What Happens When Christians Mess Up? (Genesis 21:1-34)
In one of her movies Julie Andrews sings a beautiful song, one of my favorites, but its theology is abominable. The lyrics go something like this: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” Many Christians seem to have the same kind of theology. They believe that the good things which happen in life are the result of some good thing they have done. So also, like Job’s friends, they think that everything unpleasant is the result of some evil they have done.
I do not wish to challenge the fact that obedience brings blessing, for ultimately it always does. However, God often brings tribulation into the life of a faithful Christian in order to bring about growth and maturity. So also, God brings blessing into the life of the Christian in spite of what he has done more than because of anything good he has done. That’s grace—unmerited favor. Genesis 21 is proof of this kind of blessing in the life of the Christian.
The background to Genesis 21 is one that Abraham would have preferred Moses not bother to record in holy writ. While sojourning in Gerar, Abraham once again passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. The results were not very pleasant, for Abraham was rebuked by a pagan king. The real tragedy is that there seemed to be no genuine sorrow or repentance for the sin that was committed. So far as we can tell, Abraham was not at a very high point in his spiritual life when the “child of promise,” Isaac, was born to Sarah. It was at this low ebb in Abraham’s spirituality that God brought one of the promised blessings to pass in his life.
The Birth of the Promised Son
The events of verses 1 through 7 can be seen in three different dimensions. In verses 1 and 2 we see the divine dimension in the birth of the son as a gift from God. Verses 3 through 5 record the response of Abraham to the birth of this son. Finally, in verses 6 and 7 we have the jubilance of Sarah over the arrival of the long-awaited child, who is the joy of her life.
An Act of God (vss. 1-2)
I have a friend who is an insurance agent, and he would be quick to tell me that an “act of God” in his line of work is a disaster over which man has no control. Isaac was an “act of God” in a very different sense. He was the result of divine intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, both of whom were too old to bear children. It was the fulfillment of a promise made long before the birth of the child and often reiterated to Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:2; 15:4; 17:15-16; 18:10):
Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him (Genesis 21:1-2).
Several things are striking about this passage. First, we cannot miss the note of calm assurance. There has been no suspense. The event comes without surprise, reported as though nothing else could have happened than what did. And, of course, this is precisely right.
Second, there is a distinct emphasis on the aspect of fulfillment. The birth of Isaac came without surprise simply because that was what God had promised would happen. Four times in these two short verses the element of fulfillment is stressed (“as He had said,” “as He had promised,” verse 1; “at the appointed time,” “which God had spoken,” verse 2). It was God who promised the child; it was God who accomplished His word. And this was done right on schedule. God’s purposes are never delayed, nor are they ever defeated by man’s sin. God’s purposes are certain. What God has promised, He will accomplish.
Third, the son seems to be given almost more for Sarah’s benefit here than for Abraham’s. “The Lord,” Moses wrote, “took note of Sarah … and … did for Sarah” (verse 1). I do not think it too far afield to suggest that Sarah wanted that son more than Abraham did. You will remember that Abraham besought God on behalf of Ishmael, seemingly to accept him as the son of promise (cf. 17:18). Neither did Abraham seem to take the promise of a son too seriously when he was willing to subject Sarah to the dangers of Abimelech’s harem at the very time she was about to conceive the promised son (cf. 17:21; 18:14). And so, even though Abraham may not have had the desire for this child as much as his wife, God kept His promise.
Aloof Acceptance (vss. 3-5)
The next verses seem to confirm my suspicion that Abraham was not ecstatic about Isaac, at least not nearly as much as his wife:
And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him (Genesis 21:3-5).
His response to the birth of Isaac might be described as “dutiful.” In obedience to the instructions given him in Genesis 17, Abraham named the baby Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day. Abraham thus followed God’s instructions out to the letter, but perhaps without the joy that could have been experienced.
We are reminded that Abraham was now 100 years old. In a way, Abraham and Sarah were more like grandparents to Isaac than parents. Who of us would have been overjoyed at the birth of a child at this age? When Abraham could have been drawing Social Security payments for 35 years, he became a parent. And at the age of 113 he would enter into the teenage years with his son.
Sarah’s Ecstasy (vss. 6-7)
If Abraham’s response to the birth of this child is merely dutiful, Sarah’s is delirious:
And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 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” (Genesis 21:6-7).
