Abraham’s expulsion of his wife and firstborn son is a significant event in the Patriarchal family. The exploration of this story will unveil many implications for the nations surrounding, for Ishmael as well as Isaac personally as well as shed light on the importance of election for the sake of national identity.
The story of Abraham banishing Hagar and Ishmael is located in Genesis 21:8-21. It presents as a necessary occurrence to safeguard Isaac’s inheritance. In exegeting this passage, however, it is evident that this story possesses more significance than the expulsion of Ishmael, but also emphasises the separation of Abraham’s treasured sons and the subsequent election of the ancestral family from other nations. This essay will explore the themes of Genesis that contextualise this passage, while also examining the narrative link with Genesis 22:1-19, in which God directs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This essay will suggest that God’s blessing was upon Ishmael, but the promise he made to Abraham resulted in the election of Isaac as the son to inherit the covenant, demonstrated through progeny and land.
Background of Genesis
In chronologically examining Genesis, the writings can be dated to the second millennium BC. Despite its ancient language, recent scholarship has altered the dating of Genesis and the entire primary history (Genesis-Kings 2) to the post-exilic Persian period. The Persian empire began in 550AD and extended to 330AD and was both expansive and expertly administrated. This period saw the blossoming of Greek culture including literature, philosophy, medicine, democracy, and architecture. During the Persian empires dominance, a global cultural exchange ensued that encouraged the emergence of thought and innovation from the likes of Archimedes, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The authors use of Greek histography in Genesis appears to be influenced by this and contributed to by sources including law, epic poetry, and exilic prophets that add interpretive depth to its composition. In order not to be consumed by these sources or the Greco-Persian culture, the redactor produced a distinctly Jewish theology within the historical narrative of Israel’s origin and early development. The authorship, although unknown, has been suggested to have been a school of priest historians centred around the Jewish temple. At this time the authors audience, the Jewish diaspora, were scattered throughout the Persian empire without land or temple. The origins of Israel and God’s promises to his chosen people would have provided them identity and security, especially through the ancestor narratives that commence with Abraham.
The title Genesis in Hebrew is beresit, translated as ‘in the beginning’. The themes contained in Genesis are an appropriate introduction to the history and theology of Israel. Whilst scholarly opinion varies regarding the overview of the book, the history of Israel is undoubtably a significant theme. Israel’s history is recounted from Abram’s calling in Genesis 12, followed by Isaac’s biography, and is finalised by the long Jacob novella that stretches to Genesis’ conclusion. Brodie suggests two meta-themes for Genesis including the history of Israel and human life. According to his view, the description of origins and the sequential documentation of history are tied to the permanent realities of life that are experienced by humans. The theme of human life, however, is suggested by Brodie to supersede that of history. Whilst history is an important record of events, the patriarch narratives communicate to the Jewish people the realities and significance of human life including generational cycles, human environments, and individuals’ responses to challenging events. Arnold cautions that when read in the context of Genesis 1-11, the focus upon Israel’s history and identity as God’s chosen people should not drown out God’s divine blessing on all nations and that they, along with the elect nations, are enveloped in God’s plans.
The Jewish genealogy detailed in Genesis is found in its eleven toledots. Toledot is translated as family or generations and creates a structure for Genesis with each section commencing with a genealogical list. The distinction of Israel from other nations becomes apparent following the Terah toledot. In Genesis 12:1-3, Abram is called away from Haran and his father’s household to a new land. It is here that the Abraham journey begins as the first novella (Genesis 12-25) of the ancestral narratives (Genesis 12-50). The call to a new land is the first of Abraham’s three ‘promise’ encounters with God. In Genesis 12, Abram is promised by God that he will become a great nation and that all the people of the earth will be blessed through him. The primordial history as recorded in Genesis 1-11, transitions to God’s revised plan to use Abram to father a family that will multiply and become God’s chosen people. In Genesis 15:1-21, God reaffirms this promise with a covenant and the assurance of a biological son for Abram. Finally, in Genesis 17:1-22, God introduces circumcision as the sign of the covenant and changes the ancestors’ names to Abraham and Sarah. In examining Abrahams encounters with God, it can be suggested that the blessing of God is evidenced through descendants inhabiting the land of Canaan, which should be considered when examining Genesis 21:8-21.
The context of Genesis 21:8-21
The events concerning the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:8-21 immediately proceed the birth of Isaac and his entrance into the Genesis storyline. It is noteworthy that these events are encompassed within the account of Abraham’s interactions with King Abimelech, which commence with the second of three sister-wife stories involving the patriarchs recorded in Genesis. In this event, Abimelech responds kindly to Abraham’s deceit, acknowledges that Abraham’s God is with him in all that he does, and resolves with the pair’s treaty at Beersheba. The second component of this interaction reveals that Abimelech is a Philistine. Importantly, they are not the only national representatives in the storyline. The birth stories of Lot’s sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi, the fathers of the Moabites and the Ammonites respectively, also form a broader context for the arrival of Isaac. While Lot’s children are born in disgrace and as a consequence of incestuous manipulation, presenting a stark contrast to the miraculous birth of Isaac, it can also be seen that Abraham’s family of promise is surrounded by other nations such as the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Egyptians. This is important for consideration because the separation of Ishmael from Isaac detailed in Genesis 21:8-21 is representative of the broader election and distinction of Israel from all other nations.
