YHWH’s “visiting” Sarah refers to his turning attention to her to fulfill his previously spoken word that she would give birth to a son. Sarah did conceive and bear a son to her aged husband, 100-year-old Abraham. The boy’s father called him Isaac, meaning “laughter.” As God had commanded, Abraham circumcised his son on the eighth day. (21:1-5)
Overjoyed about having given birth to a son, Sarah said, “God has prepared [literally, made] laughter for me. Everyone hearing [about it] will laugh with me” (“rejoice with me” LXX]). “Who could have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons?” (“Who will report to Abraam that Saara is nursing a child?” [LXX]) “Yet I have borne a son [to him] in his old age.” No one could have imagined that Sarah would be so blessed as to have a son when she was well past childbearing age. (21:6, 7)
When the time came for Isaac to be weaned, Abraham prepared a big feast to mark this joyous occasion. At that time, Sarah noticed Ishmael, the son whom the Egyptian Hagar had borne to Abraham, “playing” with or making sport of Isaac. In his letter to the Galatians (4:29), the apostle Paul referred to what Ishmael did with Isaac as “persecuting” him. Fearing for the future of Isaac, Sarah requested that Abraham dismiss Hagar and her son from the household, insisting that the son of the slave woman Hagar was not to be an heir with Isaac. (21:8-10) Referring to the previous feelings of Sarah toward Ishmael, Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3) wrote, “She at first loved Ishmael … with an affection not inferior to that of her own son.” After Sarah had borne Isaac, however, she was unwilling for Ishmael to be brought up with him. She felt that Ishmael was too old for Isaac and feared that, after Abraham’s death, Ishmael would be able to inflict injuries on Isaac.
Sarah’s request to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household proved to be most displeasing in the eyes of Abraham, apparently because he was very attached to his son Ishmael. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3), Abraham considered it to be the “greatest barbarity” to dismiss the youngster and a woman without any means of support. God’s purpose respecting Isaac, however, was better served without having Ishmael present in the household. Therefore, he directed that Abraham listen to Sarah and follow through on sending Hagar and Ishmael away. In view of Ishmael’s being Abraham’s “seed” or offspring, God promised that he would make Ishmael into a great nation. This promise assured that Ishmael would survive and become the forefather of many descendants. (21:12, 13)
Early in the next morning, Abraham dismissed Hagar and Ishmael, giving her bread and a leather bag filled with water. She wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba (a place at the edge of the desert south of the mountainous region of what later became a part of the territory of the tribe of Judah). Eventually the water supply was exhausted and Ishmael’s strength diminished to such an extent that Hagar had to support him as they walked. Apparently when her own strength gave out, she withdrew her support and dropped her teenage son (17:25) under the shade of a bush. Hagar then walked away, seated herself at a distance of bowshot from Ishmael, and began to weep. By positioning herself a bowshot away from her son (or what would have been the usual distance required for an arrow to reach its target), Hagar wanted to avoid seeing her son’s agonizing death throws. Her extreme distress appears to have led to beclouding her vision so that she was unable to see a nearby well, but an angel of God came to her aid. “From heaven” or the sky above her, Hagar heard the angel’s voice asking her as to what troubled her and telling her not to fear, for God had heard the voice of her son. The angel instructed her to raise up her son, taking fast hold of him with her hand, and assured her that he would be made into a “great nation” or come to have many descendants. (21:14-18)
Hagar’s confused state ended, and she saw a well from which she filled her leather bag with water and gave her son a drink. The opening of her eyes to see the well is attributed to God. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 3), Hagar thereafter met some shepherds who came to her aid. From that time onward, God was with Ishmael as he matured and continued to live with his mother in the wilderness of Paran (probably in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula). He became an expert archer and so, as a skillful hunter, would have been able to procure sufficient food. In time, Hagar obtained an Egyptian wife for her son. (21:19-21) Targum Jonathan says that Ishmael initially married Adisha whom he later put away, and that the wife Hagar took for him from the land of Mizraim (Egypt) was named Phatima.
Meanwhile Abraham and his household continued to prosper. That household must have been impressively large, consisting of hundreds of servants. (Genesis 14:14) Apparently for this reason, Abimelech the king of Gerar (not far from the city of Gaza [Genesis 10:19]) considered it advisable to conclude a covenant with Abraham to assure his future security. With the commander of his army Phicol (Phikol or Phichol [LXX]), Abimelech came to where Abraham was tenting. Regarding Abraham, he acknowledged, “God is with you in everything you do.” He then requested that Abraham swear to him by God that he would “not deal falsely” with (“not wrong” or “injure” [LXX]) him nor his posterity (“nor [his] name” [LXX adds]) and that he would act toward him and his land as he had acted with “loyalty” (“righteousness” or “justice” [LXX]) toward him. Although Abraham agreed to swear to this, he raised the issue about the well that he had dug but which the servants of Abimelech had seized. After Abimelech responded that he did not know who was responsible for this deed and that this was the first time he had heard about it, Abraham took sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men concluded a covenant. (21:22-27)
Additionally, Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs. When Abimelech asked why he had set them apart, Abraham replied that the animals were for him to take and would serve as a testimony that he had dug the well which the servants of Abimelech had seized. Abraham then gave the name Beer-sheba to the site where he and Abimelech had sworn an oath. This name means “well of an oath” or “well of seven,” recalling either the oath or the seven ewe lambs that were given to Abimelech. After the covenant had been concluded, Abimelech and Phicol returned to their land, the “land of the Philistines.” (21:28-32)
At Beer-sheba, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree. Unlike many other trees, the tamarisk thrives in areas with limited annual rainfall. Also at Beer-sheba, Abraham “called on the name of YHWH, the eternal God.” He doubtless erected an altar there, offered sacrifices, and prayed. For a considerable time (literally, “many days”), Abraham continued to reside in the “land of the Philistines.” (21:33, 34)
From the time of Isaac’s birth, the Jews (according to Josephus [Antiquities, I, xii, 2]) circumcise their sons on the eighth day. The Arabians, however, do so “after the thirteenth year,” for it was at that age that Ishmael, “the founder of their nation,” was circumcised.
The dismissal of Ishmael from the household of Abraham did not sever all family ties. At the burial of Abraham 75 years after Isaac’s birth, Ishmael was present, indicating that contact with the family of Abraham had continued. (Genesis 25:7-9)
In verse 15, the reference to Ishmael as a “child” is not to be understood to mean that he is being represented as a young child whom his mother had carried. The Hebrew word yéled can designate a “young man” (Genesis 4:23) and, therefore, could be used regarding the teenager Ishmael.
According to the Septuagint (21:22, 32), Ochozath and Phikol (Phicol) accompanied Abimelech. Ochozath was his nymphagogós (literally, “leader of the bride”) and may here designate a “trusted companion.”
For this early period in history, no extant archaeological evidence links the Philistines (21:32, 34) to the region in the proximity of Gaza. This has given rise to the view that the designation “Philistines” was appropriated for the earlier inhabitants whose ethnicity was either not known or not well-known at the time the Genesis account came to be in its final form.