Genesis 21:1 – 21:14

The Birth of Isaac

21:1 That this verse is in proximity to the preceding one teaches that ‘Whoever prays for mercy on behalf of another when he himself needs that very same thing, he is answered first.’ For in the previous section, it is said: ‘And Abraham prayed for Abimelech … and they brought forth’ and here it says ‘and God had remembered Sarah’ – even before He healed Abimelech. (I.e. – Abraham and Sarah were childless; when Abraham prayed that Abimelech’s household be cured of the inability to give birth, he was answered first, for Sarah conceived before anyone in the royal household was enabled to give birth). (Rashi)

“..remembered Sarah as He had said; and Hashem did..” – God said ‘Nevertheless, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son” (17:19) and “The Word of Hashem came to Abraham” (15:1), which introduced the Covenant Between the Parts at which time Abraham was promised an heir (15:4). It was that heir which was now brought forth from Sarah. (Rashi)

The term ‘remembered’ when said of God is anthropopathic (ascribing a human feeling to God – a non-human) because there is no forgetfulness before Him. “God remembered Noah’ (8:1) and ‘God remembered Abraham’ (19:29). The intent of the expression is that God manifests His Providence as if he remembered to carry out an earlier plan or promise. Since a long span of time has elapsed from the promise until the event, God is spoken of – in human terms – as ‘remembering’, although such an expression, in absolute terms, is inappropriate to Him.

21:2..unto Abraham..” – The use of ‘unto’ is noted. Radak explains that a wife is figuratively like the soil which nurtures a seed until it is ready for harvest. So, too, the husband’s seed grows until she ‘presents’ him with a child.

According to the Midrash, however, the Torah specifies that Sarah bore this son to Abraham in emphatic testimony that this child was Abraham’s and no one else’s.

“..at the appointed time..” – When He said (18:14): ‘At the appointed time, I will return to you.’ He (according to Midrash Tanchuma, the angel speaking n God’s Name) had made a mark on the wall and said to him, ‘When the sun’s rays come round to this mark next year she will give birth’. (Rashi)

Note: According to the generally accepted chronology, the angels visited Abraham on what would later be Passover and announced that Sarah would bear a son ‘at this time next year’ (18:10). The ‘remembering’ took place on the following Rosh Hashanah. Isaac was born on the following Passover, 71/2 months later, one year after the angels made the announcement. The four ‘barren ones’ were ‘remembered’ on Rosh Hashanah: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

21:3 The repeated emphasis on ‘born to him’ testifies against the scoffers that the child was born of Abraham’s seed and of none other ~ that it was the child of Sarah – that aged woman! She was not merely raising another’s child.

In compliance with God’s command to him, he named his child Isaac (17:19). The birth of this child was ‘laughter’, for by all the laws of nature, the very possibility that he could be born was laughable. When Abraham called his son Isaac, these facts were vividly in his mind. (Hirsch)

21:4,5 The Talmud, Gittin 57b, notes that the verse (Psalms 44:23) ‘for your sake we are killed all the day’, can be applied to circumcision, a commandment that involves danger, and is painful to the infant and the father. Nevertheless, God’s holy people are ready to risk themselves and their children to comply with His will that they circumcise their newborn infants. The commentators liken the father who circumcises his own child to one who brings an offering and sprinkles its blood upon the altar, for it is extremely difficult for a father to bring himself to perform a circumcision on his own child.

How much more does this apply to Abraham who finally was given a son in his old age after all hope had been abandoned. Nevertheless, he did not perform his son’s circumcision through another, but he restrained his compassion and circumcised Isaac himself. All this because a deed is more meritorious if it is performed by oneself instead of through another, and so its performance should not appear to be burdensome. (Rashi; Kiddushim 41a)

This, then, is the significance of our verse: ‘And Abraham circumcised … as Hashem commanded him.’

21:6 At the news that Isaac was born, Abraham and Sarah both laughed. When he was born, the world laughed. God commanded that the idea of laughter be embodied in his name. Just as the belief and ideals of Abraham and Sarah were considered absurdities by their contemporaries, so too, God did not give them an offspring until an age when there was no rational reason for them even to hope that they could still bear a child.

Isaac, a patriarch of the nation, was given a name that expressed this universal ridicule, for Judaism will endure the mockery of humanity throughout its history ~ until the End of Days when all will recognize its grandeur.

