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Genesis 21:1-21: Isaac and Ishmael
Bible Essentials: Set 3, Lesson 15
Individuals: Take time to think back about your past week. Where have you seen God work in your life or answer prayer? Write down any prayer requests you have.
Group: Open the study by sharing life updates, reviewing highs and lows of your past week, or sharing prayer requests and praises.
Icebreaker: If you have siblings, did/do you get along well with them? Or did/do you always have conflict? Are things different now as adults compared to when you were kids?
All: Begin the study with a word of prayer, asking God to open your heart for today’s study. You can also pray for any prayer requests now, or save that for the end.
Read today’s passage: Genesis 21:1-21.
21 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
What is the context for this passage?
When Abraham was 99 years old, God once again confirmed his covenant with Abraham that Abraham and Sarah would have a son by that time next year (Genesis 18). What happened in that year? Last week, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). God heard the outcries against these cities for their evil actions, and he could tolerate it no longer. So he destroyed them with fire from heaven. But he saved Lot and Lot’s two daughters. The two sons-in-law refused to believe the warning, so they were lost. And Lot’s wife looked back at the burning city, so she turned into a pillar of salt. Then we read that Lot’s daughters were worried that they had no children and no men to bear children with, so they tricked Lot into getting them pregnant. They each had a son, who were the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites, two nations that would later be enemies of the Israelites.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham continued to move around (Genesis 20). This time, he moved into the region of the Negev, between Kadesh and Shur (see map). Then he moved to Gerar. In Gerar, Abraham once again tried to pass Sarah off as his sister, so Abimelek, king of Gerar, took her for himself. After a warning from God, Abimelek knew that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, so he didn’t touch her and instead returned her to Abraham. Not only that, but Abimelek gave Abraham sheep, cattle, slaves, and silver. Ironically, the story ends with the note that when Abimelek took Sarah, God closed all the wombs of all the women in Abimelek’s household. And when Abimelek released Sarah, God opened all their wombs again. It is in this context that Sarah also gets pregnant. (Note that it is unclear the exact timing of Sarah’s pregnancy, whether she conceived before or after this story. But the Scripture is clear that Sarah’s son is from Abraham.)
Read the passage again.
Explore a different version if you have one available. If you are online, here is Genesis 21 in NIV through Bible Gateway. You can change the version by using the dropdown menu at the top right of the page.
Try to summarize the passage in your own words.
Answer these three questions about the passage:
1. What does the passage say about God?
God is gracious. The passage says that the Lord was gracious to Sarah by allowing her to become pregnant. God knew that Sarah wanted a child, and he himself had promised that Sarah would have a son. God was gracious to grant that desire of Sarah’s heart.
God keeps his promises. This has been a theme throughout the stories in Genesis, and we see it here again. It’s been 25 years since God’s initial promise to Abraham, and we finally get to see that he kept his promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son.
God is in control of conception and pregnancy. After so many years of trying to conceive unsuccessfully, God finally opened Sarah’s womb, and she was able to conceive and bear a son. God did this in his own perfect timing to make it clear that this son was God’s doing, not just a random coincidence.
God brings laughter to his people. When Sarah finally had a son in her old age, she knew that God had brought her laughter. This seems to be a joyful laughter, not an ironic laughter, because she says that everyone who hears about this will laugh WITH her, not AT her. God blesses his people with things that bring them laughter and joy.
God cares when his people are in distress. Once Sarah has Isaac, things start to shift for Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah wants Abraham to get rid of them, and this distresses Abraham. When God saw Abraham’s distress, God reached down to Abraham to give him comfort and direction.
God has a plan even for those outside his plan. Even though Ishmael was not the one through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled, God still had a plan for him because he was Abraham’s son. God can use anyone, whether they are his chosen people or not, to bring about his purposes.
God provides for his people. God’s provision is displayed in several ways throughout this story. First, he provides a son for Abraham and Sarah. Then, he provides a plan to Abraham for how he should handle the discord between Sarah and Ishmael. Finally, he provided water for Hagar and Ishmael when they had lost all hope. Through it all, God was with Ishmael even though Ishmael was not the son under God’s blessing.
God hears us when we cry. This passage mentions both Hagar and Ishmael crying, and God responds. God heard their crying, and he sent a promise and provisions. He promised that Ishmael would become a great nation, and he provided water for them to survive in the desert.
God helps people see his provisions. Hagar was so distraught in this story that she couldn’t see what God had provided. She essentially gives up on life, but once God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael, God opens her eyes to see the well that he had provided for them. When you can’t see your way through your current circumstances, ask God to open your eyes to see his provisions.
2. What does the passage say about people?
God’s people follow his commands. Another theme throughout Genesis is the faithfulness of his people to follow his commands. Earlier in Genesis 17, God had given Abraham the covenant of circumcision. Once Isaac was born, Abraham was obedient to this covenant by circumcising Isaac. Abraham also followed God’s command to listen to Sarah. Then later, Hagar followed God’s command to keep pressing on and caring for Ishmael. Following God’s commands is essential to maintaining a healthy relationship with God.
People find humor in unexpected circumstances. When Sarah bore a child in her old age, she knew it would bring laughter to herself and those around her. They would have joy at this unexpected blessing.
