After her surprising encounter with God on the road to Shur, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to her child. Abraham names the boy Ishmael, as God instructed, and for the next 13 years Ishmael is the presumed child of promise. It isn't until God appears to Abraham and give him the covenant of circumcision that Abraham is told that Sarah will bear a son and his name will be Isaac.
(Interestingly, while Sarah has the bad reputation for laughing at God, it is Abraham, the father of the faithful, who laughs at God first. Notice 17:17 where the narrator describes Abraham falling on the ground with laughter at the idea that Sarah would give birth. At least Sarah had the presence of mind to "laugh to herself" instead of in God's face [18:12].)
By the time Sarah gives birth to Isaac in Genesis 21, Ishmael is around 16 years old. Hagar hasn't been mentioned for five chapters and seems to have bowed out of the picture for good. But then a problem arises during a feast held to celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Genesis 21:9 says: "But Sarah saw the son mocking--the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham."
The word translated "mocking" in v. 9 is translated this way in almost every English translation of the Bible. I find this exceedingly interesting. In Hebrew the word is a form of the same word translated "laughter" or "laughing" earlier. It is clear that the narrator is playing off the word laughter throughout the story of Isaac's birth: Abraham and Sarah both laugh (17:17; 18:12); Sarah exclaims that God has made her laugh and all will laugh with her (21:6); and Isaac's name means "he laughs" (17:19).
The translation of Ishmael's behavior as "mocking," I think, is indicative of our desire to see Ishmael as a "bad guy" and Sarah's actions toward Hagar and Ishmael as justified. Later rabbis even interpreted mocking to mean "hurting," as if Ishmael was trying to kill the young Isaac. I think this is preposterous. The most natural reading of the word in v. 9 is that Ishmael was "playing" with Isaac or perhaps even "teasing" Isaac. There is no reason to suspect that anything sinister is going on between them, although it is certain that Sarah saw what was going on as a threat.
It is also interesting that the narrator is careful to point out that "the son" in v. 9 is "the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham." Here the emphasis is on Hagar's foreigner status again, along with the foreign status of her son as a result. Moreover, the phraseology is exceedingly sad when you consider that for 16 years Ishmael has been considered the firstborn son of Abraham and Sarah. Remember, Sarah had Hagar give birth to Abraham's seed as a surrogate mother, so any child born to her would be Sarah's. Presumably, Sarah and Abraham have been raising Ishmael as their own child. Ishmael has become a young man under Abraham's care, even being circumcised into the covenant relationship with God. Now, however, Sarah sees Ishmael as a serious threat to Isaac and, in effect, turns against her adopted child.
Seeing the carrying on between Ishmael and Isaac, Sarah says to Abraham: "Drive out this slave with her son, for the son of this slave will not be a co-heir with my son Isaac!" Can you hear the infuriated Sarah spit out these words? Notice the emphasis on the fact that Ishmael is "her son" and Hagar is "this slave." In fact, Sarah never calls Hagar by her name. Not once in chapters 16 and 21 does Sarah refer to Hagar as anything but "my slave" or "this slave."
At this point, I think Sarah's motivation becomes crystal clear: Seeing the young man with the baby boy, Sarah realized that even though Isaac is the child of promise, Ishmael will always be the oldest. In the ancient near east, the oldest son was the most important and I don't think she could stand the thought of Ishmael as Abraham's oldest son and a co-heir with Isaac.
Abraham's affection for Ishmael is apparent in his response to Sarah's fury. Verse 11 says, "Now this was a very difficult thing for Abraham because of his son." In Abraham's mind, Ishmael was "his son," not some foreign interloper. Sarah's demand that Abraham "drive out" the pair was essentially abandonment, something that would likely lead to their death. He knows the severity of this action and he is deeply troubled by the thought.
Thankfully, God intervenes again into the family troubles of Abraham. He instructs Abraham not to be worried, but to go ahead and do whatever Sarah says. Indeed, Isaac will be the one through whom Abraham's seed is traced and God promises to make a "great nation" out of Ishmael as well. This promise from God assures Abraham that at least Ishmael will not die and he submits to the will of Sarah.
Certainly it is a great thing that Abraham has confidence in God's preservation of Ishmael, but that makes the following situation no less perilous for Hagar and her teenage son. Rising early in the morning, Abraham takes bread and a waterskin and puts them on Hagar's shoulder. I doubt that the bread and waterskin were significant enough to last more than a few days, especially between an adult woman and a teenage boy. The narrator sums up the distressing scene in minimal language: "he sent her and the boy away."