The name Isaac meant “laughter.” Both Abraham and Sarah, when they were told of the son who was to be born to them, laughed (cf. 17:17; 18:12). More than anything, their laughter was prompted by the absurdity of the thought of having a child so late in life. But now the name Isaac took on a new significance, for he was a delight to his mother, who experienced the pleasures of motherhood so late in her life.
Ishmael Is Put Away
Abraham’s lack of enthusiasm about his son Isaac may seem very conjectural, and we must admit this candidly, but the events of verses 8-21 certainly seem to strengthen this impression about Abraham and his attitude toward his son.
On the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham prepared a great feast. This seems to have provided the occasion for celebration in those days. We should bear in mind that the weaning of a child often occurred much later than it would today. Isaac could easily have been three or four years old, or even older.
The sight of Hagar’s son at the feast robbed Sarah of all of the joy she should have had. By this time Ishmael would have entered his teens and would likely have reflected his mother’s disregard for Sarah and her son. Whether Ishmael was actually mocking Isaac or merely playing and having a good time is hard to determine in the context since the word employed in verse 9 could mean either. However, Paul’s commentary in Galatians 4:29 informs us that mockery was the meaning Moses intended to convey.193 Sarah determined that something was going to be done once and for all. Forcefully she gave Abraham an ultimatum:
Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of the maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac (Genesis 21:10).
How out of character Sarah seems at this moment. How different the description of her in Peter’s epistle is from that described by Moses:
And let not your adornment be external only—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (I Peter 3:3-6).
Sarah is obviously not at her best in chapter 21, but then neither is Abraham. Some have tried to applaud Sarah for her depth of spiritual insight concerning the fact that Isaac would be the heir, not Ishmael. Personally, I think that her primary motive was that of jealousy and a protective instinct to see to it that her son got what was coming to him.
Sarah, like every Christian I have ever known, had moments she would just as soon forget entirely. This is surely one of those times for her. Peter’s use of Sarah as an example of humility and submissiveness overlooks this event as an exception to the normal rule. In a similar fashion the writer to the Hebrews spoke of Abraham and Sarah as those whose faith we should imitate. Their mistakes and sins were not mentioned because they were dealt with once and for all under the blood of Christ. Furthermore, their sins are not the point of the author’s purpose in Hebrews, but rather their faith. Men’s sins are recorded in Scripture in order to remind us that the men and women of old were no different than we are and to serve as a warning and instruction to us not to repeat their mistakes (cf. I Corinthians 10:11).
Abraham was deeply grieved by the decision that was being forced upon him (Genesis 21:11). From chapter 17 we know that he was very attached to his son Ishmael and that he would have been content for this child to be the heir through whom God’s promises were to be fulfilled. This, however, was impossible because Ishmael was the result of human effort, devoid of faith (cf. Galatians 4:21ff).
The attachment of Abraham to this son, Ishmael, was so great that a crisis had to be reached before he would come to grips with the situation. While we cannot justify the motivation of Sarah for her ultimatum, I personally believe that such a move had to occur in order to force Abraham’s hand in setting aside his aspirations for this son.
God reassured Abraham that as painful and unpleasant as the situation might be, putting Ishmael away was the right thing to do. In this instance he should listen to his wife:
Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named (Genesis 21:12).
We should notice that it is both Hagar and the boy who are close to Abraham’s heart. Heretofore Hagar has been referred to as Sarah’s maid, but here she is called “your maid” by God. Sarah, we recall, was intensely jealous of Hagar and of her son (cf. Genesis 16:5). It is impossible for a man to enter into an intimate relationship such as the one Abraham had with Hagar and then to simply walk away. Sarah knew this, and so did God. In more than just a physical way Abraham had become one with Hagar, and Ishmael was the evidence of this union.
In chapter 17 God had refused to accept Ishmael as the heir of Abraham. Isaac, He had insisted, would be the heir of promise (17:19). It was therefore necessary for Ishmael to be sent away and forever eliminated from the status of an heir. For this reason Sarah’s demands were to be met, and Ishmael was to be sent away. Yet the promises God had made to Hagar (16:10-12) and to Abraham (17:20) concerning Ishmael would be honored: “And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant” (Genesis 21:13).