The separation of the promised son from the firstborn son
Genesis 21:8-18 documents the separation of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son, from Isaac, God’s promised son. Many commentators consider Ishmael’s dismissal occurred in order to remove him as a challenger to the son-elect.   Blum highlights that in verse 10 of this passage, gares, translated as ‘drive out’ (NASB) or ‘get rid’ (NIV), is the same word utilised for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden in Genesis 3:24, and Cain in Genesis 4:14. Despite the similarity in language, when considering the promise of blessing to Ishmael from God, it may be that the dismissal of Ishmael could also be contextualised as a necessary separation to bring God’s promise into fulfillment for both sons. Despite Sarah‘s desire to banish Hagar and Ishmael, examination of the passage in context of the Abrahamic narrative reveals a pattern of amicable divergence of the non-elect lines, similarly observed with Lot and Eleazar the servant. Therefore, the passage can be considered as necessary in tracing Israel’s genealogy but also in clarifying how Ishmael came to a life separate both geographically and socially from God’s chosen family. It is possible that this event does not just concern the expulsion of Ishmael and the protection of the elect line, but also highlights the inevitability of separation, which both Genesis 21:8–21 and Genesis 22:1–19 illustrate. Chung suggests the maidservant and her son to be heroic characters rather than secondary figures. This assertion is supported by Yahweh, the angel, Abraham, and Hagar all viewing Ishmael as treasured. Chung’s description may be overstated, however, as although Hagar and Ishmael respond to their circumstances with courage, they are secondary figures when understanding the narrative as predominately concerning God’s chosen family.
The passage of Genesis 21:8-21 commences with a feast celebrating Isaac’s weaning and that the fulfilment of God’s promise of a son. Bruggerman captures this stating that, “The text holds together the word of God and the birth of the child.” From the introduction of Abram and Sari in Genesis 11:30 as unable to conceive, God’s word that Abraham would be the father of many nations has rested upon the miracle of a son and the more distant reality of land. Arnold states that, “Abram must depend on Yahweh’s divine decree rather than his own ability to navigate his journey.” The unfolding elements of God’s promise in the three covenant passages emphasise this. God speaks and Abraham responds by obeying the initial call in Genesis 12:4, believing the Lord in Genesis 15:6 when he is promised an heir, and finally by obeying the circumcision directive in Genesis 17:23. God’s promise is fulfilled and the divine word becomes a reality in Isaac. Through the apparent theme of promises fulfilled as evidenced by progeny, the diaspora would have been encouraged to obey God’s word as Abraham did and reminded that Israel’s covenant with Yahweh will be fulfilled spiritually and in reality, through descendants and land.
The aforementioned celebration of Isaac’s weaning was interrupted by Sarah as she observes Ishmael mocking Isaac. She subsequently demands that Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar away. This event was the final episode in the rivalry between Abraham’s two wives. The poor treatment of Hagar reveals her secondary status to the covenantal family but greater than status, rivalry, or the mocking of Isaac, is Sarah’s desire to protect Isaac’s rightful claim to the inheritance. It is important to note in Genesis that the matriarchs, such as Sarah and Rebecca, and later Bathsheba during the monarch period, play a crucial role in determining the line of blessing and inheritance. This is observed in Genesis 21 as Sarah appeals to Abraham and influences the future and succession of her son.
Parallels with Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac
The separation of Ishmael caused Abraham great distress as Ishmael was the first born son and he was treasured by his father. The distress concerning Ishmael parallels with the distress Abraham experienced when directed by God to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham treasured both of his sons and twice he is confronted with the unimaginable request to let them go. Genesis 22 echo’s Abraham’s pre-Isaac pleading with God that Ishmael might live under his blessing. God assures Abraham that the Egyptian, despite being the non-elect son will be blessed, but that Isaac the younger brother will be the son of the everlasting covenant. The younger brother as blessed by God and usurping the firstborn’s birthright exemplified in this passage is an intriguing and pervasive theme in Genesis. One example of this is when Esau, Isaac’s firstborn, also becomes the non-elect son and the younger brother Jacob carries the covenantal promises. Expanding on this pattern, Genesis depicts Israel as chosen from among the nations, while other nations are still to be blessed by God as Ishmael was. The redactor ensures this motif brings great hope to the diaspora, reminding them of God’s everlasting covenant that cannot be compromised despite the existence, prosperity, and apparent dominance of other nations and surrounding people.
