Bible Commentaries
Genesis 21

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) And the Lord (Jehovah) visited Sarah as he had said.—See Genesis 17:19, where it is Elohim who gives the promise. So here in Genesis 21:2 the name Elohim is interchanged with Jehovah.

Verse 3

(3) Abraham called the name of his son.—Attention has been called to the fact that we have here two things contrary to subsequent usage: for, first, the father names the child, and not the mother; and, secondly, he names him at his birth, instead of waiting until his circumcision. It might be enough to answer that the child was really named by God (Genesis 17:19), and that Abraham only acknowledges that the son born was the promised Isaac; but really, as we have seen before, there was as yet no settled rule as to either of these points.

Isaac.—This name not only recorded the fact of the laughter of the father (Genesis 17:17) and of the mother (Genesis 18:12), but was a standing memorial that Isaac’s birth was contrary to nature, and one of which the promise was provocative of ridicule in the sight even of his parents.

Verses 6-7

(6, 7) God hath made me to laugh.—Sarah’s laugh was one of mingled emotions. Joy was uppermost in her mind, but women do not laugh for joy at the birth of a child. Doubtless she called to mind the feelings with which she listened to the announcement of her bearing a son, made by those whom she then regarded as mere passing wayfarers (Genesis 18:12), but whom she had now long known to be the messengers of God. And still the event seemed to her marvellous and astonishing, so that “all that hear,” she said, “will laugh with me”—Heb., for me, or over me—not “will ridicule me,” but will be merry at the thought of an old woman of ninety having a son. Deeper feelings would come afterwards, and the acknowledgment that that which was contrary to nature was wrought by Him whom nature must obey; but surprise is uppermost in the little poem in which Sarah gives utterance to her first feelings:—

Who would have said unto Abraham
Sarah suckleth sons?
For I have borne a son to his old age.

Verse 8

(8) The child grew, and was weaned.—According to tradition, Isaac was two years old when weaned. Three years is the age mentioned in 2 Chronicles 31:16, 2Ma. 7:27; and Samuel was old enough at his weaning to be left at the tabernacle with Eli (1 Samuel 1:24). In Persia and India it is still the custom to celebrate the weaning of a child by an entertainment.

Verse 9

(9) Mocking.—The verb used here is the same as that rendered to laugh in Genesis 21:6, but in an intensive conjugation. What exactly Ishmael was doing is not said, but we may dismiss all those interpretations which charge him with abominable wickedness; for had he been guilty of any such criminal conduct, the sending him away would not have been so “very grievous in Abraham’s sight” (Genesis 21:11). On the other hand, we may feel sure that Sarah was not without good reason for her conduct; for St. Paul bears witness that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Galatians 4:29). The LXX. and Vulg. translate playing, sporting, and Gesenius thinks that he was “dancing gracefully; “but if this were all, Sarah’s jealousy would have been most unjust. When, however, we consider that Ishmael had been for fourteen years the heir, and that he now fell back into an inferior position, we cannot be surprised if at this banquet in his rival’s honour he gave way to spiteful feelings, and by word and gesture derided and ridiculed him. Hagar too had probably never regarded Sarah with much affection since her forced return, and now that her son was disinherited, her bitterness would grow more intense. These jealousies are the inevitable results of polygamy; and wherever it exists, the father’s life is made wretched by the intrigues of the women for their children.

Verse 10

(10) Bondwoman.—Heb., ammâh. This word is rightly translated handmaid in Galatians 4:22, &c., Revised Version. It is rendered maid in Genesis 30:3, and in the plural, maidservants, in Genesis 20:17, where, as we have seen, it means Abimelech’s inferior wives. So also in 1 Samuel 25:41, Abigail professes her willingness to descend from the position of an ammâh to that of a maidservant in David’s honour. The rendering “bondwoman “unduly depresses Hagar’s condition, and with it that of the Jewish Church in the allegory contained in Galatians 4:22-31.

Verse 11

(11) The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight.—Heb., the word (or matter) was evil exceedingly in Abraham’s eyes. It was not merely painful to him because of his natural affection for Ishmael (Genesis 17:18), but he also thought the proposal unjust.

Verse 12

(12) In Isaac shall thy seed be called—Heb., in Isaac there shall be called to thee a seed: that is, the seed that shall especially be accounted thine, and which, as such, shall inherit the promises, will be that sprung from Isaac.

Verse 13

(13) The son of the bondwoman.—Heb., of the handmaid. Hagar is never acknowledged as Abraham’s wife, though her child, as Abraham’s son, receives a noble promise for the father’s sake.

