A painful decision
We continue with our dramatic story and move on to Sarah’s part now. Remarkably, the first thing we learn about Sarah is the fact of her barrenness (repeated twice): But Sarai was barren; she had no child. This short note occurs even before Abraham is told to go out of Haran, and speaks volumes: for a married woman, being barren was about the worst thing that could happen. It means that the pain of inadequacy, shame, and guilt was something that Sarah had lived with–and had struggled with–for many years. And probably, it explains why we don’t hear much from Sarah during their first years in the Land: humiliated by her barrenness, she was silent and obedient!
The very first words we hear from her, open our story: So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” In Hebrew, she is saying: “Perhaps I will be built up from her.” The same word “build” is used here that we find, for instance, in the story of Babel: And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city…” Everybody knows the end of Babel story – and the story of Sarah’s plan is also a sad lesson and a stern warning to everyone who wants to build himself up by his own means: Only pain and devastation come from such plans. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.
I don’t understand how Jewish sources can claim that Sarah was “completely free from sin,” when chapter 16 so clearly describes Sarah’s misdeeds toward Hagar. Perhaps, Hagar’s behavior wasn’t easy to begin with, but the whole scenario was Sarah’s doing, and she should have been ready for the consequences. She wasn’t ready, however. The truth is that none of us are ever ready to face the consequences of our own plans or scenarios. The Bible doesn’t provide any details as to what specifically Sarah did to Hagar, but there is no doubt that what she did was bad enough, if fleeing into the wilderness seemed like a better option to Hagar.
Then, the day came when Ishmael was born. We don’t know much about the 13 years that passed between the last verse of chapter 16 and the first verse of chapter 17,- but we do know that all those years, Abraham had been absolutely confident that Ishmael was the son of the covenant and that all the promises and plans of God would rest on him. Sarah should have felt excluded not only from motherhood, not only from the joy of parenting–the joy that her husband was experiencing every single moment now! –but from the everlasting covenant as well, from everything that God had promised to Abraham, his family, and his descendants. This feeling must have been absolutely devastating.
And yet, Sarai would not be able to become Sarah, would not be able to become the mother and the Matriarch if her heart wasn’t healed, if she did not eventually reach peace, if she didn’t become reconciled to her circumstances and her life. Yes, those thirteen years were years of continuous humbling and pain for Sarah; but obviously, through this pain, God had been dealing with her. And healing her. And only then – when Sarah had been completely changed and healed inwardly–does chapter 18 come, bringing into her life an amazing, incredible, inconceivable outward change: she will have a son! Much has been said and written about Sarah’s famous laughter “within herself.” Naturally, it was a laughter of disbelief: “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” However, there was much more to that laughter than just disbelief and doubt. Once again, God didn’t fail her; once again, He didn’t let her down; once again, He Himself saved and protected her from her shame and pain; once again, He completely justified and restored her. After long years of feeling humiliated, ashamed, and excluded from God’s covenant and God’s plan altogether–and after long years of learning to be reconciled to this feeling–now, Sarah was celebrating her vindication! She was not excluded anymore; she belonged! He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children. It was a laughter of victorious faith!
What did Sarah see?
And now we come to the dramatic scene, to the “family dynamics” of Genesis 21. Isaac is about two or three years old at this time and he’s just been weaned. A big party is thrown on this occasion. Probably, during the party, or around this time, Sarah sees Ishmael, now a teenager 16 or 17 years old, metzahek–“laughing” or “playing” or “scoffing”: And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham: Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely Isaac. In order to understand verse 10, when Sarah asks Abraham to cast out Ishmael and his mother, we have to understand what happened in verse 9. What did Sarah see?
The Hebrew word metzahek has different meanings, and no one knows for sure what it means here. Some commentaries suggest a sexual connotation. After all, this is the same word that we find in Genesis 26, where it refers to Isaac and Rebecca, undoubtedly with a sexual meaning: Isaac was sporting (metzahek ) with Rebecca his wife. Does it have the same meaning here? Was Ishmael sexually molesting Isaac? And was it because of this sexual abuse that Sarah was so infuriated? However, in Genesis 26, Rebecca is clearly in the sentence, Isaac metzahek with Rebecca; while in our case, based on the text itself, it isn’t even clear that Ishmael was interacting with Isaac at the moment Sarah saw him: Isaac is not in this sentence at all. So, what did Sarah see and why was her reaction so turbulent? And even more important: why did God support Sarah? Why did God completely back up what seemed to be a very exaggerated reaction of an overprotective mother?
Let us turn to Hebrew for the answer. If you know Hebrew letters, you can recognize that the word metzahek, מצחק, has the same root as Itzhak : יצחק . Therefore, it can be read as a verb formed from the root Isaac. Sarah saw that Ishmael was “Isaacing”, whatever that might mean! Probably, Ishmael was trying to take Isaac’s place – maybe, in Abraham’s family, maybe in God’s plan, maybe in both! Ishmael was a natural, man-made son. He had been conceived and born naturally, unlike Isaac, who was the child of a miracle, conceived and born in a totally supernatural way. There is only one thing that can make me understand God supporting the banishment of a teenage boy from his family: God doesn’t want God-made reality to be replaced with a man-made one; man-made and God-made are not to be confused or mixed. In my opinion, this unexpected – and only in Hebrew visible – explanation can account not only for Sarah’s stormy reaction, but for God’s command to banish Ishmael as well!
If you want to learn more about Isaac and Ishmael story, you can read my book: Abraham had two sons. Click here to get the book: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
 For the reader’s convenience, we will use the name Sarah throughout the article (except for in Scripture quotations prior to Genesis 17).
 Genesis 11:30
 Genesis 16:2
 Genesis 11:4
 Psalms 127:1
 Genesis 18:12
 Psalms 113:9
 Genesis 21:9,10
 Genesis 26:8