Genesis 21
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 21

1–7.  The Birth of Isaac. (J and P.)

8–21.  The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. (E.)

22–34.  The Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech at Beer-sheba. (E and J.)

The greater part of this chapter is from E. But Genesis 21:1 a, 2a, and 7 are probably from J; and Genesis 21:1 b, 2b–5 from P; Genesis 21:6 is E.

And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken.
1. visited] Cf. 1 Samuel 2:21; Luke 1:68. The word is used for the dealings of God, sometimes, as here, in blessing, and sometimes in punishment.

The two clauses of this verse are identical in meaning: the first probably refers to Genesis 18:10-14 (J): the second to Genesis 17:16; Genesis 17:21 (P). If the second clause is from P, the substitution of “Jehovah” for “God” is probably either editorial, or a transcriptional error.

For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
2. in his old age] Cf. Genesis 21:7, Genesis 18:11, Genesis 24:36, Genesis 37:3, Genesis 44:20 (al+l from J); meaning literally “to his old age.”

at the set time] Cf. Genesis 17:21 (P).

It is to this verse that allusion is made in Hebrews 11:11, “by faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed, when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised.”

And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.
3. And Abraham called, &c.] For the name Isaac, see note on Genesis 17:19. The father, in the P narrative, gives the name: see Genesis 16:15.

And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him.
4. circumcised] Abraham fulfilled the command of Genesis 17:10 (P). That Isaac, the son of the promise, was circumcised on the 8th day is particularly mentioned by St Stephen, Acts 7:8.

The mention of circumcision in this verse, the naming in Genesis 21:3, and Abraham’s age in Genesis 21:5, are characteristic of P’s style.

And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.
And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.
6. God hath made me to laugh] R.V. marg. prepared laughter for me. Once more in connexion with the birth of Isaac the thought of laughter recurs: see Genesis 17:17 (P), Genesis 18:12-15 (J). This time we have the tradition preserved by E. It is not clear that the two clauses of this verse mean the same thing. According to R.V. text, the first clause refers the laughter to Sarah’s own happiness and exultation: the second clause refers it to the merry reception of the unexpected news by those who would laugh incredulously. According to R.V. marg., the latter meaning attaches also to the first clause; and both clauses, meaning the same thing, are explained by Genesis 21:7. The R.V. text is perhaps to be preferred. It preserves two traditional explanations of the laughter associated with Isaac’s birth. Certainly the laughter of Sarah’s personal happiness seems to be the point of St Paul’s quotation from Isaiah 54:1, “rejoice thou barren that bearest not,” in a passage where the Apostle is allegorizing this chapter (Galatians 4:22-31).

with me] Better, at me. The preposition “with” is hardly correct, though it is supported by the LXX συγχαρεῖται, Lat. corridebit mihi. The original represents Sarah as the object of the laughter; and amusement, not derision, as its cause.

And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age.
And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned.
8. was weaned] Weaning was often, in the East, deferred until as late as the child’s third or fourth year; see 1 Samuel 1:24. It is still regarded as the occasion for a family rejoicing.

8–21 (E). The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael

A narrative from E which forms a parallel to that in chap. 16. (J).

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking.
9. mocking] Better, as R.V. marg., playing. The original is the same verb, in the intensive mood, which is rendered “laugh,” e.g. in Genesis 21:6. There is no need to introduce the meaning of “mockery,” which would require an object. The verb used absolutely, and rendered, as in the marg., gives a suitable sense. The LXX and Latin so render it, adding words of explanation: παίζοντα μετὰ Ἰσαὰκ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς, ludentem cum Isaac filio suo, as if Sarah, watching Ishmael playing with her own child, had been seized with a sudden fit of passionate jealousy. Ishmael was the elder, but he was the son of her handmaid; and in Sarah’s eyes it was unfitting that Ishmael should even play with or near her own child.

The Rabbinic interpretations of this word were productive of strange speculations. St Paul refers to one of them, which understood the word to denote “teasing” and “persecution”; hence Galatians 4:29. Other more fantastic attempts at exegesis connected this verse with Ishmael’s sins of idolatry, of impurity, and even of attempts to take his brother’s life.

Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.
10. “Hebrew custom provided for the recognition of the children of the maid-servant (Genesis 30:3), and Ishmael according to the Elohist (Genesis 21:10) was coheir with Isaac” (Stanley Cook, p. 140).

And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son.
11. And the thing was very grievous] Lit. “was very evil,” or “ill.” Abraham was displeased, because he loved his son. Sarah’s suggestion, however, was in accord with the prevalent harsh treatment of slaves. Abraham raises no objection on the grounds of common humanity, honour, or reason, to the proposal to expel Ishmael and Hagar.

