While Ishmael doesn’t receive much attention in the Bible as compared to his half-brother, Isaac, he does receive plenty.
The name Ishmael occurs forty-eight times in the OT, though all the references outside Genesis refer to someone other than Abraham’s son by Hagar. In Genesis, Ishmael, the son of Abraham, is referred to seventeen times by name. But in addition, he is often referred to without his name being mentioned.i
I’m writing a commentary on Genesis for our OT commentary, which we hope to have in print by the end of 2026. Here are some of my comments about Ishmael in Genesis 21:
21:8-9. Nowhere in this chapter is the name of Hagar’s son mentioned. But the name of Sarah’s son is given. That Moses does not specifically mention the name of Hagar’s son is quite telling.
Hagar’s son was thirteen when Isaac was born. He was around sixteen when Isaac was weaned.
Probably out of jealousy for all the attention being paid to his young half-brother, Hagar’s son scoffed at the celebration for the weaning of Isaac.
Hagar’s son should have rejoiced, not scoffed. Isaac was, after all, the promised son. But this meant that Hagar’s son would not have the rights of the firstborn. He would not receive the double portion of Abraham’s inheritance. Indeed, he would not receive any inheritance at all.
While Hagar’s son should have had a more mature and spiritual reaction, we can certainly understand his jealousy and anger.
The word translated scoffing in v 9 is the word for laughter in v 6. The words are tsaheq (laughter) and metsaheq (mocking). Moses is making a play on words. Laughter is the response of faith. It is a spiritual response. Mocking (or derisive laughter) is the response of unbelief. It is a fleshly response.
This is not to suggest that Hagar’s son was unregenerate. It is likely that both he and Hagar were believers (see vv 17-18). Surely Abraham would have evangelized his entire household. But Hagar’s son was not acting in faith when he mocked Isaac.
21:10-14. Sarah saw in Hagar’s son a threat to Isaac’s life and inheritance. Would Hagar’s son actually kill Isaac? After all, Cain killed Abel for less reason than this.
God had chosen Isaac, not Hagar’s son. Sarah therefore demanded that Hagar’s son be cast out.
Paul sees in this incident a divinely intended allegory (Gal 4:21-31). Hagar’s son is the child of a slave woman. Isaac is the son of promise, and he is the son of a free woman.
Hagar’s son represents the bondage being experienced in Jerusalem when Paul wrote, and that is experienced by any Christian who is led astray into legalism by Judaizers. Isaac represents the freedom that church-age believers experience when we live by faith.
The flesh and the Spirit are what Paul sees in this account from Genesis 21. The flesh and the Spirit are not compatible. We must cast out the flesh–legalism–in order to gain the inheritance of ruling with Christ (Gal 6:7-9).
Grace triumphs over legalism.
Believers must not turn back to legalism as a means of sanctification or of maintaining their justification (cf. Gal 5:4). Legalism produces bondage, not works that are pleasing to God and that lead to the inheritance of a full experience of everlasting life.
21:15-16. Not much information is given. But like a story on the show I Survived, the mother and her teenage son were on the verge of death. They were out of water in the desert. Hagar lifted her voice and wept. This was likely a prayer to God.
21:17-19. Though Moses has not yet reported that the boy cried out, he now reports that God heard the lad’s cries. Hagar’s son had also been praying. Then God opened her eyes so that she saw a well of water.
This is reminiscent of Acts 16:14, where we read that God opened Lydia’s heart so that she might understand and believe what Paul said about the living water.
It also reminds us of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4.
21:20-21. Moses intentionally does not give much attention to Hagar’s son. He, too, will be blessed, but he is not the heir.
Hagar’s son grew up, became an archer, and was given an Egyptian wife by his mother, who herself was an Egyptian.
Ishmael was almost certainly a believer. He grew up in Abraham’s home. He saw the Lord Jesus talking with his mother. His prayers were answered, and he and his mother were physically saved from dying in the desert.
It is even possible that he was an overcoming believer.
The fact that God expelled him suggests that he was a threat. That might suggest that he did not persevere. We need more information. Moses does not tell us how his life turned out.
Gotquestions.org notes: “When Abraham died, Ishmael attended his funeral (Genesis 25:9), proving that at least occasional and civil communications were maintained between him and his father’s household” (see here).
Marcia Hornok has written an article that we anticipate publishing in the September-October issue of Grace in Focus Magazine. I wrote this blog because she reminded me about this important issue.