Part 2 - The arrival of Isaac
Something like sixteen or seventeen years had passed. Quiet years, in the main, for Abraham's settlement at Hebron, marked towards their close by two noteworthy events. The cities of the Plain, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim, were destroyed by fire from heaven on account of their wickedness, and Abraham's wife Sarai, at last, presented him with a son. For a short time after the destruction of the cities, Abraham with Sarai and Hagar and Ishmael, and the household, had migrated to Gerar, not far from the spring where Hagar had talked with the angel, but now they were all back at Hebron again and Isaac was being weaned and there was to be a great feast.
The birth of Isaac had of course changed the situation as regards Ishmael. The son of the first wife automatically took precedence as the heir and Ishmael now lost all his rights of first born. At his father's death he would be entitled only to such provision as his father made for him. Whether the sixteen-year-old lad was unduly concerned about this is not related and in all probability he was not. At any rate his mother had automatically become a freewoman at his birth and could not be enslaved again, so that for sixteen years past Hagar had enjoyed an acknowledged position as Abraham's second wife and there was nothing Sarai could do about that. Whether or not any animosity existed between the two women is not recorded but in all the circumstances it is hardly to be expected that relations were of the best. Sarai must have found it galling to reflect that the position existed in consequence of her own act, and need never have been instituted since she had after all given birth to a son of her own. Perhaps there was a nagging feeling that lshmael, when grown to man's estate, might try to trick her son Isaac out of his rightful inheritance. Sarai does not seem to have possessed the calm faith in Divine oversight that characterized Abraham. He appears to have been content to leave it all with God: in the meantime he probably had to step in to keep the peace at times.
All this is suggested by Sarai's evident vindictiveness at the time of the feast. Despite her fame as the wife of Abraham, the "father of the faithful", a dispassionate view of the record does not show her up in a very good light. The account says that she saw the son of Hagar "mocking". It does not say who was being mocked or what was the nature of the act but it is usually assumed that Ishmael was mocking or deriding Isaac, or the feast of which he was the centre. The word has a wide range of meaning, from the act of derisive or scornful laughter to that of making nonsensical sport or 'playing about' as we would say today. It is used in this latter sense of Isaac with his wife Rebekah in Gen. 26.8 and of Samson "making sport" for the Philistines in Jud. 16.25. It might well be that this is the sense of the word here, and that Ishmael was merely "larking about" with his young half-brother. Whatever it was, Sarai's ire was aroused and she went straight to her husband and demanded that Hagar and her son be expelled from the family circle and sent away. "Cast out this bondwoman and her son" she said contemptuously "for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son ". Sarai must have known that God had already told Abraham that Isaac was to be his heir; the established laws under which they lived guaranteed the same, but still she feared Ishmael as a possible supplanter.
Abraham was reluctant to agree. He loved his son Ishmael; he himself was the legal husband of Hagar as well as of Sarai, under the laws then ruling she was a wife and not a concubine, and his innate sense of justice and uprightness told him that whatever this lad of sixteen had done could not justify the action demanded by Sarai. In any case, under Sumerian law, Ishmael could not be disowned or deprived of his home. But Sarai was adamant and Abraham was evidently in great perplexity - until the Lord spoke to him.
This is where God comes back into the story. Abraham was to rest this matter, as he had learned to rest so many other matters before, in the providences of the Most High. He was to assent to his wife's wish and send Hagar and her son away. God would look after them and in due time lshmael would become the father of a great nation without affecting the destiny planned for the sons of Isaac. "Twelve princes shall he beget" the Lord told Abraham, "and I will make him a great nation" (Gen. 17. 20). History is witness to the striking fulfilment of those words. Ishmaelite tribes spread over all Sinai and down the Red Sea coast into all Western Arabia; some of the great nations of Roman and medieval times such as the Nabatheans were Ishmaelites, and the prophet Mahomet, founder of the Mohammedan faith, was himself a descendant of Ishmael. Ethnologically, a large proportion of the Arab world owes its descent to the son of Hagar.
There is something missing in the story telling how Abraham gave Hagar "a piece of bread and a bottle of water" and sent her away into the desert. No civilised man would treat any woman like that; certainly not a man like Abraham. The family encampment was at Hebron. To the south lay the dry and treeless desert, sun-baked by day and bitterly cold at night, which is today called the Negev and cultivated by colonies of Israelis under arduous conditions. There were inhabitants, roving Bedouins of the desert, and nearer the sea-coast, Abimelech king of Gerar and his tribes. But to send a woman out into that waterless waste, alone and unprotected, was about as good as sending her to certain death. One might ask why, if Hagar had to go, Abraham with all his wealth and abundance of servants did not provide an escort with sufficient provisions to take her back to her native Egypt where she might expect to find friends. Nothing of this is suggested. The logical conclusion is that the Genesis story confines itself to the bare essentials and that if the full circumstances were known the proceeding would not seem so heartless. A closer scrutiny of the background appears to be desirable.
