Understanding Genesis 21: God Keeps His Promise
Read the entire chapter 21 of Genesis on your own. You can read a variety of versions, from contemporary English to literal translations. You can download bible apps, websites (blueletterbible.org or biblegateway.com) or buy one from your local bookstore. I will use King James Version because some of the nuances are missing from other translations. When you read the chapter, don’t just read it—study it with questions and try to make sense of it.
Waiting on the Lord
And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken. Genesis 21:1
The Hebrew word for “visited” (paqad) seems to have both a positive and negative meaning, but we can see from this verse, that it is meant to be positive. At reaching the age of 90, Sarah finally conceives.
Sarah was barren, and God could have created life in her in her 30s, while she was young and healthy. Even her 40s and 50s would have been a miracle. But the miracle is not that Sarah eventually gets pregnant in her 90s, but that she grew to love God and have a relationship with Him.
The positive meaning of paqad is “to attend to,” “to be appointed,” “to be entrusted.” Sarah was a beautiful woman, and men sought her out. Her vanity is questionable, but her bitterness and action speaks for her. In a culture, where bearing children is a reflection of womanhood, Sarah couldn’t see beyond her lack of children, to see a loving husband and God. Abraham could have taken a second wife while he was still young, and gotten multiple heirs. He certainly had enough wealth to support several wives. God took care of her while she was taken away by the Pharoah, and she was promised to be the mother of Abraham’s true heir. But she pushes her husband into committing adultery and then blames him for her misery. She has grown so far from God; who in her right mind would ever push a loving husband into the arms of another woman?
But as Sarah matures, she reflects on her life with Abraham and instead of turning her back on God, learns to trust Him. As the years pass, her mothering of Ishmael changes her as only parenting can, and her rescue from Abimelech further draws her closer to trusting God in all things.
When God “visits” Sarah, He didn’t physically visit her, but attended to her and trusted her with Abraham’s heir. Could Sarah have gotten pregnant when she was younger? Perhaps, but she now understands what it means to wait on the Lord. "Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD." Psalm 27:14 "Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee." Proverbs 20:22 Sarah now knows that God saved her, not on earth with a child, but by building a relationship with her for eternity.
How often do we have prayers that seemingly go unanswered? How often do we misunderstand that God could be saying, “no,” or “wait?” Do you turn your back on God because he didn’t answer your prayer like Santa Claus or a genie? The only way to recognize the voice of God, is become familiar with it. How would you know He is speaking to you, if you’re too busy with your own wishful thinking, your own goals for yourself? You can recognize who He is, because He is the same today. Study the Bible and learn who God is. Learn who He is, what He does and then you will recognize which way to go. "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Romans 10:17 "And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." 2 Timothy 3:15
The Israelites waited for the Messiah, like Sarah did for her child. They sinned often and betrayed their covenant with God, but He was still faithful to His people and the Messiah came to die for the world. We are also waiting for Jesus’ second coming. But how many times do we falter and sin against Him? Sarah represents our faulty relationship with God. But God kept His promise and “did as He had spoken.”
A Father Abandons His Son
And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, 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. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, 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. 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. Genesis 21:11-14
Ishmael is just a teenager, when he starts to understand what the birth of his little brother means. Perhaps his mother’s bitterness wasn’t fully understood, because she knew that Ishmael was no longer the heir to Abraham’s wealth. But as the household changes their allegiance, he wittingly or unwittingly teases Isaac. Sarah seeing this, coldly asks Abraham to send his son away. And God allows it.
God has answered Sarah’s prayer, and after a few years raising her beloved son, all her maternal instincts are heightened, and like a mother bear, she protects her son even against her husband’s child.
Abraham is caught in another dilemma because of his beautiful wife. He loves Ishmael, even if he was born to another woman. Ishmael was showered with fatherly love from the minute he was born, and now Abraham is forced to choose between his natural son and his miracle son. No parent should be forced to separate from a child. As Abraham struggles with his dilemma, God comes and tells him to send Ishmael away.
Not because God loves Ishmael any less—in fact, God promises to bless Ishmael. "And the angel of the LORD said unto her [Hagar], I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." Genesis 16:10 "And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation." Genesis 17:20 This was one of the reasons that Hagar returned to Abraham when she had run away. Hagar had spoken to an angel and believed in a God who saw her.
As Abraham sent Ishmael away with just water and bread, he trusted that God would keep His promise and would take care of his son, when Abraham could not. This is heartbreaking for the father, but how much more for a teenage son. His father seemingly rejects him, his privileged life is taken away, and he’s forced to go into the wilderness.
A Son Leaves His Father
And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. Genesis 21:17, 20
While wandering with his mother, Ishmael is angry and bitter as only a teenage boy could be. It isn’t long before they run out of water; exhausted and dehydrated, Ishmael falls and his mother has to move him under the shade of a bush. Unwilling to see him die, Hagar leaves him and cries.
Ishmael is alone and he feels he is about to die. In a moment of deepest fear and helplessness, he remembers the God of his father, and he cries and prays for help. God answers this call and brings Hagar to a nearby well. Ishmael may not have fully understood why his father sent him away, but he is at peace as God sustains him. God was with him, and he was with God.
Almost 70 years after Ishmael is sent away, Ishmael hears of Abraham’s death and returns to bury him with Isaac. The bible doesn’t mention what happens between Abraham and Ishmael during the 70 years, but hopefully they were able to heal their relationship. Hagar and Ishmael settle outside Abraham’s camp, but close enough that Abraham is able to find them. God does bless Ishmael, and he has twelve sons with his Egyptian wife and eventually, Esau marries one of his descendant.
As father and son separate, their pain is empathized by God and Jesus, because they too will separate. Jesus leaves His honored life in heaven, for a desert called Earth. God has to watch His son leave and know that He would die. God feels the pain that Abraham feels, but more keenly because Jesus will die. At least, Abraham had the assurance that God would take care of Ishmael. Jesus feels the pain that Ishmael felt, but willingly leaves so that He may save His people. Two beings that had never been separated, is to become forsaken because of sin. Sin has not only separated us from God, but Jesus from His Father.
As you read this chapter, you realize everyone received something except for God. Sarah and Abraham received their son. Ishmael and Hagar received life and God’s presence in their lives. But God would lose His Son. Just like he had promised Adam and Eve in the Garden (And I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed [Jesus]; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Genesis 3:15), God would send His Son, a descendant of Abraham, to redeem the world, and be a blessing to the nations (And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: Genesis 12:2).
Because God wants to save Everyone, not just those who know Him. Ishmael and Hagar were beloved of God, just like Sarah and Isaac. Abimelech was beloved of God, just like Abraham. God wants a relationship with all His creatures, not just the Christians or the Jews.
God does not require heartless sacrifice or worship. "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Micah 6:8 "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." 1 Corinthians 13:2
Get to know the God, who loves you. Learn about Him, and love Him.
- Understanding Genesis 22: Obedient to Death
A Bible study of Genesis 22.