Sunday, June 4th, 2023
Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary Preacher's Homiletical
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ phc/ genesis-21.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
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Genesis 21:1. The Lord visited Sarah.] Jehovah, the Covenant God. To “visit,” in this connection, signifies drawing near for the purpose of conferring a favour (Genesis 1:24; Ruth 1:6.) The LXX. has ἐπεσκεψατο, a word adopted by St. Luke in two places in the song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-78).
Genesis 21:2. The set time. As promised in Genesis 17:21; Genesis 18:14.
Genesis 21:3. Called the name of his son, Isaac.] In obedience to the Divine command (Genesis 17:19).
Genesis 21:4. Circumcised his son Isaac, being eight days old, as God had commanded him.] (Genesis 17:10-12.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 21:1-5
THE BIRTH OF ISAAC
We now come to the first substantial result of God’s covenant with Abraham. The child which had only been present to the eye of faith and hope was now before him—God’s promises turned into realities, as they always shall be. As the birth of Isaac was not only marked by special circumstances, but is also an important event in the history of religion, it may be considered from several points of view.
I. As it illustrates the power of God. The birth of a son to Abraham is here regarded not as a common occurrence in the course of nature, but as the direct result of the visitation of God. (Genesis 21:1-2.) It was an exhibition of Divine power, but in that form which we call miraculous.
1. God’s power as distinctly seen. No one who considers this vast universe, with its mighty forces and wonderful order, can fail to be impressed with an overwhelming sense of the power of God. But all men do not consider, and the very constancy and greatness of that power prevents it from being distinctly recognised. A miracle does not require more of Divine power than is put forth in the maintenance of the system of nature, but it may be to us a greater proof of that power. The birth of Isaac was the result of the special interference of God, and His power was distinctly seen. The observation of the regular course of nature taught Abraham what to expect, and he had his natural hopes like other men. But his faith in the promise of God enabled him to believe against such hope. He knew that God was “able” to perform, and now he had a special proof of it.
2. God’s power as it affects personal interest. This was not a wonderful thing which they were to gaze upon from the outside with distant awe and astonishment. They were personally interested in the event. They were an essential part of it. They were obliged to stand within that circle in which the power of God was now displayed, and the sense of it brought home to them. Doubt would be impossible of that which so intimately touched themselves. Thus, whatever is wrought within us, gives us the highest proof of God. What is the moral miracle of regeneration but the power of God so brought home to us that we have consciousness of its reality? Who can deny the Divine source of His heavenly birth?
3. God’s power manifested as benevolent. There are judicial visitations of God, when He comes to punish transgressors. (Exodus 28:5.) But this was a friendly visit, full of grace and good gifts. The Divine power was put forth, not to alarm or crush, but with kind intent. This is the aspect of His power which is given to His saints to behold—the power of God unto salvation.
II. As it illustrates the faithfulness of God. The birth of this child was not only a loving and gracious expression of God’s power, but was also the accomplishment of His word. The child was given “according to promise.” His parents could not regard his birth otherwise than as a proof of the faithfulness of a covenant keeping God. Such experience have all His children.
1. The promises of God sooner or later pass into exact fulfilment. His word is as good as the fact, and he who trusts in that word has an inheritance upon a sure title. He has a substantial foundation for a hope which “maketh not ashamed.” The universe was but the thought of God expressing itself in an outward reality. He spake the word and creation arose. God’s word tends inevitably to pass into fulfilment.
2. Their fulfilment justifies our confidence in God. We ought to have confidence in God’s word without any immediate proof; but the journey of faith is long, and God has consideration for the infirmity of our poor human nature in giving us encouragement by the way. He deals with us as a kind Father who is always giving us reasons to love and serve Him. All is not left to the future world to disclose and verify. We have real and essential good now and here. Abraham had not received all the promises of God, but he had received enough to justify his confidence, and to encourage him to persevere in a life of faith to the end.
3. Their fulfilment is the stay of the believer’s soul. “The word of the Lord is a tried word.” We may consider it as sure, and we can build upon it without any misgiving. The memory of God’s past dealings becomes a ground of hope for the future. “Thou hast been my help” is a proper plea to urge in prayer for blessings yet to be given. God’s promises already verified give us that confidence which becomes the stay of our soul for the time to come. We feel that there is something sure and fixed in the midst of change and decay. We come to “know whom we have believed. It is only when the doctrines about God pass into the facts of experience within us that they become knowledge. And of all foundations to build upon the only secure one is knowledge. Our faith itself derives its value from the fact that it is concerned with realities.
III. As it illustrates the faith of man. The wonderful birth of this child was the reward of faith. Abraham believed in God against all human hope, and Sarah “by faith received strength to conceive seed” (Hebrews 11:11).
1. It was a faith which was severely tried.
(1) By long waiting. Abraham had waited for twenty-five years.
(2) By natural difficulties. He and his wife had advanced to a stage of life when there could be no human prospect of offspring. So the faith of believers is tried by many delays, and by difficulties that to the eye of sense seem to be insurmountable. Our way often appears to be shut up, as if we could go no further; but God interferes in His own good time. Our faith’s journey continues, and we pass on to new triumphs.
2. It was a practical faith. All the time that he was waiting, Abraham was obedient to the word of the Lord. Faith, with him, was not a mere sentiment, but was practically one with duty. It is quite indifferent whether we call his conduct faith or obedience. He chose a certain course of life, and entered upon certain duties, because he believed in God. Now that the promise is fulfilled he is still giving attention to his duty. He circumcised his son and called him by that name which God had appointed. (Genesis 21:3-4.)
IV. As it looks onwards to the birth of the world’s Redeemer. This was not an isolated event, but had reference to a “Greater Man.” The whole life of Abraham was ordered so as to prepare the line along which the Messiah should come. The details of the birth of Isaac, considered merely in themselves, are but a piece of human history calculated to awaken but a passing curiosity and interest. But when they are regarded in their relation to the birth of the Son of God, these details are invested with a surpassing importance. Throughout the history of this chosen family, God was working out His way towards an end—the bringing in of His “first-begotten into the world.” (Hebrews 1:6.) The analogy between the birth of Isaac and that of Jesus Christ is obvious.
1. Both births were announced long before. Indeed, to Abraham the two births were virtually announced together. He had to wait many years before the promise was fulfilled, and the world had to wait through long ages for the birth of the Son of Man.
2. Both occur at the time fixed by God. Isaac was born at “the set time” of which God had spoken to Abraham. So the date of Messiah’s birth was fixed by the prophet Daniel. (Daniel 9:24.) Seventy prophetic weeks are four hundred and ninety years. The re-establishment of the theocracy began thirteen years before the rebuilding of Jerusalem, 457 B.C. This number subtracted from four hundred and ninety years will give thirty-three years, to be reckoned from the commencement of the Christian era. Thus the Messiah was to be cut off in the middle of the last week. All this is now a matter of history. Thus the time when Christ should appear in the world was before appointed.
3. Both persons were named before their birth. Isaac’s name was given according to the Divine command. (Genesis 17:19.) So was the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:21.)
4. Both births were supernatural. Each was born after a miraculous manner.
5. Both births were the occasion of great joy. Abraham and Sarah had more than the common joy of parents. The event was so wonderful that amazement must have mingled with their delight. When Jesus was born angels and men rejoiced.
6. Both births are associated with the life beyond. The faithful shall “sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” They shall be “with Christ,” “for ever with the Lord.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:1. God pays not His people with words only. He fools them not off with fair promises. Good men are the children that will not lie. (Isaiah 63:8.) Their Father is a God that cannot lie. (Titus 1:2.) He is the God of Amen, as Isaiah calleth Him (Isaiah 65:16); “all His promises are Yea, and Amen in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:20); “the faithful and true witness.” (Revelation 3:14.)—(Trapp.)
