A Tale of Two Sons

Genesis 21

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
June 2015

We have been studying the life of Abraham and we come today to a turning point in the book.  The last eight chapters of the book have been about one of the greatest characters in the Bible – Abraham. 

Genesis 12-20 have all been about Abraham.  The next five chapters do NOT focus on Abraham but on his son Isaac.  Genesis 21-26 deal with Isaac.  Genesis 27-36 deal with Isaac’s son Jacob.  Genesis 37-48 deal with Jacob’s son Joseph.

This chapter does deal a little with Abraham.  At the very end of the chapter, Abraham rebukes Abimelek, instead of Abimelek rebuking Abraham.  One of his wells was stolen.  They make a covenant and resolve the situation.  

Today, I want to focus on two men from Genesis 21: Isaac and Ishmael.  This chapter is a tale of two brothers.  We actually learn a lot more about Ishmael in this chapter than we do about Isaac. There are some myths about Ishmael that we will debunk in this chapter.

Isaac only reaches the age of three in this chapter.  He is just a toddler.  This chapter deals with three events in Isaac’s life.  We only get an introduction to Isaac in this chapter.  This chapter describes three aspects of Isaacs’s life: his birth, his circumcision when he was eight days old and the time he stopped breastfeeding at the age of three.

This is a very interesting chapter.  There is a lot of drama in first nineteen verses of this chapter.  It is a chapter that contains both joy and sorrow.  There is celebration and tragedy. 

Some come into the family in this chapter and some are kicked out (birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael).  One is born and one almost dies in this chapter.  I want to do two things today: go over what takes place in this chapter and then look at some lessons we can learn from it.

Dramatic Events

1. A baby is born (21:2). 

The chapter begins with the birth of a baby.  It is a boy baby, Abraham’s second son.  Ishmael was born in Genesis 16.  Isaac is born in Genesis 21.  They had the same father but different mothers.  Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham was one hundred at the time of his birth and Sarah was ninety. 

That makes them the oldest parents on record.  Right now, the oldest mom in the record books is 70.  It is held by a woman in India (Omkari Panwar).  She is in the Guinness Book of World Records but Sarah was twenty years older.  Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age is given.  

We are not told Abraham’s reaction to the baby but we are told what Sarah’s reaction was.  She laughed (21:6).  Sarah laughed a year earlier when she overheard the three men saying that she would have a baby (18:10-12).  Now she is laughing for a different reason.  She is not laughing in unbelief; she is laughing in joy.  She is ecstatic.

2. A baby is circumcised (21:4).

Abraham does two things to show his obedience to God.  He names him Isaac (which in Hebrew is yitzhak).  God told Abraham to name him Isaac (17:19), so that is what he does (21:3).  Abraham also circumcises him on the eighth day (21:4).  Many parents circumcise their boys today but this was not just a medical procedure but a religious rite. 

This was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.  This made him a Jewish boy.  It made him part of the Abrahamic Covenant.  God said that all baby boys had to be circumcised or they would be cut off.  Isaac is the first baby boy in the Bible who was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant.

3. A big party is held (21:8).

The text says that “on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast” (21:8), not just a feat but a GREAT FEAST.  It was a big deal.  This is not a birthday party.  It is a weaning party.  This is strange to us.  We do not do this today.  We do not celebrate when a baby stops nursing.

We might celebrate when a child is potty-trained, because we do not have to buy diapers. In that culture, this was considered a milestone in a baby’s life. They become a little more independent. It was done at two or three years old (cf. II Maccabees 7:27). 

The American Academy of Pediatrics says you only need to breastfeed children for six months.  Why did they do it longer?  There were several reasons.  You could not go to Harris Teeter or Food Lion to buy formula or baby food.  Another reason they did this was because of the high infant mortality rate in the ancient world.  Many babies did not survive.

4. One person spoils the party (21:9).

The festive mood at the party ended quickly. “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking” (21:9).  Some Bibles say that Ishmael was “playing with” Isaac (cf. RSV, GNT).  That is a mistranslation.  Sarah would not be bothered that Ishmael played with his little baby brother. 

A better translation is that Ishmael was “teasing” or “making fun of” Isaac.  How serious was this teasing?  We don’t know. According to Jewish tradition, Ishmael used to shoot arrows in the direction of Isaac, saying he was only teasing.[1]

Ishmael is not just mocking a little innocent toddler. That is bad enough. He is mocking a miracle child.  He is mocking the one whose birth involved a physical miracle.  He is mocking the one who will be the ancestor of the Messiah. Isaac will give birth to Jacob. Jacob will give birth to the Twelve tribes. Jesus will be a descendant of one of these twelve tribes

The Savior of the world will be a descendant of Isaac and Ishmael is laughing at him.  As someone said, he is not only mocking his baby brother, he is mocking God’s people, God’s power, God’s promise and God’s provision.[2]

Now it is often hard for siblings to adjust to a new baby in the home.  They are no longer the center of attention.  They have been dethroned and the result is sometimes jealousy but this is different. This goes beyond ordinary sibling jealousy. Why?

