The Promised Son is Born
January 29, 2023 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: The Book of Genesis
Topic: The Faithfulness of God Passage: Genesis 21:1–21
THE PROMISED SON IS BORN
An Exposition of Genesis 21:1-21
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: January 29, 2023
Series: The Book of Genesis
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says,
1 The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (Genesis 21:1-21)
THE LORD IS FAITHFUL (v. 1)
As we begin to walk through this passage, it is important to foreground the faithfulness of God. The primary reason why it is important to put God’s faithfulness front and center is because this is exactly what Genesis 21:1 does. The emphasis at the very beginning is the Lord’s activity performed in accordance with what He had declared beforehand. This is faithfulness: to do what you said you would do, to keep the promise that you made, to carry out the plan you had revealed beforehand. A faithful person says what he means, means what he says, and then does what he says. There is a proverb that indicates that we would be hard-pressed to find exemplary faithfulness among men: “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6) By contrast, God’s faithfulness shines brightly for all to see:
“The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised” (Genesis 21:1, italics added).
The promise hearkens back to Genesis 18. The Lord visited Abraham and Sarah and spoke to them – Abraham was outside the tent, and Sarah was in the tent “listening at the tent door” (Genesis 18:10). The Lord spoke to Abraham, and Sarah listened in: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10) Since Sarah had been barren her entire adult life (Genesis 11:30) and she was now past childbearing years (Genesis 18:11), the Lord would have to take action to open Sarah’s womb, which is just what He did. About one year after the promise of Genesis 18, the Lord returned to Abraham and “visited Sarah as he had said”. The Lord kept His Word, not only in showing up at the appointed time but in making sure that a newborn boy also showed up at the same time. The Lord’s miraculous womb-opening action of verse 1 (“the LORD did to Sarah”) encompasses the entire nine-month span from conception to birth. Although the emphasis in verses 2-3 is the birth of Isaac, the conception of Isaac necessarily preceded it and is also mentioned, for it is the beginning of the Lord’s activity that He did in order to keep His Word and bring forth a son through Abraham and Sarah.
It is always good to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness in all matters, both big and small. In whatever ways you are waiting for the Lord to come through for you – daily bread; the equivalent of a well of water in the wilderness; grace for a difficult trial; strength to sustain you; wisdom to guide you; abundant mercy for your many sins – He will come through for you. The Lord is faithful: trust Him.
So, Genesis 21 begins with the Lord’s faithfulness flying as a banner over the blessings that He is bestowing on Abraham and Sarah and, through them, to the whole world. For we must never forget God’s overarching promise to bless “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) through Abraham and through the covenant family that God is building out of Abraham – and this covenant family is to be further developed through Isaac (see Genesis 17:19). Therefore, see the banner of the Lord’s faithfulness flying high over the birth of Isaac for your good. The God who did the good He promised to do for Abraham and Sarah will also cause the Abrahamic blessing to land wonderfully upon you, if you trust Him.
ISAAC IS SPECIAL: PAY ATTENTION (v. 2-8)
With the Lord’s faithfulness front and center in verse 1, in verses 2-8 we get to see the Lord’s faithfulness unfold for us in several details.
First, Isaac is conceived (v. 2). This obviously happened about nine months earlier.
Second, Isaac is born (v. 2). The end of verse 2 also highlights the Lord’s faithfulness: “And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him” (italics added).
Third, Isaac is named (v. 3). Verse 2 doesn’t mention Isaac by name – it simply refers to “a son”. The naming comes in verse 3: “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” This was an act of obedience on Abraham’s part. God had named Isaac a year earlier, when He spoke to Abraham in Genesis 17: “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” (Genesis 17:19) On Thursday I read a comment that of the three great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Isaac is the only one whose name God didn’t change. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Jacob’s name to Israel. But it makes sense that God never changed Isaac’s name, because God directly named Isaac in the first place! Isaac is special: pay attention!
Fourth, Isaac is circumcised on the eighth day: “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.” (v. 4) As we can see, Abraham’s act of circumcising Isaac “when he was eight days old” was also an act of obedience. God had commanded Abraham, in Genesis 17, that he and the male members of his household should be circumcised as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:10-12). Ordinarily, male members of Abraham’s household were to be circumcised when they were eight days old (Genesis 17:12). But Abraham was already ninety-nine years old when he received this instruction (Genesis 17:1). Abraham promptly put this instruction into practice, which meant that Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised and his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24-25). Their age, of course, is not a strike against them, since they couldn’t obey the instruction before it had been given, and the Lord chose not to give the instruction until Abraham was ninety-nine years old. Nevertheless, as God orchestrates all that comes to pass according to His wise purpose, He set things up in such a way that Isaac, unlike Abraham and Ishmael, would actually be circumcised on the eighth day. Isaac is special: pay attention!
