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.
21:15 Rashi answers that question by saying that the water was used up because sick people, in this case, Ishmael, drink more water than normal.
Rashi does not consider the possibility that Abraham gave them insufficient water for the trip. Therefore, he comments that the water ran out ‘due to Ishmael’s unusual thirst’. However, the question arises, if Ishmael was obviously so sick that Abraham had to ‘place him on her shoulder’, why didn’t he provide additional water? The answer is either that Ishmael’s illness became worse or that Abraham mistakenly thought that his illness was not physical but a result of his temporary depression at being forced to leave his home.
“..cast off the boy..” – According to the Midrash, she had been carrying or supporting the ill Ishmael from the time they had left. Now that the water had run out and the child was dying, she gave up hope and cast him off.
21:16 Hagar’s behavior was disgraceful; it clearly revealed her flawed Hamitic character. A Jewish mother would not have abandoned her child even though her presence would have done no more than provide momentary comfort. For Hagar to leave because she could not bear to see his suffering is not compassion but selfishness. She considered not Ishmael, but herself. Therefore, although both Hagar and Ishmael wept, it was only the cry of the youth which God heard (verse 17). Her self-pitying tears were worthless in God’s eyes (Hirsch)
“..lifted her voice and wept.” – The Torah emphasizes that she ‘threw’ away the child in utter despair rather than gently place him down, but like all compassionate women she reviews her plight and is driven to tears.
21:17 Ishmael, weakened from thirst cried out, “Master of the Universe, if You plan to grant me water, please do so and let me drink now rather than suffer from thirst, for death from thirst is the cruelest of all deaths. Then God hearkened to his prayer.
Interestingly, God is here named in His Attribute of strict Justice: Elohim. Even in this Attribute, He was aroused to answer the boy’s prayers. God judges a person according to his present state, regardless of past or future wickedness. At that moment, Ishmael deserved compassion even under the Attribute of Justice.
This translation follows Rashi who explains that God told Hagar not to fear because Ishmael will be judged ‘according to his present deeds’ and not according to what he would become in the future.
Rashi continues to say that the angels protested with God: ‘Will You create a well for him whose descendants will one day kill Your descendants by thirst?’* God said to them: ‘But at the present, is he wicked or righteous?’ ‘He is righteous’, they replied. ‘Then I will judge him according to his present deeds.’
*When did Ishmael’s descendants kill Israel with thirst? At the destruction of the First Temple when Nebuchadnezzar carried the Israelites into exile, they were brought near the Arabs (Ishmael’s descendants). The thirsty Israelites begged their captors to lead them to their cousins, descendants of Ishmael who, they thought, would certainly pity them. They begged for water, and instead the Ishmaelites brought them salted meat and fish, and water-skins inflated with air. Believing that these skins were filled with water, they put them to their mouths, and the air pressure distended their stomachs and killed many of them. (Rashi; Midrash)
Mizrachi states that when the angels referred to Ishmael as righteous, they meant that he was innocent in terms of their particular accusation, for he had not yet slain anyone by thirst but he was guilty of the several transgressions implied by ‘mocking’ (verse 9). The angels did not cite those transgressions, however, either because the question at hand was whether or not he should be allowed to die of thirst and they therefore cited a transgression concerning thirst although it had not yet happened.
21:19 “..God opened her eyes..” – In reference to Adam and Eve in 3:17, Rashi explains that the passage ‘the eyes of both of them were opened’ is not to be taken literally, but refers to their eyes being opened with newfound intelligence and awareness.
21:20 “God was with the youth..” – Not only was God with the youth, but also with all that eventually were his: his donkey drivers, camel drivers, and household; they all prospered. (Midrash)
21:21 While in the desert of Peran, Ishmael married a woman by the name of Adisha, and ultimately he divorced her. Ishmael’s first, ill-fated marriage had been with a woman taken, apparently, without his mother’s consent. Hagar now chose for him a new wife by the name of Fatima from the land of Egypt. (See note written at Chapter 22)
21:22 The Alliance with Abimelech Knowing all the miracles which God did for Abraham, Abimelech came to seal a covenant with him. (Rashbam)
“..God is with you in all that you do.” – Abarbanel interprets Abimelech: ‘As evidenced by your departure from the locality of Sodom in safety; your defeat of the kings (Chapter 14); the birth of your child in your old age (Rashi); and also by the fact that your wife was saved from two powerful kings (Pharaoh and myself) ~ it is only because God is with you that I fear you and desire a treaty; not because of your wealth or might.’
Abimelech is surely not addressing Abraham as an individual, for nations did not seek treaties of peace with elderly people who may soon die. Abimelech plainly knew that God had promised that an entire nation would descend from Abraham and therefore sought the friendship of the nation’s ancestor. This was after the expulsion of Ishmael, Abraham was an old man who may not live long, the future lied with his barely weaned child, and the king of the land came seeking a treaty with the nation represented by the little boy. (Hirsch)
21:23 Abimelech realized that an oath taken by Abraham in the name of God would be the most binding oath possible.
The Hebrew word for oath is related to ‘seven’. Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, is the eternal symbol of God’s continuing connection with the universe as its Creator and Master. Thus, the person who violates an oath, calls down upon himself the wrath of God, Who is symbolized by the number of seven. Therefore, if someone say, as did Abimelech, ‘swear to me by God’, he says in effect, if you carry out this forbidden act, you will bring God’s wrath upon yourself.