Sarah’s visitation is a type of the visitation of Mary, notwithstanding the great distinction between them. The visitation lies in the extraordinary and wonderful personal grace, to which an immeasurable general human salvation is closely joined. But with Sarah this visitation occurs very late in life, and after long waiting; with Mary it was entirely unexpected. Sarah’s body is dead; Mary had not known a husband. The son of Sarah is himself a type of the son of Mary. But with both women the richest promise of heaven is limited through one particular woman on the earth, a conception in faith, an apparently impossible, but yet actual human birth; both are illustrious instances of the destination of the female race, of the importance of the wife, the mother for the kingdom of God. Both became illustrious since they freely subjected themselves to this destination, since they yielded their sons in the future, the sons of promise, or in the son of promise; for Isaac has all his importance as a type of Christ, and Christ, the son of Mary, is the manifesta-of the Eternal Son.—(Lange.)
Believers are visited with the word of promise, and then with the word of fulfilment.
Genesis 21:2. This is stated as explanatory of the manner in which the Divine veracity affirmed in the first verse was established. God had promised that Sarah should conceive and bear a son, and she did thus conceive and bring forth; but it does not necessarily follow that the time of her conceiving was subsequent to the events related in the preceding chapter; on the contrary, there is every reason to believe that this took place some weeks or months before (comp. Genesis 17:21), but it is mentioned here, without regard to date, merely as a fulfilment of the promise.—(Bush.)
Faith which once faltered may gather strength again and achieve noble deeds. Sarah has won a place amongst the ancient worthies. (Hebrews 11:11.)
The birth of this son was not according to nature (Galatians 4:23), but above nature. The miraculous element marks throughout the history of the chosen people. Thus mankind was prepared for the grand miracle of the manifestation of the Son of God.
Human redemption belongs to a course of things altogether above nature, for nature preaches no doctrine of forgiveness, no restoration of powers when once they are dead. Grace alone can bring salvation.
With God nothing can occur out of season, or fall otherwise than at the appointed time.
One great difference between this child and the son of Hagar consisted in this: the one was “born after the flesh,” that is, in the ordinary course of generation; but the other, “after the spirit,” that is, by extraordinary Divine interposition, and in virtue of a special promise. Analogous to these were those Jews, on the one hand, who were merely descended from Abraham according to the flesh, and those, on the other, who were “not of the circumcision only, but also walked in the steps of the faith of their father Abraham.” (Romans 4:12.) The former were the children of the bondwoman who were cast out, the latter of the freewoman, who, being “His people whom He foreknew,” were not cast away, but were counted for the seed. (Galatians 4:28-31; Romans 9:7; Romans 9:9; Romans 11:1-2.)—(Fuller.)
Genesis 21:3. As the name is associated with the fulfilment, it keeps in mind the contrast between the idea and the reality. Her laughter of incredulity is turned now into the laughter of joy at the event. (Genesis 21:6.) The name Isaac, therefore, is most significant. Through this name, Isaac is designated as the fruit of omnipotent grace working against and above the forces of nature. It is as much as to say, this son of promise is indeed he, the mention of whose birth was laughed as impossible. So, afterwards, Ishmael laughed at him, as too weak to be the ground of such attention and such hopes. (Genesis 21:9.) And the name keeps in view this contrast of the natural and the supernatural.—(Jacobus.)
Genesis 21:4. The patriarch here pursues his accustomed tenor of obedience, by subjecting his child to the painful rite of circumcision. Nothing is of higher value in the sight of God than an implicit observance of His positive precepts, and a disposition to adhere with punctilious strictness to the letter of the command, neither failing nor exceeding in the rule of duty. This is peculiarly important in the matter of sacramental institutions, where, as we learn from the example of the Papists, human perverseness is prone to fabricate new observances, and enforce them by promises and threatenings equally unknown to the Scriptures. Well would it be were they as much intent upon performing what God has really enjoined.—(Bush.)
The joy of a great blessing should not hinder us from paying the minutest attention to duty, and carefully observing every ordinance of God.
This was a sign of the covenant love of God towards the child, stamped upon him. Circumcision was an Egyptian, not a Jewish rite. It was therefore an adopted ceremony, and a religious signification was now thrown into it. So it is with our rites of baptism, of the Lord’s day, of the Supper of the Redeemer. These institutions were in existence before the time of Christ; He made them new by connecting them with new ideas. It is wise thus to vitalize existing forms, to infuse into them fresh meaning. We do not want new ones, the old are good enough for us; for what we want is, to throw into the old a new life, that that which is dying out may become alive. Circumcision was a coarse rite given to a coarse nation, a sign that they could understand; notwithstanding, they forgot that it was only a symbol. Prophet after prophet testified against this. As soon as the form began to lose its meaning and became substituted for the spiritual reality, it was proclaimed by our Master and His inspired servants that both were dead. And the fate of that institution is the fate of all form when it becomes nothing but form; and men are wanted now who will say out with Apostolic authority, baptism is nothing, the Lord’s Supper is nothing, unless a living spirit be within them.—(Robertson.)
Genesis 21:5. The sacred historian takes care to show that the birth of Isaac was above nature.
1. Hence, it foreshadows the miraculous birth of Jesus.
2. It was the beginning of a Divine supernatural agency which would continue to work throughout the history of the chosen people. Even to this day, the inextinguishable life of this ancient race is a perpetual witness to the power of God—indeed, a miracle wrought before our very eyes.
Isaac was born thirty years after the call of Abraham, and when his parents had lived for sixty years in fruitless marriage union. After many delays and difficulties insurmountable by nature, God’s promised mercies come at last.
1. The child of hope.
2. The child of prayer.
3. The child of faith.
If we believe in the miracle of creation, we are prepared to believe in any other miraculous interference of God. He who brought life and being from barren nothing can afterwards depart from His established ways, and give life when nature forbids the hope of it.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 21:6-7
THE REJOICING AT ISAAC’S BIRTH
I. It was the reward of faith and patience. There were peculiar circumstances connected with the birth of this child which made it an extraordinary occasion. The promise had long been given, and the parents had waited patiently through many years of disappointment, and sorrows of hope deferred. The time when they could expect offspring in the ordinary course of nature had long, since passed away. They were thrown entirely upon the strength of their faith, and upon that hope whose substance and foundation is faith. At length the time arrived when their faith and patient waiting are rewarded. What joy must they have felt when they found that their confidence in God—a confidence tried by long and anxious waiting—was justified by the bestowal of such a blessing! That is the deepest and most plentiful joy which comes after a long trial of faith and patience. Such is the joy into which the pious enter after death. The glory of heaven is the reward of the faith and patience of the saints.
II. It was hailed with a song of gratitude. The words of Sarah have been called “the first cradle hymn.” This song is the first of its kind recorded in literature. The peculiarity of the occasion justify its strong expressions.
1. There was an element of amazement and wonder. “Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:7). No one could naturally have expected such an event, and all who beheld it must have been filled with amazement. The miraculous nature of the blessing made it the occasion of an extraordinary joy. So all the gifts of grace excite our wonder and amazement. We are constrained continually to say, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.”
2. There was an element touchingly human. The song is put into the mouth of the mother, for the birth of this child would affect her feelings more intensely. The father’s would be a sober and thoughtful joy, but the mother’s would be an uncontrollable tide of emotion. Her feeling would be too great for many words, and could only have its humanly natural expression in laughter.
3. There was a confident expectation of universal sympathy. “All that hear me will laugh with me.” She could not imagine any one regarding her happiness with indifference. All who knew the fact, and were capable of judging of its importance, would have full sympathy with her. Though her words were expressions of human feeling proper to the time, yet we may justly regard them as prophetic. How many have rejoiced because of the chosen race whose seed was to be reckoned in Isaac! How many incalculable blessings have they given to mankind!—above all, the Saviour of the world. The child-bearing of this mother of the chosen race is the human channel along which salvation has been borne to us. “Salvation is of the Jews.” The mother of our Lord had this grateful confidence in the sympathy of the good throughout all time. “All generations shall call me blessed.”
