God is Faithful. Genesis 21:1
The background to understanding this chapter is the Abrahamic covenant. Genesis 21:1, "And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken." The first verb here is "visited," the Hebrew word paqad, and it has as its root meaning the idea of numbering, reckoning something, visiting, punishing, appointing; it has a wise range of meanings. The word here is more than just visit, and it is more than just taking note of someone, it has the idea in many places of a superior paying close attention to or giving scrutiny to someone he is responsible for. So it has the ideas of attending with care, of paying close attention to someone. That is the idea here, that the Lord is now focusing on Sarah. There has been a plan all along and the Lord is working on that plan, but because of the length of time that has gone by since the original promise to the present, at least 25 years, it is spoken of as though God is finally taking care of it. He is pictured here as finally remembering to fulfill this promise and it emphasizes the length of time that goes by.
The next thing to pay attention to in the first two verses are the next set of verbs that we run into. "… and the Lord did for Sarah as he had spoken." Then in verse 2, "For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him." There is a set of three verbs here that emphasize the Word of God, the communication of God, God's utterance. This is at the foundation of understanding the main doctrine that is communicated in the section from 21:1 down through verse 21, the faithfulness of God. That is the underlying doctrine that this whole section hangs on and communicates. In the statement that God had said/spoken, v. 1, there is an unusual form of the verb. We would expect normally to have an imperfect tense because that is the normal flow of Hebrew narrative, but here we have the perfect tense and the perfect tense emphasizes completed action. It should be translated, "The Lord had already visited Sarah as he had said." Note the previous verse in chapter 20:18, For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham's wife." Then 21:1, "The Lord had already visited Sarah." So we can see the flow here when we put these two verses together. By the time Abraham is praying they are back together and before the Lord opens the wombs of the women in Gerar He has already opened Sarah's womb, and she has conceived.
"As God had said." When did God say this? This is why we have to understand the background because this is so important. There is a sort of side doctrine here that is extremely important for us to understand, and that is that when God promises or prophesies something He fulfills it literally. How do we know that? Do we know that because that is just an abstract principle of interpretation that we apply to the text? Not at all. While it is true that we understand hermeneutics (the study of interpretation) to be a literal-grammatical interpretation we don't take that as an abstract position and then just come and apply that to the text autonomously or just because that seems right to us. We look at the Scripture and the Scripture gives us examples of how Scripture interprets Scripture. In hermeneutics this is known as the analogy of faith (comparing Scripture with Scripture). It is from the way that Scripture interprets other Scripture that we derive our principles for interpretation. This is a classic example here, and it really lays a foundation for understanding the faithfulness of God in relationship to His Word and His promise, and how to interpret prophecy.
So we take a look at what God had said to Abraham and Sarah in these preceding verses. In Genesis 13:6 God told Abraham He would make his descendants as the dust of the earth. Then in Genesis 15:4 after Abraham tried to convince God it could come through Eliezer, his servant, he was told it would be one who comes from his own body who would be his heir. So it gets a little more specific. Notice He connects the idea of his physical descendant who will be his heir. Those two ideas are tied together again in chapter twenty-one. The issue underlying the main event in chapter 21, the removal of Ishmael and Hagar, has to do with inheritance. Then in Genesis 17:19, God said Sarah would bear Abraham a son. This is the first clue that it is going to be a male child. "And God said, Sarah you wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him." Connected to the statement that it is going to be a son through Sarah and his name will be Isaac is the restatement of the covenant. If the first part of this is fulfilled literally then the second half has to be fulfilled literally. Genesis 17:21, "But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto you at this set time in the next year." Then, in Genesis 18:10 it got a bit more specific, "And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son." So these are the promises that God gave, and they are prophetic promises. The issue is how we interpret these. Did somebody else have a child? Was the child named something else? Was it a girl and not a boy? Was it spiritualized? Was it a group? No, it happened literally and precisely as God announced it. That shows us by example that when we study prophecy that it must be interpreted consistently with this principle of a literal-grammatical hermeneutic—the plain meaning of Scripture, unless there is some overriding issue within the context that means that we should take it in some other way.
