Laughter finally comes to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Decades have passed. In their old age, it looked as if God’s promises would die out with them. They felt like a joke: the whole idea of a future nation under God’s rule seemed laughable (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). But Laughter (the meaning of Isaac) finally arrives. Even those who doubted now join the laughter:
Genesis 21:6 (ESV)
And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”
This is so characteristic of the kingdom story. Human rulers have to rush their acquisition of power. Mortal rulers have limited time to fulfil their goals. Not so the Lord: his reign endures forever (compare Psalm 90:2-4 etc). That’s why God’s ways can seem so slow to us.
Twenty-one centuries have come and gone since Jesus faced and defeated the powers of evil, and rose out of death to reign. Why is he taking so long? Why is evil still present? Why do people still die? Why has he not yet crushed all his enemies under his feet? “How long, O Lord?”
Don’t lose your hope. He will complete what he began. Laughter will come to his aching creation. The promised Son has received authority in heaven and on earth, and he will bring the nations under his authority. The throne will be returned to earth’s true ruler (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).
But we’re not there yet, and neither were Abraham and Sarah. Resentment rises in Sarah as her son’s rival joins in the laughter (21:9). There is nothing in this context to suggest Sarah being mocked: it’s the same word Sarah used in 21:6, the same root as the name Isaac. Sarah wants Hagar and her son rejected:
Genesis 21:10 (ESV)
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.”
As the narrator tells this story to the Jewish community, they are confronted by the reality that Sarah’s attitude dogged her descendants. Genesis keeps telling us that God’s kingdom extends to all nations, but some in Israel wanted gentiles excluded, inheriting nothing of the promises to Isaac.
Abraham is grieved at Sarah’s abusive proposal. He turns to YHWH who gives him permission to follow Sarah’s unjust advice. The family could not survive with this rivalry. With no inheritance and no payment for service, Hagar is “sent away”—a phrase that means both releasing a slave and divorcing a wife (21:14). To Hagar, it might as well be murder. She no longer cares about dying, but she can’t bear to watch her teenage son dying of thirst (21:15-16).
Compromised by his earthly representatives, the heavenly ruler again dispatches a heavenly messenger. He always wants to partner with us: that’s the goal of the kingdom project. But he’s not stuck when we misrepresent him: when necessary, he can call on other servants (angels) to fulfil his bidding.
Previously, Hagar had seen “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). With her water gone, she sinks in despair, seeing no way forward. God opens her eyes to see what she needs in that moment (21:19), and to assure her that he has a future for her and for her son (21:17-18). They live, because of God’s care.
The birth of Isaac is crucial to the story-line of Genesis. Yet the narrator spent twice as long recounting the story of Hagar (21:8-21) as he did on the birth of Isaac (21:1-7). God’s kingdom management extends to the nations, even the Ishmaelites who Sarah would have preferred to be without.
Some Christians make the same mistake, as we’ve seen. Since they see only Israel as God’s kingdom in OT times, they see only the church as God’s kingdom today. Open their eyes, O God, to see your management of your creation. You reign over the whole earth. You rule all nations, and all nations will ultimately acknowledge you.
There’s no place for Sarah’s meanness. This is a day of good news! To God’s people, a Son has been born! Share the laughter!
What others are saying
Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 339:
Even from the purely grammatical point of view מצחק without a preposition cannot mean “to mock” or the like.
[21:10] Sarah’s reaction to the sight of her own son playing with “the son of the maidservant” is the harsh demand that Abraham expel the maid and her son. It is not accurate enough to describe her motive as “proud disdain” (F. Delitzsch) or “jealousy” (H. Gunkel). It is rather an uncompromising and relentless intervention on behalf of her son and his future that moves her.
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 146–147:
The legal position of Ishmael is quite clear. Sarah had undertaken to recognize as her own the male offspring of the union of Abraham with Hagar, a match that she herself had initiated and imposed on her husband (16:2). Abraham, for his part, undoubtedly recognized Ishmael as his legitimate son, a fact repeatedly attested by a variety of earlier texts (16:15; 17:23, 25f.) and affirmed here (v. 11) as well as later on (25:9, 12). Did this status assure Ishmael automatic inheritance rights even after the birth of Isaac? Sarah’s formulation of her demand and the extreme length to which she was prepared to go point to an affirmative answer. The laws of Hammurabi (par. 170f.) and of the still earlier Lipit-Ishtar (par. 25) implicitly make inheritance rights a legal consequence of the father’s acceptance of the infant as his legitimate son. There is no doubt that Ishmael was entitled to a share of Abraham’s estate. The key to Sarah’s demand lies in a clause in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar where it is stipulated that the father may grant freedom to the slave woman and the children she has borne him, in which case they forfeit their share of the paternal property (cf. Judg. 11:1–3). Sarah is asking Abraham to exercise that legal right (cf. 25:6).
Read Genesis 21:1-21.