Genesis 20-23: Trusting others makes us horribly, horribly vulnerable. What about trusting God?

Today we will be discussing chapters twenty through twenty-three of Genesis! This will be part seven of the series, for the others, click here.

An overview: After sojourning through yet another new land and telling the old lie about being his sister, Isaac is finally born. Once he is weaned, Sarah insists Hagar and Ishmael are sent away so that Ishmael does not share in the inheritance alongside Isaac. Abraham acquiesces after God assures him that it is the right thing to do. Abraham is directed to sacrifice his remaining son some time afterward, which he also agrees to do, but then God stops him just in time. Years after that, Sarah dies and is buried.

Chapter twenty

This is the journey through to Gerar where they run into Abimelech and the old lie is brought out again. In this chapter there is some excuse that Sarah really is his sister so it wasn’t a big lie, but that is also a lie. Even if she was really his sister, that doesn’t excuse leaving out that she is his wife. It is the “wife” part that Pharaoh, and now Abimelech, got in trouble for. I’ve heard of people talking and preaching on these chapters, but never seen them relayed together like this. First we have this repeat scenario where Abraham doubts that he will get through a situation even though God’s promises to him should assure him that he makes it out of this. If not, how could he have Isaac, the son that was just promised to him? How could God meet him in that very spot from chapter eighteen and find Sarah pregnant with his kid that time the following year? He couldn’t. Sarah could have the child from being pregnant already, but God included that Abraham would be there. This was doubt.

God doesn’t mess around with plagues this time. He visits Abimelech in a dream and just let’s him know in verse three:

Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.

Abimelech even double checks and makes sure that it is the woman who said the man with her was her brother? Then Abimelech gives them a bunch of stuff and assures Sarah that it will not look like she was compromised during her stay in any way.

Chapter twenty-one

Isaac is born. He is circumcised and weaned and then there’s a huge party. At the party, Sarah notices Hagar being mean to her son. I know it says that Hagar was just “laughing” in some versions, but mine even has a footnote that “laughing” is used in the sense of “laughing at him” and could be switched with “mocking”. To be weaned, Isaac should be about two years old back then. The story includes that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born and we should remember from part five that Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born. That makes Ishmael at least fourteen years old and possibly as much as sixteen or seventeen.

Sarah sees Hagar being mean to her son at his weaning feast and goes to Abraham and insists that she not stay with her son anymore. She may have thought it was the right thing to do for Abraham to have kids with someone else before she had her own, but clearly not anymore. That she doesn’t want Ishmael to share in the inheritance is the only reason given, but I don’t think it’s enough. Hagar was just being mean to a toddler. I’m sure there was plenty of justification in those days to be worried that she might be capable of doing more than that as this toddler grew and squeezed Ishmael out of the picture. There are actually lots of stories throughout time of inheritance and birth order and legitimacy being horrible problems. It sounds like she had plenty to worry about. Was it great for her to have Abraham kick them out? No, it was a nasty request and it didn’t sound like Abraham wanted to do. But he did it.
God’s approval is the final thing that he needed, so he did it. Not reading the passages together, I may have missed it, but this is the first time that Abraham decides to trust that God will fulfill a promise without him interfering with it. God has promised to make Ishmael a nation. God has already admonished Abraham for doubting that He could do anything, even make a barren woman have a child. God doesn’t even just say to go ahead and do it, He promises they will be okay in verses twelve and thirteen:

Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.

Abraham knows they will be okay. Actually, he’s told they will be okay, but he has a bit of a doubt problem. This is the first time that we see Abraham just trust that God will keep His promise. So he sends Hagar and Ishmael away with a bottle of water and some bread, not much for provisions. He probably could have done better by them, as suggested by The Woman’s Bible, but he has chosen to trust for the first time. It’s a hard to swallow, vulnerable, trust that probably aches a bit.

