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Gen 21:8-21

Genesis 21:8-21
Background to the Book of Genesis

Literary Features:
Genesis is a fascinating book which begins with two creation accounts of the world in Gen 1-3, continues with stories about humanity in general through to the end of Gen 11 before we come to the specific journeys of Abraham. Gen 1-11 is often referred to as universal history or primeval history and is applicable to all of humanity. The genealogies enable Abraham to be descended from Adam and Eve. Indeed, another purpose of the genealogies is to divide these eleven chapters as follows into a 5-fold division:

  • Gen 2:4a heaven and earth - these are the generations of the heavens and the earth ...
  • Gen 5:1 ff Adam - This is the book of the generations of Adam.
  • Gen 6:9 Noah - And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth
  • Gen 10:1 Noah’s 3 sons - These are the generations of the sons of Noah. ...
  • Gen 11:10 Shem - These are the descendants of Shem ...

Besides the suggested division above, scholars have proposed different recurring literary patterns such as sin, speech, punishment - Gen 1-3, 4, 6-9,11 (Westermann) in Gen 1-11: von Rad includes forgiveness: sin, speech, forgiveness, punishment. Whether one wants to go along with any of the above suggestions about the literary divisions or patterns in Gen 1-11, there is almost unanimous agreement that there is a tightly formed literary pattern and we are meant read it as a unity. Creation of the world and humans is torn apart when the relationship between God and humans is told in Gen 3 and between humans and humans in Gen 4. One of the literary patterns which may be considered to not only be present in Gen 1-11, but also extend through into the remainder of the book of Genesis is that connected with the command in Gen 1:28 - ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Not only does the phrase occur in a number of places, but the lists of genealogies show that indeed the people have been fruitful and multiplied - Gen 5, 10, 11. The genealogies continue in Gen 12-50 at particular points: Gen 25:12 (These are the generations of Ishmael), Gen 25:19 (These are the generations of Isaac), Gen 36:1, (These are the generations of Esau), Gen 37:2 (These are the generations of Jacob). The genealogies not only show that God's command in Gen 1:28 has been followed, but the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, Gen 15:5 have come true. That is, Abram will have many descendants and become a great nation. At the point where each of the genealogies are listed we have the story of that person in the following chapters. Abraham in Gen 11:27-25:18: Jacob in Gen 25:19-36:43: Joseph, Judah and Jacob's family in Gen 37:1-50:26. There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Book of Genesis all of which come into the category of unconditional or promissory. Unlike the condition covenant in Exod 19 in which God seeks a response of obedience from the people, the covenants in Genesis are based on first person pronouncements by God. In Gen 9 it is an universal covenant with all living creatures, but once we move into Gen 12 the covenants are specific to Abraham and his descendants. The relationship has been set up from creation when humans were created to be in special relationship with God (Gen 1:26-27).

Attempts have been made since the 18th century to explain such things as: a different word used for God -Yahwist or Elohim: multiple versions of the same story = Abraham’s pretence, Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18, 26:6-16: repetition within the same story = Gen 6:5-7, 11-12: contradictions - for example, Exod 20:24 gives permission to offer sacrifices at numerous altars v Deut 12:13-14 which forbids this and restricts sacrifice to one place only or Gen 7:17 in which the flood remains for 40 days v Gen 7:24 in which the flood remains for 150 days and other examples. The classic theory suggests that the Pentateuch has a number of written sources as well as the early oral traditions which account for the sort of differences mentioned above. In Gen 1-11 there is the Priestly source which can be seen in Gen1:1-2:4a, 6:9-22, some verses in Gen 7-8, 9:1-17, 10:1-7, 11:10-27 and the remaining texts come from the Yahwistic source. Some characteristics of what is know as the 'P' source are: the use of the Hebrew term toledoth/generations, the writing is sophisticated and often in a liturgical style (Gen1:1-2:4a), in the creation account God speaks and it happens, humans are made in the image of God, the covenant is unconditional and can be made with the animals, and an abiding concern to state numbers and years. The Yahwistic source uses myths and sagas to tell the story, God and animals speak (anthropomorphic), the world is very small (Gen 2:10-14) compared with the universal world of the 'P' source (Gen 1:1-2:4a).

Historical: (History within the text). Gen 12-50 tells the stories about Abram and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and begin wandering around the land and then into Egypt. These stories began as oral traditions passed down within the tribes long before they became part of the written tradition. It is the way many cultures remember their history, but in the Western world we became influenced by the enlightened definition of 'history' which understood 'history' as written facts from an objective viewpoint. This has caused many scholars to debate whether the Patriarchs can be proven to be true people through archaeological means. Other scholars say that this is not possible and therefore they cannot be historical people. If this argument was applied to Bedouin tribes or Australian Aboriginal people we deny them any history. History as oral tradition passed down is the history of a people, and does not need to be justified by Western values. The people are portrayed as very human with all their faults and strengths - they lie, deceive, steal, test God, they have courage, journey into the unknown, seek God, question God and are obedient. These traits apply to men and women, and many of the women (Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar) play a significant role in the working out of the promises of God. I encourage people to read these stories for themselves. After the story of Abram in Gen 11:27-25:18 the next block, Gen 11:19-36:43, tells us about Jacob and finally about Joseph in Gen 37:1-50:26. At the end of the book we are placed ready to begin the story of Moses, the release of the Hebrews from Egypt and their wanderings in the wilderness.

We know something of this period from the discoveries of the Mari Tablets - 20,000 tablets in old Akkadian of which 5,000 were official correspondence (J.Bright. A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 57). Mari was a great city with highly sophisticated living conditions and the centre of trade. Terah and his family would have travelled through Mari to get to Haran. Mesopotamia was a centre of civilisation in the Far East in the same way that Egypt was in the Near East.

