Genesis 21:8-13 “The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’”

In many tales in every European culture there is a feast celebrating the arrival of a child and then there enters a wicked gate-crasher. Many of these tales are adaptations of the first of them found here in Genesis 21. The feast celebrates the weaning of Isaac. I think children were weaned later at the time of the patriarchs. There would have been breast-feeding until the children were three years old, and that would have been a kind of basic birth control, though unnecessary in the case of Sarah. So now Isaac was probably a sturdy toddler, the pride and joy of his parents. He had gone through the years of babies’ diseases and had reached this stage of eating solids and growing up toward infancy, adolescence and manhood, to owning the covenant and inheriting the earth. All the extended family of Abraham are ay this party, the servants and their families have a day off work, the fatted calf has been slaughtered and cooked, the wine is flowing and a memorable feast day is taking place. Abraham is sitting there receiving the congratulations of his crew, smiling and ‘Isaac-ing’ over God’s great gift to him and Sarah.


Then Sarah notices that someone else was also laughing. It was Ishmael, Abraham’s son by her slave Hagar, but this laughter was different. It is the same word stem as the word ‘Isaac’ whose name means, “he will laugh.” But commentators tell us that instead of the Qal form of the verb that would signify amusement – as in all the previous uses of the word in the previous chapters – this is the Piel form of the verb, and that reflects something done in bad taste, the laughter of disdain and mockery. In other words, Ishmael, who is about 17 or 18 years of age, is making fun of his three year old half brother. Of course during this period, men and women lived far longer, and consequently they matured more slowly. So though Ishmael was that age he was very immature, a big lump of a boy, spoiled and ruined by Abraham and the servants. He needed to grow up (v.20). You see when he and his mother find themselves abandoned in the desert Ishmael is quickly exhausted and lies down and cries (v.17). He needs to be lifted up by his resourceful mother hardened by all her years of slavery. He needs to be taken by the hand as if he were the age of Isaac (v.18). His mother has to find a wife for him (v.21). So back at this feast he scoffs at the little chap and at the joy of his father and friends. To him the weaning of Isaac was all a big laugh.

What is all this about?  Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn son. Ishmael was a legitimate child of Abraham, and by law he was considered Sarah’s child as well, for Hagar, the slave, had borne the boy as Sarah’s proxy and Ishmael knew it. There was resentment and jealousy in Ishmael’s heart. Why should this child be the centre of attention? Ishmael should also have some recognition, and he mocked the whole affair as adolescents will when someone they envy is being honoured. You remember the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. “When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Lk. 15:25-30). There is a pattern of the older brother’s resentment.

Ishmael resents Sarah for rejecting him; Ishmael resents Abraham for favouring his second born; Ishmael resents God for choosing Isaac rather than himself. Don’t we see it all around us today? The Son of God has come and has preached the Sermon on the Mount and has raised the dead. When he speaks the waves and storms obey him. He is the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, and he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.” He is claiming to be the only way to God, and men make mock. They want 6,000 million ways to God, one for every person in the world, but Jesus says one Son of God, one name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved, not Christ plus anyone else, not him plus Moses, not him plus Mary, not him plus Peter. You hide in Christ alone; you plead his great and holy name; there is one God and one Mediator with God, the man Christ Jesus, Moses’ friends are insulted, and Mary’s admirers are angry, and Peter’s supporters are perturbed. Just Jesus? Just the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of Mary, the Son of God? Yes, Jesus only, the one way to God.

So here Ishmael displays his own hostile unbelief. He doesn’t understand that any hope for his salvation must be bound up in Isaac, in this seed of Abraham. From him alone Christ will come, but Ishmael won’t embrace him. He won’t bless God for his favoured relationship with Abraham and Isaac. He won’t take him as the child of the covenant. Ishmael hates him for being who he is and he stands there in the feast laughing disdainfully at the wee chap. You remember how three magi came from the east guided by a star, and they found the house where the infant Jesus was, and they brought costly gifts to him and they worshipped the child. This was not something Ishmael would do. He would not be lost in wonder, love and praise. He sneered at all the excitement and joy, but it is not cool to mock the worship of God’s holy child Jesus.

