Menu Close

“Laughter and Tears”

Genesis 21:1-34
Bob DeGray
November 5, 2006

Key Sentence

God offers hope through laughter and tears.


I. Abraham in the Negev (Genesis 21:22-34)
II. Laughter (Genesis 21:1-7)
III. Tears (Genesis 21:8-21)


        I want to begin, though it’s not customary, at the end of the chapter. Last week we looked at the encounter between Abraham and Abimelech, in which Abraham fell into his habitual sin, trying to pass off his wife Sarah as merely his sister. But God patiently and graciously rescued him, and through Abimelech’s godly fear blessed Abraham when he deserved judgment. Chapter 21 records another incident between Abraham and Abimelech that clarifies the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Hagar. So follow as I read Genesis 21 verses 22 to 34: At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything you do. 23Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you." 24Abraham said, "I swear it." 25Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech's servants had seized. 26But Abimelech said, "I don't know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today." 27So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. 28Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29and Abimelech asked Abraham, "What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?" 30He replied, "Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well." 31So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there. 32After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. 33Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. 34And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

        Abraham continues to dwell outside the promised land. For a while he lived in or near Gerar, Abimelech’s city, but at some point he and his flocks and herds must have crossed the wilderness to a fertile region near the center of the Sinai peninsula, and there dug one or perhaps more wells. During all this Abimelech had further observed God’s favor on Abraham. The fear of Abraham’s God which had already motivated him to return Sarah to her husband and to give Abraham substantial gifts now caused him to seek a non-aggression treaty with this powerful stranger. So he and the commander of his army seek Abraham out and ask for his oath that “you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants.” Abraham had already dealt falsely with Abimelech, so seeking this assurance indicates a reasonable lack of trust in Abraham. Abimelech may have felt that while Abraham’s God was powerful, Abraham himself was flakey.

        Abraham commits himself to this treaty, and having done so he feels free to bring up a situation about which he had said nothing until now. Perhaps as a stranger in this land he did not want to anger his host. But now he accuses Abimelech’s servants had forcibly seized a well Abraham and his shepherds had dug near what would become Beersheba. Abimelech says he has no knowledge of this event, which sounds like a politician’s cop out. Could it be he sought the non-aggression treaty with Abraham partially because he knew he’d already offended him? In any event the two agree that this well should be for Abraham’s use, and as a rental payment Abraham gives Abimelech sheep and cattle. On top of that, he gives seven choice female lambs from his flock, and by accepting them Abimelech agrees publicly that this well was dug by Abraham and is his to use. The seven lambs become part of the public record, and the well becomes known as the well of seven. Today Beersheba is the largest city in the Negev, and there are still two major and five minor wells located there.

        So although these verse are located after the key events of this chapter, they do provide a significant amount of context. They show us that Isaac was born, not in the land of promise, but in the midst of wandering in the south. They show that Abraham’s God was still feared, and that he continued to make provision for Abraham in accordance with his initial promise to bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. But now we want to back up and look at the birth of Isaac and remember that God is a God who brings hope through laughter.

II. Laughter (Genesis 21:1-7)

        Genesis 21:1-7 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. 2Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. 4When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." 7And she added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age." 8The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.

        Isaac was a miracle, a divine intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah when both were too old to bear children. It was the fulfillment of a promise made long before and often reiterated. Genesis 15:4 “Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’ 5He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said, "So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 17:15 “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."

        Genesis 21:1 “Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him” This is probably the highlight of the text. Don’t miss the note of assurance. The event comes without surprise, reported as though nothing else could have happened. And that is precisely the case. The birth of Isaac should have been unsurprising because that was what a sovereign God had promised would happen. Four times in these two verses the element of fulfillment is stressed: “as He had said,” “what He had promised,” verse 1; “at the very time,” “as God had promised,” verse 2. It was God who promised the child; it was God who accomplished His word. And it was done right on schedule. God’s purposes are never delayed, nor are they defeated by man’s sin. Don’t miss this. Our key thought is that God brings hope in the midst of laughter and in the midst of tears. Our highest moments of joy and fulfillment come not because of us but because of God, a faithful God keeping his promises. Even joy and laughter are about him, not about us. Last week Mike and I attended a brief District seminar. The speaker, Bill Mills, kept assuring us from Scripture that “the purpose of all this is who God is and what he will do to reveal himself.”

        Note that the son seems given more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham’s. “The Lord,” Moses wrote, “was gracious to Sarah … and … did for Sarah”. It may be that at this point Sarah wanted that son more than Abraham did. Remember, Abraham had prayed in behalf of Ishmael, to have him designated as the son of promise.

        Nor did Abraham seem to take the promise of a son too seriously when he was willing to subject Sarah to the dangers of Abimelech’s harem at the very time she was about to conceive. In fact, the report of Abraham’s response to the birth of Isaac contains no emotion at all; he named his son, as instructed, and he circumcised his son, as instructed. And then Moses points out yet again that Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. It may be that Abraham’s less than ecstatic response was due to a sense of his own age. Who of us would not have been daunted to give have a child at his age? I’m exactly 40 years older than Tina. I’ll be sixty when she is twenty, seventy when she’s thirty. Sometimes I’m daunted by those calculations. But Abraham would be 113 when his son became a teen-ager, and 120 or older when his son married.