Abraham most likely told Ishmael that his birth fulfilled God’s promises.  For fourteen years, Ishmael was Abraham’s heir and then Isaac came along and he was worried about his inheritance.

As Alan Carr put it, “Ishmael saw all his hopes of inheritance dashed in Isaac. He knew that Isaac was the son of promise and that he was just the son of a slave. So he is jealous of Isaac and he acts out during the feast.”[3]

Ishmael mocked and even persecuted his baby brother (cf. Galatians 4:29).  Sarah was angry and said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (21:10).  She doesn’t even mention their names.  She just said, “They both need to leave now”.

4. God speaks to Abraham (21:12-13).

What does God tell him? “Listen to your wife. Do what she says” (21:12). This is the one instance in the Bible where the husband is to submit to the wife.  That is not easy for husbands to do sometimes but husbands need to do more often, especially when what they say lines up with God’s Word. 

Is this always the right thing to do?  No.  Wives are not always right.  Sarah told Abraham to sleep with a young foreign slave to get children.  She told him to commit adultery, to break his marriage vows.  She told him to sin and he did it.

Now she tells him to kick out Hagar and Ishmael.  Abraham didn’t want to do that.  He didn’t want to put his own son out on the street.  He didn’t want to abandon his own son.  He loved Ishmael (cf. 17:18). 

He did not want to send him in to wilderness to die.  Ishmael was his firstborn but God told him to kick him out.  God told him to do it, so he obeyed.  One of Abraham’s strengths is that he obeys God, even when it is hard to do.  We will see that in the next chapter.

5. Abraham’s firstborn son leaves home (21:14). 

He doesn’t just leave; he is kicked out.  He is expelled.  A separation needed to take place between the legitimate son of Abraham and his illegitimate son. Ishmael despised and hated his younger brother and his descendants have the same hatred for the descendants of Isaac. 

They can’t stand them.  The Arab/Israeli conflict today goes back to Isaac and Ishmael.  You cannot really understand what is going on in the Middle East unless you understand the Book of Genesis. They are all fighting over what God promised Abraham. 

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba” (21:14).

This raises an important question.  Was this cruel and barbaric?  Was this cold and heartless for Abraham to do this to his own son because of a little teasing?  No.  It wasn’t cruel and heartless for two reasons. 

One, God’s allowed Ishmael to live with Abraham for fourteen years.  His whole birth was a result of sin.  It was not part of God’s plan.  God allowed it.  That was grace on God’s part.  He allowed him to live with Abraham for fourteen years but once Isaac came on the scene, he had to go. 

Two, it was not cold and heartless because but God took care of them in the desert, so they did not die.  He watched over them.  It could not have been wrong, because God told him to do  it.  It wasn’t wrong, just a little tough love.

6. A crisis takes place in the desert (21:15). 

“When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 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.”(21:15-16)

Hagar ran away from home in Genesis 16.  Sarah mistreated her and she took off.  She was a runaway.  In Genesis 21, she becomes an outcast in the desert.  They are on their own.  They leave with limited supplies.  It is hot.  They get lost and run out of water.  It was hopeless.  Hagar is worried that her son will die in the desert.   

She cries uncontrollably (21:16).  She puts him on the side so she does not have to watch him die.  Whatever you say about Hagar, she definitely was a good parent.  She is the first single parent in the Bible and she felt desperate and alone.

There is a common myth about this story.  The KJV mistranslates this chapter and that error persists to this day.  It calls Ishmael a “child” (21:16) and a “lad” (21:17).  Many think that Ishmael was a baby.  They think he was so weak and dehydrated that he couldn’t walk anymore and Hagar carried him on her shoulder. 

None of that is true.  Ishmael was a teenager. Ishmael was seventeen and Isaac was three. How do we know that?  If you work out the chronology, Isaac was eight-six when Ishmael when he was born (16:16) and Abraham is now one hundred (21:5). 

Ishmael was fourteen when he was born.  Isaac is weaned at the age of three.  That would make Ishmael either sixteen or seventeen, depending on what age the weaning took place. Ishmael was a teenager, not a baby. 

Hagar did not carry Ishmael on her shoulder.  She carried a skin of water and some food on her shoulder (21:14).  This shows that Hagar was probably strong physically.  In that time, the women did most of the work.

7. An angel speaks to Hagar (21:17-18). 

Hagar was at the bottom of the social structure.  She was an African slave for Abraham, who was very wealthy and now she is thrown out into the desert with little supplies.  An angel appears to her in her time of deepest need.  This is the second time this happened. 

Most of us have never had an angel appear to us once.  An angel appeared to Hagar earlier in the book when she ran away from Sarah (16:7-20).  An angel from heaven begins talking to Hagar.   What did the angel say?  They asked her a question (“What troubles you?”) and gave her some instructions (“fear not”).  Then they told her why she did not need to fear (“for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is”).