Celebrated by Sarah
Fifth, Isaac is celebrated by his mother Sarah (v. 5-7). The birth of Isaac filled Sarah with wonder and amazement – not the ordinary wonder and amazement that would accompany the birth of a child to young parents, but extra doses of wonder and amazement because of the sheer odds of an old couple not having a child. Both verses 2 and 5 call attention to Abraham: “Sarah… bore Abraham a son in his old age” (v. 2, italics added); and “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” (v. 5) Of course, we also know that Sarah was only ten years younger, holding fast at ninety years of age (see Genesis 17:17). With all this in mind, Sarah’s great joy comes into view in verses 6-7:
“And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”” (v. 6-7)
How beautiful that God makes a certain kind of laughter a gracious gift for the fragile human heart: “God has made laughter for me”! How beautiful that God makes a certain kind of laughter a way for some people to rejoice with other people: “everyone who hears will laugh over me”. It is sheer astonishment to Sarah that she has a baby boy upon her lap. Against all ordinary expectations, “I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Of course, much more needs to be said about laughter. As we shall see, there is a sense in which laughter ties the entire passage together. Remember, first of all, that there are different kinds of laughter. There is the laughter of disbelief, the laughter of joyful astonishment, and the laughter of scornful mocking.
It is important to remember that the name Isaac actually means ‘he laughs’. The first mention of Isaac’s name is given after Abraham laughs in disbelief at the Lord’s promise concerning a son. Sarah also laughed in disbelief at the same news in Genesis 18 (see Genesis 18:9-15). But let’s keep the focus on Genesis 17. The Lord had said to the ninety-nine year old Abraham: “I will give you a son by her” (Genesis 17:16). Abraham’s response:
“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”” (Genesis 17:17-18)
This is God’s reply:
“God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”” (Genesis 17:19)
In one sense, God’s decision to name the son Isaac (“he laughs”) in response to Abraham’s laughter is a way of saying that this is no laughing matter. God means business, and He will do what He has promised. But in another sense, by looking ahead to Genesis 21, God’s decision to name the son Isaac (“he laughs”) in response to Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter of disbelief is a way of saying that God will answer your laughter of disbelief with the laughter of joyful astonishment. And so, the laughter of disbelief fades into the background; Isaac proves to be no laughing matter but an undeniably real baby boy; and now the laughter of joyful astonishment breaks forth over Sarah and, Sarah knows, the laughter of joyful astonishment will break forth over many people who hear the good and surprising news of Isaac’s birth.
Isaac embodies the laughter, so to speak, but the laughter itself – the joyful astonishment and the good news on which it is based – is a gift from God: “God has made laughter for me”. This kind of laughter is a holy joy at the unexpected and surprising good news of God’s gracious work in our lives. I’m not talking about how laughter in general might function as good medicine – it might, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the joyful astonishment that a leper might have experienced when the Lord Jesus made him clean; or the joyful astonishment that a prodigal son might experience when he is feasting once again in the father’s house; or the joyful astonishment that a guilty sinner might experience when she has heard the Lord’s merciful pronouncement: ‘My daughter, your sins are forgiven’; or the joyful astonishment that one of the early disciples might have experienced when he realized it was really true that the Lord had risen from the dead.
As for Abraham and Sarah, they have been on an eventful journey with the Lord, from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran to Canaan, to Egypt and back again, to Hebron, and lately down to Gerar. They’ve had direct and troubling interactions with the Pharaoh of Egypt and the King of Gerar. Abraham conducted a military rescue operation against four kings. They’ve seen Sodom and Gomorrah utterly destroyed. They attempted to get a proper heir for Abraham through Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, but that proved to be a dead end. For this entire journey, the lack of a proper heir has hung over their lives. And now, at least, he arrives – this little boy who is at the very center of God’s plan to build a holy nation and bring blessing to the whole world. Sarah didn’t orchestrate it, Sarah didn’t manufacture it, Sarah didn’t make it happen, Sarah didn’t deserve for it to happen, but it happened. The laughter of joyful astonishment for a weary heart. God is good. Life has been sweetened. Savor this moment.
Sixth, Isaac is weaned: “And the child grew and was weaned.” (v. 8) We’ve traveled from God’s promise a year before Isaac’s birth, to the conception nine months before Isaac’s birth, to the birth itself and the naming and circumcision shortly thereafter, and now we are fast-tracked through infancy (“the child grew”) to the point of weaning, which could have taken place when Isaac turned three years old or sometime thereafter.
