And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bonswoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son. (Gen 21:9-11)
People read this passage frequently and usually just pass over the last verse. At best they make assumptions about it, but few people stop to consider, “which son?” After all, both Isaac, Sarah’s son, and Ishmael, Hagar’s son, were his sons.
Obviously Sarah did not see it that way. She very specifically says “this bondwoman and her son.” Probably she does not want to remind Abraham that Ishmael is his son as well, or not wanting to acknowledge that to herself. (Sarah seems to have been a very self-deceptive woman.) Maybe she is engaging in a little word play many people use. How often do we hear, when a child is misbehaving, one parent say to the other, “take care of your son/daughter”? If the child does something wonderful it is “my child,” but when the child is exceptionally bad it is “your child.” In this case, Sarah leaves the one parent, Abraham, out of the issue entirely and merely calls Ishmael this bondwoman’s son.
Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, and Isaac was probably old enough that mocking would be understood. Ishmael undoubtedly knew Isaac was the heir. Nevertheless, he did what many an older sibling has done; he mocked his younger half-brother. If he did know that Isaac was the heir, then he did a very foolish thing. You don’t make fun of the one who will one day have power over you. But Ishmael was probably just being a teenager, tired of a much younger brother. He mocked. Sarah objected. Abraham grieved.
The pshat (clear explanation) of this passage is that it was Ishmael to whom the verse refers, and Abraham grieved over his older son. Many a parent has been sorry to have to punish a foolish or unthinking child. Abraham comes home and finds that his son has done a very unfortunate thing, and he will have to punish him. The way the passage is phrased, however, indicates he was grieved by the degree of the punishment. Sarah demanded that the mother and child be sent away, which meant almost certain death. This was grievous because Ishmael was his son. Abraham was known as a peaceful and compassionate man. He would have preferred a less harsh punishment, and certainly one that did not require sending the mother away as well. If he was grieved because of Ishmael, it was probably at having to send the lad away. After all, when you have your son with you for almost twenty years it is hard to part, and even harder to force that parting.
Maybe, though, there is another way of looking at the verse. One remez (hidden view) of the verse may be that Abraham was grieved on account of his heir, Isaac. But why would sending Ishmael away cause Abraham to be grieved for Isaac? Even if Abraham was not gifted with true prophecy, it wouldn’t take a prophet to see the answer to this question. What Sarah was blinded to was that by sending away Hagar and Ishmael she was creating strife for her own son and his descendants forever. There are many long-standing rivalries in the world: Cubs-Cardinals or Yankees-Mets in baseball, Cowboys-Redskins in football or American history, Hatfields-McCoys. But no rivalry in America can compare with the rivalry through the centuries between Ishmael and Isaac. Even today that rivalry continues. And that is grievous to Abraham.