Sarah Laughs and Hagar Weeps

Genesis 21:8-21

Before there was a child, there was a promise. A promise which required a child to be fulfilled, but to two people advanced in years, unable to bear children, this promise nonetheless came. At some point, after he was done travelling, Abraham, then Abram, looked around, and considered the fact that the promise that was made to him required children and he did not have any. In a vision, God came to him, and Abram mentioned the problem. He doesn’t have any children, and Eliezer of Damascus was his heir…is this what the plan is? 

God responded that, no, Eliezer is not to be the carrier of the promise, but Abram’s own child will be so. God asked him to step out of the tent, directed Abram to the stars in the sky which reached all the way down the the horizon, and said to Abram, “Count the stars, if you are able…So shall your descendants be.” We are told that Abram believed. ‘

And yet, there was no child. And especially at the time it was assumed that anytime there was a problem with bearing children, the woman was always at fault. And so Sarah, then Sarai, did not want to stand in the way of God’s plans and purposes. And she knew that she could not bear children. And if not her, than someone must in order for him to have a child. So she and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands to try to bring about God’s promise, and she offers her servant Hagar to be used. 

And so Abram listened to her and Abram and Hagar conceived a child. But soon problems came between Hagar and Sarai. Whether it was real or perceived contempt, we are told that Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar ran away. But God spoke to Hagar and told her to return, for the child that she carries will be the patriarch of a great people, and here God told her to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And she returned and she gave birth to a son. And Abram named him Ishmael. 

God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, and Abraham laughs, because it’s a crazy thought, but there will be a second child brought into the world in a home in which no children were supposed to come. But regarding Ishmael, God said, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Yet, even with this blessing that God will grant to Ishmael, the promise will come from Isaac, who will be born to Sarah.

And into the world came this child, this impossible miracle child born to parents both over ninety years old. 

The narrative moves forward sometime, because we enter the story here when Isaac was weaned, and Abraham prepared a feast. And we can feel the narrative change a bit. No longer is Ishmael named, but he is “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” And yet while he is not named in this narrative, it is all about him.

***

At the time of the feast we are told that Sarah saw “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son — literally, she say the son of Hagar laughing. The irony, of course, is that Isaac’s name means laughter. Abraham laughed, Sarah laughed. But at this point, laughter is not acceptable for this, not young man. Perhaps we want to attribute some sinister motive to Ishmael, something that would make him deserving of this fate. But that cannot be inferred here. 

What is unknown is what pushes Sarah over the edge. Perhaps she sees Ishmael and it dawns on her that he is the oldest son of Abraham, that this boy will be his heir, that this boy will be the bearer of the promise, that this boy, this boy who was brought into the world by her handmaid, this child will be the child. And for some reason, Sarah can no longer stand his existence. She cannot have this boy in her house, she cannot have this boy in her life, she certainly cannot have this boy along with her son. Because this boy is Abraham’s son, but now that she had Isaac, he’s not her son. 

And so she goes to Abraham and asks him, instructs him, really, to cast out “this slave woman with her son,” and she won’t use Hagar’s name here either, it’s almost like for Sarah, neither of them are humans, just objects. And Sarah had to know that this would be a death sentence. In the time, a woman had to be under the protection of a man. So where would she go? There is no way that Hagar and Ishmael could survive in the desert alone. But she didn’t seem to care, her hatred of Ishmael burned ever hotter. But Abraham cared for this boy. He was his son, after all, and this was distressing to him, indeed, it was evil in his sight to do such a thing to a mother and child who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. 

But God tells Abraham not to be distressed. Which, I don’t know about you is troubling to me, and here even God doesn’t speak their names, but God says to do as Sarah tells him, and that because Ishmael is his son, that God will make a great nation of him. Indeed, the promise follows Abraham’s descendents — all of them. 

