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Genesis 21 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
This chapter deals with three different topics.
Vs.1-7 The birth of Isaac.
Vs.8-21 The expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar.
vs.22-34 The treaty between Abraham and Abimelech.
The birth of Isaac.
It is not necessary to conclude from verse 1 and 2 that Sarah only became pregnant after the episode that is told in the previous chapter. All depends on the interpretation of the sentence "I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son," in chapter 18:14. Since we cannot be sure of the exact interpretation of those words, we cannot be sure about the beginning of Sarah's pregnancy either.
The first thing that strikes us in the opening verse of this chapter are the words: "The LORD was gracious to Sarah as He had said." Both the KJV and the RSV translate this with "And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said." Obviously, this does not refer to the visit of the Lord and the angels described in chapter 18. The fact that Sarah became pregnant was the result of God's visit or God's grace. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word has a double meaning, which implies that the presence of the Lord and the grace of the Lord are inseparable. God and grace are identical. In other words: God is grace. This synonym is of the same order as in John's words: "God is love" in I John 4:8. There is a parallel between this verse and the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary. There is an enormous difference between the two stories too, of course, because Sarah's conception of Isaac took place during normal intercourse with her husband Abraham. But for the presence of the power of the Lord Sarah, would not have become pregnant. Therefore the words addressed to Mary can at least in part be applied to Sarah also. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." (Lk. 1:35)
Hebrews 11:11 adds another feature by mentioning that faith played an important role. We read: "By faith Abraham, even though he was past age; and Sarah herself was barren; was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise." Although only the faith of Abraham is mentioned in the above verse, we may presume that the faith of Sarah had an equal share in this. The grace and the presence of the Lord imply the power of the Lord to make the miracle happen, but the miracle will not happen without faith of the human being involved. In a sermon I heard lately, the preacher made the important statement "God's promises are not self-fulfilling." How true this is!
In our modern time and age, we have lost the understanding of the part God plays in pregnancies. Most people are so preoccupied with sex and so bent on preventing pregnancy, that the miracle of conception has lost its splendor. Only when things go wrong and a couple that wants children finds themselves unable to have them, do people come to the conclusion that there is more in pregnancy than meets the eye. But even then God is very rarely drawn into the picture. Sarah knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was by the grace of God that she had become pregnant. Blessed is the woman who know she is pregnant by the grace of God. The exceptions, such as Sarah and Mary should show us that normal, natural pregnancies are acts of God's grace. In saying this I am not making any statement against or in favor of birth control. I am talking about the beginning of human life and the miracle of it.
Verse 3 tells us that Abraham gave his son the name "Laughter" or "Isaac." Sarah had laughed in unbelief, when during her eavesdropping, she had overheard God's announcement.[ 1 ] Then Sarah had lied about it. God had turned Sarah's laugh of unbelief into a laughter of joy. God's miracles make us laugh. God is a God of joy. Jesus demonstrates the joy of the Lord a few times, hours before He died on the cross, when He prayed for His disciples. He leaves them His glory and His love. John 16:20-22 He says: "I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief willturn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy."
Verse 3 and 4 tell us that Abraham gave his son the name Isaac and that he circumcised him on the eighth day. It does not say specifically that Isaac received his name on the eighth day although it seems that it became a tradition in Israel to postpone the giving of the name till the day of circumcision. We read in Luke 2:21 "On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived."
Isaac's circumcision is done in obedience to God's command to Abraham in Ch. 17:12 "For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner; those who are not your offspring." Isaac was the object of God's covenant with Abraham, and so this circumcision was of great importance; it was proof of Abraham's understanding that God had kept the promise which he had received when he was first called. Isaac was God's promise. God's promise is a person of flesh and blood. In this sense Isaac was the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's Word, that is God's promise, has become flesh, as John puts it in John 1:14.
The question as to when Isaac was weaned has been a point of controversy for centuries. From The Adam Clarke's Commentary I quote: "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 Mac. vii 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 Chron. xxxi. 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. The term among the Mohammedans is fixed by the Koran, chap. xxxi. 14, at two years of age."
The general idea seems to be that at a certain age the male child is transferred from the mother's care to the father. This event was celebrated with a feast.
The expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar.
It was during this celebration where everyone was present that Ishmael mocked. No further details are given about what happened. The RSV translates vs.9 - "But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac." This seems to me a rather weak translation. If Ishmael had done nothing more than innocently play with his step brother, Sarah overreacted. We may presume that Ismael poked fun not only at Isaac, but more specifically at Sarah and probably his attitude was the result of disparaging remarks his mother had made. This makes Sarah blow up, and the feast probably ended in a disaster.