‘…whoever hears will laugh..” – The Midrash asks: If Sarah was ‘remembered’ and had cause to rejoice, why should others rejoice with her? What did it matter to them? The reason for the universal joy was that when Sarah was ‘remembered’ many barren women were remembered along with her, many sick were healed on that day, many prayers were answered along with hers and there was much joy in the world. (Rashi)

21:7..Sarah would nurse children” – According to Abarbanel: Although Sarah’s childbearing had been foretold by God on many occasions, no mention was ever made of a capability to nurse. Therefore, Sarah explained ‘Who would ever have gone so far as to suggest to Abraham that Sarah would be capable of nursing this child born in old age?’ There is no doubt that this act of divine graciousness was done in Isaac’s honor so he should not have to nurse from Canaanite women.

Why the plural form ‘children’? – Many had scoffed and alleged that the old couple, Abraham and Sarah, had brought an abandoned baby from the marketplace and passed it off as their own child. Therefore, Abraham invited the skeptics to a great banquet and Sarah asked the women to come with their suckling infants. A miracle happened and Sarah nursed their children as well as her own! (Bava Metzia 87a; Rashi)

The Midrash notes that many matrons brought their children to be nursed from that righteous woman. The Sages said: ‘Whoever came, for the sake of heaven, (that their child might be saturated with the spirit of righteousness by drinking Sarah’s milk) became God-fearing.’ Rav Acha said: Even one who did not come for the sake of Heaven (but merely to see whether the miracle was really true) was granted dominion in this world.

According to the Midrash HaGadol, the plural expression ‘children’ teaches that the son given her was equivalent to many sons, in the manner of I Samuel 1:8: ‘Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ and similarly we derive the same inference from Joshua 24:3: ‘I multiplied his (Abrahams) offspring and gave him Issac’ – all of which indicates that Isaac was equal to many sons.

For, as Hirsch elaborates, Sarah perceived the whole future of a nation is Isaac. Through him she felt herself to be the mother of all Abraham’s descendants. Thus, it was not only one child she nursed but in nurturing him, she was bringing up sons, the destiny of the entire nation.

21:8 “..Abraham made a great feast..” – It was called ‘great’ because the great men of the generation attended: Shem, Eber, and Abimelech. For after Abraham prayed on his behalf, Abimelech became righteous and came to participate in Abraham’s feast.’

“..on the day Isaac was weaned.” – Instead of making a banquet when Isaac was born or circumcised, Abraham delayed the ‘great feast’ until the weaning ~ the day he began his Torah studies. It is not strange that Torah studies should be begun at so early an age, for, as the Midrash notes, Abraham was three years old when he recognized God. It is also well-known that paternal love reaches its peak not when a child is born or circumcised, but when he is weaned.

21:9 “..mocking.” – The verb as it occurs in Scripture has several connotations. Rashi, citing various niews in the Midrash, comments that the verb denotes the three cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder. In the root form, it denotes idolatry with reference to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:6); and adultery with the reference to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:17); in the related root form it refers to murder (11 Samuel 2:14)

Ramban suggests that this incident occurred on the day of the weaning and Sarah noticed Ishmael mocking Isaac or the feast itself. Sarah resented that the son of a bondwoman should presume to do this, which explains her reference to him as the ‘son of Hagar, the Egyptian.

21:10 The Expulsion of Ishmael – The Ninth of the Ten Trials of Abraham

Despite the apparent harshness of Sarah’s request, it must be understood that it was dictated by the conditions. In order to avoid the influences of Hagar and Ishmael upon the future house of Israel, it was necessary to banish them in such a manner that it was unmistakably clear that they were slaves, not integral parts of the family.

Israel’s repeated reference to ‘that slavewoman’, indicates the crux of her objection. In principal, the son of a slave could indeed have carried on the Abrahamitic tradition – that had been Sarah’s intention in giving Hagar to Abraham. But the unsuitable character of this particular slavewoman made such a course impossible. (Hirsch)

21:11 According to Ramban, the Torah emphasizes in this verse that Abraham’s displeasure was not caused by the prospect of casting out his maidservant, but specifically: on account of his son. God therefore told him in the following verse that he should not be displeased at all – neither for the son nor for the maidservant. He should rather listen to Sarah’s bidding for only through Isaac – and not Ishmael – would his name be carried on.

In the commentary to Avos 5:3, Ramban explains: ‘On account of his son’ and not on account of Hagar… This emphasizes the extent to which Abraham kept aloof from Hagar, having originally married her only to Sarah’s bidding. But all things being said and done, Abraham considered Ishmael his son. It is for this reason that God directed Abraham to ‘heed Sarah’ in regarding Ishmael as the ‘son of the maidservant’, and no longer to regard him as a son, for only in Isaac would his name be carried on. That is why in verse 12, God justified Sarah by referring to him as ‘the youth’ rather than ‘your son’, and in verse 14 which relates the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s concession to this concept is alluded to by the fact that Ishmael is referred to as ‘the boy’ rather than ‘his son.’

