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As I read Genesis 21:17, I spent a good time wondering why God heard the cry of the boy whereas his mother also cried at the same time.

"And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is." (ESV).

Why did God hear the voice of the child and not that of the mother, yet they both cried? How do we interpret this intercept and what can we learn from this Scripture?

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  • Can we say that children are closer to the heart of God? Dec 15, 2018 at 15:25
  • I am thinking seriously about what played out in Genesis 21:17 that made the angel of the Lord to say "Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is" because both mother and child cried?? Dec 15, 2018 at 15:28
  • Hagar must have had a bit of pre-history, which Ismael didn't have. Ismael cried, therefore, louder than her, because his world was more shattered than hers. Dec 16, 2018 at 4:00
  • This sounds convincing! But could you pin down your assertion? Dec 16, 2018 at 15:28
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    It does not say “God did not hear the mother’s prayer”. God likely heard and responded to both, this story is simply offering this information. Most the time we expect the Bible to exhaust a topic or story and usually it does not.
    – N.Ish
    Dec 16, 2018 at 16:00

11 Answers 11

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This is an excellent question. The answer involves a problem with many of the English translations that render Gen 21:17 something like the NASB: "God heard the lad crying … "

The verb translated "crying" here is קוֹל (qol) which simply means "sound" or "voice" and does not necessarily mean "crying". It occurs over 500 times in the OT and is very rarely translated or even implies "crying" - most often it is simply "voice", eg, Gen 3:8, 10, 17, 4:10, 23, 16:2, 21:12, 16, 18, 26:5, 27:13, 27:22, 38, 27:43, 29:11, 30:6, etc. Thus, there is no record of Ishmael crying.

By contrast, the verb translated "crying" for Hagar (v16) is בָּכָה (bakah). It occurs over 100 times and is most often rendered "crying" or "weeping", eg, Gen 23:2, 27:38, 29:11, 33:4, 37:35, 42:24, 43:30, 45:14, 15, 46:29, 50:1, 17, etc. Incidentally, Gen 21:16 is the first instance we have of someone weeping/crying in the Bible. This is understandable as Hagar's arrogance (Gen 21:9, 10) had significantly contributed to her situation.

Thus, we have in Gen 21:16, 17 a desperate mother and son in a desperate situation. The two responded in different ways - Hagar lamented and wept while the boy may have been either praying or trying to comfort his mother; or possibly a combination of the two. Either way, the boy is speaking and the angel of God responded (v17, 18).

The fact that the angel of God responded to the voice of the lad suggests that he may have prayed a simple childish prayer for help - a touching lesson for us all. This appears to be confirmed by another subtlety - God hears the voice of the lad and then speaks to Hagar. This suggests that Ishmael was praying for God to comfort his mother and God responded accordingly.

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Let's see the context, Genesis 21:

8The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son,

Sarah mentioned the mother first then the son.

for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman.

God's perspective was different: the boy first then the mother.

Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

At this point, God singled out the boy by himself.

14Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17God heard the boy crying,

God's focus was the boy but it didn't say that God did not hear Hagar's anguish.

and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven

On the contrary, God did pay attention to Hagar.

and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.

God reassured Hagar that he had heard the cry of her son. Hagar had no complaint about God ignored her cry because he didn't.

18Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Again, the boy was the focus.

19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

Hagar also focused on the boy.

20God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

In Genesis 21:17 why does God hear only the boy's prayer?

On the contrary, God heard the cry of both the mother and the son. However, at this point, God's focus was the boy and not the mother. Hagar had no complaint about that and was comforted by the angel of God and the miraculous supply of water.

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There are several curious things about this passage.

First, the woman is crying with a child (yeled), but God says he hears the voice of the young man (na'ar). Yeled is a pre-pubescent child but na'ar is a post-pubescent young man, of marriageable age.

Na'ar can be used to refer to both men and women, and when referring to a woman it is often translated as "maiden", but when referring to man it is often translated as "young man", in both cases the context being that of someone capable of marrying.

So not only did God hear the voice of Ishmael who said nothing, but he heard the voice of the man that Ishmael was to become.

In this passage the translators were in a bit of quandary since Ishmael was clearly a child, not a young man, so they translated na'ar as "boy" in order to try to hide the inconsistency. But in doing so, they are covering over what is clearly a prophecy:

Gen 21.17 LEB

And God heard the cry of the [na'ar] and the angel of God called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her, “What is the matter Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the cry of the [na'ar] from where he is.

That phrase from where he is: בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם׃ is literally "in which he is there". That is, God heard the voice of the man as being there in Hagar's cry. When Hagar cried out, God heard the voice of the son.

By calling him na'ar, In God's eyes, Ishmael is on the cusp of being the father of many nations, just as in God's eyes Hagar is the mother of Ishmael that does not have any lack, and not a frightened handmaiden that is about to die of thirst.

Why is Ishmael on the cusp -- what other thing is needed for Ishmael to actually become a great nation? I think it is that Hagar's eyes need to be opened. Once her eyes are opened, she is able to find him a wife. So God opens her eyes in order to allow Ishmael to have a bride. The pericope ends with Gen 21.21 (LEB)

And he lived in the wilderness of Paran. And his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

This is just like the story of Jacob, he needed to have his eyes opened so that he saw God in order to become Israel. Israel means "she/he who sees God". Both the stories of Jacob wrestling in the dark (where you can't see, but his name is changed to Israel at dawn) and Hagar wailing in the wilderness were the process by which God opened their eyes. There is always a travail of some kind required.