Verse 14

(14) And the child.—Ishmael was now sixteen or seventeen years of age, but the word yeled used in this place has no reference to age, and in Genesis 4:23 is even translated “young man.” It literally signifies one born, and is applied in Genesis 42:22 to Joseph, when he was about Ishmael’s age. So the “children who mocked Elisha” (2 Kings 2:23) were doubtless grown young men. In Genesis 21:18, Ishmael is called “a lad;” shortly afterwards he was able to maintain himself and Hagar with his bow (Genesis 21:20), and his mother took a wife for him from Egypt (Genesis 21:21). The narrative, therefore, does not represent Ishmael as a small child, and the idea has probably arisen from the supposition that Abraham placed Ishmael, as well as the supply of food, on Hagar’s shoulder.

She departed, and wandered.—Her dismissal had come upon Hagar suddenly, and so she had no plan or purpose, but went hither and thither till the water in the skin was spent.

The wilderness of Beer-sheba.—As yet this region had no name (see Genesis 21:31). It lay about twenty Roman miles or more below Hebron, and was the most southerly part of Palestine, while beyond it lay the vast desert of Et-Tih, of which the wilderness of Beer-sheba formed a part. Gerar, which place Abraham had now evidently left, was situated upon the western side of Beer-sheba, but at no great distance from it. (Seo Genesis 21:22; Genesis 26:26.)

Verse 15

(15) She cast the child under one of the shrubs.—The act was one of despair. Ishmael, though seventeen years of age, had not yet come to his strength, and at a time when human life was so prolonged that forty was the usual age for marriage, was probably not as capable of bearing fatigue as a young man nearly grown up would be in our days. He thus became exhausted, and apparently fainted; and his mother, after trying in vain to support him, cast him down in anguish, and abandoned herself to her grief.

Verse 16

(16) Let me not see the death of the child.—The whole story is most touching. Day after day the mother, with her child, had wandered in the wilderness, using the water in the skin sparingly, ever hoping to come to some spring, but with too little knowledge of the locality to guide her steps wisely. At last the water is spent, and the young life withers first, and the mother knows that soon they both must die. They had made their last effort, and with that hopelessness which travellers have so often described as stealing over the lost wanderer in the desert, they yield themselves to their doom. The boy is entirely passive; but not so the mother. A softer nature would have remained with him to soothe him, but the agony of the wild Egyptian will grant her no rest. She casts his fainting body almost angrily under a shrub, and withdraws to a bowshot distance, because she cannot bear to see him die. She there gives way not to tears only, but to unrestrained outcries of grief. But it is not her loud lamentation, but the mute prayer of Ishmael that is heard, and an angel of God comes to her relief.

Verse 17

(17) The angel of God.—In Genesis 16:7 it was “the angel of Jehovah” which appeared unto Hagar; here it is the angel of Elohim. It is impossible not to be struck with this exact use of the names of Deity. Hagar was then still a member of Abraham’s family; here she is so no longer; and it is Elohim, and not Jehovah, the covenant God of the chosen race, who saves her.

Verse 18

(18) Hold him in thine hand.—Literally, strengthen thine hand in him, hold him firmly. As Jerome remarks, the boy thus going hand in hand with his mother must have been her companion in her journey, and not a burden upon her shoulder. We must add that the words do not refer to what she was to do immediately, but to the future. She was not simply to lead him to the water, but to be his brave and faithful protector, such as we learn that she really became.

Verse 19

(19) A well of water.—Not a cistern, but a spring of living water. The mirage in the desert so wearies the traveller, that at last he turns in despair from what may be more truthful signs. But after her outburst of grief, Hagar would grow more calm, and, encouraged by the angel’s voice, she renews her search, and finds. As Abravanel notices, the well already existed, and was not created for Hagar’s use; for God, it is said, opened her eyes, that is, enabled her to see something that indicated the existence of water: trees probably rising round the spring, or some vegetable upgrowth.

Verse 20

(20) He grew.—Literally, became great, that is, grew to manhood.

And dwelt in the wilderness.—He sought no refuge in Egypt, where so large a Semitic population was gathering, nor in any Canaanite town, but took to the wandering life in the desert, such as is still usual with the Arabs.

An archer.—Heb., a shooter of bowshots. Another explanation, from a verb signifying to multiply, or be great, is not tenable.

Verse 21

(21) A wife out of the land of Egypt.—However natural this might be on Hagar’s part, it would never theless strengthen the heathen element in Ishmael and his descendants. We find, nevertheless, that he was subsequently on friendly terms with Isaac (Genesis 25:9; Genesis 28:8-9). For Paran, see Genesis 14:6.

