Today’s Old Testament reading is part of a larger narrative and needs to be put into context. For years, Abraham and Sarah have been playing out a drama related family, inheritance, and faith. God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a mighty nation. In order for this to happen he must have at least one son. The problem is that Abraham is old and Sarah is well past the child-bearing age, so she takes matters into her own hands. She owns an Egyptian slave girl by the name of Hagar (the bible gives us no indication of how Hagar came to be in her possession, but tradition holds she was the daughter of the Pharaoh and was given as a gift). Sarah offers Hagar to Abraham. It is an act that, on the surface, appears selfless, but is also faithless. Sarah does not trust in God’s ability to fulfill a promise. Abraham, not surprisingly, accepts her offer and while this doesn’t fit with what we think of “bible teaching about marriage”, it was in keeping with the customs of time.
One of the amazing things about this story is that while Abraham and Sarah are the main characters, our moral sympathy lies with Hagar, the slave. No one asked her if she wanted to be given to Abraham, just as they surely didn’t ask her if she wanted to be a slave or to leave Egypt. Neither Abraham nor Sarah even speaks about Hagar using her given name. They only talk about her as “my slave girl” or “your slave” – robbing her of her humanity, her dignity, and her basic rights. Sarah goes so far as to say the child Hagar bears will not belong to her, but to Sarah.
It comes as no surprise that after she conceives Hagar looks on Sarah with contempt. Nor is it surprising that Sarah becomes bitter about the plan she hatched as it comes to pass. She projects her anger on to Abraham who, in turn, disassociates himself from any responsibility and puts the whole mess back in Sarah’s lap. And what is the end result? Hagar, pregnant, alone, and in a foreign country, must flee into the barren wilderness.
There, in the desert, an amazing thing happens. God appears to Hagar just as God appeared years ago to Abraham. For the first time in the bible, God demonstrates a quality that will become central to Hebrew and Christian theology, namely that God sees affliction and comes to the rescue of those wrongly persecuted. God makes a promise to Hagar and also a demand.
The promise: that God will make a multitude of her son’s offspring and that this multitude will be given a land, albeit the desert; a promise on par with the one made to Abraham.
The demand: Hagar must return to Sarah and submit to her.
Return to the place you were treated so badly seems like an odd request, but it is made by the same God who Jesus says cares for every bird that falls and numbers every hair on our head. That Hagar takes comfort in God’s promise and acts on God’s demand demonstrates she alone in this narrative comes close to having what we think faith to be.
So Hagar gives birth to a son that Abraham names Ishmael. While we don’t read it in today’s lessons, it is interesting to note that when Abraham makes a covenant with God, Ishmael is the next person after Abraham to enter into the covenant through the sign of circumcision. Out of a dubious beginning Abraham receives a son whom he truly loves.
And then some thirteen years later Sarah gives birth to Isaac. For a brief time the step-brothers exist peacefully in what surely was a shaky family arrangement. Then, in the reading we heard this morning, Sarah catches the older Ishmael ‘playing’ with the much younger Isaac. Now the Hebrew word translated as ‘playing’ contains some dark overtones. Some bibles translate it as ‘mocking’ – Ishmael was mocking Isaac. Beyond this (and here comes a PG-13 warning) the word hints at sexual molestation. (In Genesis 39, where Potiphar’s wife is unsuccessful in her attempts to seduce Joseph, she tells others that Joseph tired to make ‘sport’ of her by sleeping with her – and ‘sport’ is the same verb as play or mock.) Two other traditions are worth noting. One holds that Ishmael was making pagan idols and sacrificing insects before them. This kind of “play” would have been a bad influence on Isaac. Another tradition is more direct. It holds that Ishmael was using a bow to shoot arrows at his 3-year-old step-brother.
Well, whatever Sarah observes taking place between Ishmael and Isaac, her reaction is immediate and volatile; Hagar and Ishmael must be cast from the house, expelled from the land, and cut out of any inheritance. Abraham delays. That this is not an easy decision indicates he has some affection for Ishmael and Hagar. Abraham then has a dream that God will protect and bless the two. Only then does he send them off with provisions. But Abraham, who in the past has demonstrated gracious hospitality to visitors and generously with his nephew Lot, only provides the mother and son with a loaf of bread and some water. These meager rations, while amounting to little more than a death sentence, also provide a Eucharistic image of God’s presence and care. When the provisions run out, Hagar and Ishmael are in dire straits. God comes to her again, promises blessings, and reveals the location of nearby water, the source of life in the desert.
Ishmael is the displaced rival, the birthright will go to the younger boy, but God’s blessing goes to both. In time Ishmael will father twelve sons who become the pillars of the Arab people. Muslims will trace their ancestry to Abraham though him.
Over the years, extra-biblical stories continue to emerge about Ishmael, just as they do about Abraham. Both Jewish and Islamic traditions hold that Abraham made journeys into the desert to visit Hagar and Ishmael. Muslims locate Mecca as the site where God revealed the water and gave the blessing. Here, Abraham discovers the ka’aba – the large black cube said to have been built by Adam. Damaged by the flood in Noah’s time, Abraham and Ishmael come together to restore it. When their work is completed Abraham calls on all creation to make a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca – an act which to this day remains one of the five pillars of Islam.
Other legend stories are not so kind. For instance, one story in Judaism (but not the bible) contends that God put nine-tenths of all that is repulsive in life into the Arab people, and only one-tenth of all that is good. Such stories are little more than reflections of strained relations between Judaism and Islam at the time of their authorship, but they have a way of coloring our world-view even today. It is an understanding that cannot be supported by the narratives in Genesis.
Many Christians hold that God rejects Ishmael and has little regard for Hagar. In the supplanting of the older by the younger, St. Paul sees a metaphor of the Law being supplanted by the Gospel. As such, we in the Christian tradition have been happy to relegate Hagar and Ishmael to the shadows. This too is not good.
The Genesis narratives call on us at least to do the following:
· To acknowledge the moral complexities of life.
· To understand that faith and faithfulness are the not exclusive domain of those within our own tradition.
· To confess the injustices those in our tradition have committed and to repent of ramifications in our own day.
· To recognize that God’s blessing, God’s concern, God’s providential care, and God’s heart lies with Ishmael and his descendants as much as it lies with Isaac and those of us who trace our ancestry through him.
· To keep in mind that families are fragile and delicate entities whose balance and harmony are easily lost as one person’s actions affect the entire group. Acts of faithlessness send shockwaves through those closest to us.
· To trust that if God cares for even the smallest creatures then God cares for us; that we who trust in God remain in God’s care and keep. Even Hagar and Ishmael, bit actors in the salvation story we tell and teach, were guarded and governed by God.
· To strive to create in our own world in our own time a harmonious family of faith that Abraham desired, but failed to achieve between his sons Ishmael and Isaac.
This one final thought… if Abraham is the father of our faith, than we might want to think of Hagar as our mother in affliction. She was the first person in the Genesis story to be treated harshly and unjustly. And that treatment elicits from God and compassion that remains true to this day. As one scholar puts it,
“Hagar stands for all women exploited, abused, rejected. She is the alien without rights, the woman who faces her pregnancy alone, the wife divorced for the sake of another woman, the homeless woman, the welfare mother, the woman who lives for others, works for others, serves others and then finds herself abandoned.”
If we don’t care for how Hagar is treated in these stories then perhaps we need to rethink our attitudes about and concern for women like her in our own day. Surely God cares about them as much as God cared about Hagar.