The story then follows Hagar as she and Ishmael travel and run out of water at some point. Between that she “put the child under one of the bushes” and that Abraham had put the boy on her shoulder at some point, it makes the child sound like he’s quite young here, but when you go back and read these chapters, remember that he is at least fourteen and likely to be sixteen. If he had to be “put” somewhere, he may have passed out or been exhausted from dehydration. Either way, she walks “the distance of a bowshot” and sits opposite him hoping not to watch him die out there. Who’s doubting now?

I don’t blame her, though. She’s having a bad day and things appear to have gotten bleak. God does answer them, her and the boy, and shows her a  well where she can get some water and give him a drink. That giving him a drink is the first thing she does lends to that he was probably dehydrated and not doing too well. Nevertheless, this wraps up with the information that God holds up his end and Ishmael continued to live nearby and took a wife from Egypt at a point not specified.

This scene is followed with a discussion between Abimelech and Abraham over a well and the construction of a new one. I have to wonder a bit if this new well is the one that Hagar had seen since it also resides in Beersheba, which was where she had run out of water.

Chapter twenty-two

The next chapter begins with God getting Abraham’s attention and saying this:

Take you son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.

Wait, isn’t there a promise that Isaac is supposed to fulfill still? It’s a crappy thing to ask a father to do and the wording stings a bit too. Did he not love Ishmael? Isaac isn’t his only son, but he is the only one that Abraham has possession of at the time. No matter how you slice it, the wording here sucks, though. There’s no indication of time passed here, either. All we have is that Isaac is old enough to speak and carry some firewood. This could possibly be accomplished by kid as little as six years old, what do you think? But Isaac could also be much older, it’s a timeless argument and gives way to another discussion. Could Isaac have overpowered his father?

He clearly knew what they were going up to do and questions his father as to where they were getting lamb from. Then he gets tied down and bound. Even if he wasn’t old enough to overpower his father, any talking child could wiggle off a platform. He gets bound and set up and just before Abraham is going to do the horrible thing, an angel comes down and stops him and they find a ram nearby. The angel says:

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

Okay, getting passed that they say “your only son” again, this is still not a fun moment. Abraham was ready, he had made whatever peace he was going to about it. He was finally trusting. He’d needed to be tested. Some might ask why, but I think we’ve covered that quite a bit. Abraham didn’t trust God or His promises until after Isaac was born. God had to test the extent of his trust now. It sucks, but I actually kinda get it now. First God tells him to give up his elder son, just as Sarah had asked, and then God tells him to give up his remaining son in a sacrifice. Surely Abraham still wondered how God’s promise was going to be fulfilled given that he promised repeatedly that it would happen through Isaac, but he went to do it anyway. What is not included is how much of this scene requires trust on the part of Isaac? It is obvious from his questioning of his father previously that he knows what goes into a sacrifice, once he was bound and placed on the table, he would have known what was about to happen. Did he lay there in trust of God or in trust of his father? Maybe the question will be answered later.

Before the chapter ends, we’re told of the children that Abraham’s brother has from his wife and from his concubine. So this was a normalized practice, having concubines.

Chapter twenty three

This one revolves around Sarah’s death, at 127 (again passed the lifespan that God says he will give to man back in part two). The chapter revolves solely around obtaining burial for Sarah. The owner of the land offers to give it freely to Abraham, but he insists on paying for it. We could guess forever as to why it’s so important for Abraham to pay for it instead of take the gift, but the reasons don’t appear to matter in the grand scheme of things thus far.

So there are my feelings and impressions on the Chs 20-23 of Genesis. Have you read them? What do you think?

Chapter links go to the ESV translations at but I’m reading from the ESV Global Study Bible, which is available for free on the Kindle Reading App.

There are occasionally poems and writing that stick with you. The parable of the old man and the young by Wilfred Owen is one based on the sacrifice of Isaac that has resonated with me since the first time I read it. Note that he is called Abram in the poem, which Owen does purposely to remind the reader that this is not the man of the covenant.

*amended for formatting purposes

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