On the day that Isaac is weaned, Abraham gives a celebratory feast at which “Sarah saw [Ishmael] the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So, she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son!’” (Gen 21:9-10). Sarah’s reaction to Ishmael’s laughter seems totally out of proportion. Since when is “laughing” a crime punishable by expulsion? What was it about Ishmael’s behavior that got Sarah so upset?

Much interpretational ink has been spilled trying to ascertain what Ishmael was doing when Sarah saw him “laughing” (מצחק; metzaheq). The rabbis offer several meanings for מצחק, including sexual immorality, idolatry, and even bloodshed (see Genesis Rabbah 53:11). Even today, Bible translators are trying to make sense of this term; the ESV translates מצחק as “laughing” but, in an attempt to square Ishmael’s punishment with his “crime,” the translators provide a speculative footnote: “Possibly laughing in mockery.” However, there are more appropriate Hebrew words for “mock” than מצחק—e.g., תהל (tahal;1 Kgs 18:27) or תעע (ta’a; cf. Gen 27:12)—so “mockery” may not be the best way to understand Ishmael’s behavior.

When Sarah gives birth to her son, she names him “Isaac” (יצחק; Yitzhaq), saying, “God has made laughter (צחק; tzhoq) for me; everyone who hears will laugh (יצחק; yitzhaq) with me” (21:6). When Ishmael is seen “laughing” (מצחק) at the feast, his action recalls the name “Isaac,” which means “he laughs” (יצחק). These related Hebrew words point to the notion that Ishmael was not merely “laughing”; rather, he was “Issac-ing”! That is, he was behaving as though he were Isaac, the rightful heir of God’s promise. The idea that Ishmael was “trying to be like Isaac” makes more sense of Sarah’s words to Abraham: “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (21:10).

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34 COMMENTS

    • Benson,
      The Scripture was written down that we might HAVE understanding.
      I do not believe it is too far-fetched to try and understand the motives of the mother of Israel as she protected her child from another mother who had negative intent toward the first true heir child of abraham.
      It wasn't only hidden thoughts we are evaluating, but actions, and the Spirit-chosen words that were used describe them.
      Blessings to you!

      + More answers (1)
  1. I think the natural rivalry between Hagar and Sarah has once again raised its ugly head. Sarah may have proposed the arrangement but Hagar also looked at Sarah with contempt. Sarah responded then as she is responding in this passage. Ishmael's laughter certainly plays a part, but there is already an undercurrent of hostility here.
  2. I look forward to this weekly message in learning and understanding the Hebrew meanings of the scripture translation. I often share this with Christians and non believers. I often get the Muslims trying to convert me as they say I am almost there because of my action in faith and community charity activities. They always say the bible is have been translated so many times. But they forgot the scriptures was inspired by the creator Adoni and instructed the sages to write them down.
  3. çok ilginç,o kadar önem verdiğiniz İbrahim'in kendi öz oğlu İsmail değil mi?Üstelik o da henüz çocuk.Yok alaycı güldü,yok böyle güldü bahane arıyorsunuz.Sarah'ın hatası olamaz mı?Son derece kadınca bir kıskançlıkla ilk oğul olan İsmail'i uzaklaştırmak için bahane arayamaz mı?İbrahim'in yerinde ben olsam,öz çocuğumu istemeyen Sarahı kendi kaderi ile başbaşa bırakırdım.
  4. Because the word for what Ishmael did to Isaac is similar to the word for what Isaac did: "sporting", (according to the KJV) with his wife Rebecca, that let Abimelech realize that she was his wife, leads some to conclude that it may have been sexual in nature.
    • Thanks for this addition to the discussion. You're absolutely right. Also see Genesis 39:14 for the same word in a similar sexual context.
  5. This is fascinating! What I notice is the opposite of replacement theology. Sarah said “God has made laughter”. When Sarah see’s Ishmael laughing it doesn’t replace her original prophecy(?) “God has made laughter.” I was reached with the OT and later converted to Christianity. Oddly, and because of language problems, my conversion replaced God’s voice (revelation). Some people believe we have to hear the NT six or seven times before it magically clicks. His voice is strong and God doesn’t need to repeat Himself. I didn’t need an additional revelation of Christ. I did need a vocabulary word.
    • Thanks for this response, Kat. I think any time that you can interpret a text in a way that pushes against "replacement theology" it's a good reading :) Thank you for your comments and I'm glad you found the article fascinating.
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