1. THE BIRTH OF ISAAC (21:1–7)
1 Yahweh then 1 visited Sarah as he said he would; Yahweh did for Sarah as he promised he would.
2 Sarah conceived and bore to Abraham a son in his advanced years, at the specific time about which God had spoken to him.
3 Abraham named his newborn son whom Sarah had borne him Isaac.
4 Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God 2 had commanded him.
5 Abraham was one hundred years old when Isaac his son was born to him.
6 And Sarah said: “God has made a joke of me; whoever hears will laugh at me.”
7 She also said: “Would that it were told to Abraham, ‘Sarah will have suckled sons,’ for I have borne a son in his old age.” 3
1 Earlier references to Sarah’s forthcoming pregnancy took place either in Sarah’s absence (17:19), or with Sarah as a silent spectator in the background (18:12). Here it is Abraham who becomes silent and Sarah who talks. The biblical writer’s selection of the verb visit (Heb. pāqaḏ) is deliberate. 4 Three men have just come to Abraham. Two “men” have recently appeared to Lot. Now there is a third appearance, this time a visit of Yahweh to Sarah.
Yahweh’s visiting a woman who subsequently gives birth finds later parallels in the stories about Hannah (1 Sam. 2:21) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:68). Although pāqaḏ may be used of a husband who visits his wife for sexual purposes (Judg. 15:1), it is unlikely that this is the implication of Gen. 21:1, or that we have here the torso of a myth about Isaac’s divine paternity. Rather, as evidenced by 1 Sam. 2:21, we have here an instance where visit takes on the connotation of Yahweh mercifully delivering one from an apparently hopeless situation, that is, infertility. 5
The second half of the verse repeats substantially the first half. Speiser sees here a needless duplication, the result of J being responsible for the first part of the verse and P being responsible for the second part (the presence of P is observable in the last half of the verse with a secondary change of Elohim to Yahweh). All this speculation becomes needless, however, once it is seen that the whole verse is poetry, 6 a fact reinforced by the chiasm of subject-verb—verb-subject. Also, the two statements made by the narrator in terms of Yahweh in v. 1 balance Sarah’s two statements with which this unit concludes (vv. 6–7).
2 This particular verse represents the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in 17:16 and 18:10–14. The kāʿēṯ ḥayyá of 18:10, 14, “sometime soon,” has now become lammôʿēḏ, at the specific time. Sarah is able to conceive only because of that earlier promise of God. God is willing to suspend judgment on Sodom because of Abraham’s intercession. He opens the infertile wombs of the Philistine women because of Abraham’s prayers. Sarah conceives and gives birth because Yahweh visits her. Nothing is said here about the advanced age at which Sarah gave birth. She herself indirectly picks up on that point in v. 7. But the focus is on the advanced age at which Abraham becomes a father. In only two words (wattahar and wattēleḏ) the narrative covers nine months. 7
3 For a second time (see earlier 16:15) Abraham engages in naming. As he conferred the name Ishmael on the child he fathered by Hagar, now he confers the name Isaac on the child he has fathered by Sarah, and this in response to God’s earlier directive (17:19). “Isaac” is God’s choice for the name of this child. “Ishmael” was Abraham’s choice for the name of his firstborn “Ishmael” evolves as a name only after the child’s birth. “Isaac” is revealed as the name for the second child before he is even conceived. These distinctions between the names Ishmael and Isaac (when they were chosen, by whom they were chosen) serve to reinforce the fact that Isaac is indeed the special son, the promised son. Isaac means “he laughs.” The subject is not identified. Who laughs: God, Abraham, or Isaac? Ishmael’s name is provided with a contextual etymology (16:11); Isaac’s is not. 8
4 Unlike Moses, who ignored the circumcision of his son (Exod. 4:24–26), Abraham is careful not to bypass God’s directions on this subject given to him back in 17:10ff. The text is surprisingly silent about any emotional outburst by Abraham upon the successful birth of Isaac, even though this is the child for whom he has had to wait twenty-five years, the child whose birth at times appeared to be an impossible dream. If Abraham is understandably euphoric at this moment in his life, such a feeling must not be allowed to lull the father into indifference with regard to his spiritual obligations to his son. After all, the verse ends by reminding us that this is an act that God had commanded. Abraham is not so much excited as obedient.
5 Abraham’s earlier question of 17:17—“can a child be born to a centenarian?”—is now answered by the narrator. Again, the focus is on Abraham’s age, not Sarah’s, at the birth of Isaac. He is the son (ben) of 100 years when his own son (benô) is born to him.