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.
12. And God said] It is revealed to Abraham by night (Genesis 21:14), that compliance with Sarah’s demand will be overruled to fulfil the destiny of Hagar’s child. The Israelite tradition, according to the comparatively low moral standard of its time, especially in connexion with the conditions of slave concubinage and its domestic results, attributed to the voice of God a command that in our ears sounds unfeeling and cruel.

in Isaac shall thy seed be called] Lit. “in Isaac shall seed be called to thee.” LXX ἐν Ἰσαὰκ κληθήσεταί σοι σπέρμα, which is quoted in Romans 9:7 and Hebrews 11:18. The meaning is that in Isaac and in his descendants Abraham will have those who will be called by his name.

Isaac is to be the father of the “children of promise.” He stands, therefore, in the allegory (Galatians 4:27-28), in contrast with him “that was born after the flesh” (i.e. Ishmael). Isaac stands for those “born after the spirit.”

And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
13. a nation] Cf. Genesis 16:10, Genesis 17:20. The LXX and the Sam. read “a great nation.”

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.
14. a bottle of water] or, better, “a skin of water.” LXX ἀσκός. The vessel for carrying water in the East is generally the skin of a goat. The recollection of this will explain passages like Matthew 9:17. Its shape made it easy to carry or to hang up. Cf. Psalm 119:83.

and the child] These words imply that Hagar carried the child, as well as the skin of water, upon her shoulder. So the LXX καὶ ἐπέθηκεν ἐπὶ τὸν ὦμον αὐτῆς καὶ τὸ παιδίον. Lat., avoiding the difficulty, “tradiditque puerum.”

According to P (cf. Genesis 16:16, Genesis 21:5), Ishmael would be a boy of over fourteen years of age. According to E, Ishmael is still a child (cf. Genesis 21:15-17).

the wilderness of Beer-sheba] i.e. the high plateau at the extreme south of Palestine. The country is hilly and bare.

Beer-sheba the sanctuary of the south—the modern Bir-es-Seba. See, for the meaning of its name, Genesis 21:29-34, Genesis 26:33.

And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
15. cast the child] This expression taken with the mention of the child in Genesis 21:14; Genesis 21:18 (“hold him in thine hand”), 20 (“and he grew”) implies that Ishmael is regarded in this story as a little boy, who could be carried by his mother.

under one of the shrubs] We should probably understand by this word the low scrub such as grows in the desert, like the broom, under which Elijah rested, 1 Kings 19:4. The word used occurs also in Genesis 2:5 in a general sense; see note.

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
16. as it were a bowshot] LXX ὡσεὶ τόξου βολήν, Lat. quantum potest arcus jacere.

The child’s strength had given out before the mother’s. She could not bring herself to watch her child die of thirst, and she could not leave him. She remained within hearing.

and lift up her voice and wept] The LXX probably preserves the right rendering “And the child lifted up its voice and wept,” ἀναβοῆσαν δὲ τὸ παιδίον ἔκλαυσεν.

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.
17. God heard the voice of the lad] The voice God heard was that of the lad. He had pity on the anguish, and gave ear to the cry, of the child. Once more we have a play upon the name of Ishmael with its meaning of “God heareth.” Cf. Genesis 16:11.

the angel of God] A different manifestation to Hagar from that in chap. Genesis 16:7. “The angel” (cf. Genesis 28:12, Genesis 31:11, Genesis 32:2) speaks “from heaven” (Genesis 22:11 E). God protects the handmaid and her child no less than the Chosen Family.

Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
18. a great nation] Cf. Genesis 21:13 and Genesis 16:10.

And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
19. opened her eyes] What she had not seen before, Hagar suddenly received power to see. Cf. Numbers 22:31; 2 Kings 6:17; Luke 24:16; Luke 24:31. LXX φρέαρ ὕδατος ζῶντος, “a spring of living water,” in the desert.

And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
20. God was with the lad] Cf. 22, Genesis 26:3, Genesis 39:2.

became an archer] R.V. marg. rightly, became, as he grew up, an archer. Lat. factusque est juvenis Sagittarius. His descendants were famous in later times for their skill in the use of the bow (cf. Isaiah 21:17). Cf. Jetur the son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:15), the reputed ancestor of the Ituraeans.

And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
21. the wilderness of Paran] Mentioned in Numbers 10:12; Numbers 12:16; Numbers 13:3. It seems to have been the wild mountainous country south and east of Kadesh, and west of Edom, the modern et-Tih.

out of the land of Egypt] Hagar herself was an Egyptian, cf. Genesis 16:1. For the parent taking a wife for the son, cf. Genesis 24:3; Genesis 34:4; Genesis 38:6; Jdg 14:2. The preliminary steps for a marriage are taken by the parents of the parties; here, in the absence of the father, the mother selects the bride.

And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest:
22–34 (E, J). The Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech at Beer-sheba

22. Abimelech] This passage seems to be a continuation of chap. 20.

Phicol the captain of his host] For this title, cf. 1 Samuel 14:50; 2 Samuel 2:8 (where it is applied to Abner); Genesis 24:2 (to Joab). It shews that Abimelech was a petty king of some importance.