Celebrated by Abraham
Seventh, Isaac is celebrated by his father Abraham: “And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” (v. 8) Sarah’s joy was emphasized in verses 6-7. Now Abraham’s joy is emphasized in verse 8: “Abraham made a great feast”. And why not? Isaac is a living demonstration of God’s faithfulness, and Isaac represents God’s good plan far into the future, and besides that, Isaac certainly gave his father a great deal of pleasure on a human and familial level. If it makes sense to throw a great feast for the prodigal son who returns home, it also makes sense to throw a great feast for the son of promise who will carry the mantle of covenant leadership into the future. All these things are demonstrations of God’s grace. Generous festivities are in order!
The banner of God’s faithfulness – including His gift of great joy to Abraham and Sarah – is flying high over verses 1-8, and things are looking bright. However, a turning point takes place in verse 9 which sours the mood. This is just one more example of what I said last week – life is messy: don’t pretend otherwise. Uninterrupted joyful astonishment will not be our experience in this present evil world. God will cause laughter to break through here and there, but it will often be interrupted – sometimes by the mundane, and sometimes by grief and sorrow.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LAUGHTER (v. 9-10)
As I mentioned earlier, the idea of laughter is a link that holds the entire passage together. The turning point in the passage happens in verse 9, and this turning point involves laughter. There is irony. Sarah just said: “everyone who hears will laugh over me.” Now in verse 9 Sarah sees someone laughing. But this is not the laughter of shared joy. Sarah is irritated at this laughter and reacts harshly to the one laughing:
“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”” (v. 9-10)
Sarah’s joyful contentment in verses 6-7 is interrupted because Ishmael, the son that Hagar bore to Abraham in Genesis 16, is laughing. This laughter is not the laughter of joyful astonishment. Instead, Ishmael’s laughter is almost certainly the laughter of scorn and mockery. There are three reasons for reaching this conclusion:
- First, in Genesis 16, when Sarah gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham and Hagar got pregnant by Abraham, Hagar proceeded to look with contempt upon Sarah. The fertile maidservant looked down upon her barren mistress. In terms of context, Hagar’s contempt for Sarah in Genesis 16 anticipates Ishmael’s contempt for Isaac in Genesis 21.
- Second, when Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 reflects back on what transpired with Sarah and Isaac and Hagar and Ishmael, he says: “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac], so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son”” (Galatians 4:29-30). Therefore, it seems that Paul regards Ishmael’s laughter as a form of persecution against Isaac. And mockery – mocking laughter – is indeed one form that persecution can take.
- Third, Sarah’s extreme reaction suggests that there was something unsavory about Ishmael’s laughter that pushed her over the edge.
Sarah couldn’t bear to have another woman’s proud seventeen-year-old son looking down upon her son of promise and spoiling her laughter and joy (Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, so if Isaac was three years old, then Ishmael would have been seventeen years old). Sarah couldn’t bear to have Hagar and her son remain in the house with her and Isaac. Therefore, she is urgent with Abraham: “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” (v. 10) Isaac is the son of promise and the appointed heir. Ishmael has no share in the covenant leadership that shall pass from Abraham to Isaac. Ishmael will only be a persecuting thorn in Isaac’s side, and a great irritant to Sarah. Ishmael has to go.
Let me take this opportunity to share a brief moral exhortation. When I was reading Matthew Henry’s commentary regarding this passage, I read where Matthew Henry rightly said: “Mocking is a great sin, and very provoking to God.” We don’t talk often about the sin of mocking, but it is a sin. It is wicked to make fun of people, make light of people, and look down on people. Mockery destroys brotherly affection, hurts people, and ruins relationships. Sometimes siblings mock each other. Sometimes students mock each other. Sometimes co-workers mock each other. Sinful human beings mocked our Lord Jesus Christ when He suffered and died for the sins of His people. Mocking others is indeed a great sin, and it should have no place among God’s people.
ABRAHAM MUST SEND HAGAR AND ISHMAEL AWAY (v. 11-14)
Now let’s return to the unfolding action in our passage. At first, Sarah’s joy is interrupted by Ishmael’s laughter. But with Sarah’s insistence that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the house, now Abraham’s joy is interrupted, too. The joy of the “great feast” of verse 8 now gives way to the displeasure of verse 11: “And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.” From a physical standpoint, Abraham was as much the father of Ishmael as he was the father of Isaac. We may assume that Abraham had both a tenderhearted affection and a sense of paternal responsibility for his older son Ishmael, and therefore kicking Ishmael out of the house was not the sort of thing that Abraham had any interest in doing. Sarah’s proposed course of action displeased him. At the same time, Matthew Henry is probably right when he says that Abraham was grieved “that Ishmael had given such a provocation.” As all parents know, parenting is tough business.
