An angel appears before Hagar and Ishmael during a fearful time

Abraham’s wife, Sarah, felt that at her advanced age, she could have no children so as was tradition for the time, she gave her handmaid, Hagar, to Abraham to conceive a son. Ultimately, Abraham and Hagar had a son that they named Ishmael. Unexpectedly, but as promised, God gave Abraham, who was 100 years old at the time, and Sarah a child. An elated Sarah said,

“God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

Abraham and Sarah named their child Isaac, which means “to laugh”.

On the day that Isaac was to be weaned, they held a great party to celebrate the event. During the party, Sarah saw Ishmael, who was about 16 years old, mocking Isaac. This concerned Sarah so she told Abraham that they must send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away.

Abraham was of course, saddened by this. After all, Ishmael was his son too. God intervened and told Abraham to do as Sarah had suggested. He explained to Abraham that through Isaac, his promise would be fulfilled, and to not despair, he would make Ishmael a great nation too. As commanded, Abraham placed food and water on Hagar’s shoulders and told her to leave.

Hagar and Ishmael wandered through the desert of Beersheba until they eventually ran out of water and feared they would die. After Ishmael cried for help, an angel appeared and told Hagar that her situation would end well and showed her where a well was located. Hagar retrieved water from the newfound well and they survived their fearful circumstance.

Ishmael matured and became an archer and lived with Hagar in the Desert of Paran, a region lying between Canaan and the mountains of Sinai. Ishmael married a woman from Egypt and fathered 12 sons who became founders and leaders of many Arab tribes or colonies (the Ishmaelites). Later, Ishmael would join Isaac to bury their father.

What the story means to us today

Ancient law and inheritance

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is indeed sad and required a tough decision in order to ensure God’s promise through Isaac could be fulfilled. Ancient law codes pass inheritance rights to the son that is “accepted” by the father and thus, Ishmael had to be sent away in order to pass the inheritance rights to Isaac. Still, God’s promise to take care of Ishmael brings the story to a happy end.

Finding the solution that lies right before your eyes

It is telling that God (through an angel) showed Hagar where the water well was located. The verse does not tell us that God “created” a well for Hagar but rather that he “opened her eyes” to its location. Often we need to simply ask God to show us the solution to a troubling problem, even if that solution is right before our eyes.

Deeper thoughts and additional considerations

The desert of Beersheba

The desert of Beersheba that Hagar and Ishmael wandered through, plays an significant part in the next chapter as the location where Abraham and Abimelech sign an important treaty.

Ishmael’s cry for help and God’s response

Ishmael’s cry for help and God’s response are inherent in Ishmael’s name. The name Ishmael means “God hears”.

The Science behind the story

Estimating the ages of the participants

The ages of the participants in this story are fairly easy to estimate. Isaac would have been 2- or 3-years-old when he was weaned (boys suckled longer in the East than in other parts of the world). We know that Abraham was 86-years-old when Ishmael was born and 100-years-old when Isaac was born. This would mean Ishmael was around 16 or 17 years old when he was sent away

100 (Abraham’s age when Isaac born) – 86 (Abraham’s age when Ishmael born) + 2 (years before Isaac was weaned)

Weaning of children in the east at 2-3 years of age

During the time of this story, child mortality rates were quite high. If a child lived to be 2 or 3 years of age then it was a good bet that they were stout and healthy and would live throughout childhood. This was cause for celebration and indeed, a festival was held when a child in the East was weaned. During the festivities, the child was allowed to sample many different kinds of foods and drinks. The event was a formal affair, attended by families and relatives, and was considered a time when the badge of birthright was passed to the child.

It is also likely that by the time of Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael had already realized that his role as heir had passed and that although he would be taken care of by Abraham, he would no longer inherit Abraham’s fortune. It is possible that this prompted jealousy in Ishmael which preempted his mocking of Isaac.

Custom to send a “man” on his own

There was a custom in place during this time which dictated that a man of 16 years old be sent into the wild, carrying a few days’ provisions, as a show of manhood. The sending away of Ishmael may have been a part of this common practice.

The desert of Beersheba

The desert of Beersheba, where Hagar and Ishmael wandered, is located about 50 miles south of Jerusalem, about halfway between the borders of Jordan and Egypt.

Bible Text

NIV

Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaaca  to the son Sarah bore him. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nations also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 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.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

GOD visited Sarah exactly as he said he would; GOD did to Sarah what he promised: 2 Sarah became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age, and at the very time God had set. 3 Abraham named him Isaac. 4 When his son was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him just as God had commanded.

5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born.

6 Sarah said,

God has blessed me with laughter

and all who get the news will laugh with me!

7 She also said,

Whoever would have suggested to Abraham

that Sarah would one day nurse a baby!

Yet here I am! I’ve given the old man a son!

8 The baby grew and was weaned. Abraham threw a big party on the day Isaac was weaned.

9 One day Sarah saw the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, poking fun at her son Isaac. 10 She told Abraham, “Get rid of this slave woman and her son. No child of this slave is going to share inheritance with my son Isaac!”

11 The matter gave great pain to Abraham—after all, Ishmael was his son. 12 But God spoke to Abraham, “Don’t feel badly about the boy and your maid. Do whatever Sarah tells you. Your descendants will come through Isaac. 13 Regarding your maid’s son, be assured that I’ll also develop a great nation from him—he’s your son, too.”

14 Abraham got up early the next morning, got some food together and a canteen of water for Hagar, put them on her back and sent her away with the child. She wandered off into the desert of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub 16 and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I can’t watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs.

17 Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. 18 Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”

19 Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink.

20 God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. 21 He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

21:1 The LORD visited Sarah just as he had said he would and did for Sarah what he had promised. 21:2 So Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the appointed time that God had told him. 21:3 Abraham named his son—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac. 21:4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him just as God had commanded him to do. 21:5 (Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.)

21:6 Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 21:7 She went on to say, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have given birth to a son for him in his old age!”

21:8 The child grew and was weaned. Abraham prepared a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 21:9 But Sarah noticed the son of Hagar the Egyptian—the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham—mocking. 21:10 So she said to Abraham, “Banish that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman will not be an heir along with my son Isaac!”

21:11 Sarah’s demand displeased Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son. 21:12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be upset about the boy or your slave wife. Do all that Sarah is telling you because through Isaac your descendants will be counted. 21:13 But I will also make the son of the slave wife into a great nation, for he is your descendant too.”

21:14 Early in the morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He put them on her shoulders, gave her the child, and sent her away. So she went wandering aimlessly through the wilderness of Beer Sheba. 21:15 When the water in the skin was gone, she shoved the child under one of the shrubs. 21:16 Then she went and sat down by herself across from him at quite a distance, about a bowshot away; for she thought, “I refuse to watch the child die.” So she sat across from him and wept uncontrollably.

21:17 But God heard the boy’s voice. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and asked her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. 21:18 Get up! Help the boy up and hold him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 21:19 Then God enabled Hagar to see a well of water. She went over and filled the skin with water, and then gave the boy a drink.

21:20 God was with the boy as he grew. He lived in the wilderness and became an archer. 21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran. His mother found a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

Sources: Phillip Martin artwork