Read the Passage (NRSV)    Find more resources related to this passage  Print

Genesis 16:1-16; 21:8-21 – “God Was with the Boy” (Ishmael)


Hagar, the servant of Abraham and Sarah, bears a son by Abraham. He is showered with promises almost as extensive as those given Isaac. This raises the issue of how God will keep these promises to an "outsider."


Through Genesis 15, the story does not make clear the identity of the mother of Abraham's promised descendants (the specific promise regarding Sarah does not appear until 17:15-16), an issue not least in view of Sarah's barrenness. At the initiative of Sarah, Hagar is given to Abraham to enable him to bear children through her. There is no indication that this move is a lack of faith, for the identity of the mother has not been made clear by God and this means of bearing children was common in Israel and the ancient Near East (for example, 30:1-5).

Abraham becomes the father of a child through Hagar (named Ishmael at God's directive), and the story strongly suggests that he is a fulfillment of the divine promises (16:15-16). Indeed, Ishmael is at least thirteen years old before Sarah as a mother comes into view (16:16; 17:1).

In the wake of the birth of Isaac (21:1-7), a conflict within the family emerges, perhaps especially since Sarah is concerned about the place of her son Isaac's inheritance (21:8-11). As a consequence, Hagar and Ishmael are excluded from the family and wander at deep risk to their lives in the wilderness. But God comes to them where they are and preserves the lives of these outsiders. Indeed, "God was with the boy" (21:20; the same language that is used for Abraham in 21:22).

One of the most striking dimensions of these narratives is that God makes extensive promises to Hagar and Ishmael (16:10-11; 17:20; 21:13, 18). These promises are very similar to those given regarding Isaac (except for covenant, 17:21). What does it mean for God to speak such promises to outsiders and so commit the divine self to this unchosen community? What might such divine commitments mean to the descendants of Isaac and their relationship to the descendants of Ishmael? Where might the "chosen people" look for the fulfillment of God's promises? Is this fulfillment ongoing through the centuries into our own time? Might it be found among the present-day descendants of Hagar and Ishmael--that is, traditionally, the Arab people?

Genesis 16:1-16; 21:8-21

The Birth of Ishmael

16Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!’ 6But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ 9The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ 10The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ 11And the angel of the Lord said to her,
‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
   you shall call him Ishmael,*
   for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
   and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’
13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’;* for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’* 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi;* it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him* Ishmael.

Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.* 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Related Passages