Of course, Abraham is the one who should be exercising leadership, and he shouldn’t be passively compliant toward his wife. Adam got in trouble in Genesis 3 because he “listened to the voice of [his] wife” (Genesis 3:17). And the whole fiasco with Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael happened because Abraham listened to Sarah’s voice (Genesis 16:2). Here in Genesis 21, if Abraham immediately proceeded to heed Sarah’s voice, we would be very suspicious that something was amiss. But God forestalls that possibility by speaking directly to Abraham about the matter:
“But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”” (v. 12-13)
In this case, it is right for Abraham to do whatever Sarah tells him to do, because the Lord commanded Abraham to do that. Which means that Abraham’s consequent action to kick out Hagar and Ishmael must be understood as righteous, the right thing – and this helps to explain why Paul looks so positively upon this action in Galatians 4:21-31. Yes, there is heartache and heaviness to what happens here, but in the end Abraham’s action must be viewed as having God’s approval.
When God speaks to Abraham in verses 12-13, God counsels Abraham to let go of his displeasure. Abraham needs to come to grips with the fact that Isaac is the son of promise, and Ishmael isn’t: “for through Isaac shall your offspring be named”. The mantle of covenant leadership will pass to Isaac. The covenant family will be built through Isaac, not through Ishmael. In addition to coming to grips with the fact that Isaac is the one who has a unique place in God’s plan, Abraham also needs to trust God that He will still watch over and prosper Ishmael: “And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” God cares for both of Abraham’s sons, and both sons are included in the scope of His providential care. But this doesn’t mean that both sons get the same set of privileges. God is God, and He distributes callings and opportunities and responsibilities and privileges as He sees fit. And Isaac has a special calling upon him that Ishmael doesn’t get to share in.
In fact, one more way that Genesis 21:1-21 communicates the idea that ‘Isaac is special: pay attention’, is that Isaac is mentioned by name five times (vv. 3, 4, 5, 10, 12). Do you know how many times Ishmael is mentioned by name? Zero times. I have been using the name Ishmael for the sake of convenience – we know this is the name of Hagar’s son from Genesis 16. However, in Genesis 21:1-21, Ishmael’s name isn’t mentioned once. Instead, he is only referred to as son or boy or offspring or child or he or him. The choice not to mention Ishmael by name even once must be intentional, and it highlights the fact that Abraham’s offspring shall be named through Isaac, not through the son of the slave woman. Isaac is special: pay attention.
As difficult as it might have been to put off his displeasure, Abraham responded to God with obedience. Abraham sent off Hagar and Ishmael, furnishing them with modest provisions (v. 14). Thus Abraham bid farewell to his firstborn son. From now on, Abraham would have to trust the Lord to provide for Hagar and the boy. The contrast is profound: verse 8 mentioned “a great feast” taking place in Abraham’s house to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, but now Hagar and Ishmael are “[wandering] in the wilderness”. They have been put out and excluded from the covenant family.
GOD’S PROVIDENTIAL CARE FOR HAGAR AND ISHMAEL (v. 15-21)
However, this doesn’t mean that they are forgotten by God. Scripture presents us with the true God who is sovereign over all things and who says and does things that often don’t conform to our expectations. This fact shouldn’t surprise us, because God is holy and all-powerful, whereas we are sinful and weak. So, when we come to Genesis 21:12-14, a superficial reading of the text might lead someone to assume that God is abandoning Hagar and Ishmael. Of course, there are times when God does abandon people – and when He does this, it is right and well-deserved by the people. There are times when God destroys whole cities, as we saw in Genesis 19. And yet here in Genesis 21, even though God approves of Abraham putting Hagar and Ishmael out of his house, this doesn’t mean that God is putting Hagar and Ishmael out of His care. The promise of verse 13 (“And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman”) already alerted us to God’s care for Hagar and Ishmael, but this care is viewed up close and personal in verses 15-21.