21:12 God comforts Abraham by telling him that Sarah’s directive is prophetic and in accordance with His will.

On that night, God appeared to Abraham and said, ‘Abraham, do you not know that Sarah your wife was destined to you from birth? She is your companion and wife of your covenant. Sarah is called your wife (17:19) but Hagar is only your handmaid. Everything that Sarah has spoken is true. Do not be distressed!’

From this reply, Radak concludes that in his innermost heart Abraham also had pangs on account of this woman who had served him for so many years and from whom he had begotten a son. In the earlier verse she is not mentioned because it was Ishmael and not Hagar who was the source of the conflict (or Abraham did not mention his pangs on account of Hagar’s expulsion out of sensitivity to the feelings of Sarah.) But God, Who knows the innermost thoughts of man, included her as well in His statement.

“ since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours.” – (i.e. ` for it is only through Isaac – not Ishmael – that you will have achieved continued posterity, for only the righteous Isaac will follow in your footsteps and be considered your genuine offspring and consequently inherit the divine covenant sealed with you.)

Ishmael will not be referred to as your child. For though Ishmael is referred to in verse 13 as “your offspring”, that is because he was born of you; he has much of his material and some of his spiritual being from you. But he cannot be your spiritual heir; he cannot be called ‘son of Abraham’. (Hirsch)

21:13 “..will I make into a nation.” – This was promised to Hagar in 16:10 and specifically to Abraham in 17:20. This was repeated Abraham now to reassure him, for he was afraid that harm might befall Ishmael in the desert. (Ramban)

“..for he is your offspring.” – Sarah was justified in matters concerning the inheritance which affected Isaac. But in other matters where Ishmael alone is concerned and which do not affect Isaac, then he is indeed Abraham’s seed.

21:14 Learning that the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is God’s will, Abraham complies at once.

According to Rashi’s interpretation of verse 11 that despite Ishmael’s shortcomings Abraham was distressed at having to banish him, Abraham did not give them silver or gold because he hoped that the departure would not be permanent; when Sarah’s anger would subside he would call them back.

Ibn Ezra comments that many wonder how the merciful Abraham could have banished them penniless? However, this question is groundless for it was God’s command that Abraham obey Sarah and expel them; he therefore, had no right to give them gifts against Sarah’s wishes. Ramban’s comments are similar: After Sarah’s death, however, he did give gifts to the children of his concubines. It may also be that he did give Hagar money, but the verse has no need to mention it.

“He placed them on her shoulder along with the boy,..” – The Hebrew text ‘along with the boy’ is unclear. Rashi’s understanding of the verse is that he placed the child, too, on her shoulder for he was unable to walk because Sarah had cast an evil eye upon him and a fever seized him.

Note: According to the Talmud Bava Metzia 87a, until the time of Jacob there was no sickness in the world. How then could Ishmael been ill? The Talmud refers to illness from natural causes; Ishmael’s illness, however, was the result of Sarah’s evil eye; such illness was not included in that dictum.

Gur Aryeh suggests that this phrase does not necessarily mean that she actually carried her seventeen year old sick son upon her shoulder, but that she supported him by having him lean on her shoulder.

Therefore, Hirsch explains that the phrase ‘placed on her shoulder’ is incidental. That is why the Hebrew does not read that ‘he’ placed the provisions on her shoulder. The identity of the one who placed the provisions is insignificant; what matters is the manner in which she was sent away: as a slave – and not as the wife of Abraham and the mother of his son. The conditions and purpose of this whole dismissal inexorably demanded this.

     “..and sent her off.” – The word is either to be taken literally: He sent her from his home, or that he graciously escorted her until the outskirts of the city, (Radak; Sforno)

“..she departed and strayed..” – According to Rashi, once in the desert and away from Abraham’s control (Zohar Chadash Ruth 82a) she reverted to the idolatry of her father’s house. (Midrash)

Gur Aryeh further explains why Rashi chose this interpretation rather than the more obvious one that she strayed and became lost. Had she not reversed to her evil ways, Abraham’s merit surely would have been sufficient for God to guide her through the desert. Because she was not wandering aimlessly, according to this interpretation, why did the water run out? This, Rashi explains in the next verse.

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