As promised, God visits Sarah and she has a son they name Isaac. The author(s) of this chapter go to great pains to emphasise just how old Abraham and Sarah are and haha, isn’t it hilarious?

“God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me” (Gen. 21:6).

We’re also told that Abraham circumcises Isaac, because the Bible’s idea of character development is letting us know the status of the various characters’ penises.

So little circumcised Isaac is hanging out one day, playing with little circumcised Ishmael, when Sarah catches the two of them. She goes to Abraham and demands that he cast out Hagar and Ishmael because she doesn’t want Isaac’s inheritance split with other sons. Just a reminder, Abraham abandoned his nephew because of possessions, and his wife is now asking that he dump his own son for the same reason. Are these the Biblical Family Values the religious right keeps touting?

Abraham, having at least a little humanity, isn’t sure about this. We’re told that it was “very displeasing” to him “on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). But God comes down and tells him to chill, because it’s through Isaac that “your descendants be named” (Gen. 21:12). And since he likes Abraham so darn much, he’ll make Ishmael a nation too – “because he is your offspring” (Gen. 21:13) and Abraham totally gets God off-sprung.

So Abraham gets some bread and water for Hagar and sends her on her way.

Into the wilderness

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

After having been raped (come on, let’s be honest and call it what it was – Sarah “gave” her to Abraham and she’s a slave. At best, it was coercive) by her master and having a son as a result, poor Hagar is then cast out into the wilderness because Sarah isn’t happy with the fact that Hagar had the son Sarah wanted her to have. What the eff? No wonder the Victorians produced special, heavily edited Bibles for women and children to read…

So Hagar is wondering in the wilderness and she runs out of water. She puts her child under a bush and walks away, saying: “Let me not look upon the death of the child” (Gen. 21:16). This is actually a really poignant scene, and I think it serves to clearly illustrate Sarah’s cruelty. We can forgive Abraham in this one because God did tell him that Ishmael would become a nation, which implies that he gets to grow out of diapers. But Sarah had no such message – she just wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone and, for all she knew, she’d condemned them to death.

Ishmael starts to cry, and the angel of God calls to Hagar, assuring her that he’s heard Ishmael’s cries. He tells her to go back to him and pick him up, “for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Then God opens her eyes (she couldn’t do this herself, apparently) and she sees a well of water.

Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and he “became and expert with the bow” (Gen. 21:21). At some point, Hagar procures for him an Egyptian for a wife.

How old is Ishmael?

We’re told in Chapter 16 that Abraham was “eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael” (Gen. 16:16), and in this chapter, we hear that Abraham “was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5). With a little counting on my fingers, I quickly worked out that Ishmael is at least around 14 (if not older, since he’s playing with Isaac in v.9 and newborns don’t really play).

So imagine my confusion when I read the following:

  • Abraham puts the bread and skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder, “along with the child” (Gen. 21:14);
  • When the water runs out, Hagar “cast the child under one of the bushes” (Gen. 21:15), and then Ishmael “lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen. 21:16);
  • God hears Ishmael’s cries and tells Hagar to “arise, life up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand” (Gen. 21:18).

Now, there’s only one explanation for why a fourteen-year-old would be treated this way that I can think of, and that’s that he has a severe handicap that prevents him from walking and that’s why Hagar must carry him. The poor boy clearly suffers from some form of mental disability as well, since I don’t know many 14-year-olds who would just sit under a bush and cry without first trying to express themselves through some other means. Too bad wheelchairs hadn’t been invented yet. I can’t imagine that Hagar is having much fun carrying a 14-year-old everywhere.

A more likely explanation is that we have yet another contradiction in the inspired word of God.

Final note on the casting out of Hagar

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins explains that “the story seems to champion ethnocentrism by suggesting that those who do not belong to the chosen people can be sent away” (p.49). He adds that “we shall meet a chilling application of the same principe much later in the book of Ezra,” so we have something to look forward to.

I didn’t quite make the connection on my own, but I can certainly see Collins’ point. Nowhere are Sarah and Abraham condemned for throwing out Hagar. It all works out okay because God has plans for Ishmael, but it could just as easily resulted in the deaths of the woman and her child. God never says “it’s okay to throw Hagar out because I’ll take care of her, but make sure you don’t cast out any other slaves you decide to diddle with.”

Hagar and Ishmael are saved because God has plans for them (and because he lurvs Abraham), but the implication is that they would otherwise have been perfectly expendable. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that God values humans (or human life) for their own sake. Rather, it seems that those who serve his purposes don’t have much to worry about, but anyone else might as well just die in a flood.

A covenant with Abimelech

Completely unconcerned over the fate of his son and the mother of his child, Abraham meets with Abimelech (and Phicol, the commander of Abimelech’s army). Why Abimelech would want anything at all to do with Abraham after his last experience is beyond me, but there you have it.

In any case, Abimelech says to Abraham: “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 as I have dealth loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned” (Gen. 21:22-23). Oooh, that’s quite a burn! I love how Abimelech (possibly my favourite character so far) goes out of his way to point out that he’s always dealt “loyally” with Abraham.

Well, Abraham swears to this, and then complains that Abimelech’s servants have seized a well of water. Abimelech assures Abraham that he didn’t know about this, so they cool.

I’d just like to point out quickly here that Abraham doesn’t own the land he’s on, and therefore has no real claim to any well of water. He’s staying on Abimelech’s land (as we saw in Genesis 20:15). So if anything, Abimelech’s servants were just making use of their own well. Abraham doesn’t seem to care much.

But he does give sheep and oxen to Abimelech, so that’s nice of him. In exchange, Abimelech has to agree to witness for Abraham (to whom?) that he dug the well. I don’t know if it’s the same well or a second well, though. Abimelech agrees. They call the well Beersheba and then Abimelech and Phicol head home. Abraham gets his horticulture on and plants a tamarisk tree.

There are two mentions of “the land of the Philistines” (v.32, 34) in this chapter. However, according to Matthews, “the appearance of the Philistines in Canaan is traced to a period some eight hundred years after Abraham’s time” (Manners & Customs, p.24) which, was after 1200 BCE. This anachronism tells us that either this story takes place much later than claimed (and the storyteller is inserting details from her/his own world), or that it was edited much later.