4. There was an acknowledgment of the Divine source of the joy. “God hath made me to laugh” (Genesis 21:6). In all her wild amazement of joy, she was not forgetful of God, from whom the blessing came. She triumphed because she had faith in a Living Person who was able to perform His gracious word. We do not read of any doctrines that she held, but she had faith in a personal God. Through all the degrees and stages of Divine revelation, this is the one distinguishing characteristic mark of the saints of God. They had faith, not in anything about Him, but in Him; not faith in His attributes, or in any intellectual conceptions of them, but directly lodged and reposed in Himself. Their individual existence was united to His personal being. This is the simplification of theology—God hath made me to know, to feel, and to rejoice. In His favour is life, with all its gladness and blessed issues.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:6. The expression carries an allusion to Isaac’s name, and to the circumstance mentioned (ch. Genesis 17:17-19), on which it was founded. It was a mode of speech which not only showed how sincerely she recognised the propriety of Abraham’s laughing on the occasion referred to, and how cordially she assents to the name thus bestowed on the child, but intimates also that God had made her, as well as Abraham, to laugh; which was, in fact, a virtual condemnation of her former incredulity. We meet in the prophets with some striking allusions to this incident, where Sarah is considered a symbol of the Church. Thus Isaiah 54:1., “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear,” etc. (Comp. Isaiah 51:2-3; Galatians 4:22-28). All that bear will laugh with me. Will sympathise with my joy, and tender to me their congratulations. To this also the prophet alludes, Isaiah 66:10 : “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice with joy with her;” where the Jerusalem mentioned is expressly said by the apostle (Galatians 4:22; Galatians 4:27) to be mystically shadowed out by Sarah.—(Bush.)
The children of faith, though they may have their time of weeping, and be exposed to the ridicule of the world, will also have their time to laugh. Gladness is sown for the upright in heart.
God gave this laughter to vindicate His promise, and to rebuke her unbelief.
Genesis 21:7. The natural incredibility of the event enhances her joy and wonder. And so her testimony is here recorded to the amazing power and grace of God in making good His covenant promises. God is wont to get such clear and express testimonies to His miraculous works, to show that they were not by any means natural. And it was most important that this event be witnessed to by the glad mother as being not according to nature, but beyond nature; natural indeed in its progress and issue, but not therefore in its origin. Who would have said. How naturally unsupposable. Who ever would have reported such a thing would have been counted mad. Sarah should, etc. Heb.—Sarah is suckling children. Yet it is even so! For I have born him, etc. This is the mother’s new-found joy which she herself can scarcely credit. This laughter is referred to in Isaiah 49:13; Isaiah 52:9, and by St. Paul in Galatians 4:7.—(Jacobus.)
In her joy Sarah speaks of many children when she had borne only one son, who, however, was better to her than ten sons. She will say, not only has my dead body received strength from God to bring a child into the world, but I am conscious of such strength that I can supply its food, which sometimes fails much younger and more vigorous mothers. Sarah nursed her child although she was a princess (ch. Genesis 23:6) and of noble blood, for the law of nature itself requires this from all, since, with this very end in view, God has given breasts to all and filled them with milk. The Scriptures united these two functions, the bearing of children and nursing them, as belonging to the mother. (Luke 11:27; Luke 23:29; Psalms 22:10.) Thus these two things were reckoned among the blessings and kindness of the great God (Genesis 49:25), while an unfruitful body and dry breasts are a punishment from Him. (Hosea 9:11-14.)—(Lange.)
Though she were a great lady, yet she was a nurse. Let it not be niceness but necessity that hinders any mother from so doing, lest she be found more monstrous than the “sea-monsters,” that draw out their breast, and give suck to their young. (Lamentations 4:3.)—(Trapp.)
Genesis 21:8. And the child grew, and was weaned.] The weaning was often delayed till three years, or more, after birth (2Ma. 7:27). Samuel was not weaned till he was old enough to be left with Eli, when he would, probably, be more than three years old. Made a great feast. The occasion is still celebrated in the East as a family feast, to which friends are invited. The child partakes of it with the rest, as it is regarded as his introduction to the customary fare of the country.
Genesis 21:9. Mocking.] From the same root as the name Isaac, i.e., laughter. The word cannot here be understood in an innocent sense. It was a bitter, sarcastic laugh. St. Paul fastens upon it the character of persecution (Galatians 4:29).
Genesis 21:12. In Isaac shall thy seed be called.] Heb. In Isaac shall seed (posterity) be called to thee. Explained by the Apostle (Romans 9:7-8). The whole history is allegorised (Galatians 4:20-22).
Genesis 21:13. Make a nation.] A renewal of the promise made in Genesis 16:10; Genesis 17:20. Because he is thy seed. “It seemed to be a specialty of Abraham’s descendants to multiply into nations; the very fact of descent from him is alleged as a reason why Ishmael should become one.” (Alford.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 21:8-13
THE EXPULSION OF ISHMAEL
This portion of the history, though it staggers our natural judgment, is that very incident of which the most emphatic use is made in other parts of Scripture for the purposes of the spiritual life.
Beyond all question the thing here done is felt, at first sight, on all hands to be harsh, and the manner of doing it even harsher still. Surely never was slight offence more spitefully avenged! An unmannerly boy vents some ill-timed and ill-judged jest, and his mother, as well as himself, must be cast helpless on the wide world on account of it! This looks like the very wantonness of female jealousy and passion. No wonder that the patriarch needed a Divine communication to make him recognise in his irritated partner’s unrelenting demand the very mind and will of God Himself. (Genesis 21:12-13.) It is not necessary to acquit Sarah of all personal vindictiveness, or to consider her as acting from the best and highest motives, merely because God commanded Abraham to hearken unto her voice. This may be only another instance of evil overruled for good. It is true the Apostle Paul still more directly and immediately ascribes Divine authority to the suggestion of Sarah, when he formally quotes her words as a portion of the inspired record and revelation of the Divine decree. (Galatians 4:30.) Even this, however, may imply nothing more than what is said in the Gospel of a most remarkable utterance concerning the death of Jesus. (St. John 11:49-52.) The high priest consulted but the dictates of a worldly policy, yet he gave forth what turned out to be an oracular Divine prediction. And it may have been with equal unconsciousness of its being a heaven-directed and heaven-inspired voice, that Sarah, yielding to her own impetuous temper, called for the removal of a rival out of the way of her own son’s succession and title to the inheritance. There are certain circumstances which we should take into account, not for the vindication of Sarah’s character and conduct, but for the better understanding of the Divine procedure.
I. Let the actual offence of Ishmael be fairly understood and estimated. He was now no longer a child, but a lad of some fourteen years of age. St. Paul represents his conduct in a strong light: “He that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit,” and he points to it as the type and model of the cruel envy with which the “children of promise” are in every age pursued. (Galatians 4:28-29.) And our Lord Himself, when, with an evident reference to the expulsion of Ishmael, He speaks of “the servant not abiding in the house for ever, but the son abiding ever,” goes on to add—identifying the unbelieving Jews with the servant, or the bondmaid’s son, and taking to Himself the position of the real son, the true Isaac—“Ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.” (John 8:37.) “Ye seek to kill me.” Is there no allusion here to violence threatened against Isaac on the part of Ishmael and Hagar? Is not this the actual parallel intended between their treatment of the child of promise and the treatment Jesus met with at the hands of the Jews—the treatment which His followers also meet with at the hands of the unbelieving world? From the history itself, it is plain that Ishmael’s mocking had a deeper meaning than a mere wild and wanton jest. That it had respect to the birthright is evident, both from Sarah’s reasoning and from the Lord’s. She assigns, as the cause of her anxiety to have Ishmael cast out, her apprehension lest he should claim a joint-interest with Isaac in the inheritance. And the Lord sanctions her proposal on this very ground, when He says to Abraham, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
II. The competition in question admitted of no compromise. Whatever might have been her motives, Sarah did, in point of fact, stand with God in the controversy. She believed God, when, in accordance not more with her own natural feelings than with the known will of God, she determined to resist every attempt to interfere with the prerogative of the child of promise. For it was with Isaac, and with his seed after him—that seed being no other than the Messiah Himself—that God had expressly said He would establish His covenant for an everlasting covenant. And the determination of Sarah might be the more decided if she saw any indication of hesitancy in the mind of even the patriarch himself. For Abraham may have been swayed by his affection for his first-born child, as well as Sarah by her fondness for the son of her old age. In point of fact, Abraham felt great reluctance to give up his hope of Ishmael being his heir and successor in the covenant. Before the birth of Isaac, he clung to that hope with great tenacity, and pleaded hard on behalf of Ishmael that he might have the birthright blessing (ch. Genesis 17:18). And even after Isaac was born, he seems stilt to have a leaning towards his old partiality for Ishmael. Even after he has got the child of promise bodily in his arms, his faith sometimes wavers. He can scarcely persuade himself to hazard all on so precarious a risk as the puny life of an infant who has so strangely come, and may as strangely pass away. He would fain keep Ishmael still in reserve, and not altogether lose his hold of that other line of descent. This is rendered extremely probable by the pains which the Lord takes to remove the last scruples of lingering unbelief, to reconcile him to the destiny of Ishmael.