The sending away of the son of a concubine was not without precedent in that day. In the Code of Hammurabi, Law 146, the children of slaves who were not made heirs must be set free as compensation for this.194 Abraham’s sending away of Ishmael fits very nicely into this practice. By giving him his freedom, he indicated that Ishmael had no part in his inheritance, which was kept exclusively for Isaac.
Abraham arose early to send off Hagar and Ishmael. This may evidence his resolve to carry out an unpleasant task, as Kidner suggests.195 While it sounds far less spiritual, I wonder if Abraham did not do so for other reasons. Surely an early start would be wise in the desert, since travel should be done in the cool of the day. Also, an early departure would make it easier to say their good-byes without the interference of Sarah. I think that Abraham wanted to express his deep-rooted love for both Hagar and Ishmael without a hostile audience.
Some have suggested that Hagar lost her way in the desert and that this explains why she “wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba” (verse 14). Why did she not return to Egypt, as she seemed to be heading there when she first escaped from Sarai (16:7ff)? Later, she would take a wife for Ishmael from Egypt (verse 21). I believe that Hagar did not return to Egypt because she believed that God would fulfill His promises concerning Ishmael in the place where she chose to wander. In that sense she sojourned in the wilderness, much like Abraham, trusting God to bless them there.
Eventually the provisions Abraham gave them ran out and death appeared to be at hand. The boy was no infant here, as we might suppose, but a teenager, for he was nearly fourteen years older than Isaac (cf. 17:25). Not wanting to see him die, Hagar left Ishmael some distance from her under what little shade the bushes would afford. She then lifted up her voice and wept.
It was not Hagar’s cries that arrested God’s attention, but the boy’s.196 As a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael was the object of God’s special care. His cries brought divine intervention:
And God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand; for I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:17-18).
The solution to Hagar’s problem was already present. Through her tears she could not see the well close by. More than likely, it was not a distinct structure but simply a small source of water hidden among the bushes. God thus enabled her to see things as they really were, and she and the boy were refreshed and revived.
God’s working in Hagar’s life may seem harsh to us, but I understand His dealings to be such that His promises were accomplished. You remember that Ishmael was to be a “wild ass” of a man, hostile toward his brothers, and a free spirit. This kind of man could not be raised in the city with all of its conveniences and advantages. Learning to survive in the desert, to prevail over hostile elements was just what it took to make such a man out of Ishmael. As boot camp makes a good Marine, so desert survival made a man of Ishmael.
Abimelech Makes a Treaty with Abraham
Verses 22 through 34 describe a particular incident in the life of Abraham. The agreement which was made between Abraham and Abimelech is significant for both Abraham and for us. By implication it says a great deal about the fears and the faith of Abraham.
The meeting between these three figures was one of great import. Abraham was recognized as a man of influence and power. More than this, he was known to be the object of divine love and protection. Abimelech and Phicol came to Abraham; they did not invite him to the palace. They came to make a treaty:
Now it come about at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you 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” (Genesis 21:22-23).
It is difficult to fathom the intense embarrassment this request should have brought Abraham. Here was the king of the land where Abraham lived and his prime minister coming to him seeking a treaty. They acknowledged that their motivation was based largely upon the fact that Abraham was one loved by God. In essence, these men were aware by their own experience of the Abrahamic covenant:
“And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham because he did not ever wish to go to battle against him. To fight Abraham was to attack Abraham’s God and to have to contend with Him. On the other hand, to have an alliance with Abraham was to have God on his side. No wonder Abimelech was so anxious to negotiate such a treaty.
But do you see the lesson this should have taught Abraham? Abraham had lied to Abimelech about Sarah because he thought that there would be no fear of God, and thus no protection of himself, in a land of pagans (cf. 20:11). God rebuked the unbelief of Abraham by this testimony from the lips of Abimelech.
Furthermore, Abraham’s deception was rebuked. How would you feel if a king and his prime minister flattered you by acknowledging that God was with you in a very special way and then made you promise that you wouldn’t lie to him any more? Abimelech respected Abraham’s God, but he was not so sure about Abraham’s credibility. By putting Abraham on oath Abimelech sought to remedy the problem of deception. Once before he had nearly lost his life because of Abraham’s deception (20:3); he did not ever want that to happen again.