There are two ways to look at this incident. Superficially, it seems that Sarah and Hagar had some personality problems. The incident described here looks like a continuation of the clash that started in chapter 16:4 and following verses. But either by intuition or by spiritual insight, Sarah insists with Abraham, that Hagar and her son no longer stay in the family. Sarah must have used some strong language. Vs.10 says: "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." There was obviously no love lost between Sarah and Hagar. But what sounds to us as carnal pride seems to hit the core of the issue, that is the inheritance. Not only would Abraham have divided his possessions between the two boys, but they both would have been able to claim his name. The issue is God's promise, that is the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. That is why God sides with Sarah, not because she is right in her attitude, but she is right in her presumption.
Paul spiritualizes this incident in Gal.4:22-24 and 28-31. We read: "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar." and "Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman."
Obviously, Sarah had nothing of the sort of thought that Paul expounds in mind. Even if she would have been able to think that far, she would not have come any further than a vague hope about the coming of a Messiah. Of forgiveness of sin and justification by faith, she knew nothing. She could not know that Isaac, who was the fulfillment of God's promise to her, would be the embodiment of all God's promises to all men, always. But God knew and God told Abraham that Sarah was right.
Abraham became very upset about Sarah's demand. We understand from verse 11 that Abraham loved Ishmael and really considered him to be his son. According to The Adam Clarke's Commentary, does Sarah not only demand that Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar away, but that he divorce her. The Hebrew word used is "garash," which is used also in Lev 21:7 "They must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God." So Sarah demands a legal action. Probably when she said "garash" she thought that Abraham should sell Hagar and Ishmael to someone else. But this Abraham was not ready to do.
The important lesson for us in this is that if the word "garash" implies legal action, then our salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is based upon God's legal action also. Paul does not just give a random illustration in Galatians chapter four. He points to the basis for our justification before God.
God tells Abraham not to be distressed. The matter is hard to understand for us because we think in terms of natural affection. We believe it is commendable that Abraham did not want to send his first son away because of the coming of Isaac. We should not use this chapter to justify favoritism of a parent. As far as emotional family ties are concerned Abraham's reluctance is exemplary. But the matter is probably not as easily defined as that. Abraham probably had some feelings of guilt toward Hagar and Ishmael. He may have said to himself over the years that he had been wrong in making Hagar pregnant. Now to send them both away would be unethical, and he would feel even more guilty in doing so. The fact that God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah does not negate any of the above. We may take Abraham's reluctance as an example.
But what God says to Abraham in his struggle also contains some deep lessons for us in dealing with past sins, guilt and forgiveness. Abraham gives the impression of never having forgiven himself about his affair with Hagar. God has performed a tremendous miracle for Abraham and Sarah. It seems that Sarah had the better understanding of this. Abraham missed out on something, because of his past sins. The birth of Isaac was life out of death; life of the same order as the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus' resurrection was preceded by His death on the cross. We will never be able to live the new life if we have not come to terms with the death that atoned for our sins. God wants Abraham to know that he is a new creature; that the old has past and the new has come.
There is also the lesson that family affection, although it is a gift of God, should not become an obstacle in our following of God. That is why Jesus says in Luke 14:26 - "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters; yes, even his own life; he cannot be my disciple."
God promises Abraham that, for the sake of Abraham, Isaac will become a great nation also. As a matter of fact, I believe there are more Arabs in the world at present than Jews. And probably, if we look at the situation in terms of spiritual promises, there are more Muslims than adherents to the Judeo-Christian faith. It is hard to accept, however, that the religion of Mohammed would be as much a fulfillment of God's promise as the coming of Christ into this world. If we accept that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, who became flesh, we cannot at the same time believe that Mohammed was God's prophet and that Islam is the end of all revelation. We hold to the truth of Peter's words in Acts 4:12 about our Lord Jesus Christ: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
In a certain way Abraham's experience in sending Ishmael away was a preparation for the sacrifice of his son Isaac we read about in the next chapter. Abraham learned how to deal with his feelings in obeying the will of God in a situation that did not seem to make sense.
Verse 14 tells us that Abraham did not waste any time in obeying. As soon as he knows the will of God, he obeys. "Early the next morning....," that is at the first opportunity, Hagar and Ishmael are sent on their way. The situation must have looked familiar to Hagar; she had gone through this before. We read the account of Hagar's first flight into the desert in Ch. 16:6-16. Bible critics see a double in the two accounts because of their similarity, but there is no reason to believe this to be true. There must be more than fifteen years between the two events. The first time Hagar fled, here she is sent away. When she fled she was pregnant, now her son is a teenager of about seventeen or eighteen. Adam Clarke suggests that Abraham must have given Hagar and Ishmael enough food and drink to make it to the next well, which Hagar missed. It is likely that Hagar followed more or less the same route as the one she had followed before, which led her in the direction of Egypt.