We need to realize that God made three promises to Abraham in the covenant: land, seed, and blessing. He promised a son who would father innumerable descendants, including kings. All of that was fulfilled literally. If we look at the first part of the contract—we look at this as a legal document, which is what a covenant is, and you have paragraph one, paragraph two, paragraph three—the first paragraph, it was fulfilled. Paragraph two promises a land, and that land has specific boundaries: from the "river of Egypt" (Wadi Al-arish in the Sinai) up to the Euphrates in the north. All of that land in between belongs to Abraham. What Covenant Theology does, or other forms of replacement theology also does, is say that the Jews rejected Jesus and because of that they are out and the church is in, there is only one people of God, they don't believe in a distinction between Israel and the church. They believe Israel is replaced by the church, and so now these promises become spiritual for the church, so that the land is now heaven. This is why people coming from a post-millennial or amillennial position do not believe that Israel has any right to the land. But if God fulfilled the promise related to a son literally, then He is going to fulfill the promise related to the land literally. That real estate belongs to Israel. Then the third part was through Abraham that the nations would be blessed. So it is through the Lord Jesus Christ ultimately who is the source of blessing for all, because the Lord Jesus Christ as the son of Abraham and the son of David is the one who goes to the cross to die for our sins. So it is through Abraham that all nations are blessed. That works itself out in the church age because the wild olive branches, according to Romans chapter eleven, which are the Gentiles, have been grafted into that olive tree. And the picture of that olive tree in Romans eleven talks about the root and the fruit. The root is the Abrahamic covenant. The natural branches are now cut off [the Jews that have rejected Christ] and the wild olive branches are grafted in, so that we partake of the blessing of Israel. When the times of the Gentiles runs out during the Tribulation period the Jewish nation corporately is grafted back in, so they are not in the place of blessing right now but will be again in the future.
All of this is to reinforce for us that we interpret the Scriptures literally, that if Scripture has interpreted this way in the past it applies all the way across the board in terms of the Abrahamic covenant. The promise and the prophecy has been literally fulfilled. It was also literally fulfilled in relation to the time. It occurred in Abraham's old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. So every element in verse 2 references different elements in the prophecy. What we learn here is that the Word of God is the focus, and that the Word of God cannot be broken. And the Word of God is based upon His character which is a character of truth and faithfulness. God is always faithful to His promise. This is what is seen in Hebrews 11:11, "Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised." This talks about the regeneration of her body. She judged Him faithful who had promised, and that is the core idea in Genesis chapter twenty-one, that God is faithful. On the basis of God's faithfulness we can have confidence in the Word of God, that He will fulfill His promises and prophecies just as He gave them. It gives us hope. Hope is a confident expectation, because we know that he has spoken and He will bring to fulfillment His Word exactly as He says. So it gives us a confident expectation in the future and it provides certainty and stability for chaotic times.
The concepts of faithfulness and truth are interrelated. 1 Thessalonians 5:24, "Faithful is he who calls you, who also will do it." This is the principle of Genesis 21. God said what He would do and He keeps His Word. Hebrews 10:23, "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised)." One of the first examples of this is in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 21. He is faithful in terms of a covenant. God always establishes His relationships with us in terms of this covenant. Why? We see a hint of it today. By using a contract what God does is that He is willing to limit Himself to the boundaries of written words so that man can come to those words and hold God to those promises. Deuteronomy 7:9, "Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and mercy [faithful, loyal love] with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations." So we see that God's faithfulness is the foundation of His covenant fulfillment, which is the basis for security in the Abrahamic covenant. If you are a Jew you know you have a right to the land. Why? Because God wrote it in a contract.
If you don't believe in a literal fulfillment and interpretation of Scripture and you come in like the covenant theologians do and replacement theology and all these other groups, and you say they [the Jews] rejected Christ as Messiah so God is going to make this a heavenly land now, what have you just done? You've just said that the Jews had no security in God. You have suddenly but truly rejected the faithfulness of God: God isn't faithful, He changed the terms of the agreement. That is, God said one thing to Abraham, but then the Jews disobeyed Him so God changed the terms of the contract. So if you are consistent you couldn't believe in eternal security for the believer, because something might happen and God might change His mind down the road. He is not faithful, is what this is really saying. The implication of that is that there would no longer be any eternal security. How could we believe that God is going to save us? So the very foundation of covenant theology in terms of their hermeneutics runs against the whole concept of eternal security.
But we have passages in the New Testament such as 1 Corinthians 1:9, "God is faithful, by whom you were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord." And 2 Timothy 2:13, "If are faithless, he remains faithful: he cannot deny himself." This gives us great confidence that no matter how much we fail God is not going to cut us loose. He didn't set loose Israel, there will be a future for Israel. God is true to His promises, He is faithful and He will never desert us. In the same way we know that God is faithful no matter how horrible the tests may be, no matter how difficult life may be at times. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to endure it." The principle there is that God sovereignly rules in our testing so that no matter what happens He has made the solution, and the solution is always in His Word.
So with come to the conclusion of this section that Sarah conceived the child while in Gerar as a direct result of God's fulfilling His literal promise to Abraham. And as we look at this context we see that God is faithful to His promise and fulfills His promise as He says.