Verse 22


(22) Abimelech and Phichol.—Abimelech, that is Father-King, was the title not only of the king of Gerar, but of the kings of the Philistines generally (Genesis 26:1; 1 Samuel 21:10, marg.; Psalms 34:0, tit.). In like manner Phichol, mouth of all, seems to have been the official designation of the prime minister, and commander-in-chief. This visit of the king and his vizier appears to have taken place some considerable time after the beginning of the sojourn of Abraham at Gerar; for the friendly feelings which then existed had evidently given way to a coolness, occasioned by the quarrels between their herdsmen. In this narrative, Abraham appears as a chieftain powerful enough for a king to wish to make an alliance with him; and thus his abandonment of Sarah, and his receiving of presents in compensation for the wrong done her, seems the more unworthy of him. Abimelech, on the other hand, acts generously as of old, and shows no signs of ill-will at the growing power of one whose expectation was that his race would possess the whole land.

Verse 23

(23) Nor with my son, nor with my son’s son.—The words are not those commonly used for son and grandson, but a Hebrew phrase signifying my kith and kin. They might be translated, “nor with mine offshoot nor mine offspring.” The words occur again in the same proverbial way in Job 18:19; Isaiah 14:22.

Verse 26

(26) I wot not.—This explains the reason of Abimelech’s visit. The king’s herdsmen had robbed Abraham of a well, a species of property jealously defended in the East because of its great value, and Abraham in some way had made his displeasure felt. Abimelech, ever friendly towards Abraham, by whose nobleness of character he had been greatly impressed, comes to learn the cause of the coolness, and to enter into a more close and lasting alliance with the patriarch. With Oriental indirectness, he makes no complaint, and speaks only of his wish for continued friendship, but by his allusion to his past kindness hints that this had not been received as it ought. Abraham fully understands his real meaning, and tells him what had happened; whereupon the matter is set right, and Abraham requites his previous generosity with gifts of cattle.

Verse 28

(28) Seven ewe lambs.—The word in Hebrew for swearing is a passive verb, literally signifying “to be sevened,” that is, done or confirmed by seven. In this ancient narrative we see a covenant actually thus made binding. Seven ewe lambs are picked out and placed by themselves, and by accepting these Abimelech bound himself to acknowledge and respect Abraham’s title to the well. Apparently this manner of ratifying an oath was unknown to the Philistines, as Abimelech asks, “What mean these seven ewe lambs?” but it is equally possible that this question was dictated by the rules of Oriental courtesy. When Abraham had picked out the lambs, it became Abimelech’s duty to ask what was the purpose of the act, which was then explained, and as soon as the lambs were accepted, the ratification was complete,

Verse 31

(31) Beer-sheba.—That is, the well of seven, but with a covert allusion to the seven lambs having been used for the ratification of an oath. Robinson found the exact site in the Wady-es-Seba, with its name still preserved as Bir-es-Seba. There are there two wells of solid construction, the first twelve and a half feet in diameter; the other, situated about 200 yards to the south, much smaller, being only five feet in diameter. Both are lined with solid masonry, and reach down to never-failing springs in the rock. Around are stone troughs for watering the cattle, and the parapet of the larger well is worn into deep indentations, by the ropes used in drawing the water (Finn, Bye-ways in Palestine, p. 190).

Verse 33

(33) And Abraham planted a grove in Beer-sheba.—Heb., a tamarisk tree. Under a noble tree of this kind, which grows to a great size in hot countries, Saul held his court at Gibeah, and under another his bones were laid at Jabesh (1 Samuel 22:6; 1 Samuel 31:13).

And called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.—Heb., on the name of Jehovah, El ‘olam (comp. Genesis 4:26). In Genesis 14:22, Abraham claimed for Jehovah that he was El ‘elyon, the supreme God; in Genesis 17:1, Jehovah reveals Himself as El shaddai, the almighty God; and now Abraham claims for Him the attribute of eternity. As he advanced in holiness, Abraham also grew in knowledge of the manifold nature of the Deity, and we also more clearly understand why the Hebrews called God, not El, but Elohim. In the plural appellation all the Divine attributes were combined. El might be ‘elyon, or shaddai, or ‘olam; Elohim was all in one.

Verse 34

(34) In the Philistines’ land—In Genesis 21:32 Abimelech on returning to Gerar is said to have gone back “into the land of the Philistines!’ But Beer-sheba also in a general way belonged to his dominions, and Abraham dwelt there in peace by reason of the treaty which existed between him and the Philistine king.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.