So it's not that God was ignoring Hagar's crying, he did respond to her by opening her eyes, but he did not respond to her because she was crying, he responded to her because of the son. Similarly God opened the eyes of Jacob because of the promise he made to Abraham that Messiah would be of his seed. It is for the sake of the messiah, so that the son can have a bride, that God opens eyes. This is the message of the story.

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  • +1 for pointing to a prophetic, future significance. But no answers seem to dwell on how "she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away" The great distance between them surely makes a reader see why the desperate cries of her child are treated as distinct from the weeping of the despairing mother? She was crying. Was he calling out to God? But God fully knew exactly what both of them were doing and where they were! Yet those who call out to God may show more faith than those who weep in despair, and God responds to faith.
    – Anne
    Sep 1, 2021 at 9:40
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At another time God did hear her:-

NWT "Genesis 16:11 "Jehovah’s angel added: “Here you [Hagar] are pregnant, and you will give birth to a son, and you must name him Ishmael, for Jehovah has heard your affliction."

t seems to be what the situation is and what God put first at any given time. This show God's care for humans at any given time for various reasons.

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  • Does Matthew 18:10 have anything to do with this context? " “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven." Dec 17, 2018 at 6:15
  • @ErnestAbinokhauno No. It about not stumbling God chosen one; his children (the elect). If anyone causes them problems they will have God to face (vs6). The Angels are aware of what is going on with them and they also stand before God, thus are ministered to by the angels and can report back to God how they are treated and by whom! So this only applies in a christian context. Not that they are garden angels but the angels take a very close interest in the chosen ones and the preaching work they do and how they care for congregation members..
    – user26950
    Dec 17, 2018 at 15:27
  • Why is everything focusing on the cry of the boy whereas the mother also cried? Dec 17, 2018 at 15:33
  • @ErnestAbinokhauno As we are made in God's image think on what he saw and sees? He saw Hager son making fun of Isaac, God's chosen one, not to be put up with so they got sent way. God is not hard hearted so when he looks down as sees an offspring of his faithful servant Abraham his love for the child would move him to act on its behalf and come to the add of the child and mother ; vss 18-21 and blessed them because of Abraham's faith.
    – user26950
    Dec 17, 2018 at 15:52
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The boy was directly a seed of Abraham and had a promise of God.

Genesis 21:13

And I will make ya nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

Therefore God heard the voice of the boy because a nation would come out of him in near future. God could not allow his promise to Abraham to die before fulfillment.

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    – sara
    Sep 20, 2019 at 5:27
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I was reading this story: I saw where God focus was towards the boy, and I wondered why God put so much attention towards the boy than the woman, simple because in verse 16 of Genesis 21, Hagar did not say "let me not see the death of my child, she said" let me not see the death of the child. She did not recognized him as her child like a mother would have. Also, the bible (KJV) said" that she lifted up her voice and wept; wept means wet with tears. But God heard the voice of the child, maybe because he could have been praying from his heart concerning the situation they both were in. It's the heart that moves God, wouldn't you say? Sandris August 30, 21

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    – agarza
    Aug 31, 2021 at 13:06
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I was reading this story: I saw where God's focus was towards the boy and I wondered why God put so much attention towards the boy than the woman, simply because in verse 16 of Genesis 21 Hagar did not say "let me not see the death of my child she said, "let me not see the death of the child". She did not recognize him as her child like a mother would have.

Also, the Bible (KJV) said "that she lifted up her voice and wept"; wept means wet with tears. But God heard the voice of the child may be because he could have been praying from his heart concerning the situation they both were in. It's the heart that moves God, wouldn't you say?

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The kingdom is about grace, the focus is not the lad today the world is crying God is omnipotent/omniscient. Hagar was a reference. God called her name, spoke to her, opened her eyes, and instructed her to the living water of life. Believers should seek a relationship with God, not just cry, and complain every day. I want to hear the voice of the holy spirit.

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It is simple, but not politically correct.

God heard the cry of the "boy" because he...the boy...the male..the seed bearer is the father of many people who God desired to save.

proper interpretation here has little to do with understanding the translation of text and much to understanding God's ways

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    Nov 21, 2023 at 15:43
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Psalm 34 tells us that God hears the cries of the righteous. Perhaps the Lord did not count Hagar as righteous? She did lead Ishmael to mistreat/laugh at Isaac after all (Genesis 21:9). She even began treating Sarah poorly after she became pregnant with Ishmael in earlier chapters. Or perhaps it is because He considers Abraham as a friend so He took care of Ishmael in Abraham's absence. Or maybe it is because God saw that Ishmael feared Him (Psalm 145:19).

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    @ NG - "Maybe" opens the doors of speculation, and lead to no definitive answer. Notice that the "voice of the lad" was merely the whimpers, and moans of an ailing child, not a prayer. This would be different from the "cries of the (adult) righteous, which would describe "prayers." Ps 34) It is suggested that the reference to the boy is made in this narration because the whole Context deals with him. (Genesis 21:9-21) [The mocking by the son (lad)...prophecy about the son...expulsion of the son, dilemma of the son...rescue of the son...history of the son.] Good question; keep studying.
    – ray grant
    Dec 5, 2023 at 22:55
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Glad to provide my input on this matter.

The answer is simple - the covenant is always with the seed. The seed of Abraham (who had a covenant with God) was Ishmael, not Hagar.

From Genesis to revelation, God follows covenant. A mere 'wish' from Ishmael, the seed of covenant, sounds louder than the shout of one without covenant in the throne.

Today we have a blood covenant through Jesus Christ, reason why we pray in His name and why we can come boldly to His throne (in prayer).

This does not mean that grace is not available for those without covenant. Grace was available for Cornelius in Acts 10, and he was directed to "the Way" - which is the new covenant.

The Kingdom always prioritizes covenant.

God bless

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