We are not told that Hagar prayed but we are told that Ishmael prayed and God answered his prayers (21:17).  In fact, the name Ishmael means “God hears”.  God became a father to the fatherless. 

“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” (21:19).  They were dying of starvation and didn’t even see a well of water that was right near them.  God met their need.

9. God promises to bless Ishmael (17:20; 21:20-21). 

“And God was with the boy, and he grew up” (21:20).  God blessed Ishmael.  He lived in the wilderness.  He was a rugged outdoorsman.  He was a skilled hunter.  He was good with a bow and arrow.  He was very different from Isaac as we will see later in the book.  His brother has a different personality and temperament.

He got married.  His mom went to Egypt to get him a wife (21:21).  Why did she do that?  Keep in mind in that day that they had arranged marriages.  She went to her own country to get him a wife.  She was from Egypt.  He got an Egyptian wife, which meant that his kids were three-fourths Egyptian. 

He may have even been saved.  A common view of Ishmael is that since he was not the son of promise that he was cursed and rejected by God.  The Bible says the opposite.  God heard his prayer and answered it.  He provided for him.  He blessed him. 

God said, “As for Ishmael…behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a GREAT nation” (17:20; cf. 21:20).  Ishmael had many kids. He went on to have twelve sons (17:20; 25:13-16).  Isaac only had two sons (twin boys).  He went on to live a long time.  He lived to be 137 (25:17).  

God was WITH Ishmael (21:20).  God was with Abraham (21:22).  He was with Isaac. Genesis 26:24 says “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake” (NIV).  All of those things were true of Ishmael.  God was with Ishmael.  He blessed him.  He just didn’t make a special covenant with him. He made a covenant with Abraham and he repeated the same covenant to Isaac.

This is a great story but what do we take from it?  What lessons can we learn from the birth of Isaac?  There are four.

Four Powerful Lessons

1. God is faithful to his Word.

We are told that three times in two verses that God is faithful to his Word.  “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah AS HE SAID, and the Lord did for Sarah WHAT HE PROMISED.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, AT THE VERY TIME GOD HAD PROMISED HIM.” (21:1-2 NIV)  He keeps His promises.

God did not just make promises to Abraham, He made promises to us.  There are thousands of promises in the Bible.  Every one of the promises in God’s Word will be literally fulfilled.  God keeps his promises.  Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.” 

God keeps his promises but we still have to wait for them. God promised Abraham a son but he didn’t get a son right away. He had to wait twenty-five years.  He promised him some other things that he will not get until he is resurrected (e.g., possession of the Promised Land).

2. God can do the miraculous.

What God did for Abraham and Sarah in this chapter involved a physical miracle.  He brought a baby out of two old dead bodies (cf. Romans 4:19).  They had two problems.  Sarah was past menopause. 

She was too old to have kids and even when she could have kids, she was infertile.  That was no problem for God.  He created the universe.  Nothing is too hard for God (18:14; Luke 1:37).  With God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Sarah conceives a child, gives birth to a baby and nurses a child at the age of ninety. Now Abraham did not see this kind of thing happen everyday.  They waited twenty-five years to see it happen but it did happen.  God did miracles in Abraham and Sarah’s life and He can do miracles in our life.

Incidentally, we have a new name for God in this chapter. He is called “the everlasting God” (21:33). It is the fourth name of God in Genesis.  God has been called El Elyon (God Most Hight), El Roi (the God who sees), El Shaddai (God Almighty) and now he is called El Olam (the everlasting God).

3. God can meet us in our time of deepest need.

Hagar learned that. In fact, she learned it twice: once in Genesis 16 and once in Genesis 21. Hagar and Ishmael were outcasts. They were alone.  They were desperate. They were out of water in a hot desert. They had no one to turn to humanly speaking. Ishmael called out to God and He answered him.

We can do the same thing. God says, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15).  Trouble comes in various forms. God invites us to call on him in the day of trouble. 

We will not always have an angel appear when we are in distress but God can help us and wants to help us. Psalm 46:1 says,  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (ESV).

4. God has a plan for everyone.

God has a plan for everyone. What he is doing in your life may be very different from what he is doing in your brother or sister’s life. Isaac and Ishmael were very different. He even has a plan for people who never should have been born in the first place. Ishmael’s birth was a result of sin. 

It was the result of an affair with a young African slave. It was the result of adultery. There are many other people who are born because of incest, rape, abuse or sexual promiscuity. What we learn from Ishmael here is that God can still use and bless that person. He can still be with that person and provide for that person. He can bring good out of evil.


















[1] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 122.

[2] http://www.sermonnotebook.org/Hard_Cases/HC%2010%20-%20Genesis%2021_9-21.htm

[3] http://www.sermonnotebook.org/old%20testament/Genesis%2021_9-21.htm

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