III. The severity of the measure resorted to is apt to be greatly exaggerated if it is looked at in the light of the social usages of modern domestic life. It was usual, in those primitive times, for the head of a household to make an early separation between the heir, who was to be retained at home, and the other members of the family, who must be sent to push their way elsewhere. Abraham himself adopted this course on other occasions as well as the present with reference to his other sons whom he had besides Ishmael (ch. Genesis 25:5-6). The presumption, therefore, is warranted that Abraham meant to deal on the same terms with Ishmael when he and his mother were cast out, and that this is intended to be indicated in the brief description subsequently given of his manner of disposing of his children generally.—(Candlish.)
THE DESTINIES OF ISHMAEL
At the weaning of Isaac there was a feast. Hagar and her son heard the merriment, and it was gall to their wounded spirits; it looked like intentional insult, for Ishmael had been the heir presumptive, but now, by the birth of Isaac, had become a mere slave and dependant; and the son of Hagar mocked at the joy in which he could not partake. Wherefore Sarah said unto Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son.” These were harsh words: it was hard for one so young to have all blighted; it was grievous in Abraham’s sight to witness the bitter fate of his eldest born. And yet was it not the most blessed destiny that could happen to the boy? The hot blood of the Egyptian mother, which coursed through his veins, could not have been kept in check in the domestic circle among vassals and dependants; he was sent to measure himself with men, to cut out his own way in the world, to learn independence, resolution, energy; and it is for this reason that to this very day his descendants are so sharply stamped with all the individuality of their founder. In them are exhibited the characteristics of Abraham and Hagar, the marvellous devoutness of the one with the fierce passions of the other, and together with these the iron will, the dignified calmness of self dependence wrought out by circumstances in the character of Ishmael.—(Robertson.)
THE ALLEGORY OF ISAAC AND ISHMAEL
We have the authority of St. Paul for giving this history an allegorical interpretation. (Galatians 4:22-24.) It is, without doubt, a real history, recording the thoughts and actions of living men; but it is capable of being treated as an allegory. Moreover, it requires such a treatment. The facts themselves have a spiritual meaning. Ishmael and Isaac, Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, Jerusalem which now is, and Jerusalem which is above, are all of them contrasted in antagonistic pairs, as representing principles essentially distinct. Hagar “answereth to that Jerusalem which now is,” and Sarah to that “Jerusalem which is above, and which is the mother of us all.” These things correspond, each to each. In the fact that Abraham had a twofold seed—one after the flesh, and the other by promise, we have the germ of the Gospel—the essential characteristics of the legal and evangelical dispensations. The history of God’s chosen people was under His distinct and special control, and was so ordered and governed as to be a fitting vehicle for the conveyance of spiritual lessons. We shall understand how this history teaches the difference between the genius of the Law and the Gospel, if we make a contrast between these two sons of Abraham.
I. Contrasted as to their origin. Ishmael was born after the ordinary manner. There was nothing more remarkable about his birth than about that of any other child. But Isaac came by a miraculous birth. His superior position and spiritual significance is, however, not derived from the fact that he was born of Sarah (though in a miraculous manner), but rather from the fact that he was “the child of promise.” His parents could have no doubt that he was a special gift from God—an accomplishment of the word of Him who spoke from heaven. These two sons represent two different societies—the world, and the Church. One is from beneath—arises here in the ordinary course of things; the other is from above, not derived from any earthly society, but “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” (1 Peter 1:23.) This gifted society—the Church—holds fellowship with the unseen world, and owns a heavenly citizenship. The birth from above distinguishes the children of this world from the children of light.
II. Contrasted as to their position in the household. The relative positions of Ishmael and Isaac in the household were essentially different, and that in two respects.
1. As to the liberty enjoyed. Ishmael, being born of a bond-servant, had no natural right to freedom. Such is the position of man under the legal covenant. He is in a state of bondage, and though he may strive to please God and to keep the Law, he is like a slave working towards freedom, and not as one who works with the inspiring thoughts of a man already free. He feels the yoke. However willing to rise to the highest ideal of duty, he is oppressed with a sense of failure. (Romans 7:7-25.) This covenant “gendereth to bondage,” exacts high service under severe penalties, which conditions the natural man is not able to fulfil. The case is still more hopeless when a man gains some spiritual insight, and sees “how exceedingly broad are God’s commandments.” Isaac, on the other hand, was in the house as a free-born son. Liberty was his birthright. More than this, he was “born not after the flesh,” but “by promise.” He was placed by the Divine will under the new covenant. So, under the Gospel, believers are in the house of God not as bond, but as free. They have not to work for liberty. They are free already, and work cheerfully from a sense of their freedom.
2. As to the security of their positions. Ishmael had no permanent standing in the house. The dark spot of slavery was upon him, and he only held the blessings of his home on sufferance. Isaac, as a free-born son, abides in the house for ever. The promise of God gave him more than a double security. It gave him absolute security. No earthly power could rob him of his high privilege. Under the Law the position of men is, at best, precarious. They can only abide in the house on sufferance. Their title is forfeited by disobedience and shortcomings in duty. If they fail to fulfil the conditions imposed, their position is gone. We know in what all this must issue for sinful man striving to maintain a place in the household of God by means of the Law, and without that assistance and sense of security which the Divine grace can alone impart. It must issue in his expulsion. But Isaac’s position is ours, under the Gospel. We are in the house as fully approved. Our place is secured in perpetuity by the Divine promise. We have the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.” Such is our heritage under the law of grace. Ishmael’s condition, though it fitly serves the purpose of the allegory, may be also regarded as affording a ground of hope to us sinful men. We are all born in slavery, and can only obtain freedom by a special grace. Ishmael might have retained the privilege of remaining in Abraham’s family. He might have partaken of Isaac’s birthright, if, instead of persecuting, he had stooped to “kiss the son.” If, instead of standing upon his own right, he had been willing to take the benefits of Isaac’s title, he, too, would have continued to enjoy the glorious inheritance. Even if the stain on our birth be ever so black, and our natural prospects ever so gloomy, if we are willing to abandon our ground of confidence, and to receive the free gifts of grace, we are accepted. The grand lesson is, to renounce all confidence in the flesh—to trust no privileges or works (Philippians 3:7; Philippians 3:9), but by faith freely to receive our share in the heritage of God’s first-born Son.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:8. St. Augustine observeth here, that this solemnity at the weaning of Isaac was a type of our spiritual regeneration; at, and after which, the faithful keep a continual feast. “Let us keep the festivity” (1 Corinthians 5:7), or holy day, saith Paul, that “feast of fat things, full of marrow; of wines on the lees well refined” (Isaiah 25:6), proceeding from milk to stronger meat (Hebrews 5:12), and being to the world as a weaned child. His mouth doth not water after homely provisions, that hath lately tasted of delicate sustenance.—(Trapp.)
It is probable that Abraham gathered his friends and servants around him at this feast. The “prophet” would not be likely to miss such an opportunity of discoursing upon God’s special favour to himself, and exhorting his company to trust in God, and to the praise of His name. They were all interested in those gifts of the Divine goodness imparted to this distinguished man, in whose seed all the families of the earth were to be blessed.
