Genesis 21

In this chapter the great promise of Isaac is fulfilled (verses one through two), and with it the narrative arc of Genesis begins its shift to the stories of the descendants and the tribes and nation that they develop into. All of that though is yet to be, and so maintaining a focus only on the present section, what may we take from it? To me as a reader one element stands out most centrally, a recurring theme of sorts (a symbol) that links the disparate parts: Water.

With Isaac born and growing, Sarah becomes jealous of Abraham’s son with Hagar, Ishmael (who, let us not forget, was Sarah’s servant and about whom she suggested to Abraham that they be sexual partners in order to have a child in lieu of herself: 16.1-4), and seeks to drive them both away. (This again is a repeat of Chapter 16; scholars following source criticism ideas assign that version to J (the Yahwist) and this to E (the Elohist).) God/“God” tells Abraham not to worry about Hagar and Ishmael and to listen to Sarah (verse twelve); at this point we are probably very curious how things will turn out, especially given that what happens is Abraham pushes them out into the wild with nothing but “some bread and a skin of water” (verse fourteen). This is our first instance of water.

That source of life-giving sustenance quickly runs out – of course – and Hagar despairs, as would we, and as we even merely as readers do too. Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush and moves away so as not to see him die (verses fifteen to sixteen). If our memories hold we recall that Ishmael was already thirteen years-old back in Chapter 17 (17.25: “and his [Abraham’s] son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”), and so for Hagar to now be putting him in place as one would a very young child seems quite odd; and it is, but these stories are simply that – stories – they are not histories, and if we approach them that way then details like this will tend to ruin the entirety. If this chapter is from another author, editor, or redactor than the earlier telling of Hagar and Ishmael’s wandering then we can easily bracket out the image of Ishmael as a young man and replace it with one of him as a baby or infant. Nothing is lost thereby and the tale carries on. However we respond to such discrepancies in the text, a moment of grace follows: God/“God” “open[s] her eyes” (a wonderful metaphor) and Hagar sees “a well of water” (verse nineteen). Let us take this “sees” as meaning “understands”, and its object as the trust that providence can come when we do not expect it, that life can be renewed. This is our second appearance of water.

Finally there is the negotiation between Abraham and Abimelech over a well: Abraham states that the well he dug was forcibly taken by Abimelech’s servants, and Abimelech claims to know nothing of it. Rather than insisting or resorting to violence, however, Abraham instead essentially purchases the well for the likely handsome sum (thinking in nomadic and pastoral terms) of seven female sheep (verses twenty-five through thirty-two). Abraham now has secure property, the land upon which it rests and forms a part, and the means to continue to provide for his family and livestock. This is our third designation of water.

Water as a token of parting, quite possibly given in shame – one would think at the very least with a sense of regret that things had not been different – and in foreboding; water as unforeseen blessing and salvation when it was most needed; and water as marker of days and years yet to unfold but which have been made more sure. Water pointing to the past, to the present, and to the future; water as that which flows beneath all the human drama in play; water, I think the chapter is telling us, as sign for God/“God” itself.

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