Bible Commentaries
Genesis 21

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-34


Gen 21:14

The first feeling we have in reading the story of Hagar and Ishmael is that they were both most cruelly used. If you were to read this story in the newspapers, as an incident happening in our own time, you would strongly condemn both Abraham and Sarah his wife. Hagar and Ishmael were cast forth out of the house of Abraham. Hagar received from Abraham "bread and a bottle of water," and she and her child "departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba." They were sent away from comfort into destitution, and this, so far as we know, for no crime. Some offence may have been given to Sarah, an offence which Sarah visited with most excessive and unpardonable resentment, as it appears to us on the face of the story. The very reading of it makes us the eager partisans of Hagar. We instantly take sides with her in the hour of her injury and pain, and in her affliction we are afflicted with great distress. This woman was wronged, and in her suffering all other generations of women have been disennobled and outraged. It was indeed with no readiness of will that Abraham responded. "The thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son."

The first feeling is that a most cruel act has been done. The next feeling is that surely we do not know the whole case. It must be only the outside that we see. Behind all this there must be something we do not fully understand. Hagar would never go away so quietly of her own will. Ishmael, seventeen years old, would surely show some sign of discontent and rebellion. How is it that people go out to poverty, to loneliness, to all hardness of life, so quietly, so dumbly, with only great hot tears in their eyes, and no sharp word of reproach or revenge on their lips? Had they gone away, Hagar and Ishmael, with violent upbraidings and threats hurled at the heads of those who banished them, the pathos would have been lost; the story would have been only a noisy brawl a women's fight, in which the weakest got the worst; that is all, nothing more! But what of this strange quietness? Can the heart be hushed by voices which the ear cannot hear? Can the poor fickle will, which so often mistakes petulance for strength, be touched from infinite heights by a tender and pitiful omnipotence which is working upon a sphere so vast that anything we can now see of it is as a straight line? When the first flush of anger dies away I begin to wonder whether there may not be something behind, which when known will explain everything, and add to this confused and riotous life of ours a solemnity and a grandeur supernatural! Through this incident, as through a door ajar, we may see a good deal of human life on what may be called its tragical side. The details are ancient and local, but the meaning is flowing around our life today and should be understood by all who are seeking the great principles rather than the passing accidents of human history.

1. As a mere matter of fact there are events in human life which cannot but affect us with a sense of disorder in the government and administration of things, if indeed there be either government or administration. One is taken, another left. One moves upwards to wealth and honour, another is neither prosperous by day nor restful by night. Sarah is the centre of a home; Hagar is a vagrant in the wilderness. Isaac is the idol of two hearts; Ishmael has no father, and his mother's poor life throbs between the points of disgrace and helplessness. Such is human life as we ourselves know it. This is not fancy; it is fact. You know it; you represent it; it is your own strange, perplexing, immeasurable life. You may take one of two views of this state of facts.

( a ) Life is a scramble; the strong man wins; the weak man dies; Luck is the only god, Chance is the only law, Death the only end. Suffering is the price paid by weakness for being allowed to exist, and poverty is the penalty a man pays for being conscientious. Society is the triumph of confusion. It is a giddy whirl, and nobody can tell who will be down or who will be up at the next turn of the wheel. The disorder of human life mocks the order of material nature. Or thus:

( b ) There must be a power mightier than man's, controlling and shaping things. Looking at human history in great breadths we see that even confusion itself is not lawless; it is a discord in the solemn music; it is an eccentricity in the astronomic movement; but it is caught up by the great laws, and wrought into the general harmony; above all, beyond all, there is a benign and holy power. Now from my point of view it requires less faith to believe this than to believe the other. The man who judges universal providence by solitary instances, is a man who would prove to himself that the earth cannot be a globe so long as there is a molehill upon its surface. He denies that the universal can affect the particular, and that the temporary can be swallowed up by the eternal.

Prove that an action or an event begins and ends in itself, and you establish a special law of judgment; but let it once be allowed that actions and events are not self-contained; that they have antecedents and consequents; that they are modified and sometimes counteracted by unexplained and unexpected influences, and at once you introduce new laws and new standards of judgment. You have then an unknown and most subtle element to deal with. It may surprise you by new revelations any moment. It may make the desert blossom as the rose, or it may turn the fair garden into barrenness. You cannot measure it by your reason; you cannot control it by your skill; you cannot avert it by your adroitness. It takes its own time, sometimes little, sometimes much. It works in its own secret but sure way. It is silent, mighty, irresistible.

2. As a further matter of fact in human life, there are cases marked by utter despair, for which it seems utterly impossible that any deliverance can ever arise. Hagar's is a case in point Her water was spent. The hot sun was beating on her head. Ishmael was faint with weakness. There was no one to speak to. No human friend answered the appealing voice. Some of us may have been in the same circumstances as to their effect upon the soul. When you were left a widow with six children no fortune, the water gone, the children crying for bread, the officer at the door, you wished to die; you were subdued by a great fear. But I ask you, in God's house, if there were not made to you sudden revelations, or given to you unexpected promises that brought light to the weary and hopeless heart? How did friends appear, how were doors opened, how did the boys get a little schooling and get their first chance in life? Are you the person now to turn round and say that it all came by chance, or will you not rather exclaim, "This is the Lord's doing; I was brought low and he helped me"?

And what men God trains in the wilderness! It would seem as if great destinies often had rough beginnings. "I will make him a great nation," said the angel of God. We must go down to go up. We must suffer if we would be strong with other than a rude unmellowed power. Why this is human history repeated in an individual example! Man's story had a rough opening. Adam, in blighted Eden, was as Ishmael in the inhospitable wilderness. God knows what we need, where we are, and when to come for us. Compare your present self with your former self, and say if God be not as gracious as he is mighty. If you could take out of your character all the fine elements which have come into it through sorrow, you would be turned into a crude and selfish creature. Sorrow, rightly accepted, sorrow sanctified, refines the gold of life; it raises the heart into noble elevation of feeling; it enriches the memory with many helpful recollections; it conquers and destroys the spirit of unbelieving and selfish fear. My friends, God would make us very poor if he took from us the results of sanctified sorrow.

3. You will bear me witness, as a further matter of fact, that life is full of surprises and improbabilities, and that the proverb, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity," is supported by innumerable instances. "God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water." She expected to die; and lo, she never was so sure of life. Ishmael withered only at the top, not at the root, for out of that root was to spring a great nation. These surprises not only save life from monotony, they keep us, if rightly valued, lowly, expectant, dependent. They operate in two contrary ways lifting up man, and casting him down.

4. As a matter of fact, the men who seem to be the most prosperous have trials of a heavy and most disciplinary kind. Early in the morning Abraham sent Hagar away; early on another morning a heavier cloud gathered over his horizon, and a keener pang tortured his heart. It seems as if great nations must be built upon ruins as if great prices must be paid for great honours. Ishmael is to die of thirst; Isaac is to perish by the knife did ever brilliant destinies arise from such flickering embers? My friend, thou knowest not what thou shalt be, or thy children; life is very low with thee just now; it may be because immortality is so near!

I have not far to go for an evangelical application of this incident. It is in our despair that Christ brings his Gospel to us. It is when there is no well that he smites the rock. It is when the knife is lifted over our heart that he becomes a "Lamb" for us!

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 21". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.