There can be no true religion amongst mankind without fellowship, and the joyful recognition of God’s blessings. There must be an element of joy and gladness which swallows up the sense of sorrow and sin. The Christian religion has its feasts, for it is glad tidings of great joy.
Genesis 21:9. Now is recorded the casting out of Ishmael—the son of a human expedient. This was—
1. To make the whole hope depend upon the son specially given by God.
2. To separate this hostile element from the Covenant family. Though this was in the plan of God, yet there was to be an occasion for it, and that was the wilful mocking of Isaac by Ishmael.—(Jacobus.)
Ishmael despised this child, and ridiculed the idea that he should be the origin of a great history charged with so much importance to mankind. This persecution was prompted by unbelief, envy, and pride. Thus God’s way of deliverance—His salvation—cannot be appreciated by those who are inwardly separated from the household of faith.
Persecution arises from that inward hostility which must ever be between natural and spiritual men.
St. Paul says that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Galatians 4:29), and he is here designated the “son of Hagar the Egyptian,” to intimate that, the predicted four hundred years’ affliction of Abraham’s seed by the Egyptians commenced at this time in the insults and taunts of Ishmael, the son of an Egyptian woman.—(Bush.)
Genesis 21:10. The facts have an underlying sense, namely, that there are two dispensations represented by Hagar and Sarah—the Law and the Gospel, and two classes of sons in the visible Church, as there are these two in the family of Abraham—the one of the legal spirit, the other of the Gospel; the one after the flesh, the other after the spirit; the former persecuting and opposing the latter. But the separation must be made, as is here done, in Abraham’s house. The son of the bondwoman—the Ishmael—the children of bondage, of the Judaizing, legal spirit—must be cast out as not allowed to inherit along with the son of the freewoman. They who are in bondage to the righteousness of the law, do thus scorn and persecute those who are of the free spirit of the Gospel. They cannot live in the same house.
(1) The same great idea runs through all the history of the Church, and pervades all the Scripture and all God’s dealings.
(2) We see the unity of the Bible and of the Church.—(Jacobus.)
Genesis 21:11. He who is singled out as an example of faith to all ages, is also, throughout the whole course of his history, an example of tender human feeling.
The conflict of human duties is often a sore trial to the saints of God.
Genesis 21:12. God enjoins this as reasonable, on the ground that in Isaac was his seed to be called. This means not only that Isaac was to be called his seed, but in Isaac, as the progenitor, was included the seed of Abraham in the highest and utmost sense of the phrase. From him the holy seed was to spring that was to be the agent in eventually bringing the whole race again under the covenant of Noah in that higher form which it assumes in the New Testament.—(Murphy.)
God overrules the stormy passions of human nature to bring about His own large purposes of good.
We must not refuse to join in doing what God commands, however contrary it may be to our natural feelings, nor on account of the suspicious motives of some with whom we are called to act.—(Fuller.)
The history of God’s chosen people leads the way up to that One Name which alone brings salvation.
The wife, then, is to be hearkened to when she speaks reason. Samson’s mother had more faith than her husband (Judges 13:23); and Priscilla is sometimes set before Aquila. Paul’s hearers at Philippi were only women at first (Acts 16:13.) And St. Peter tells Christian wives that they may win their husbands to Christ by their “chaste conversation, coupled with fear” (1 Peter 3:1). “The Scripture” is said to “say” what Sarah here saith (Galatians 4:30).—(Trapp.)
Genesis 21:13. Abraham is comforted in his stern duty by the renewal of the old promises concerning Ishmael (Genesis 17:20).
Those who are shut out from God’s external dispensations are not, therefore, cut off from His mercy. God has His own designs to fulfil in assigning to men a particular place in human history, but no appointment of this kind is intended as a bar to their individual salvation.
The peculiar blessing was all on the side of Isaac, as being the child by whom the promise should be fulfilled. But the question is, whether there is anything to be deduced from Scripture against the salvability of the offspring of Hagar. The blessings promised to her are principally of a temporal nature (Genesis 16:10; Genesis 17:20; Genesis 21:20); but such blessings would have been the greatest curses on the horrible supposition, that all his descendants had been excluded from the possibility of obtaining eternal happiness. As to the character which is given of Ishmael and his posterity (Genesis 16:12), whilst it forms a prophetic description of the character and manners of the Turks and Arabians, it determines nothing whatever against their salvability. Such as they are, they will be judged according to their means of knowledge. The inhabitant of the desert will not be judged for his want of civilisation, nor will the child, who has been educated in the errors of Mahometanism, be punished for his want of Christian baptism. It should be remembered that the death of Ishmael is mentioned in Scripture with all the circumstances of that of a pious patriarch (Genesis 25:17-18.—(Grinfield.)
Genesis 21:14. Abraham rose up early in the morning.] Hence the Divine command was given to him in the night. Bread. Used as a general term for provisions. Bottle of water. The leathern bottle of the East, made of the whole skin of an animal. In this case, probably, a kid-skin, as Hagar could not well have carried a goat-skin. And the child. To be connected with “gave” in the previous clause. He gave it (bread), and the child, to Hagar. The LXX. and Targ. of Onk. convey the meaning, that he placed the child on her shoulder. But this is absurd, for Ishmael would now be quite sixteen years old. He was led by the hand (Genesis 21:18). The child. More properly a boy, or a lad. Boys often married at that age in the East. The wilderness. Not desert, but open commons—land not profitable for cultivation, but affording pasture. Beersheba. So named by anticipation (Genesis 21:31).
Genesis 21:15. Cast the child.] The Heb. word generally conveys the idea of forcible projection, but in this case it is to be understood of a gentle laying down, or suffering to repose (Psalms 55:22). Language is used as if he was a mere child, and truly in his exhausted condition he was as such, at this time.
Genesis 21:16. As it were a bow-shot.] “This is a common figure of speech in their ancient writings, ‘the distance of an arrow;” ‘so far as the arrow flies.’ The common way of measuring a short distance is to say ‘It is a call off—i.e., so far as a man’s voice can reach” (Roberts’ Scripture Illustrations).
Genesis 21:17. And God heard the voice of the lad, and the angel of God called to Hagar. Elohim in both places. “The angel of Elohim, not Jehovah; because Ishmael, since the Divinely ordained removal from the house of Abraham, passes from under the protection of the Covenant God to that of the leading and providence of God, the Ruler of all nations.” (Keil.)
Genesis 21:18. Hold him in thine hand.] Heb. “Strengthen thine hand upon him,” i.e., assist and support him.
Genesis 21:20. And he became an archer.] “He grew an archer, or multiplied into a tribe of archers.” (Murphy.) The descendants of Ishmael were distinguished for their skill in the use of the bow. (Isaiah 21:17; Isaiah 21:17.)
Genesis 21:21. The wilderness of Paran.] The great desert, now called El Tih, running from the southern border of Palestine down to the northern part of the Sinaitic peninsula. He adopted the habits of a wilderness man, according to the prophecy. (Genesis 16:16.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 21:14-21
HAGAR AND ISHMAEL IN THE WILDERNESS: THE SORROWS OF THE OUTCASTS
We have here the sad picture of two persons forcibly driven from their home to wander through the desert. They are cast out upon the world, subject to unknown chances. Here is a pitiable scene of human misery, and yet it is bounded by Divine mercy and compassion. Both the severity and the goodness of God are manifest.
I. The evils they suffered must be charged upon themselves. Their fate seems hard in the extreme. They are suddenly dismissed from that household in which they had lived so long, and sent into the wilderness, but scantily provided for against the dangers and privations of that condition. Yet they could only charge their misfortunes upon themselves. There was discipline, but also punishment, in their sufferings. They gave grave offence to those whom they were bound to honour and respect, and to whom they owed their position and material comforts. By deriding Isaac, and opposing his claims, they showed a want of faith in God, and submission to His great designs. They offended the religious as well as the human feeling of the parents of the child of promise. Their conduct arose from an anti-spiritual disposition. They had the feeling and spirit of persecutors. Had they submitted to God’s known will with meekness and resignation, they might have continued to enjoy the privileges and honours of Abraham’s household.