6–7 Some commentators who take ṣeḥōq of v. 6 as the laughter of joy are quick to point out that Sarah’s words in v. 6a are inconsistent with her use of yiṣḥaq in v. 6b. In one breath it is the laughter of joy and in the next breath it is the laughter of ridicule, unless one takes yiṣḥaq lî of v. 6b to mean “rejoice with me” instead of “laugh at me.” But even if we take both uses of the root in v. 6 to mean joyful laughter, then we have a strong contrast with earlier uses of the root where the idea was unbelief or sarcasm (17:17; 18:12, 13, 15). Source critics often cite these verses as evidence for triplicate traditions about Isaac’s name: 17:17 (P); 18:12–15 (J); 21:3–7 (E). But 21:6 is entirely consistent with 17:17 and 18:12–15 if one translates ṣeḥōq as joke.
Furthermore, our translation Would that it were told to Abraham fits more smoothly with earlier references in Genesis than does the traditional “Who would have said to Abraham” (e.g., RSV, AV). In fact, God had said several times to Abraham that his wife would bear a son. Sarah was aware of that promise. What she wishes God would have said is that she would mother sons (or “children,” Heb. bānîm) and not just a son (ben). 9
1 I include “then” in the translation to capture the nuance of the unusual syntax of the opening of the verse: subject, then verb. Cf. also 22:1, wehāʾĕlōhîm nissâ ʾeṯ ʾaḇrāhām.
2 For some reason the LXX renders MT ʾĕlōhîm as kýrios in vv. 2 and 6 but as theós (as expected) in v. 4. Does this fluctuation represent a complex history of the Hebrew text or translation idiosyncrasies in the LXX?
3 R. Gordis (“The Structure of Biblical Poetry,” in Poets, Prophets, and Sages: Essays in Biblical Interpretation [Bloomington: Indiana University, 1971], p. 76) suggests that Sarah’s words in v. 7 are an ancient poetic fragment. He appeals for evidence to the inverted word order in stich b, the use of the poetic word millēl, and the 3:3 rhythm of the tristich. (stich a) Whó would-have-sáid to-Abráham (stich b) Given-to súck sońs has-Saráh (stich c) For-I-have-bórn a-són in-his-óld-age
4 On the wide nuances of pāqaḏ in the OT, see B. Grossfeld, “The Translation of Biblical Hebrew dkp in the Targum, Peshitta, Vulgate and Septuagint,” ZAW 96 (1984) 83–101. Grossfeld notes (p. 98) that the LXX renders pāqaḏ in Gen. 21:1 (and Judg. 15:1) with episképtomai (“to visit [in a beneficial way]”), while the Targ. uses the verb dkr (“remembered”).
5 The verb pāqaḏ refers to God’s gracious visitation to an individual or individuals, bringing them deliverance from various types of crises, also in Exod. 4:31; Ruth 1:6; 1 Sam. 2:21; Ps. 106:4. The meanings for the Hebrew verb vary from “count” to “muster.” Its Akkadian cognate, paqādu, suggests that its basic meaning is “hand over, deliver, assign,” and so by extension “to turn one’s thoughts/attention to” (as here in v. 1).
6 See W. von Soden, “Zum hebräischen Wörterbuch,” UF 13 (1981) 160. See also the objections of Westermann, Genesis, 2:332.
7 Did Sarah conceive Isaac after the incident in Gerar or before? If there is a whole year from 17:21 (“Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year”) until Isaac’s birth (21:2), and if there are nine months from 18:10 (“I will surely return to you in the spring”) to the birth of Isaac (21:2), and if Isaac is born immediately after the narrative of Gen. 20 concludes, then Abraham is identifying his pregnant wife as his sister. See D. J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? JSOTSup 94 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1990), pp. 75–76.
8 On three occasions laughter is associated with the announced or actual birth of Isaac (17:17; 18:12–15; 21:6). Isaac, meaning “he laughs,” might well be an instance of popular etymology. It is possible that the proper name is actually a verbal form, now lacking a divine subject, “may (God) laugh,” i.e., may God look benevolently upon him. See N. Sarna, “Isaac,” EncJud, 9:4.
9 I am following here the interpretation of I. Rabinowitz, “Sarah’s wish (Gen xxi 6–7),” VT 29 (1979) 362–63. This interpretation necessitates that MT mî millēl be read as mî yemallēl, and that mî be understood not as the interrogative but as mî with the imperfect to express a wish. In a matter unrelated to translation, it is time to call into question the widely held opinion that millēl is an Aramaism (Dan. 6:22 [Eng. 21], and otherwise only in Hebrew poetry—Job 8:2; 33:3; Ps. 106:2). The root is attested as early as the 8th century B.C. in a Phoenician inscription (Karatepe): wbl kn mtmll bymty ldnnyn, “and there was no one speaking against the Dananians in my days.” See Dahood, Psalms, 3:67.