Once the treaty was made, Abraham brought up a specific grievance which could be settled under the terms just reached. Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well that his servants had dug, only to have it confiscated by servants of Abimelech (verse 25). Abimelech not only denied knowledge of the incident but seemed to mildly reproach Abraham for not bringing the matter to his personal attention (verse 26). A specific covenant was then made concerning this well, seven ewe lambs being a token of the agreement (verses 28-31). Abimelech and Phicol went their way, and Abraham commemorated his worship of the Lord in thanksgiving for this treaty by planting a tamarisk tree. And so Abraham stayed on in the land of the Philistines for some time.
The lesson that Abraham learned from this was striking. He had feared for his life and for his wife among these “pagans” (20:11). God showed him that Abimelech recognized his favored status with his God and that Abimelech would not have done him bodily harm on account of this. Not only would Abimelech not take a wife that was not his, he would not even take a well that did not belong to him. How foolish the fears of Abraham seem after this incident!
Several lessons emerge from this page of history from the life of Abraham. First, we must conclude that God’s blessings continue to come into the lives of His people, even at the times when their faith is at its lowest ebb. Neither Abraham nor Sarah were seen at their best in this chapter; and yet God gave them the promised son, He preserved the life of Hagar and Ishmael, and He brought about an alliance with a pagan king which gave Abraham a favored position.
Lest we should conclude that holiness is therefore unimportant, it must also be said that disobedience has its painful consequences. While it was years after the union of Abraham and Hagar, a union which denied the power of God to fulfill His covenant promises, Abraham had to face up to his wrong and send his beloved son away. Sooner or later the consequences for sin will be reaped by the sinner. So, here, the ugliness of Sarah, the tearful parting from Abraham, and the brush with death in the wilderness resulted from Abraham’s impetuous act with Hagar.
Second, we should be reminded that the right things sometimes happen for the wrong reasons. I do not believe that Sarah was shown in the best light in this chapter. I do not see a quiet and submissive spirit in her confrontation with Abraham. Nevertheless, we must conclude from God’s instructions to Abraham to obey his wife that the right thing to do was to put Ishmael away, once and for all. This prepared the way for the “sacrifice of Isaac” in the next chapter, for only now could God say to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there … ” (Genesis 22:2).
Throughout the Bible we see that the right things are often the result of the wrong reasons. For example, Joseph was sent to Egypt to prepare the way for the salvation of the nation Israel, but he got there through the treachery of his brothers, who thought they were getting rid of him by selling him into slavery. Satan afflicted Job in order to demonstrate that believers only trust in God because of the profit motive. God, however, allowed Job to be tested in order to teach Satan (and us) a lesson in faith.
Are you in a difficult or painful situation? Perhaps you got there because of the deceit or maliciousness of someone else. That doesn’t really matter, so far as you are concerned. If you believe in a God who is truly sovereign, really in control, then you must accept the fact that God has brought you to the right place for the wrong reason. The reasons may not be praiseworthy, but you can be assured that God has you in that place for a good reason.
Third, we learn that the greatest portion of our fears are totally unfounded. Abraham feared for his life and for his wife. Abraham believed that God would be obeyed and His people protected only where He was known and feared. Abraham was to learn through this treaty with Abimelech that God cares for His own. If Abimelech would not dare to take a well, he would not take a wife or a life. All of Abraham’s schemes were for naught. Faith can rest upon the covenant promises of God; fear has no basis at all.
Finally, God’s answer to our problem is often the solution which has been there all along, but our anxiety has kept us from seeing it. I love the fact that Hagar saw the well that had been there all along. Only her tears and her fears kept her from seeing it. The cries of those who belong to God will reach Him, but the answers need not be spectacular or miraculous, as we sometimes expect or demand. Many times the answer will be that which, in time, is obvious.
Do you belong to Him, my friend? If you have come to trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, then you do. And if you do, God cares for you. Those who belong to God need not fear, for He is with them; indeed, He is in them. And, wonder of all, He deals with us in grace. Even at our darkest hours, He remains faithful and His promises true.
193 RSV’s ‘playing’ (implying that Sarah was insanely jealous) is unfair: it should be translated ‘mocking’ (AV, PV). This is the intensive form of Isaac’s name-verb ‘to laugh,’ its malicious sense here demanded by the context and by Galatians 4:29 (‘persecuted’)! Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 140.
194 The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free [Law 171]. Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.