Genesis 21:3, "And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac." Notice the repetition of their names. There is a reiteration here that this is Abraham and it is a reminder of his covenant name. It is not Sarai, it is Sarah, a reminder of her covenant name. And they named the child Isaac. Just as God was specific in His promise, they are specific in their obedience. Isaac means "he laughs" or "God laughs" because it is a reminder of the joy of the Lord that is theirs. There is joy because God has fulfilled His promise and given them a child in their old age. It is a reminder of the fact that Scripture has a unique view of children: "Behold, children are an inheritance from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward."
Genesis 21:4, "And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him." That goes back to chapter seventeen where God instituted circumcision as the sign of the covenant. So these verses from verse one through seven, while they tell us about this tremendous fulfillment of the promise, at the same time give an abbreviated account that each statement that is made goes back to earlier events to tie everything together.
Genesis 21:5, 6, And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me." This gives us the reasons for Isaac's name. Whenever they would say his name for the rest of their lives they would be reminded of the joy that God gave them.
Genesis 21:7, "And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age." When she says this she is taking the most unusual part of this. That is, that not only was she able to have a child but she was able to nurse the child. This would have called fore a complete rejuvenation of her body. No one would have thought that that would happen.
Genesis 21:8, we enter into the next section of this chapter and, again, the underlying theme is faithfulness. In the first seven verses the focus is on God's faithfulness to Abraham in terms of the covenant. But those aren't the only people involved. Remember that God had also made promises to Hagar in relationship to Ishmael. So God now has to deal with the situation in the home which was complicated by Abraham's attempt to resolve the seed issue through having relations with Hagar and producing Ishmael. There was the firstborn, Ishmael, in the tent and Isaac is the second born, and following the practice in the ancient world Ishmael should receive two thirds of the inheritance. So how is God going to solve this? "And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned." In the ancient world weaning sometimes didn't take place until they were six or seven years of age. Usually it was around the age of four. Also, if a child reached that age it was a sign that he was going to survive infancy, and there would be a tremendous celebration on that occasion.
It is about this time that Sarah begins to notice the behavior of the oldest child, Ishmael, who is probably between 16 and 19. "And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, scoffing." The word translated "scoffing" is the Hebrew word which is a word play on the name Isaac which means to ridicule. So in some way, we don't know how, Ishmael begins to ridicule or make fun of Isaac. But what this brings to the fore in Sarah's mind is the fact that there would be a competition for the inheritance between her son and Ishmael. Typical of a mother she wants to protect her son's inheritance rights. She knows that he is the one who is designated the heir through the covenant, so she comes up with a plan. That plan is to get rid of Hagar.
Genesis 21:10, "Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." Here is a case of a right thing being done in a wrong way. She recognizes the fact that Ishmael shouldn't be the heir but she is going to go about it the wrong way. Rather than trust God to resolve the problem she is going to get right in the middle of it. But God is going to allow this in terms of His permissive will because it happens to fit with the overall flow of His plan and agenda. She goes to Abraham and gives him advice and Abraham doesn't want to follow it. He knows what happened the last time and so we are told, "And the thing was very displeasing in Abraham's sight because of his son." The Hebrew idiom here means that Abraham is really angry about this. His thoughts were that the last time she wanted him to do something with Hagar they really got in trouble and he wasn't going to listen to her this time. So he was not going to follow her advice, and then God interfered.
Genesis 21:12, "And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto you, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called." Notice that Hagar is never called Abraham's wife. Sarah might have had the wrong motive but it fits with the plan, they had to get Ishmael and Hagar out of the tent and make a separation here so that they could focus on the plan. According to the customs of the ancient world if a person had taken a surrogate wife then her child would be qualified for inheritance rights. But if you released her so that she is now free then that disqualifies them from inheritance.
Genesis 21:13, "And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed." This goes back to the fact that God had made promises to Hagar that God would bless Ishmael and there would be descendants who would come from Ishmael. Genesis 16:10, "And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply your seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." That would come through Ishmael. Then in Genesis 17:20, "And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation." And that is exactly what happened to Ishmael. So we see that God is faithful in His promise even to Ishmael.
Genesis 21:14, the story of how they left. "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba." Genesis 21:15, 16, "And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept."
Genesis 21:17, 18, "And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is." Apparently Ishmael has cried out to God. "Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation . . . . And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink."
Genesis 21:21, "And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt." Ishmael who is half Egyptian is going to marry an Egyptian woman, and so their descendants are going to partake of that Hamitic line from Egypt. The Egyptians are not Semitic.
So this chapter is a reminder of the faithfulness of God. Lamentations 3:21-23, "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness."