Jewish tradition points to ten trials of Abraham. As these trials unfold, not only does Abraham’s life change, but Abraham changes.
One of the trials is the loss of Ishmael. We do not know what specifically Ishmael did to incur Sarah’s displeasure, but she may not have needed much provocation. He was, after all, not her son but Abraham’s, and as the eldest, he would have primary rights of inheritance. With Ishmael out of the picture, there would be no question that Isaac was the beloved child.
Ishmael and Hagar are sent away and once more they go to a desert – Beersheba to be exact – and God makes a promise to her to bless her son.
It would seem that Abraham is somewhat of a pushover. Sarah suggests he have a child by her handmaiden, and he consents. Sarah tells him to send the servant and boy away, and he does. Now, she demands he be sent away again and once more, he follows her wishes. But Abraham is not quite the pushover this time.
We segue into a story about Abraham and Abimelech, the Philistine king. The first time we met Abimelech was in chapter 20 when Abraham, fearing for his life, claims that Sarah is his sister. Now, after the passage of time and surviving numerous trials, Abraham meets Abimelech again. Abraham’s family is huge and they need water. Abraham digs wells, but the servants of Abimelech, disrespecting Abraham, cover up the wells. Finally, Abraham has had enough and calls for a treaty between himself and Abimelech, giving the king seven ewe lambs as a sign that the well he has dug is his. Abimelech is now between a rock and a hard place. If he accepts the lambs, he must acknowledge the well belongs to Abraham and defend Abraham’s right to the property. If he refuses, it will be a sign he is duplicitous. He takes the lambs. Abraham has strong-armed him into agreement. But something else is also true: the well is at Beersheba where Hagar and Ishmael ran out of water. Abraham may have sent Ishmael away, but he is continuing to provide for the boy from a distance. The trials of Abraham have made him stronger – as our trials must do to us.