II. They were also fulfilling God’s purposes concerning human salvation. There is another aspect of their expulsion which must be noted. It was necessary that the family of Ishmael should be separated from that of Isaac. It pleased God—as He often does in the course of His Providence—to work out this design through human perversity and sin. These wanderers were punished for their carnality and wilfulness, but at the same time Providence was using them to prepare the way of the Lord. God had willed it that human salvation should come through one line, and that line must be kept clear and distinct. This was evident from what God had already said to Abraham (Genesis 21:12), who would never have taken such harsh measures if he had not been impelled to it by a clear sense of duty. This act went sore against his feelings, but he was obeying a Divine voice. Thus, while nations and individuals have suffered for their sins, God has, through these sufferings, been all the time accomplishing some further purpose of His will.
III. Yet they were not shut out from the favours and help of Providence. They had grievously sinned, and brought these evils upon them. They were cast out of the family of Abraham, and driven into the wilderness by a Divine decree. But they had not thereby wandered beyond the circle of God’s general Providence. God had not willed it that they should take the highest place in His favour, but they were still His creatures and the sheep of His hand. He made them what they were, and they had a claim upon His protection and regard. The mercy of God is not hindered by human transgression, nor limited by His purposes concerning the destiny of nations in history. He who distributes the favours of His Providence according to His purpose and will to families and nations, has uttered no harsh decree against individuals to shut them out from salvation. God came to the help of these poor wanderers.
1. His Providence interfered when they were at their worst extremity. The water was all spent in the bottle. They were weary, and suffering from the pangs of thirst. The poor mother had laid her child down to die, and in her agony of grief had turned her face away, not able to bear the sight (Genesis 21:15-16). In this extremity “the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven” (Genesis 21:17). So it has ever been in human history. When man has exhausted all his resources, then God appears and brings help.
2. His Providence was administered with touches of human tenderness. There is something most tenderly human in the conduct of the mother in her sad extremity (Genesis 21:16). But in this we have the dim shadow of the Divine tenderness. In the words, “What aileth thee, Hagar?” we recognise a voice of compassion human in its strain. Such is the kindness of God in the aspect which it assumes towards man. But that kindness is greater than all our human notions and forms of tenderness; yea, it is better than life. In the Incarnation this human element in the love of God receives a complete expression. The manifestation of God in Christ was a new publication of the fact and doctrine of that Providence which cares tenderly for individuals, and does not lose itself in the vagueness of a universal regard.
3. His Providence made use of natural means. “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:19). The well of water was already there, though in her distress she saw it not. Providence gave her the power to use natural resources. No unnecessary miracle is wrought. Such is the method of God’s ordinary Providence towards mankind. He who knows and controls the thoughts of all men imparts directing ideas, and teaches men rightly to employ the resources already given. That Power which gives us to see what was before hidden, and rightly to employ it, helps us most effectually.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:14. His “rising early in the morning” in this and similar instances, is a striking proof of the readiness and alacrity with which he made haste to obey the heavenly mandate. To part with his own son was, no doubt, like rending away his own bowels; but being accustomed to obedience, he controls the paternal affection which he could not extinguish. And here is, unquestionably, one of the severest trials of faith and piety, when we are called to subject to the will of God those primary instincts of our nature which are in themselves neither sinful nor harmful. But the children of Abraham are to prepare themselves for such ordeals.—(Bush).
The conduct of Abraham, in this instance, seems cruel and unkind. But it must be noted—
1. That he acted according to the Divine command. His duty was clearly announced, but the performance of it was painful to his feelings.
2. Hagar, by this act, obtained her freedom.
3. The mother and son were not hereby excluded from the Covenant. Ishmael had been circumcised, and had the Covenant promises. Nor were they excluded from intercourse with Abraham’s house (ch. Genesis 25:9).
4. In this early age it was not a difficult thing to find a livelihood in the course of such a journey. Food could be obtained without injury to anyone. Accordingly we find that Ishmael chose to dwell in the wilderness, where he became an archer. The subsequent history shows that Hagar was able to provide for herself and her son.
The expulsion of Ishmael was a warning for Israel, so far as it constantly relied upon its natural sonship from Abraham.—Lange.
Genesis 21:15-16.—Ishmael was now, no doubt, thoroughly humbled as well as wearied, and therefore passive under his mother’s guidance. She led him to a sheltering bush, and caused him to lie down in its shade, resigning herself to despair.—(Murphy).
All creature-comforts will fade and fail us, as the brook Cherith dried up whilst the prophet was drinking of it; as those pools about Jerusalem, that might be dried up, with the tramplings of horse and horsemen (2 Kings 19:24). But they that drink of Christ’s water shall never thirst; for it shall be in them (as the widow’s oil, or Aaron’s ointment) “a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).—(Trapp).
Genesis 21:17. We do not read that the lad uttered a distinct voice, calling to heaven for help. But his suffering and perishing condition had a “voice” which God heard and answered.
This was the Angel Jehovah, who appeared to Hagar on a former occasion, (Genesis 16:7). God chooses the time when we are in affliction to visit us, and to repeat His mercies.
“Where he is.” The Providence of God observes where we are, and the trouble which lies all around us.
Weeping hath a voice. (Psalms 6:8.) And as music upon the water sounds farther and more harmoniously than upon the land, so prayers joined with tears. These, if they proceed from faith, are showers quenching the devil’s cannon-shot; a second baptism of the soul, wherein it is rinsed anew, nay, perfectly cured; as the lame were healed in the troubled waters. Our Saviour raised the young man of Nain, though none sought to him, merely because he was the only son of his mother, a widow, the stay of her life, and staff of her old age.—(Trapp.)
Genesis 21:18. Ishmael was to form a nation by himself, and it was therefore necessary that he should leave the family of Abraham. His wandering in the wilderness was the means by which God wrought out His purpose concerning this man. Such is the course of Providence in human affairs. The evils that happen to men are made to work out the designs of God.
The fortunes of a great nation were at this moment depending upon a weak and perishing lad. Thus, from small and insignificant beginnings (as they appear to us), God works His way to the accomplishment of the great things of human history.
Genesis 21:19. Was not the well there before? And might not the afflicted mother have had recourse to it? Was it her blinding tears that hindered her from seeing it? or the apathy of her soul that made her too listless to be on the look-out for it? Is there no trace in all this of unwarrantable impatience and despondency? Ah! she may have been like too many, who, amid life’s trials—and the disappointment, perhaps, of their own sinful and carnal hopes—are ready to lay them down and die for want, when there is a well within their reach—the well of which “whosoever drinketh shall never thirst again!” This poor exile forgot how near she was still to Abraham, who would not surely be unmindful of her—how nearer still she was to Abraham’s God, who, even if Abraham’s gift of food and water fail, can open her heavy eyes and show her a copious well of water in the wilderness.—(Candlish.)
Her eyes were opened, and she saw a well of water. Thus God helps us by simple means. Our souls are blessed and nourished, not by the creation of new facts and truths, but by opening our eyes to see those already given. Thus it was with the disciples, “And their eyes were opened, and they knew Him.” (Luke 24:31.) Jesus opened the understanding of His disciples that they might understand the Scriptures. Truths were hidden there which they saw not. (Luke 24:45.)
It is possible for men to perish, though full and sufficient help lies all around them, unless God’s grace gives them power to discern and use it.
In the most doleful desert of life God can discover to our soul a well of consolation.
It is unnecessary to determine how far this opening of the eyes was miraculous. It may refer to the cheering of her mind and the sharpening of her attention. In Scripture the natural and supernatural are not always set over against each other as with us. All events are alike ascribed to an ever-watchful Providence, whether they flow from the ordinary laws of nature or some higher law of the Divine will.—(Murphy.)
Genesis 21:20-21. God does not forsake men and nations because they are outside of His family, the Church.