Yet our Lord endured much mockery. You remember how the people in Jairus’ daughter’s room mocked Jesus, laughing at him when he told them that the little girl was not dead but sleeping. You remember how the Jewish leaders mocked him for saying that if the Temple were destroyed he would rebuild it in three days not understanding that he was speaking of his resurrection. Even on the cross they are laughing at him; “you who ‘saved’ others, ‘save’ yourself and we will believe.” The laughter of mockery is dismissive and disdainful; it seeks to undermine and belittle. A child may come home in tears from school one day; “they all laughed at me when I said something from the Bible.” The child is upset, but don’t I read in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when men all laugh at you”?

I was speaking against abortion in the University at Coventry and there were three pro-abortionist women sitting together and they mocked almost everything I said. I was saying, “Just eighteen days after conception the heart begins to beat (“Ho, ho, ho!”). By twenty-eight days arm and leg buds begin to form (“Ha, ha, ha!”). At 30 days the unborn child has multiplied in size ten thousand times, has a brain, and has blood flowing through his vei
ns (“Ho, ho, ho!”) At 40 days, brain waves can be recorded. Just 42 days into life, the unborn child’s skeleton is formed and his brain controls muscle and organ movements (“Ha, ha, ha!”). At eight weeks fingerprints are detectable, hands and feet are almost completely formed, and the fingers are developed to grasp an instrument (“Ho, ho, ho”). At 12 weeks, all body systems and vital organs are formed. The unborn, now about three-and-one-half inches long, breathes (fluid), swallows, digests, urinates, has tiny liquid bowel movements, sleeps, has dream patterns, feels pain from touch and heat, and reacts to light and noise (“Ho, ho, ho!”). The three women laughed with one another and were speaking quite loudly. I spoke of the rights of those with learning difficulties not to be killed but to live (“Ha, ha, ha!”), and that very few cases of rape resulted in pregnancy – utter loud mockery. It was most unnerving. I did not do well, but I had a lot of support from the audience who knew their stuff better than I did and spoke up better than I’d done for the rights of the unborn after I had finished. Don’t underestimate the evil power of scoffing, scornful laughter. They were persecuting me for declaring my convictions about the rights of the unborn child. So here Ishmael disdained little helpless Isaac, the father of nations! The Bible takes such laughter very seriously. The book of psalms begins by telling us that the blessed man does not sit in the seat of the scornful but delights in the law of the Lord. When Paul speaks about this incident of Ishmael’s mockery in Galatians chapter four and verse twenty-nine he says, “At that time the son born in the ordinary way [i.e. Ishmael] persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit” [i.e. Isaac]. Ishmael’s contempt was persecution in the eyes of God.


Sarah could never consider Ishmael as her son whatever his legal status and now she looked at him at this great feast celebrating God’s grace in giving them Isaac, disdaining her own beloved son, the precious gift of God. Then it hits her, as never before, that Ishmael is a fellow-heir with her son Isaac. By law, as Abraham’s son, born to her by her maidservant, he would receive a share of the inheritance. Suddenly there is a terrifying second meaning to Ishmael ‘Isaac-ing’ his half-brother. He is not merely laughing at Isaac, he is saying, “Don’t you ignore me. I am here. I have rights too. I am the first born of Abraham. I am up there with Isaac as a child of Abraham, and I can laugh . . .” Sarah hears all the alarm bells ringing as she sees Ishmael’s unbelief, and envy, and pride of carnal superiority. He had never understood this truth, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” He did not live by faith. It seemed absurd to him to think of all the nations of the earth being blessed through this toddler! So what should Sarah do?

Sarah knew that there was a legal solution. One acceptable tradition in the culture of the day was this, that a son born to a slave woman could forfeit his inheritance in exchange for freedom. So she invoked this tradition; she went to her husband and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (v.10). Give them their freedom and thus disinherit them, then to Isaac and Isaac alone must belong the inheritance. Ishmael shall not be heir alongside the precious child of Sarah.