Can you imagine the sorrow and despair of Hagar and Ishmael in this moment? A father sending away his oldest son. A woman being cast off by the only family she's ever known. A mother and son being sent into almost certain death in the wilderness. The reader knows God's promise, but Ishmael and Hagar have no such assurance.
Hagar leads out the narration from this point forward and it says that she "left and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba." Who knows how long this wandering lasted, but very soon after their departure, the resources run out. When the water is gone, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush. (This phraseology has given the false impression to many that the boy was a baby, but the chronology of Genesis is such that it is certain Ishmael was a teenager.)
Hagar leaves her son in the shade and finds a place to sit nearby. But, she is far enough away so that she cannot see him. Hagar knows that without water they are going to die in a few days and she cannot bear to watch it happen. The despair in Hagar's thoughts in palpable: "I can't bear to watch the boy die!" The scene is terrifying in the extreme. With no recourse for help, Hagar weeps loudly.
(There is a textual variant in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which says that it is the boy who weeps loudly. The translators probably made this change because the next verse says that God hears the voice of the boy, not the voice of Hagar. Either way, though, the point is the same: both Hagar and Ishmael are in despair, near death.)
In the final surprise of Hagar's story, the angel of God appears to Hagar from heaven once again. His words reiterate God's provision for Ishmael and even play off the meaning of his name "God hears." The angel says, "God has heard the voice of the boy from the place where he is." Once again, God hears the cries of the outsider and the outcast. He instructs Hagar: "Get up, help the boy up, and sustain him, for I will make him a great nation."
One wonders what Hagar can do to "sustain" the dehydrated boy, but the next verse answers this dilemma. God opens Hagar's eyes and she "sees" a "well of water." Notice that "The God Who Sees" (16:13) now allows Hagar to "see" and what she sees is the source of their physical salvation. Hagar goes, fills their waterskin, and gives Ishmael the needed refreshment.
The narrative seems to stop abruptly at this point. It is as if once Hagar encountered the Lord again and Ishmael was given into God's care that there is no need to detail the rest of what happens. The reader is given a summary of Ishmael's life: "God was with the boy, and he grew; he settled in the wilderness and became an archer. He settled in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt" (21:20-21).
I observe a source both for sadness and joy in this bare description of Ishmael's growth into manhood. It seems that from the time Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael that he never saw either of them again. The woman who bore Abraham's first son is never mentioned again and Abraham mourns and weeps only for Sarah when she dies. Hagar vanishes into the pages of history.
Moreover, Ishmael never sees his father again and it is his mother who must get a wife for him (an act typically reserved for the father [see Genesis 21]). At his death, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (25:9), a fact often overlooked by those who want to see contentiousness between the two brothers, but the man who brought him into the covenant with God never encounters Ishmael again. It seems that father-less families are not only the problem of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Even with the sadness in this story, though, there are reasons for joy as well. Notice that the narrator says, "God was with the boy." We live in an age of tremendous hatred for the presumed descendents of Ishmael. Many would like to think that because Isaac was the child of promise that Ishmael was ignored by God. But, nothing could be further from the truth. God was with Ishmael. This is the same way the Bible speaks of God being with Joseph. God blessed Ishmael intentionally and he had twelve sons in a way parallel to Jacob, lived a long life, and upon his death "was gathered to his people" in the same way Abraham was.
Apparently, the promise to Hagar that Ishmael would live in opposition to all his brothers (16:12) had more to do with geography than behavior, for Genesis 25:18 points out that Ishmael's family settled "from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt as you go toward Asshur." Ishmael, being part Egyptian, literally lived in opposition to all his brothers (25:19).
Moreover, I take great joy in the fact that the God who found the frightened, pregnant Hagar in Genesis 16 and offered her a promise of innumerable descendents is the same God who finds the dehydrated, dying Ishmael in Genesis 21 and reiterates his plan to make him a great nation. What looked like a serious blunder in the life of Sarah and Abraham, something that was indeed a source of serious suffering and trial for Hagar the slave woman, God turns into a way to further bless the world with the descendents of Abraham. The God of Hagar is a God of wondrous generosity and care for outsiders. Many surprises, twists, and turns cannot thwart God's plan to bless the nations and the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael are included in God's providence.
So, to go back to where I started, that's why I wish I could name my first daughter Hagar. She's one of my favorite women in the history of God's people. I know that Ronnie won't go for it, though. Perhaps I can convince Brad and Angelina that no greater namesake exists for their next adopted daughter than Hagar, the mistreated, abandoned Egyptian slave woman who became the matriarch of the descendents of Ishmael. We'll see...
(The sculpture pictured above is called "Farewell to Ishmael," by George Segal [1924-2000], 1987. Abraham is embracing Ishmael, while Hagar steels herself for the journey and Sarah watches from the shadows.)