He became not only an adept at the use of the bow in hunting, but also employing this as his principal weapon on those occasions, when, according to the prediction, “his hand began to be against every man,” etc. (Genesis 16:12). The term unquestionably denotes warlike character and practices. It is but another mode of saying that he began to be distinguished for lawless predatory habits, as his descendants have always been. His expulsion from his father’s house, and the way of life into which it forced him, would naturally tend to increase any inherent ferocity of temper he may have possessed, and to form and fix that character which was given of him by the angel before he was born. God brings His predictions to pass, not always, nor generally, by miraculous means, but by the operation and concurrence of natural causes. It would seem that he gradually brought himself to bear, and finally to prefer that way of living which had at first been obtruded upon him by the strong hand of necessity; and thus the prophecy entered upon its incipient fulfilment.—(Bush.)
Genesis 21:21. Here it is shown that he took up his abode in the wilderness, and led the life of a roving hunter, and adopted the habits of a wilderness man—a “wild man” (Genesis 16:16), till at length he and his tribe became a bandit band. That he married a wife out of Egypt is here stated, to prepare us for a sketch of his descendants (Genesis 25:12-18), the Bedouin Arabs. This also completed the estrangement of Ishmael’s line from that of Isaac, as Egypt was the land of his mother’s birth and of heathen superstition. That the mother chose his wife was according to the established usage of Eastern nations for the parent to make the choice of a husband, or a wife, for the children.—(Jacobus.)
Genesis 21:22. Phichol.] Name signifies “mouth of all,” i.e., all-commanding. Probably an official title.
Genesis 21:23. Nor with my son, nor with my son’s son.] The LXX. has “neither my seed, nor my name.” Murphy renders it kin and kith, “to represent the conversational alliterative phrase of the original.”
Genesis 21:31. Beersheba.] “The well of the oath,” or, “the well of the seven.” The latter meaning may have some allusion to the seven lambs by which Abraham secured the possession of the well. (Genesis 21:29-30.) The Heb. word for taking an oath comes from the same root which signifies seven. The reason is, an oath was confirmed by seven witnesses. Herodotus says that the Arabians chose some seven things for the confirmation of the oath. They sware both of them; Heb., were sworn. In Heb., “swearing” is always represented by the passive form of speech, conveying the idea that one is adjured by another, or has an oath imposed upon him by another.
Genesis 21:32. Thus they made a covenant.] “Cut a covenant,” according to the usual Heb. expression. Hence, probably, animals were slain, and the covenant thus ratified by the parties passing between the divided portions.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH—Genesis 21:22-32
ABRAHAM THE FRIEND OF MAN
This treaty between Abimelech and Abraham brings out that kindness and goodwill towards men for which the Patriarch was as remarkable as for his piety towards God. He was to be known afterwards as the “Friend of God,” and no one can be such without being also the friend of man.
I. He yields readily to the request for his friendship. There were lower, as well as higher motives which led Abimelech to seek the friendship of Abraham. He was a heathen king, having little knowledge of the true God, and very imperfect conceptions of human duty. We cannot suppose that he desired the friendship of Abraham purely on the highest grounds. His motives were a mixture of good and evil.
1. Expediency. There is a worldly, calculating prudence which takes that course most profitable for the time, and regards not its entire moral bearings. This is expediency considered in its bad sense. There is little doubt but that there was some trace of this worldly policy in the conduct of Abimelech. Abraham had become a rich and powerful man, and was every day increasing in influence. It would be, therefore, greatly to the advantage of this king to seek an alliance with him. There is something here, no doubt, of that selfishness to which our poor human nature is so prone.
2. The worship of success. It is the way of the world to idolize success. When men have attained to great prosperity they are credited with many and great virtues, which in humbler ways of life would escape recognition. Men may admire virtue, but they adore worldly splendour and magnificence. The king was not unmindful of the fact that Abraham was a good man and deserved success, yet still the adoration of that success, considered by itself, greatly influenced him in seeking the friendship of a man of such good social standing.
3. The admiration of goodness. We must also credit Abimelech with this higher motive. The facts were clearly before him. In the defeat of the four kings, in the twofold deliverance of Sarah, in the miraculous birth of Isaac, in the growing power of the Patriarch, and in the richness of his heritage of promise, Abimelech had full evidence that this man was greatly favoured and blessed of God. There is a certain atmosphere about good and holy men which others immediately detect, and in which they are compelled to feel awe and reverence. Abraham encouraged this request for his friendship, though the motives which prompted it were not altogether pure. He was ready to swear allegiance and constant friendship (Genesis 21:24). He knew that it is only from weak beginnings that men can advance to the nobility of goodness. He knew that his special position in the Covenant did not cut him off from the rest of mankind. They, too, stood in certain relations to God, and lay under obligations to God which no facts of depravity and no special favours to individual men could set aside. It was not for himself alone that Abraham was thus favoured and visited. He was destined to become a blessing to all the families of mankind.
II. He undertakes the duties of friendship. He freely accepts all the conditions which Abimelech lays down for him.
1. True and righteous dealing. “Swear that thou wilt not deal falsely with me” (Genesis 21:23). Lasting friendship can only be raised upon the foundations of truth and justice.
2. Gratitude for favours shown. “According to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me” (Genesis 21:23). True friendship is always mindful of favours received. Gratitude towards men is a duty as well as towards God, and must be shown when men (even though imperfectly) reflect the kindness of God.
3. Faithfulness to the faults of a friend. There was a matter of dispute which must be settled before the treaty can be made. Abraham was careful to point out to Abimelech what seemed to be his fault (Genesis 21:25). That openness which shrinks not to point out the faults of another is the duty of true friendship. It is that reproof of the righteous which smites with kind intent. The result of this faithfulness must have been grateful to Abraham, for Abimelech was able to clear himself entirely from blame (Genesis 21:26). Thus, in the long run, it is best to be perfectly open and sincere. A clear conscience is the best safeguard of any true and lasting brotherhood amongst men.
III. He recognises the sacredness of friendship. He gives it the sanctions of religion by appealing to God as a witness to his sincerity (Genesis 21:24). Abraham needed not to be bound in this way by a solemn outward form, but he submitted to it for the good of future generations. He wished these obligations to be strengthened by the external rites of religion. Even though he had seen fit to pledge his bare word, unaccompanied by any outward form, he would still have regarded the Godward aspects of the relationship into which he was about to enter. As one who lived by faith he could not separate any portion of human life or activity from the control and direction of God.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:22. He “saw that God was with him.” Such was the motive which induced this friendly request. Probably the news of the extraordinary birth of Isaac, and of the various incidents which had grown out of it, had reached the court of Abimelech, and become a topic of conversation. “This,” he would perhaps say to himself, “is a great man, and a great family, and will become a great nation; the blessing of heaven attends him. It is our wisdom, therefore, to take the earliest opportunity to put ourselves on good terms with him.” In proposing this, he was acting more for his interest than he was aware of; for God in blessing Abraham had promised to “bless them that blessed him, and to curse them that cursed him.” In making a covenant therefore with Abraham, he was virtually making a covenant with the God of Abraham.—(Bush.)
The evident blessing of God upon the righteous raises a feeling of reverence even in the minds of those who are outside the Church.
He who lives a godly and righteous life will have a growing influence, so that, at length, men will regard him with something of awe and veneration. In this way the humblest Christian gains a dignity and power which marks him as one of God’s nobility. This is the crown of glory which the world sets upon the head of the righteous.
The fact that God is with a man cannot long remain unknown to others.
Abimelech believed that God had blessed Abraham, upon stronger grounds than those afforded by the sight of his temporal prosperity. God had appeared to him in a dream to interpose on behalf of the patriarch. Isaac had been born by an evident interference of the Divine power, so that the family of Abraham seemed destined to achieve greatness and distinction amongst mankind.
