I’ve always read the story of Sarah and the casting out of Hagar as Sarah being nagging, and, sometimes, just down right mean. I saw it as petty. But then, last summer, I was given an opportunity to preach on Gen 21, and during research and writing the sermon, I saw something new. Sarah wasn’t being mean, she was defending the promise (this is what Luther tells us). Rather than, “just get that servant girl and her son out of here!”, I saw, “…it’s about the promise…the promise, dear husband!” But then there was another question: why Sarah? Why would she care about the promise so much as to protect and defend it? Why would she be the one to remember?
Here’s my answer:*
God is the God of the Promise
In Gen. 21:1 we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” What was it that the Lord had promised both Sarah and Abraham? A Child—he would give them a child in their old age. We know this from Gen. 18:9-15,
“They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
One of my favorite verses is Gen 18:15. She flat out denies that she laughed…and Moses records it. Moses, inspired to record such an interaction, leaves one of our stately matriarchs completely human.
According to a webMD article, “‘Laughter isn’t under our conscious control…We don’t choose to laugh in the same way we choose to speak…” Sarah’s proof of this. Sarah’s laugh is an immediate and subconscious response to over-hearing the promise of a son the Lord makes to Abraham—and she uncontrollably scoffs…in disbelief. We’ve all done this. (scoffed in disbelief)
So Sarah laughs because she doesn’t believe what the Lord was promising. According to her, she is too old to have a child. Moses tells us that the way of woman had ceased. In her words, “I am worn out…” What a way to describe yourself. The word translated as “worn-out” in Gen 18:12 can also be rendered “used-up” or “exhausted.” Synonyms for “worn-out” are “spent,” “stale,” “deteriorated,” “destroyed,” “used,” and “useless.”
In Sarah’s eyes, she was—in her advanced age—“useless” because she could no longer bare children—because that possibility had ceased for her. She had been created to bring forth children and she didn’t; in her opinion, this failure rendered her “useless.” Years of longing, years of praying, years of begging and yearning produced nothing. No child. Years of suffering through hope delayed in light of the physical possibility to produce a child give way to the concrete evidence that that possibility is now over.
For Sarah, there was no longer any reason or evidence or proof to hope for such a thing—it was over; it was impossible. So she laughs, because the words of the Lord being spoken contradict plain fact and promote the impossible. She laughs in disbelief. (no way! You’ve got to be kidding! What?!). Now, if the Lord appeared to Daniel and said, “this time next year Lauren will have a son” there would be NO laughter and most like wailing and gnashing of teeth (why?!!?), because it’s possible. It could happen. What could happen carries significantly far less comedic value than what flat-out could NOT happen. But the God Sarah worshipped, the one that was speaking with Abraham at that moment is the God of the promise. For, as I’ve said a million times before (at least!) with God, His promises are future facts. What He says, happens (Let there be….and there was!).
I’ve spent a lot of time in a passage of scripture that isn’t part of our reading because I need to set the scene for when we come back to chapter 21 (our passage). I want to paint with vibrant and bold colors where Sarah was prior holding the child in her arms, prior to nursing this child, prior to, how Luther referred to Isaac, “the promise [which has] now been made flesh” (4).
“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen 21:1-7)
The promise has now been made flesh. The long awaited yearned for child is here. The Lord, who questioned why she had laughed in chapter 18, has now fulfilled His promise and has given her a tangible reason to laugh but this time rather than laughing out of scoffing disbelief, she laughs because of hope and joy fulfilled. Because of God’s promise—and His faithfulness to that promise—Sarah is no longer the cursed one (barrenness would have been seen as a curse (Luther 11)) but as the blessed-one.
Now, finally, our passage:
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So 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.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But 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 for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:8-13)
“But Sarah…” At some point Sarah notices and sees something. One day, Sarah looks upon the two boys her Isaac (the promise made flesh) and Ishmael (Abraham legitimate first born) and something dawns on her. And she speaks up. “Cast out this slave woman and her son” she says to Abraham. She continues, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” While Ishmael had a promise made about him (Gen 17:20: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”), it was not the promise, the promise of the established covenant; Sarah “makes a very fine distinction between her own son and Hagar’s” (Luther 20).
Luther writes about Sarah at this point, “It is her purpose to prevent Ishmael from coming into the inheritance together with Isaac” (20). Rather than allow both sons to be heirs, Sarah steps up and speaks out to protect the promise; Isaac would be the heir, and not Ishmael. According to Sarah, Hagar and her son, Ishmael had to go. Rather than being petty and possessive, Sarah is protecting the promise. And so is God, “But 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 for you…” “[Sarah] is compelled by God’s command to undertake something contrary to her husband’s will” (Luther 23) [Abraham was very distressed]. Luther writes, “Abraham had not given such careful consideration to the promise. Therefore God repeats it…” (24).
Why does Sarah give more consideration to the promise than Abraham does? Why does Sarah seem to remember it more vividly than her husband? Luther makes the point that Sarah was alert and keen to the promise and Abraham wasn’t. (“But Sarah has her way and accomplishes what she had undertaken, for she looked more closely at the promise and understood it more clearly than Abraham did” (36)).
I’ll fill in the gaps. Why Sarah and not Abraham? Because, the woman, who has suffered from deferred hope and years upon years of longing for a child, when she holds that child that has been given to her by the very word of God and with that child there is a spoken promise, she remembers. She remembers it every day she looks into his eyes. The woman who suffers barrenness (infertility and loss) suffers the one-two punch of a broken and fallen world. Every month she is reminded of what hasn’t happened or what was and is now no longer. A woman who suffers in this way cannot hold the living, fleshy baby—the baby promised by the very word of God–and not think: God is faithful. The Heir is born.
I have three children, but I’ve also lost three pregnancies. After our last loss, four years ago, I kept hearing “Nehemiah” a name of an old-testament minor prophet, a name which means “No more tears.” I went three years with that word and with the feeling that we weren’t finished yet, we weren’t finished having children. But month after month proved that we were finished, and the tears came every month. And then in January of 2014, there was hope. I was pregnant. In October, we held our daughter, a near 10lb pile of screaming baby, and I heard it again, “No more tears.” 9 months later, rocking her before a nap or nursing her at 2AM I hear it again and again, “No more tears.” Every time I look at her, I hear it. God is faithful. No more tears.
So, if it is so with me, how much more with Sarah? I was still (barely) at child-bearing age; but Sarah was 90. Every time Sarah looked at Isaac she remembered the promise. God had promised the impossible and had made the impossible possible, and she couldn’t forget it so she reminds her husband. “The Promise, dear husband, is with Isaac.” It is by the promise that rescue and salvation come and not through the flesh and bone of birth right. True heirs are heirs of the promise. “‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named,’ not through Ishmael; that is, the people of God are not those who have the physical succession but those who have the promise and believe it” (Luther 33).
God is a God of the promise.