Abraham, reassured by God that Ishmael will remain blessed and become a great nation, sends Hagar and Ishmael away in Genesis 21:14. In this passage Abraham loaded water upon Hagar’s shoulders, which parallels with the wood he loaded upon Isaac in Genesis 22:6. Both of these materials represent the upcoming threat to his sons lives; a lack of water for Ishmael and wood for Isaac’s sacrifice. Hagar finds herself wandering the desert for a second time, but unlike the initial escape from Sarah’s mistreatment towards her recorded in Genesis 16, there is no immediate divine intervention. Consequently, Hagar wanders unprotected and without direction. This experience for Hagar contrasts to Abraham’s three-day journey in the wilderness to Moriah, in which he is afforded a plan from God and possesses clarity regarding destination. For Hagar and Ishmael, the food and water are exhausted and Hagar sets Ishmael under a tree to die. The suffering experienced by Hagar in this passage parallels with Abraham’s at Moriah, as both characters believed they would lose their sons. The narrative link between these passages appears to be intentional. Both Genesis 21 and 22 culminate with the future and the promise of blessing afforded to each son being brought into question.
Promises kept by God
God intervenes at the crying of Ishmael and fulfills Ishmaels name meaning, God hears. God then reaffirms the promise he made concerning Ishmael in Genesis 16:10 and Hagar sees the well and water that offers salvation for both her and her son. The story then progresses to Ishmael as a grown man, blessed and successful as God promised. Ishmael’s story concludes in Genesis 21:21 with Hagar, depicted similar to a patriarch, reassured of God’s promise and securing a wife for her son. This concluding scene possesses similarities with Hagar’s angelic encounter in Genesis 16:7-13, where God intervenes on behalf of the vulnerable, provides relief, the character sees what offers timely deliverance, and God reaffirms his promise. Likewise, as Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac, the angel intervenes providing relief and Isaac’s salvation is confirmed upon Abraham seeing a ram caught in the bushes. In these aforementioned accounts the deliverance offered by God is acquired once the character in the story sees, which conversely along with blindness (for example the men at Lot’s door and when Jacob does not see Leah), can be considered an interesting motif in Genesis.
It is apparent that there are a number of themes relevant in the interpretation of Genesis 21:8-21 including human life, Israel’s history, God’s promises, the value of progeny, election, and the blessing of non-elect people and nations. The narrative link between Genesis 21:8-21 and Genesis 22:1-19 reveals both Isaac and Ishmael are treasured by Abraham. Additional parallels include God’s intervention on behalf of the vulnerable and those in distress, his provision, and the reaffirming of his promises. Despite the similarities between the passages, there exist contrasts such as in Hagar’s and Abraham’s journey in the dessert and to Moriah respectively. In exploring Abraham’s banishment of Ishmael, it can be concluded that not only was this course of action necessary for the affirmation of Isaac as heir of the covenant, but it also enabled Ishmael to emerge as another blessed son and nation. For the Jewish diaspora, Isaac’s and Ishmael’s story offers reassurance concerning God fulfilling his promise to them as the chosen nation, while also revealing God’s value and concern for all nations.
Arnold, Bill T. Genesis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Barry, John D., David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
Blum, Edwin A., Trevin Wax. CSB Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.
Brodie, Thomas L. Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Bruggerman, Walter. Genesis. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982.
Chung, Il-Seung. “Hagar and Ishmael in light of Abraham and Isaac: Reading Gen. 21:8-21 and Gen. 22:1-19 as a dialogue.” The Expository Times, 2017: 573-582.
Dockery, David S. Holman Concise Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.
Gore, Charles, Henry Leighton Goudge, Alfred Guillaume. A New Commentary on Holy Scripture: Including the Apocrypha. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942.
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Longman, Tremper, III. How to Read Genesis. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2005.
Shectman, Sarah. “Israel’s Matriarchs: Political pawns or powerbrokers?” In The Politics of the Ancestors: Exegetical and Historical Perspectives on Genesis 12–36, by Jakob Wöhrle Mark Brett, 151-165. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.
Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.
 Blum, Edwin A., and Trevin Wax, eds. CSB Study Bible: Notes (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 3.
 Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 81.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 51.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 71.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 82.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 89.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 89.
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 95.
 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 132.
 John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 22.
 Genesis 20:1-18
 Genesis 21:22-34
 Genesis 19:30-38
 Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 255.
 Edwin A. Blum and Trevin Wax. CSB Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 2.
 Charles Gore, Henry Leighton Goudge and Alfred Guillaume. A New Commentary on Holy Scripture: Including the Apocrypha (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), 22 .
 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 22.
 Blum, Edwin A., and Trevin Wax, eds. CSB Study Bible: Notes. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017, 42.
 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, 71.
 Genesis 15:3
 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, 71.
 Chung Il-Seung, “Hagar and Ishmael in light of Abraham and Isaac: Reading Gen. 21:8-21 and Gen. 22:1-19 as a dialogue.” The Expository Times (2017): 573.
 Walter Bruggerman. Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 183.
 Walter Bruggerman. Genesis, 180.
 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, 131.
 Genesis 21:9-10
 Sarah Shectman, “Israel’s Matriarchs: Political pawns or powerbrokers?”, in The Politics of the Ancestors: Exegetical and Historical Perspectives on Genesis 12–36, ed. Jakob Wöhrle Mark Brett (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 153.
 Walter Bruggerman. Genesis, 183.
 Genesis 17:18-19
 Genesis 25:23
 Chung, “Hagar and Ishmael in light of Abraham and Isaac: Reading Gen. 21:8-21 and Gen. 22:1-19 as a dialogue”, 581.
 Genesis 19:11
 Genesis 29:25