        But if Abraham’s response to the birth of this child is merely dutiful, Sarah’s is delirious: Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." 7And she added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age." The name Isaac, as we’ve said, means laughter. Both Abraham and Sarah, when they were told of the son who was to be born to them, laughed. More than anything, their laughter was prompted by surprise, and by the absurd thought of having a child so late in life. But now the name Isaac took on a new significance, for he was a delight to his mother, as she for the first and only time experienced the pleasures of motherhood. We’ve said that the laughter of a baby is joy and fun, wonder and delight. How much more so the laughter of a mother with her child?

        Scripture takes the topic of laughter seriously, especially under the heading of joy. We sang earlier that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. The pervasive sense of Scripture is that there is joy in fulfilled promises, joy in the God who keeps the promises. I love Psalm 126: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. 2Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” That’s what Sarah is experiencing - the delight of a faithful God’s faithfulness. When we see what he is doing and remember what he has done and take hold of what he has promised, we can rejoice to the point of laughter.

III. Tears (Genesis 21:8-21)

        But if seeing God’s faithfulness in our moments of delight is a blessing, how much more in moments of despair. God brings hope in our tears. Genesis 21:9-21 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." 11The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring." 14Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, "I cannot watch the boy die." And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. 17God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

        On the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham threw a party. We should keep in mind that the weaning of a child often occurred much later than it would today. Isaac could easily have been three or four years old. By this time Ishmael would have been in his teens and would likely have known Sarah’s disregard for himself and his mother. This was reflected in his mocking of Isaac. Paul confirms in Galatians 4:29 that his mockery was intended as persecution. We don’t know how it affected Isaac, but it clearly got under Sarah’s skin. She determined that something had be done once and for all, and gave Abraham an ultimatum: "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." This is the same attitude she had taken when Hagar disdained her back in chapter 16. Her motive is probably jealousy and a protective instinct toward her son.

        Abraham, on the other hand, was deeply grieved by the decision being forced on him. From chapter 17 we know he was very attached to his son Ishmael and he would have been content for this child to be the heir through whom God’s promises were to be fulfilled. But God would not allow this because Ishmael was the result of human effort. And it seems Abraham’s attachment to Ishmael was so great that a crisis had to be reached before he’d come to grips with the situation. While we cannot justify Sarah’s motivation, it seems that such a move had to occur in order to force Abraham’s hand. God reassured Abraham that as painful and unpleasant as the situation might be, putting Ishmael away was the right thing to do: Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Yet the promises God had made to Hagar and to Abraham concerning Ishmael would be honored: “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

        Abraham rose early to send off Hagar and Ishmael, allowing them to begin their journey in the cool of the desert morning, and possibly also getting an unpleasant task done with quickly. He sent them off with food and water, though apparently only one waterskin. If Hagar had gone down the coastal road toward Egypt, that probably would have been adequate provision. But for some reason, either because she got lost on the way or because she remembered God’s promise from chapter 16 that Ishmael would dwell in the wilderness, she ended up wandering in the desert. Eventually the provisions Abraham gave them ran out and death threatened. Not wanting to see Ishmael die, Hagar left him some distance from her under what little shade the bushes would afford. She then lifted up her voice and wept, as did Ismael.

         There are times in life when weeping seems the only option, and you have to know that God hears those cries. Psalm 56 pictures God storing up our tears in a bottle or a wineskin, writing them in his book; He hears and cares about our griefs. It’s no coincidence that “Ishmael” means “God hears” As a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael was the object of God’s special care. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said,"What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." And God’s provision for her need was already present: through her tears she could not see the well close by. That happens to us as well. But then God enabled her to see things as they really were, so that she and the boy were refreshed and revived. And he does the same for us.

        The section concludes with a confirmation that God kept his promises to Hagar and Ishmael - they settled in the wilderness of Paran, near where they were, and the boy grew to become a skilled archer, and in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham, he married a woman whom his mother, an Egyptian, found for him in Egypt, and he became, according to Genesis 25 the father of twelve sons.

        So God offers hope in the midst of tears, as well as confirming hope in the midst of laughter. In fact the two are often connected in Scripture. Psalm 126 again “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. 5Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 6He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Even Jesus, for the joy set before him endured the cross and it’s shame. And he taught his disciples that grief would be followed by joy. Listen to the words of the Lord in John 16: “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

        What does this mean to us? I want to emphasize two things. First, it’s all about God. He’s the one who faithfully provides all that we rejoice in, the one who faithfully strengthens us in all our despairs. Second, we should expect seasons of laughter and seasons of weeping in life, but in either season we should hold on to hope in a sovereign God who is fulfilling his purposes for our good and for his glory. We should have confidence, based on what God has done, that his good purposes will be accomplished. This is what Sarah found after years of infertility. This is what Hagar found in the midst of despair. This is what all God’s believing children have found, and what you and I will find. There is joy in this journey, there is laughter, but above all there is hope, because of who God is and what he has done.