After a time of wandering in the wilderness (v. 14), eventually the skin of water ran dry (v. 15), and thus Hagar anticipated the dehydration and death of her son. Hagar couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her son die, so she put Ishmael over here (“under one of the bushes”, v. 15), and she went over there “and sat down opposite him a good way off” (v. 16). What a contrast: Sarah was elated over her son Isaac’s arrival in verses 6-7, but Hagar is in deep anguish over the expected loss of her son: “And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.” (v. 16)
Back in Genesis 16, when Hagar was experiencing a different affliction, we were told that the Lord heard Hagar’s affliction (Genesis 16:11). For this reason, Hagar’s son was named Ishmael (Genesis 16:11), which means ‘God hears’. God heard the affliction of Hagar seventeen years earlier. Would He hear her affliction this time also?
Well, God certainly did, but this time the point of emphasis is that “God heard the voice of the boy” (v. 17). Presumably Ishmael was crying out in some way. Then we are told that
“the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (v. 17-18)
In Genesis 16, Hagar needed to know that God saw her. Now in Genesis 21, Hagar needs to know that God sees her boy. Therefore, the reason that Hagar can let go of her troubles and be unafraid is precisely because “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” – “under one of the bushes” somewhere in the Beersheba wilderness. This knowledge of God’s attentiveness to Ishmael, along with the knowledge of God’s promise to “make [Ishmael] into a great nation”, should give Hagar courage to keep taking care of her son – and she does.
Although Hagar and Ishmael are now cut off from any provision from Abraham, they are not cut off from provisions from the Lord. As it happens, there was a well of water nearby, but her eyes hadn’t seen it. Sometimes we need God to open our eyes in order to see what is right there in front of us: “Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.” (v. 19) The immediate crisis was averted, and the stage was set for God’s continual care for the boy in the years ahead: “God was with the boy, and he grew up.” (v. 20) He became an expert bowman, dwelt in the wilderness, and married an Egyptian woman (v. 20-21).
Once again, we are struck by God’s providential care for Hagar and especially for Ishmael. In due course, they will fade from the Scriptural storyline, because they are outside the central storyline of the covenant family. But being outside the central storyline doesn’t mean being outside of God’s overarching care. God’s care extends to the nations, to the end that they might come to know Him. In Ishmael’s case, God’s plan to “make a nation of [Ishmael]” is tied to the fact that Ishmael is Abraham’s offspring (“because he is your offspring”, v. 13).
So, being outside the central storyline doesn’t mean being outside of God’s overarching care. And yet, I don’t think that God’s care for the wider world is the primary point of the passage. With the emphasis placed upon Isaac in verses 1-12, we can learn something really important from Abraham about how we must anchor our lives.
APPLICATION: WHERE IS OUR FOCUS?
I think that one of the things we need to learn from this passage is that we need to put our entire focus upon the promise of God and upon the reality of what God is doing. I want you see this lesson from Abraham’s perspective. From Abraham’s perspective, Ishmael represented Abraham’s own fleshly attempt – in his and Sarah’s own fleshly wisdom and strength – to secure their future, to get an heir, to build up their house (see Genesis 16). Ishmael represented their own attempt to do this. And our own attempts to do it are always a dead end. And so, what I’m about to say – I’m not giving you parenting advice here – what I’m about to say is about getting to the heart issues of where our focus in life is: Abraham, in a very profound moment, had to cast out that which represented his own fleshly attempt to secure his future. And Abraham had to be solely focused on the promise of God, namely, Isaac, and what God was going to do through Isaac to build up Abraham’s family into the future. And it’s very interesting, when you turn to Genesis 22 – that remarkable chapter where God instructs Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice – we learn that Genesis 21 had set the stage. In Genesis 22, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac” (Genesis 22:2). Your only son? That’s right. As far as God’s covenant promises are concerned, Isaac is Abraham’s only son now.
In light of all this, we have to ask ourselves: where is our focus? We can get so caught up in the things that we try to pull off in our own strength. But we need to make sure that we are dialed in to the work of God: the work of God in fulfilling His promises, the work of God in sending the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation, the work of God that He does through the Holy Spirit in regenerating sinners and building His church and transforming our lives. As we think about our lives – as individuals, as a family, as a congregation – where is our focus? Is our focus on what we’re doing in our own wisdom and strength? Or are we really anchored in, and glad to be anchored in, the work that God is doing in our midst?
 The entry for “Isaac” on Wikipedia. The entry includes, “He is the only patriarch whose name was not changed….” Available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac.
 Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible: Volume 1: Genesis to Deuteronomy. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company: p. 132.
 Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible: Volume 1: Genesis to Deuteronomy. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company: p. 133.
More in The Book of Genesis
March 19, 2023Passing the Baton: Part 2
March 12, 2023Passing the Baton: Part 1
March 5, 2023The Triumph of Abraham's Offspring