Genesis 21:23-24. “Swear unto me by God.” Such was the solemnity with which he wished the friendship to be confirmed. With this request Abraham complied, though we cannot suppose that he needed to be sworn not to deal falsely; but as posterity was concerned, the more solemn the engagement the better. But why should covenants, promises, oaths be necessary in the commerce of human life? It is, alas, for no other reason than that men are false, treacherous, and perfidious: The manners and customs of past times only serve to convince us that in every age the corruption of man has been so great upon the earth that ordinary obligations will not bind; that without the sanctions of religion neither the sense of honour or justice, or interest, will avail to preserve men in a course of rigid integrity. No other argument is necessary to prove that our nature is depraved than the necessity of solemn appeals to the Deity, making “an oath for confirmation the end of all strife.”—(Bush.)
The necessities of human society require some condescension on the part of believers.
Abraham quickly consents to so reasonable a request from so honourable a person. The wisdom from above is “easy to be entreated” (James 3:17). The churl Nabal holds it a goodly thing to hold off. It is but manners to reciprocate: the very publicans can find in their hearts to do good to those that have been good to them” (Matthew 5:46-47).—(Trapp.)
Abraham would readily lend himself to any suggestions which would be likely to promote peace with his neighbours. He who was destined by Providence to bear so prominent a part in the revelation of the Gospel, would be likely to share something of its spirit.
Genesis 21:25. Abraham takes occasion to remonstrate with Abimelech about a well which his people had seized. Wells were extremely valuable in Palestine on account of the long absence of rain between the latter or vernal rain ending in March, and the early or autumnal rain beginning in November. The digging of a well was therefore a matter of the greatest moment, and often gave a certain title to the adjacent fields. Hence the many disputes about wells, as the neighbouring emirs or chieftains were jealous of rights so acquired, and often sought to enter by the strong hand on the labours of patient industry.—(Murphy.)
Abraham: A peacemaker.
1. He bears an injury long, without seeking to redress it by forcible means. Men who are disposed to quarrel can easily magnify even the slightest neglect or offence into a gross affront.
2. He is desirous of removing every barrier in the way of peace. He refers now to this matter of the well when Abimelech requests his friendship, in order that there might be nothing to mar it.
Genesis 21:26. The wrong had not been done by him, nor with his consent; it was the act of his servants—that is, his officers, who, perhaps, had pretended his authority for their unjust spoliation, than which nothing is more common among the minions and creatures of sovereignty. Subjects are wronged, oppressed, despoiled, and yet their grievances never reach the ears of rulers, because the oppressors find it for their own interest to bar access to all voices but their own. Too often are not only the consciences, but the very senses of princes taken into the keeping of corrupt and unprincipled officials.—(Bush).
Suspicion is the bane of friendship, and the sooner it is proved to be groundless the better.
Abimelech was no unworthy example of meekness. He shows no irritation at a reproof which, in point of fact, was unjust. He appreciated the pure motives which prompted it.
Genesis 21:27-32. That these animals were intended for sacrifice seems probable from the last clause of the verse, which informs us that they both made, or, as the Hebrew has it, cut a covenant—i.e. made a covenant by cutting the victims in pieces. But why the sheep and oxen are said first to have been presented to Abimelech is not so clear, unless it were that Abraham designed to do him greater honour by giving him the animals to offer before the Lord. As if duly mindful of his rank as a subject, and desirous of showing a proper respect to the king, he seems to have studied to give him the precedency in the whole transaction.—(Bush).
Abraham lays more stress on a public attestation that he has dug, and is therefore the owner of this well, than on all the rest of the treaty. Seven is the number of sanctity, and therefore of obligation. This number is accordingly figured in some part of the form of confederation; in the present case in the seven ewe lambs, which Abraham tenders, and Abimelech, in token of consent, accepts at his hand. The name of the well is remarkable as an instance of the various meanings attached to nearly the same sound. Even in Hebrew it means the well of seven, or the well of the oath, as the roots of seven, and of the verb meaning to swear, have the same radical letters. Bir es Seba means the well of seven or of the lion.—(Murphy).
Thus worthily does the first chapter in the history of treaties open.—(Kitto)
The alliance here ratified may be regarded as a prophecy of the all-embracing mercy of the Gospel, whose provisions are for all men, both Jews and Gentiles.
Genesis 21:33. And Abraham planted a grove.] Properly, the Oriental tamarisk tree or grove. They grow to a remarkable height, and furnish a wide shade. It seems as if this were a religious act, as designed to secure some retired place for worship. Such groves were afterwards forbidden on account of their connection with idolatrous practices. (Deuteronomy 16:21.) The everlasting God. As the peculiar explanation of the name Jehovah. This title is found only in one other place. (Isaiah 40:28.) St. Paul uses the equivalent Greek epithet. (Romans 16:26.)
Genesis 21:34. Many days.] To be understood as representing a considerable period, during which Isaac had time to grow up from a child to such an age as would render him fit to carry the wood for the offering. (Genesis 22:6.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 21:33-34
ABRAHAM, THE GODLY MAN
Abraham was not merely a religious man—a man of outward forms and observances; he was eminently a godly man. He believed not only certain truths concerning God, but he believed in God—in a living, personal Being upon whom he had centered his faith and hope. His character in this regard comes out clearly in this short historical notice.
I. He makes provision for Divine worship. “Abraham planted a grove in Beer-Sheba,” whose grateful shade and seclusion he would use for prayer and worship. And what we are told about the way of his worship shows that it rose above outward forms and ordinances.
1. It was intelligent. “He called there on the name of the Lord.” The “name,” as employed by the sacred writers, is not an indifferent symbol, but stands for the reality. Abraham knew the object of his worship—the faithful, unchangeable God, true to His promises for ever. He was not serving one who inspired only slavish dread, and with whom a breach of ceremony was the highest offence, but a righteous Being who required truth in the heart and the service of love. His piety has no trace of superstition, but is altogether in accordance with the highest reason.
2. It was grateful. The planting of this grove was a kind of special act, in which Abraham was led to review the past with thankfulness. It was an outward monument of the gratitude which he felt in his heart for all God’s mercies. He was like Samuel, when he set up a stone between Mizpeh and Shen, and called it Ebenezer, saying, “Hitherto the Lord hath helped us.” Thankfulness which finds its voice in praise is an essential part of worship. God is always giving to us, and there are times when our grateful sense of His bounty should rise to the surface and occupy our whole soul.
3. It was hopeful. He invoked the name of “the Everlasting God.” He looked towards the future with confidence, for he knew that God was sufficient in power, and throughout all time. His expectation was from One who could not die, and who could secure for him a portion beyond this passing world. This is not like the hope of the worldly man, which encloses little, and that passing away. Bounded by this world, nothing lies beyond it but a dreary blank. This was the hope of that eternal life in which God would be always blessing him. Union with such a Being implies immortality, as our Lord teaches us in His application of the truth that God was “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” The hope of the righteous man has its substantial ground in his faith in God.
II. He is content to be a stranger and pilgrim on the earth. He “sojourned in the Philistines’ land many days.” He was but a stranger there, and only for a short time. He had no permanent possession in the land. It afforded him but a resting place for a while—his true home elsewhere. In one sense, every man is a pilgrim, for by an inevitable law he is passing on through the world to eternity. But every man does not recognise the fact that this world is not the true home of his soul, and that his mind and heart ought not to rest here. Abraham felt that he was both a pilgrim and a stranger. His strong faith in God was leading him each day to things above and beyond this world.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 21:33. The planting of this longlived tree, with its hard wood and its long, narrow, thickly-clustered evergreen leaves, was to be a type of the ever-enduring grace of the faithful covenant God.—(Keil and Delitzsch.)
Abraham was seeking rest and peace, and it was therefore appropriate that he should invoke that name of God which implied His all-sufficiency and unchangeableness.
The consistency of the patriarch’s godliness is seen in his making provision for the worship of God at every stage of his pilgrimage.
Genesis 21:34. Moses reports three sacred works of Abraham—
1. He laboured.
2. He preached.
3. He bore patiently his long sojourn in a strange land.
Abraham sojourning in the Philistines’ land—an image of the Church in the midst of the world.