It is a period in which some people lived in cities and others lived a semi nomadic life travelling with their herds and stopping for periods, but rarely settling to an agrarian life style. We seem to have examples of both these life styles within the story of Abraham.

Context of Genesis 21:8-21
This week's lectionary reading follows on directly from Gen 21:1-7 which told us of the birth of Isaac. To see the full context simply go back to last week's Web page. It is worthwhile bringing to mind that we, as the listeners, have already become acquainted with Hagar in Gen 16 in which Hagar is offered to Abram in order that he can have a son because Sarai has failed to conceive. Sarai is jealous and throws Hagar out of camp into the wilderness where she meets an angel who instructs her to return and call her child Ishmael. At the point when Isaac is weaned Sarah sees Hagar's son playing with Isaac and commands Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son. After the text set for this week's lectionary we have another encounter between Abimelech to whom Abraham had tried to pass off Sarah as his sister in Gen 20. This time Phicol, Abimelech's army commander is present and a covenant is enacted in which the foreigners recognise that god is with abraham and Abraham swears he will not deal falsely with the King of Gerar. Directly following this is a complaint by Abraham to Abimelech claiming that Abimelech had seized a well of water. Abimelech says he knows nothing of it so Abraham gives him sheep and covenant and they make another covenant. It is quite odd why Abraham gives the sheep and oxen, but the story names the place as Beersheba which is important to the J. Several years have passed when we move forward into Gen 22 and Abraham is commanded to take Isaac to offer him as sacrifice and we deal with that story next week.

Insights/Message of Genesis 21:8-21
Literary:nnnnnVerse eight gives us an indication of how much time has passed since the birth of Isaac in vv.1-7. Weaning is around three years in the ancient world. Sarah speaks to Abraham and commands him to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp. Sarah has seen Ishmael, "playing, mocking, laughing, reviling" her son, Isaac - these last three words are not in the Hebrew. The verb used in v.9 (Heb: sahaq) is a play on the name of Isaac. Abraham has some feelings about his son Ishmael, but God has heard and tells Abraham to carry out Sarah's wishes. Abraham is reassured by God that Ishmael will become a great nation also and the promise in Gen 12 will come true on all fronts. V.14 tells us that Abraham rose early in the morning to expel Hagar from the camp and in Gen 22:3, Abraham rose early to set out with Isaac. One instance is to expel a son to possible death in the wilderness and the other time was possible death for a son under the knife. The story moves to focus on Hagar who has finished the water skin given by Abraham (vv.15-21). She moves away from her son because she doesn't wish to witness his death. The play on the verb 'to see' carries through in vv.15 and 18 (she did not wish to see him die: she sees the well of water). Ishmael weeps and God hears him, but speaks to Hagar, indeed Hagar is discounted further by God never referring to Ishmael as her son but only 'the lad' ( Trible:26). God reiterates the promise from Gen 16 that Ishmael will be a great nation. When Hagar opens her eyes a well has appeared and they live in the wilderness of Paran. Hagar provides a wife from Egypt, her home country, which is the only time in the Old Testament that a mother provides a wife for her son (Blenkinsopp: 489).

Message:  Old Testament story depicts many human characteristics. Here we have the jealousy of Sarah. Whether the jealousy is provoked because Ishmael is laughing at Isaac mockingly, or laughing with him, we cannot tell. However, as long as Ishmael remains in Canaan with the family he is a threat to Isaac's inheritance (Trible:21). Hagar is treated by Sarah as Sarah herself was treated by Abraham in Egypt. And in both instances we hear nothing of the feelings of either woman - Sarah at the time of her entry into the Egyptian harem and Hagar at her expulsion. Abraham is caught between the love of his first born son and the demands of his wife. The picture of God is interesting as Sarah is supported by God against Abraham and God repeats Sarah's description of Hagar as the 'slave woman'. In Gen 16:2, Hagar is Sarah's maid given to Abraham as a wife in order to bear Abraham's child. There is no speech between Abraham and Hagar when he sends her out, and the silence serves to emphasis the cruelty of sending a mother and child into the wilderness with only one skin of water. Hagar comes to represent many people who are cast out from family, home or country: a runaway child from abuse, a refugee, the abused wife, the homeless and the list of those represented by the figure of Hagar is very long. Trible names Hagar as a person who is the recipient of many first in the Old Testament - the first person to receive a divine messenger; the only person to name the deity; she is the first one to bear a child to the Patriarch Abraham; the first to hear an annunciation; the first to receive a divine promise of descendants and the first to weep for a dying child (Trible:28). We need to remember that nearly one billion Muslims call Abraham, father, and we are to relate to each other. God supported and cared for Hagar and Ishmael and we are all inheritors of the faith of Abraham. The promise that the offspring of Abraham will become a great nation (Gen 12) is carried forward in this chapter with the assurance that Ishmael will not die in the wilderness, but neither is he going to threaten Isaac's inheritance of the land of Canaan.

Resources/Worship for Genesis 21:8-21
:This could very well be acted out with children taking parts and using their imagination about how the characters would be feeling. It could bring it alive.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Genesis, the author is R.W.L.Moberly, 1992. (Genesis 12-50)

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist companion to Genesis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. ed. Genesis. Feminist companion to the Bible (Second Series), 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Int. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox 1982.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The world of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Fretheim,Terrence E. "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol 1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1994.
Hamilton,Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.
---. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
*Moberly, R. W. L. Genesis 12-50. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
*Rogerson, J. W. Genesis 1-11, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996.
Scullion, John J. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, c2001. Call Number: 222.11077 W237g
Wenham,Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
---. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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