle in his land (20:15) and apparently Abraham has done just that (so Isaac was born in Gerar?). However, there is now a dispute between the servants of Abimelech and Abraham over a well that Abraham claims he dug.
The author’s purpose in relating this story is hard to know. Nothing that happens seems all that important to the overall narrative and its placement does not seem to flow out of the story of Isaac’s birth or Ishmael’s banishment. It apparently is a continuation of the story from Chapter 20 and perhaps is here simply to conclude that account.
The story begins with Abimelech coming to Abraham with a request that shows he probably does not have a great amount of trust in Abraham. He comes to Abraham (notice that he brings his military commander – hard to know if that’s to show Abraham he’s serious or to show that there’s muscle behind his words) and asks him to swear that he will not deal falsely “…with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.” It is hard not to assume that behind Abimelech’s concern is the memory of the ruse Abraham carried out regarding Sarah as well as the visit from God he received as a result. He knows two things about Abraham – he’s a little fast and loose with the truth and he has a very powerful God who takes care of him.
Abraham swears according to Abimelech’s request but then complains about the well. Abimelech is surprised to hear what Abraham says as he didn’t know anything about it. As a result they decide to make a covenant of peace in which Abraham takes an additional step to ensure that Abimelech officially agrees the well is his (he does this by setting apart seven ewe lambs that he gives specially to Abimelech). All parties are satisfied and everyone returns to his home (interesting to know how Abraham’s gifts of sheep and oxen to Abimelech compare to Abimelech’s gifts of sheep and oxen to him during the Sarah incident – 20:14).
The story does end with an event that ties the chapter together. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree at the place of the covenant – Beersheba (this will later become the southernmost border of Israel). Here he calls on the name of the Everlasting God. It is fitting in light of the events of this chapter that God is identified this way. The Everlasting God is the One who will bless the world through the nation that just started with Isaac. Abraham waited 25 years for the promised son. The world will now wait another 2000 years for the Messiah and then untold thousands of years for His second coming. But as He showed with the birth of Isaac, the Everlasting God is not affected by time and His promises never waver because of years.
Before the mountains were born, or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. (Ps 90:2)