By missing the well, which she must have passed at a very close distance, she thinks that she has missed her chance for survival and she panics. The well in question was probably the same that Abraham mentions later on in this chapter in the presence of Abimelech and Phicol. In vs.30 and 31 we read: "He [Abraham] replied, 'Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.' So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there." So Abraham must have sent Hagar to the well he had dug himself, for we are told that Hagar was wandering around in the desert of Beersheba.
The scene of Hagar putting Ishmael under the shade of a bush and sobbing at a distance is a pathetic one. Ishmael must have been parched at this point, and he is crying also because when God talks to Hagar, He mentions the crying of the boy. The worst thing parents can go through is the suffering of their children. It is much worse than any personal suffering. Hagar is sure that her son is going to die, and she cannot face that. She is convinced that the situation is so hopeless that even her presence with Ishmael will not alleviate the pain.
Again we see that God's pity is greater than ours. Ishmael's moans and his cries pierce the heart of God more than they pierce Hagar's. Vs.17 tells us "God heard the boy crying." The omniscient God hears every sound in the world. So the mention of the particular cry of a child is mentioned to show that God loves him even more than his mother will ever be able to love him. The same God, who revealed Himself to Hagar in chapter 16:8-13 speaks to her again and pronounces Ishmael alive. The promise "I will make him into a great nation," suggests that God sees life flow through Ishmael into generations to come. Dead bodies do not beget children. God tells Hagar that He needs Ishmael as a link to future generations. It is true that salvation is from the Jews, as Jesus says in John 4:22, but God loves the Arabs. "Friends of Israel" should keep this in mind!
In vs.19 we read: "Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink."God does not perform a miracle in the sense that He produces a well where there was none before. Sadness and sorrow often have a blinding effect on people. It cuts us off from reality. The devil manipulates our feelings very cleverly. It is the comfort of God's promise to Hagar that brings her back to reality. God opens her eyes. That is why it is important that we praise the Lord when sorrow or even disaster falls upon us. Thanking God will keep us in touch we reality. The well is there, the only thing we need is an eye-opener.
Isaiah 6:10 gives us a picture of what sin does. We read: "Make the heart of this people callused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." Isaiah was not ordered to cause callousness, deafness and blindness; but he was to awaken the people of Israel to the reality of their sinful condition. Sorrow and despair can have the same effect upon us because they are the offspring of sin.
So Ishmael survived, probably because of the well his father had dug before. He and his mother settled in the desert of Paran. He eventually married an Egyptian girl. "God was with the boy," we read. If the Pentateuch had been written by some Jewish priests after the return of Israel out of captivity with the purpose of giving the nation a history to be proud of and to establish a historical foundation for the priesthood, as Wellhausen claimed, stories like these would not have occurred in it. These verses say that God loved and blessed the ancestry of the nations that were Israel's arch-enemies.
The treaty between Abraham and Abimelech.
The concluding verses of this chapter, vs.22-34, give us the account of another encounter between Abraham and the Philistine king Abimelech, who is accompanied by his army general Phicol. Superficially, it seems an amicable encounter; but I suspect that there is more in it than meets the eye.
In chapter 20 we speculated on the significance of the difference in treatment Abraham received in Egypt and in Gerar. He told the same lie at both places. In the above chapter we said: "Abimelech must have believed that Abraham could have used his spiritual powers to harm the Philistine king and his people. If that is true, it would explain why Abraham is treated with so much respect. Pharaoh, who was considered a son of the gods himself, possessing spiritual powers, had no reason to fear Abraham, the Nomad. That is why Abraham was expelled from Egypt." It seems to me that Abimelech's kind attitude toward Abraham is inspired by his fear of him and the divine powers he supposedly possessed. The king wants to make sure that Abraham is not going to turn against him at a later time and use his connections with the supernatural to destroy the Philistine nation.
In the light of the missionary work we have been doing in Indonesia, this opens a whole can of worms. Oftentimes the people to whom we preach the Gospel do not hear what we say. Almost everything we proclaim is interpreted in the light of their own world philosophy. Unless the written Word of God becomes rooted into the culture of a people, the devil will find ways to twist and turn the truth into patterns of their old animistic believes. I am afraid that Abraham and Abimelech were not talking about the same God either the first or the second time they met.
There is no doubt in my mind that Abraham knew God, probably better than many a Spirit-filled Christian in our times although he had some patterns of behavior that fell short of the standard of New-Testament ethics. But Abimelech only knew of God. His relationship with God was not based on love and submission. He treated God as he treated his idols, trying to limit His destructive supernatural powers for his self-preservation. I find that if we interpret Abimelech's attitude to Abraham in the light of the above, most of it makes sense.