Children grow up. This passage refers both to Isaac growing up to the time he was weaned and to Ishmael growing up from the age of 13 (at Isaac’s birth) to adulthood and marriage. Through the growth, God provides and cares for each child.
People often mock others whom they don’t like. At Isaac’s party when he was weaned, Ishmael was mocking him. At this point, Ishmael would have been a teenager, and Isaac was only a toddler. Yet Ishmael felt the need to mock Isaac. This may have been a sort of defense mechanism for Ishmael. I’m sure by this point, Ishmael would have known that even though he was Abraham’s first born, Isaac was the treasured son. And this probably wore on his emotions and self-worth. In circumstances like that, mocking or bullying becomes a way to protect yourself, even if it is not a healthy response.
People often react selfishly when someone wrongs them or someone they love. When Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac, she immediately wanted Ishmael gone, along with his mother. Her reaction was instantly to protect her son and get rid of anything that might be detrimental to him. She had no concern for how this would affect Ishmael or Hagar.
People become distressed when something bad happens to someone they love. Sarah was distressed when Ishmael started mocking Isaac. Abraham was distressed when Sarah threatened Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar was distressed when she thought Ishmael was going to die in the desert. When something bad happens to someone we love, we instantly become distressed.
People try to provide the best they can for those they love even in difficult circumstances. When Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away, he provided them with food and water. Hagar tried to provide for Ishmael the best she could, but she eventually ended up with nothing to give. Once she did find the water that God provided, she got water for the boy to drink. These were difficult circumstances, but through God’s provision and loving parents, Ishmael had what he needed to survive.
People often give up before God is done with their story. Once Hagar’s supplies ran out, her first instinct was to give up. She assumed that Ishmael would die, and she couldn’t face that reality. But God wasn’t done with her or Ishmael yet. If you feel like giving up, don’t! God isn’t finished with your story yet.
People are afraid of the unknown. When the angel of God called to Hagar, he said “do not be afraid.” Hagar was afraid that Ishmael would die, and she didn’t know what to do. Fear has a way of paralyzing people, just like it did for Hagar.
3. What does the passage say about God’s plan?
God’s plan was for Abraham and Sarah to have a son. Throughout the last several chapters of Genesis, we see God’s plan unfolding for Abraham and Sarah to have a son. After 25 years, we finally see that plan fulfilled.
God’s plan was to fulfill his purpose through Isaac, not Ishmael. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation, and that all people would be blessed through him. In this passage, we see that Isaac is the one through whom Abraham’s offspring will be reckoned. What does it mean to be reckoned? In this context, it means that God has an account to settle with people due to sin, and it is through Isaac that God will bring about the way to settle this account.
God’s plan was for Abraham to listen to Sarah’s advice. God’s plan to reconcile his people to himself would be fulfilled through Isaac. Sarah’s actions in this story were to protect her son Isaac, and God knew that Isaac needed to be protected in order to fulfill his plan. Therefore, God commanded Abraham to listen to Sarah, even though Sarah’s heart was set against Ishmael and Hagar. Although Sarah was selfish in her actions, God used that to bring about his plan for Isaac’s life.
God’s plan was to make Ishmael into a nation also. Even though Abraham and Sarah dismissed Ishmael, God didn’t forget about him. Ishmael was still Abraham’s son, and God still planned to make him into a great nation. Just because someone isn’t part of God’s primary plan doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan for that person at all.
How does the passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?
Sometimes it’s easier to understand a passage if you have a little outside knowledge from other passages in the Bible. This section will help provide that outside perspective.
This passage shows God’s protection and preference for his divine plan. This plan would be fulfilled through Isaac, not Ishmael. So although God still worked to provide for Ishmael, his primary concern was for Isaac. God’s plan was that Abraham’s offspring would be reckoned through Isaac. We discussed this a little bit above, but what does this really mean? To be reckoned or reconciled implies that at some point, there has been a break in the relationship, and this relationship needs to be repaired. In this case, the relationship is between God and humans, and what caused the break was human sin.
As we read the rest of the Bible, we see God’s plan for this reconciliation playing out. He did build Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Through that great nation would be born a Son, God’s Son, born as a human. God’s Son, Jesus, would live a perfect life, be a witness for God through teaching and miracles, and then die a horrific death to pay the penalty for sin. That’s God’s requirement—the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Only through paying this penalty can the relationship between God and humans be restored. As humans, we cannot pay that penalty because we are not sinless. But Jesus lived a perfect life, so he was able to be the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. And God’s plan for this path to redemption and reconciliation started with Abraham and his chosen son, Isaac.
Individual: Answer the following questions thoughtfully for yourself.
Group: Pose these questions for discussion.
All: If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts to these questions. Feel free to use the comment section to start a discussion about this passage.
What else strikes you about this passage?
How does the passage affect how you view God? How you view yourself?
How does this passage affect how you will live your life?
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For Bible Essential studies, you can use my thoughts as your devotional, or you can download and use the journaling sheet to work through the passage on your own. If desired, you can then compare your thoughts to mine. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically. Journal sheets are available for individual or group use.
If you plan to lead a group study, a PowerPoint presentation is also available.
You can access these resources by clicking here: Genesis 21 Resources
Or you can download the journal sheets here*:
*Substack doesn’t support PowerPoint file downloads yet, so if you want to access the PowerPoint file for group study, you will need to download it from the resource page linked above.