Abraham was a wealthy and influential stock-breeder. His household was located at Hebron but various allusions in Genesis make it clear that his flocks and herds roamed over an extensive territory covering the Judean highlands between Hebron and Beer-Sheba, and westward to what is known to-day as Gaza. The area measured some thirty miles by forty. There were other inhabitants, Canaanites and Hittites. Abraham's friendship with Ephron the Hittite, another powerful stock-breeder, is well known and these all grazed their flocks and herds in the same land and got on fairly well together. Abraham, with his home and headquarters at Hebron, had shepherds and other workers scattered all over this country and there were probably settlements of these men and their families at strategic points. Almost certainly Beer-Sheba, in the far south, was one such point, for later on he transferred his headquarters to that place (Gen. 21). What more natural than that Abraham should have sent Hagar to one of his settlements, where she would have been provided for and their son grow to manhood, out of the way of Sarai? According to the story Hagar departed from Hebron, and "wandered in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba", where she uttered her despairing cry to God and was heard. It might well be, then, that Abraham had instructed Hagar to make her way to Beer-Sheba and there settle with his herdsmen of that vicinity. According to the account he sent her away "early in the morning" which means at first light, about 5.0a.m. The distance is twenty-six miles, through country where Abraham was known and respected and his employees to be found every few miles or so going about their business. Allowing for a rest in some shady place for the midday hours when the sun was fiercest, they could have been at Beer-Sheba before sunset. The piece of bread and bottle of water would then have been abundant provision for the day and all would have been well. Unfortunately Hagar missed her way. She may not have been far from the settlement at Beer-Sheba but she was in "the wilderness" and this would indicate that she had strayed from the haunts of men and was perhaps heading for the Negev desert beyond Beer-Sheha. The Water was spent; Perhaps in some panic she pressed on despite the heat of the sun, meeting no man and recognizing no landmark. The lad's strength began to fail first and he could not go on. In despair she laid him in the shade of 'one of the shrubs", the low-growing desert scrub, went away and dropped on the ground "a good way off' in a paroxysm of grief, "for she said, Let me not see the death of the lad. And she lifted up her voice, and wept".
It is significant that no word of reproach on her part is recorded. There seems to be unquestioning acceptance of the fate that appeared to be facing them both, and she gave way to grief without rancour. There, alone in the desert and in her extremity, the angel of the Lord came to her the second time. The angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven . . . . And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water, and she went, and filled the bottle, and gave the lad drink". All unknowingly, she must have wandered near a spring and in her distress not perceived it. So the promise was reiterated; Ishmael would live and inherit that which God had ordained for him.
It is a remarkable fact that of these two women, Hagar and Sarai, it was Hagar the bondmaid who on two occasions came in contact with the powers of Heaven for blessing; she saw God as it were in the angel in man's form and said reverently "I have seen God". Sarai the freewoman, with all her advantages, only saw the angel of God once, laughed disbelievingly at his words, lied about it afterwards, and earned the angel's reproach. (Gen. 18. 12-15). It would almost seem that the faith of Hagar, more simple perhaps, was at the same time more sincere and trusting. The Lord certainly spoke more tenderly to Hagar than He ever did to Sarai.
What happened next? The story leaves a gap. The succeeding verses in Gen. 21 tell of Ishmael's progress to manhood and a home in another part of the country. It is possible that Hagar did eventually find Beer-Sheba or whatever place to which she had been sent, and settled there with Abraham's workers. Abraham may well have visited his son there. But later on, perhaps as Ishmael grew to manhood, the question of setting up his own household must have occupied his mother's mind, and this may be the truth behind ch.21.20-21. "God was with the lad, and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer and he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt". Paran was a hundred miles or more to the south-west of Beer Sheba, on the way to Egypt and in the Sinai desert. This looks as though Ishmael determined to make his own career in a land as yet not closely peopled and well out of the way of Abraham's far-flung interests. There, in the desert, Ishmael settled, and married, and begat twelve sons, and earned himself a name which in the Arab world at least has achieved immortality.
It must not be thought that Ishmael was cut off from Abraham in later years. There must have been communication, perhaps some coming and going, between the two, and between Ishmael and Isaac, with whom friendly relations must always have existed. Gen. 25.9 reveals this. Upon the death of Abraham seventy years later 'his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah". Isaac must have known exactly where to find lshmael so that the latter could be present at the old home in time for the last respects. Sarai, of course, was long since dead.
Of Hagar we hear nothing more. Whether she ever saw her husband Abraham again we do not know. We leave her, the matriarchal head of a rapidly growing tribe of desert Bedouin, quiet and serene in her faith, perhaps always conscious of the goodness of God who had been to her all that He had promised.