I want to say that this request was proper. It was the request of a spiritually mature woman. Sarah saw the gospel significance of Isaac. Sarah saw the importance of Isaac for the whole church of Jesus Christ because everything about Isaac pointed to the Messiah. Isaac was the promised seed from whom one day the ultimate Seed would arise. Isaac was a sign of the death-conquering life of the Seed. Isaac was God’s gift. He was God’s witness that to be a child of God you must have faith in the line of Isaac and not in the power of human works, and that is what Ishmael never would accept. That was the message which the Lord Jehovah had been giving to Abraham and Sarah for the last twenty-five years since he summoned them to get out and leave Ur of the Chaldees. When God came and appeared to Abraham, or even visited him in the form of a man, this was the message that God continued to preach to Abraham. Nothing that opposed the unique gospel significance of Isaac and his line could be tolerated, especially in the very home of Abraham. Nothing that undermined that could be permitted to live in this family. Nothing that disrupted Abraham’s family was acceptable. This attempt to destroy the foundations of the house of Abraham had to be resisted because this house rested on the power and promises and grace of the Almighty, and Sarah saw it.

Ishmael wanted to get his hands on Abraham’s inheritance. Ishmael rested his claims to be the rightful heir on his age, on his prior relationship with Abraham, his natural superiority and physical strength. It was not fair, to his way of thinking, that the inheritance went to his younger half-brother. What had Isaac done to deserve it? And so, driven by his own sense of righteousness, there, on this day which was Isaac’s special day, Ishmael persecutes him. Now it is clear that Sarah believed that his mother Hagar was a co-protagonist alongside Ishmael. Hagar believed that it was through her son that all the nations of the world were going to benefit. In spite of what the angel of the Lord had made plain to her Hagar was refusing to submit to Sarah and serve the child born to Sarah and Abraham. God had once told her what her vocation in life was; “Go back to your mistress and submit to her” (Gen. 16:9). This is what Hagar was refusing to do.

So Sarah was adamant; “That slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (v.10). You understand that Sarah was no battleaxe. Sarah is spoken of by Peter in his first letter as a classic example of a wife who submitted to her husband. She called Abraham her master, Peter says, but that does not mean she was a door-mat, curtsying and saying, “Yes dear, no dear, whatever you say dear.” When he was going to set out on a course of action that was wrong, that would forfeit God’s blessing on them, then she went to him and spoke up clearly. As any wife must; “Get rid of that slave woman and her son.” That boy was the product of human devices, and human plotting, and human works, the child of her own sinful works, born to her slave by the natural processes of conception and embryonic development. Ishmael must not usurp the child of promise, the miraculous child of God’s grace given to her and to her husband and their nation and all the nations of the earth. What sort of message would the Messiah preach if ultimately he would appear through the line of Ishmael? It would be a message of triumphing through human works, through natural superiority, and physical strength and man’s achievements and rights and religion. It would say that we gain the new creation, the new heavens and earth by our works! No. A thousand times no. We shall overcome our enemies – sin, the world and the devil – and inherit the glories that await us through God’s sovereign grace alone. It will be through the achievements of the Seed of Abraham, by the line of Isaac, by the Lord Jesus Christ, that redemption shall be cosmic in its scale. That was the gospel of the message of the line of Isaac. So Sarah told Abraham that his commitment to the wonderful grace of God that had given them Isaac as the heir of the promise necessitated his evicting Ishmael from the household. Works-righteousness must not be allowed a toe-hold in this great edifice. Its topstone will be set upon God’s heavenly temple to cries of &ld
quo;Grace, grace!” It is not by works of righteousness which men have done.


Abraham did not want to lose his son, to allow him to be evicted from his care. Martin Luther said, “Abraham was not a hard stone; he was full of the Holy Spirit who makes men gentle, humble, kind and beneficent.”  So when he hears what his beloved wife Sarah has declared to him then he is uneasy, after all, he has fallen for this gambit before. When Ishmael had been born 17 or so years ago Hagar his mother had despised her mistress Sarah for her barrenness, and then Sarah had done what she was doing now, gone to Abraham and said, “Get rid of that slave woman!” Again it is deja vue. Then Abraham had said that they must do whatever Sarah wanted, but God brought Hagar back and rebuked Abraham for listening to the voice of his wife. Abraham does not want to be like Adam, listening to his wife without weighing up what she was saying.

More than that, for 17 years he has bonded with the boy who, one presumes, knew just how to please his father. Abraham had invested so much in Ishmael. We are told that “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son” (v.11). You might hurry over that sentence but in the Hebrew the words ‘distressed’ is very strong, it describes, Bill Baldwin says, “the mother of all anger.” You find the word describing God’s attitude to Onan, that he was outraged with him and Onan died. You find it in God’s outrage with David for committing adultery and the child conceives by adultery died, but here for the first time in the Old Testament someone is described as being in great distress.

