We should notice anomalies—things that are unusual or out of place. Anything that sticks out as abnormal. Moses used names, repeatedly, for all of the characters in this story except one. That should make us sit up and take notice. In observation we gather the fuel we need for the fire of interpretation, and observing odd insertions or omissions is no exception.
Observation is the first step in any good Bible study practice. And in most passages, there is a lot to observe!
Under the umbrella of observation, we naturally think about noticing what is present in the text. But sometimes, we also need to notice what is absent. The key to interpreting a section of Genesis 21 turns on just such an observation.
Ishmael is Sent Away
When Isaac was weaned, his parents threw a huge party to celebrate this milestone (Genesis 21:8). During the party, Ishmael laughed at Isaac, and this angered Sarah so much that she told Abraham to get rid of Ishmael and his mother, Hagar (Genesis 21:10). God agreed with Sarah, so Abraham sent them away (Genesis 21:12–14).
When their meager food and water ran out, Hagar prepared for her son’s death and cried out to the Lord (Genesis 21:15–16). God heard Ishmael’s cries and opened Hagar’s eyes to a nearby well (Genesis 21:17–19). God was with Ishmael as he grew up (Genesis 21:20).
This story is straightforward, right?
Something is Missing
As we continue to remind our readers, context matters. Why does this story immediately follow the glorious account of the long-awaited birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1–7)? How does the story’s placement in the text aid our interpretation?
I didn’t understand this connection until I landed on an observation. In these fourteen verses (Genesis 21:8–21), something important is missing.
Ishmael’s name doesn’t appear at all.