Genesis 21

Covenant with Abimelech

Promise Fulfilled (1-8)

The Lord did what He promised and visited Sarah;  while in Gerer she gave birth to a son. They named him Isaac or “laughter" as the Lord had directed (17:19). In complete obedience, Abraham, when he was 100 years old, had Isaac circumcised on the eighth day. The covenant family of God, fully obedient to God, with Sarah rejoicing in the good laugh, had finally been, with everyone else, surprised. Eventually, the child was weaned and a great feast was thrown by Abraham—Isaac would have been about three years old.

Family Trouble (9-14)

After Isaac was weaned, Ishmael began to mock Isaac. His mocking was not harmless, nor was it trivial—Paul termed Ishmael's mocking as "persecuting." The Hebrew implies that Ishmael was mocking Isaac repetitively and making a joke of the puny newborn son of Sarah as he was likely jealous of having to share the attention (9).

Sarah watched her son being tormented by Ishmael and demanded Abraham throw her maid Hagar out with her son, demanding the two boys not inherit Abraham's wealth and promises together (10-11).

Sarah's request brought no delight to Abraham, and at first he was grieved and even resisted the notion until God intervened.

Yahweh told Abraham his wife was right in saying the son of a slave woman could not share the inheritance with the son of promise. Abraham was told to listen to God's voice through his wife (12). This request was painful to Abraham on so many levels—first, it would have been culturally repugnant for a father to send his adolescent son away. Second, it was his firstborn he was being asked to give up. He did not view Ishmael as a child of the flesh but his own son and even an inheritor at some level.

To console Abraham, the Lord told Abraham Ishmael was his offspring, and because he was his offspring, he would become a great nation (13).

With great care, Abraham prepared provisions for Hagar and with sensitivity positioned a pack on her shoulders and sent Hagar and her seventeen-year-old son away to wander in the wilderness of Beersheba (14).

Hagar's Despair (15-16)

Hagar headed north, away from her native home in Egypt and wandered around in the wilderness until Ishmael became dehydrated and too weary to move. Hagar, being the stronger of the two, put Ishmael under a bush for shade and then sat a good distance so she would not have to watch him take his last dying gasp. Then she began to weep, sensing the grasp of death closing in on her son (16).

We must pause and imagine what had happened. With basically the shirts on their backs and the little they could carry, Abraham dismissed his firstborn son. He did not give them servants and an entourage of support to make sure they had plenty and would be taken care of. Abraham, the man who was potentially threatening to Abimelech for he had grown to become like a rival nation, sent his firstborn away with nothing.

As Hagar sat that good distance away and watched her son weeping and breathing his last, God heard the voice of Ishmael and the Angel of God answered Hagar, asking her what was troubling her. The question was asked to stir faith—why should Hagar worry? She had already been promised Yahweh's care. The Angel stirred Hagar to faith one more time, assuring her Ishmael had been heard and told her to go make Ishmael stand up, even if she had to hold his weakened body for him to do so (17).

Hagar responded to the Angel, mustering every bit of strength she had, returned to her son, and grabbed her weeping, resistant son by the hand and made him stand to his feet, calling over him, "you will become a great nation" (18).

As she struggled to bring her seventeen-year-old son to his feet, God opened her eyes to notice what looked like a covering over a well. She then went, filled the skin, and gave her dying, dehydrated son water (19).

From that moment on, Ishmael grew, enjoyed the providential care of Yahweh, became skilled with the bow, settled the wilderness of Paran, and took an Egyptian wife (20-21).

A Covenant With an Old Friend (22-33)

Abimelech, the king who almost took Sarah into his harem, noticed the great strength and the blessing of Yahweh upon Abraham and began to perceive Abraham as a peer and not a vassal household to his kingdom (22). In perceiving Abraham to be an equal or even greater ruler to himself, and in perceiving he did not have the military power to guarantee he could drive Abraham from the land, he decided to seek a covenant with Abraham. As Abimelech searched for covenant with Abraham, he reminded Abraham that in the past, he had been kind toward him (23). Abraham agreed to the oath (24). Before the oath however, Abraham challenged Abimelech about a well of water his servants had seized which Abraham had dug (25). Abimelech proposed he had no knowledge of his men taking one of Abraham’s wells, which Abraham seemed to accept as true (26).

Abraham then cut some sheep and oxen in two, gave them to Abimelech who separated them and sacrificed half the animals on one side and half the animals on the other side, and the two men walked through the middle of them telling God to do to either one of them what they had done to the animals if they ever broke covenant with one another (27).

Abraham gave Abimelech seven female lambs and had Abimelech accept them as a formal covenant, called the oath of sevens, or Beersheba, where Abimelech confessed Abraham had exclusive rights to the well (28-31).

After the covenant was made, Abimelech and his commander Phicol returned to the land of the Philistines. This is the first time the term Philistines is used in the Bible, signifying the first Philistine settlers began to arrive at the time of this covenant (32).

To memorialize the site, not as a place where he made covenant with Abimelech but as a place where Abraham had called on the name of Yahweh, the "Everlasting God," Abraham planted a tree. For coming generations, Abraham's needle-bearing tree which reached the height of about fifty feet would remind those who came upon the well that Yahweh was his everlasting, never failing, always present God. Likely it was not just a tree but a group of trees around the well, making this spot a destination for others to stop for refreshment. Abraham was already thinking about being a blessing (33-34).

Genesis 21.jpg

Image from: Smith, J. E. (1993). The Pentateuch (2nd ed., Ge 22:11–19). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.