Why was he in “great distress”? It was because of his son – which of his two sons? Abraham could have been displeased on Isaac’s behalf that doing what his wife suggests would rob Isaac of the benefits of an older brother. No! It is not that. Abraham’s eyes are on his first-born son Ishmael and he is distressed at losing him. Abraham still holds out hope for him. Remember how Abraham had prayed to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you,” but God had said, “No, not Ishmael. I will establish my covenant with Isaac. He will be your heir. Through him I will fulfil my promises to you to make a great nation and in you bless all the families of the earth.” It was not to be through Ishmael but through Isaac that cosmic blessings would come – long after Abraham was dead and far away from the promised land, blessing would come to Wales in the 21st century through the line of Isaac. Think big, Abraham. Don’t let your affection for your boy warp your judgment. Think of the future; think of eternity and the inhabitants of the new heavens and earth. Yet Abraham still cried, “O that Ishmael might live before you.” At the very least he wanted Ishmael in a kind of ‘back-up’ position in case something happened to the little Isaac. Remember the number of occasions that Abraham had had personal dealings with God. Abraham has seen God’s justice and his power and known his mercy for his sins. You would think that that would have been the most overwhelming reality of his life, and yet the pull of the flesh, a father’s love for his spoiled son, is seductive. Abraham wants the both of them, Isaac and Ishmael; he wants Ishmael to share in the inheritance, but God has made it plain. He has promised to give the inheritance exclusively to Isaac.

Abraham is being torn apart between his love for Sarah and his love for Ishmael. But what about the will of God? God comes, and out of the blue addresses Abraham, or perhaps Abraham in his distress had turned to God in prayer, though we are not told that. We are told that God knew immediately of Abraham’s heart-ache, as he knows of all the tensions and griefs we pass through and Jehovah acts. We are told, “But God said to him, ‘Do not be distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (vv. 12&13). So Abraham did exactly what his wife had requested, but not because he was a hen-pecked husband. For the sake of the promise, Abraham had to commit himself fully to Isaac (Gen. 21:12). Neither natural concern for the welfare of those whom he loved nor tentativeness on his part could be allowed to hold him back. Sometimes people hold themselves back from fully obeying the call of God because of family concerns. They say to themselves, ‘If I go out as a missionary, how will I find a spouse?’ or ‘Who will take care of my parents?’ or ‘What will happen to my children?’ The answer is that God is able to take care of those things – as many can testify from their own experience. In the words of Jesus, ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matt. 6:33). God answered Abraham’s natural concern for Ishmael’s welfare by promising that Ishmael’s offspring would become a nation (Gen. 21:13)” [Iain M. Duguid, Living in the Gap between Promise and Reality: Abraham, P&R, 1999, p.124]. However heavy Abraham’s heart Abraham did as Sarah asked; he sent Ishmael and Hagar away from his household. Abraham excommunicated his mocking son Ishmael out of loving obedience to his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Nothing mattered more than that. His chief end was to glorify his Lord and enjoy his blessing for ever.


Now this history of Abraham and the two sons he begot through his wife’s slave and his wife has the widest implications. We can only understand the history of religion and the distinct message of Christianity if we grasp this story of two women bearing two sons to Abraham. There are profound lessons here for the church today, for our congregation, for you and me now. God permitted this folly of Sarah in giving her slave girl, Hagar, to Abraham for him to impregnate. Then God inspired Moses to write it all down carefully in order to teach the people of God ever since the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the apostle Paul it was a crucial incident of which he reminded his fellow Jews challenging them concerning their lack of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are going to read two crucially important parts of the New Testament which give the divinely inspired commentary on Isaac and Ishmael.

i] Romans 9:1-9 “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, for ever praised! Amen. It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son’.”