And so early in the morning, before dark. Before the light of the sun shone upon them, and I wonder if Abraham was still ashamed of what he was about to do, he packed a few provisions for them, knowing that this would never be enough to sustain them, but he couldn’t send them off with nothing. In fact, he gives them the very basics. He took bread, a waterskin filled with water, and gave it to them, and he cast them out. To wander in the wilderness, in the desert.

In the dry wind of the desert, it does not take long before dehydration sets in. And a waterskin does not last all that long. And we are told that Hagar cast Ishmael under one of the bushes and sat a ways off. And while this may seem like abandonment, it resembles funeral practices, and so we may infer that he was very near dying of dehydration. And what is a mother to do? She is supposed to provide for him, to protect him, to ensure that he has a life, yet she is not able to do any of this. And so she goes off a bit, out of desperation for her son, whom she is sure is about to die, and she weeps. Sarah laughs, and Hagar weeps. 

But this is not the end of the story. Because God heard the voice of the boy. Laughter could not exist beside the boy whose name means laughter, and now the boy whose name means God hears is heard by God. And Hagar returned to him, held him fast, and God provided a well to sustain them. 

***

And so we have this story about Abraham and Sarah, although it is really about Hagar and her son, her son who is never named in this story, her son Ishmael. Ultimately, this story is about the grace of God that extends far beyond anything we could imagine. 

Because there is this boy who was cast out because he was not the child who was supposed to be the bearer of the covenant. This child which was brought into the world because Abraham and Sarah were unsure of God’s plans and decided to get a jump start. This child who would not carry on the covenant. This child who was born of a foreigner. This child was heard by God. God heard this boy. 

This boy would be cut out of the family, but not out of the promise. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a great nation, and that promise is also fulfilled for all of Abraham’s descendants. That even in these two people, these two people who were otherwise inconsequential, these two people who were powerless and had no rights of which to speak. And yet, God turns God’s ear two these two people. Because God has not forgotten God’s promises to this son of Abraham, favored son or not. The story for Ishmael could have ended here. But it didn’t. It did not play out the way that anyone intended, but God showed favor on this servant woman and this young child. 

And while we are used to holding Abraham and Sarah in favorable light, they are not so here. Here they are not the heroes. Here Hagar and Ishmael are the heroes. 

God was with the boy. And this is the thing about the Scriptures, the heroes are not always heroes, and the righteous ones do not always act righteous. Indeed, as in this case, those who are supposed to be the heroes turn out to be the villains, and those who are supposed to be disposable, weak, and nonessential are still so very important to God. Because even though the boy and his mother were cast out from Abraham’s house, kept from passing on the covenant, God was with the boy. 

***

Indeed, it is this other son of Abraham that the Arab people trace their heritage back through. Indeed, they are the great nation which was promised to Ishmael. And yet, God was with the boy. And not only in this particular instance, perhaps God’s grace and mercy is bigger than we would imagine, and perhaps ours ought to be as well. 

And just as Ishmael, near death, and Hagar, distressed and unable to watch her son die, just as Ishmael, who was removed from the house of Abraham so that he would not inherit along with Isaac, just as Ishmael who was weak and otherwise forgotten, cast out to die or never be heard from or seen again, this boy, Ishmael was heard by God. And so, we, in the wilderness, forgotten, alone, scared, near death, we too are not kept from God, we too are heard by God in our state. And so even in these moments, we are not abandoned, left to our on devices, or forgotten. Things may not work out the way that we intended, but that does not mean that we are abandoned. 

***

Before there was a child, there was a promise. And then there were two children, both sons of Abraham. And these two sons of Abraham were both part of the promise, both were heirs of the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will be numerous held for both of his sons. Scripture tells us that “God was with the boy.”

So how can we, the descendants of Isaac, think and speak ill of the descendants of our half-brother, Abraham’s other son? After all, God was with the boy. Who are we not to be?

Published by Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew serves as the pastor and teacher of the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. He is a Fellow of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and teaches for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His particular interests are church history, the Reformed confessions, and church polity. The views expressed here are his own.

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