Why did Abimelech request that the oath extend only as far as his grandchildren? According to Chizkuni, when Sarah gave birth, the kings of the earth were convinced that God would keep His oath to give Abraham and his descendants the Land, as He promised in 15:18. Abimelech, therefore, proposed that as a reward for the kindness he had shown Abraham, they undertake a pact that the land would not be taken from him, his son, or his grandson. More than this he could not ask because God had specifically said that in the fourth generation Abraham’s descendants would return to conquer the land. (15:16)
Ramban notes that Abimelech did indeed deal kindly with Abraham as evidenced by the fact that Abraham’s only complaint concerned the theft of some wells by Abimelech’s servants.
21:24 “..I will swear..” – According to Rashbam in 22:1, this alliance by which Abraham covenanted to forgo part of the land which had been promised to his descendants was a cause for the Akeidah.
The Talmud comments that this oath between Abraham and Abimelech remained valid until it was abolished by Philistine violations in the days of Samson. Not until Samson’s time do we find that the Philistines persecuted Israel although they later became bitter enemies of the Jews. In his time, the Jews were evil, and God gave them into the hands of the Philistines for a period of forty years (see Judges 13:1).
Note: The Sages considered it improper for Abraham to enter into a treaty whereby he limited his descendant’s rights to the Promised Land. In fact, the oath is credited with having prevented the Israelites in the days of Joshua from conquering Jerusalem where the Philistines had settled. Midrash Or Ha’Afeilah notes that when these seven sheep died, idolatrous images of them were placed at the entrance of Jerusalem, and when the Jews came to conquer the city, the Philistine inhabitants displayed this representation of Abraham’s covenant and prevented the Jews from possessing the city. These were the ‘blind and the lame’, which David ordered removed so the city could be taken (II Samuel 5:6-8).
21:25 Abraham’s servants had dug a well in the area of Beer Sheba which was on the extreme border of Philistia; but Abimelech’s servants came and took the well by force claiming they were the owners.
Abraham accordingly rebuked Abimelech for tolerating flagrant violence in his country, and also for harboring such wicked people in his household. (Sforno) Abraham uttered his displeasure at the lack of fear of God – that very God by whom Abimelech wished Abraham to take an oath – which allowed such violence to prevail in the land.
21:26 Abimelech responded to Abraham’s accusation by saying, ‘I do not know who did this thing.’ Further responding to Abraham’s insinuation that as king, Abimelech should have been aware of everything happening in his kingdom. Abimelech accused Abraham, too, of impropriety in not asking the king to intercede on his behalf. Therefore, it is Abraham’s fault that Abimelech remained ignorant of it until this very moment.
21:27 Having expressed his complaints, Abraham prepares the covenant. The commentators explain the ratification of the covenant took the form of an exchange of gifts. Abraham wished to be under no obligation for the gifts Abimelech had given him (20:14), so now that he was entering into their alliance in equality with him, Abraham made it a point to present gifts to the king.
Midrash notes that slaves and maidservants were not included among the reciprocal gifts which Abraham gave Abimelech, although they had been among Abimelech’s earlier gifts to him. This teaches that slaves who have undergone circumcision and midservants who have undergone ritual immersion, thereby converting to Judaism may not be given by their Jewish master to a non-Jew.
Abraham took seven female sheep and set them aside to symbolize the seven/oath significance of their word in their alliance. (Radak)
Note: The Midrash consistently stresses that God was displeased with this treaty. God said to Abraham:
‘You gave him seven ewes: As you live, I will delay the joy of your children for seven generations’ (for the Jews were not able to conquer Eretz Yisrael until seven generations had passed – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kahath, Amram and Moses.)
‘You gave him seven ewes: As you live, Abimelech’s descendants will slay seven righteous men of your descendants’: Hofni, Phineas, Samson, and Saul with his three sons. (See Judges 16:30; I Samuel 4:11; and 31:2, 4).
‘You gave him seven ewes: According your descendants seven sanctuaries will be destroyed’ (or cease to be used): The Tent of Appointment, the sanctuaries at Gilgal, Nob, Gibeon and Shiloach, as well as the two Temples.
‘You gave him seven ewes: My ark will therefore be exiled for seven months in Philistine territory’ (I Samuel 6:1).
21:30 “..that I dug this well.” – Rashi, drawing on the Midrash explains that to settle the disputed ownership of the well, it was agreed that the well would belong to whomever the water would rise up for when he approached the well. At the approach of Abraham and his flock, the water immediately rose up.
Thus, in Rashi’s interpretation of the events, these seven sheep were those at whose appearance Abraham’s rights in the well were clearly settled. He therefore set them aside to present to Abimelech, as testimony to his undisputed ownership.
21:31 Beer Sheba means ‘well of seven’ or ‘well of oath’. That place (the well or the region) was called Beer Sheba at that time. The city itself did not receive that name until the days of Isaac. (26:33)
21:33 Radak, in I Samuel 31:13 explains an eshel in a literal sense as a name of a tree. Abraham’s action of improving the site was a public demonstration of his now undisputed ownership of the well. And in the Rabbinic sense, it tells how he instilled in the residents of Beer Sheba that they, too, should greet visitors with every amenity: food, drink, and escort (attendance to their needs).
The mere planting of an orchard would not have been recorded in the Torah were it not that Abraham’s purpose was spiritual ~ to feed travelers and bring them close to him for spiritual nourishment as well, as the verse proceeds to inform us “And there he proclaimed the name of Hashem, God of the Universe”. Therefore the eshel is interpreted in its figurative sense as well.
Through that eshel the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, came to be called “God of the entire Universe’ by every passerby. For after the guests ate and drank at that eshel, they would get up to bless Abraham for his generosity. But he would say to them, ‘Bless God of Whose possessions you have eaten! Do you then think that you have eaten of what is mine? You have eaten from His, Who spoke and the world came into being!’
The Name ‘God of the Universe’ is unusual and does not appear again. A similar form, however, appears in Isaiah 40:28 where He is called ‘The Eternal God’.