Here and in Genesis 21:32, the LXX inserts another name and title between Abimelech and Phicol, Ὀχοζὰθ ὁ νυμφαγωγὸς αὐτοῦ, “Ahuzzath his friend.” This name occurs with that of Phicol again in Genesis 26:26.

God is with thee] Cf. 20, Genesis 26:28. Abimelech has had reason to discern the meaning of the description of Abraham, in Genesis 20:7, as “a prophet.”

Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.
23. here] The reference is to the name of Beer-sheba and its popular etymology from the Hebrew word “to swear.” Abraham’s departure from Gerar is not recorded, but was doubtless included in the E narrative which is only fragmentarily preserved.

my son, &c.] R.V. marg. my offspring, nor with my posterity. The words which are not usual are found together in Job 18:19; Isaiah 14:22; LXX μηδὲ τὸ σπέρμα μου μηδέ τὸ ὄνομά μου, Lat. posteris stirpique meae. The original phrase is alliterative, like our “neither kith nor kin.”

the kindness] Referring to the gifts to Abraham in Genesis 20:14, and the free welcome extended to Abraham in Genesis 20:15. Abimelech is desirous to seal these friendly relations by a definite compact. There is an abrupt transition, in Genesis 21:25-26, to occasions of friction.

And Abraham said, I will swear.
And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech's servants had violently taken away.
25. Abraham reproved] Disputes about wells are some of the most common causes of strife among the Bedouin tribes. Abraham’s complaint is that his servants had dug wells; that Abimelech’s servants had taken violent possession of them; that there had been no redress. The occasion of the treaty favoured a settlement of the dispute.

The verbs in Genesis 21:25-26 are best rendered as frequentatives = “as often as Abraham complained to Abimelech, Abimelech used to reply he was entirely ignorant.” Gesen. Hebr. Gr. § 112 rr.

And Abimelech said, I wot not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to day.
And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant.
27. And Abraham took sheep, &c.] Abraham makes a gift, according to the custom, at the conclusion of a treaty (cf. 1 Kings 15:19) and as a pledge of his good faith. He also acknowledges his need of protection from the king.

made a covenant] Cf. Genesis 15:18, Genesis 26:31.

And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves.
28. seven ewe lambs] The seven lambs which Abraham here sets apart are to be handed over to Abimelech, if he acknowledges Abraham as the possessor of the well, and ratifies the compact with an oath. The number “seven” (sheba‘) is one of the explanations of the name “Beer-sheba.”

And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which thou hast set by themselves?
And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.
30. that it may be a witness] Abimelech’s question and Abraham’s answer are probably the technical terms of the usual transaction. The transfer of the seven lambs having taken place, it was a “witness” to the fact that Abraham was acknowledged by Abimelech to have digged the well. There is no mention of document or writing in the compact.

Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.
31. Beer-sheba] LXX φρέαρ ὁρκισμοῦ: the derivation here given is “because there they sware both of them.” The word in Heb. “they sware” (nishb‘u) is the reflexive form of the verb shaba‘. This derivation of Beer-sheba, as “the well of swearing,” is clearly not a complete explanation of the word. The correct derivation—“the well of seven”—is probably hinted at in Abraham’s pledge of the seven lambs. At Beer sheba, there were also “seven” wells, which can even now be identified. But there is a close connexion between the Heb. word “seven,” and the Heb. word “to swear”; and if, as seems probable, the Heb. nishba‘ “to swear” meant originally “to bind oneself by staking, or pledging, seven things,” we can see that the well of “seven” and the well of “swearing” were practically identical in significance.

Beer-sheba stood on the southernmost boundary of Palestine, at the edge of the desert, about 50 miles S.W. of Jerusalem. In later days it was famous as a sacred place of pilgrimage, Amos 5:5; Amos 8:14.

Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines.
32. returned into the land of the Philistines] The reference to the Philistines is an anachronism. It is doubtful whether the Philistines occupied S. E. Palestine before the reign of Raamses III (1202–1172 b.c.). See Genesis 26:1.

And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the everlasting God.
33. a tamarisk tree] The tamarix syriaca. The Heb. word êshel puzzled the versions; LXX ἄρουραν, Lat. nemus. Tradition probably connected a famous tamarisk, close to the seven sacred springs, with the site of the sanctuary of Beer-sheba; cf. Genesis 26:23-25. See, also, for “tamarisk tree,” 1 Samuel 22:6; 1 Samuel 31:13.

the Everlasting God] Heb. El-Ôlâm. See notes on Genesis 14:18, Genesis 17:1. “The God of Ages,” the name which Abraham here identifies in thought and worship with Jehovah. God does not change, though the defective knowledge of Him in early ages makes way in later time for the fuller Revelation to the Chosen Family.

And Abraham sojourned in the Philistines' land many days.
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