Do you see what he is saying to his natural Jewish brothers and sisters? The fact that you do not believe in Jesus Christ is not due to any failure of the gospel of Christ that we preach to you. It is not that if only Christ had done m
ore miracles or that he had preached a second Sermon on the Mount that then they would have had to believe. Nor was it any weakness in the Old Testament that Moses and the prophets and the writings failed to give the Jews enough evidence of how the coming Messiah would behave, how he would be and how he would die his wretched cruel death and be raised on the third day. There is plenty of prophesy in the Old Testament concerning all of that. They had the word about the Messiah in many different ways, in God’s choice of the line of Abraham, the covenants and the ceremonial law and its sacrifices – it all pointed to Christ. But there was one great lesson that Paul’s fellow countrymen seemed to be ignoring, that merely being a circumcised Jew, the sons of Jews, living in the promised land did not make anybody righteous. Only those of Abraham’s descendants who trusted in the coming Messiah would be saved. Only those who when they put their hand on the head of the lamb before the altar pleaded for mercy through the future work of the coming Messiah – they only would be saved. They believed what God had said and they were declared righteous before him. One great lesson God taught Abraham here in Genesis 21 and verse twelve, “It is through Isaac [alone] that your offspring will be reckoned.” What Abraham and Sarah could not do at all – beget and conceive children – God did in his mercy and grace when he gave to them their son Isaac –what effectual life-changing grace! Abraham’s true children for the next 2000 years would not be those who were ethnically his descendants because if that were the case all the descendants of Ishmael would also all be God’s children, but only those who heard God’s word and cast themselves on his grace. “If we are going to be saved it is going to be through the work of the promised Messiah, through the line of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac. Our hopes are all going to be in what he alone has done.”

ii] Then there is a second great section in the New Testament which quotes Genesis 21 and you find it in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (Galatia was a non-Jewish community in what is today Turkey), in fact this epistle may be the very first letter ever written in the New Testament. You remember the problem that the Galatian congregation was facing, that when Paul left it to church plant somewhere else then false teachers settled in the congregation telling these young Christians that if they really wanted to please God and be blessed by him it was not enough to trust in Christ, they also had to get circumcised, and keep the seventh day Sabbath and the food laws of the Old Covenant. Trusting in the person and work of Christ alone was not enough, and so the whole focus of the church was turning away from Jesus Christ to the deeds of the law. “Has your husband been circumcised yet? Have you had the children done? I saw you walking to the well on Saturday. It’s a holy day you know. Have you stopped buying bacon from the butcher? I run a kosher kitchen; it is the only diet a real Christian can keep. I am just telling you this for your own sake, that you might be saved.” That is what was going on in congregational meetings and in journeys back and fore to the assembly. That was the new focus of the church, not Jesus Christ our prophet, priest and king, but keeping the law. So Paul writes to them his letter and he asks them why they were enslaving themselves again in this futile exercise of earning their salvation through keeping the commands of the law. So he turns to this Old Testament chapter that we are dealing with, Genesis 21, and this is what he says in Galatians chapter four and verses 21-31:

“Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: ‘Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labour pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’ Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”

Oh Galatians, don’t do it! Don’t go there, congregation of Jesus Christ today. Don’t go into religion, into saying prayers and submitting to religious rites, and not eating certain foods, and keeping certain days because the ceremonial law of the old covenant told you; don’t make that the foundation of your salvation. Don’t put your faith in the law but keep it focused on where it has always been, on the Messiah to whom the law pointed, the Messiah who kept the law of God perfectly. What you are doing is investing in the signs of the Messiah but not in the reality of the Messiah’s person and work. You have come to rely on your human efforts to show just how righteous you are. You are no longer relying on the blood and righteousness of the Messiah. That means you are choosing bondage; henceforth you are going to be enslaved to doing things right. This is the direction of your life, and so you will be always asking, “Did I do this and do that sincerely enough, sinlessly enough, lovingly enough or not?” So you are showing that you are children of Abraham only in the flesh and not his children according to the promise. So you have lost the inheritance.

Think of people who are confident about old age and keeping alive when they can no longer work because they think they have an inheritance, but in fact there is no inheritance at all. What a terrible shock, to discover they have no inheritance. The only inheritance for the Christian is Christ’s and you get that inheritance yourself only if you belong to Christ, only if you are in Christ. But you are not. You have come out from Christ and have gone into religion. You have no part of the inheritance promised to Abraham (see Gal 4: 28-31). Those who believe in Christ are the children of promise like Isaac, children of the free woman Sarah, investing our hope like Abraham in the reality of the promise, Mount Zion and the heavenly city of Jerusalem (see Heb 11: 9-10). The children of the promise are free because they had to do nothing to earn their inheritance, it is an undeserved free gift which will never be taken away. So Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5: 1).

27th September 2009   GEOFF THOMAS