Basically, what Abimelech says to Abraham in verse 22,23 is: "Do not use your supernatural powers to destroy us." Evidently Abimelech had interpreted Abraham's lie about Sarah as an attempt to bring about destruction of his nation. Abraham's explanation that he himself had been afraid and that he had told the lie in order to save his own life had been heard but not believed. Abimelech as a heathen would not have believed for one moment that a man who had received divine revelations and promises that reached into eternity would have been afraid for his own life. Heathen are excellent judges about the implications of real faith in God. Abimelech knew much better than Abraham himself, that Abraham had no reason to fear. How embarrassing! And what a lesson!
How can someone, who is afraid himself, convince someone else that there is no reason to be afraid? How can we preach, if we do not practice what we preach? When Abraham deceived Abimelech, he virtually shut the door for this man's salvation. Humanly speaking there was no hope that the Philistine king would ever understand that the God of Abraham was a God of love, a shield and an exceeding great reward. The only thing we can say is: "What is impossible with men is possible with God." (Luke 18:27)
Abimelech differed from the animistic tribes I mentioned above in his understanding of the value of a promise. He made Abraham swear by God. This does not necessarily imply that he trusted the same God. The policy of the Babylonian king Nebucadnezar centuries later was to make the people he subjected swear by the god they served. We read in II Chr.36:13 about king Zedekiah: "And he also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the LORD God of Israel." (KJV) The implication is that there was some understanding about ethical absolutes. So Abraham swore and Abimelech's heart was put at ease.
Abraham still has one point on his agenda that has to be discussed: the well. There evidently had been a skirmish between Abimelech's servants and the servants of Abraham about this well. The account of this is not given to us. We could conjecture that the well had been filled by in by Abimelech's servants to make Abraham understand that he was not welcome in that part of the country and that because of this Hagar had initially been unable to find it. But we do not know if any such thing happened. We do not even know if Abraham ever heard about the adventure Hagar and Ishmael had. But in as much as Abimelech had made Abraham understand that he was a welcome sojourner in the land of the Philistines, Abraham wants this misunderstanding cleared up.
The way this is done is hard for us to understand. Abraham makes a gift of seven ewes to Abimelech. This can hardly be seen as a gift for a well that Abraham claimed to be his. It could be, however, that Abraham felt that he had to pay for digging a well in land that had been claimed by someone else. But this may only be the interpretation given by a Westerner in the light of his own background and culture. Honestly, we do not know. But, the present is accepted, and the well become a monument because of the swearing ceremony that took place at this spot. Obviously, the exchanges of oaths had nothing to do with the wells but with the mutual security of the two powerful men. Abraham may have indulged in some political maneuvering. He paid for the well, so that he could claim that the swearing ceremony had taken place on his property.
The well of Bersheeba later became the boundary of the land of Israel. At this moment Abraham makes it into a shrine. We read in vs.33: "Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God." It is not clear whether Abraham planted one tree, or a grove, as the KJV translates it. About this verse Adam Clarke comments: "On this important passage Dr. Shuckfords speaks thus: 'Our English translation very erroneously renders this place, he called upon the name of Jehovah; but the expression never signifies ''to call upon the name''; kara beshem signifies 'to invoke in the name,' and seems to be used where the true worshippers of God offered their prayers in the name of the true Mediator.' I believe this to be a just view of the subject, and therefore I admit it without scruple." It is not completely clear to me what is meant by this comment. Abraham can hardly have had any understanding of a mediator in the sense that we know our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrificial animal probably had no other significance for him than a cover for his sin. If the interpretation of this verse by Dr. Shuckfords is correct and Abraham interceded for the Philistines in the Name of the LORD, then we are looking at a precious moment in Abraham's fellowship with God. It means that he must have understood Abimelech's fears and faulty picture of God, and he prayed for him and his people, much in the same way as he had prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah before.
The expression "the LORD, the Eternal God" is in Hebrew "Yehovah el olam," that is "Jehovah, the strong God, the eternal one." This is the first time this designation is applied to God in the Bible. The use of this name for God implies that Abraham drew a line from time and space to eternity and looked at his moment in time in the light of eternity. In his essay What if this were the world's last night," C.S. Lewis uses an illustration of a woman who buy a piece of cloth. In order to judge the true color of the material she takes in outside to see what it looks like in the daylight. The lesson is that we should judge our lives and acts in a different light from our own. It is not easy to rise above the boundaries of our daily life and try to look at ourselves from God's perspective. We very rarely know what we are doing or understand the significance of our acts. More than in anything else, Jesus shows the perfection of His humanity in that He pauses from time to time to connect the transient moment with the transcendent God. Commenting on the faith of the Roman centurion in Matt. 8:10-12 He says: "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
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