6/25/17: The God of Hagar and Ishmael, Genesis 21:8-21
The God of Hagar and Ishmael
Second in the series, Family, Failure and Faith:
A Walk With Our Spiritual Ancestors
First Lesson: Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Second Lesson: Genesis 21:8-21
Rev. Scott Dickison
Ishmael is Abraham’s other son. His eldest son. Born to Abraham’s second wife, Hagar, who we’re told is his first wife, Sarah’s, Egyptian slave-girl. Some chapters before, he learn how Sarah, despite the promise of God and thinking herself too old and unable to bear children, suggests to Abraham that he take Hagar as his wife, “so that she [Sarah] might have a child by her”—an arrangement foreign and even repulsive to us, but in those days, it was custom that one's slave could serve as a surrogate. (1)
So Abraham takes Hagar as his wife, she bears him a son, and it should come as no surprise that even as the arrangement may have been customary, it is still complicated. We pick up their story some 13 years later, after God’s promise of a child to Sarah has been fulfilled, at the feast to celebrate young Isaac’s third birthday—an important marker in those days to celebrate that the child had made it through his infancy and likely would live. It was at this celebration that her own son, Isaac, would indeed be around, and not a moment after, that Sarah calls for the other son and his mother to be cast away. Two women with their sons and so much history between them, and there in the middle is father Abraham—who tradition will remember for this faith and decisive action, but up until now has done nothing but dither and mope.
This family is in chaos and at the verge of collapse, with more than enough blame to go around, and yet God is not done with them. God is continuing to work, sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes—as the text records, in distressing ways, but nonetheless continuing to bless them in surprising ways.
As we noted last week when we began this series looking at these spiritual ancestors of ours, families are complicated. And not just some families, but all families—no exceptions. This is one of the first things we make clear when I meet with couples before their weddings. Most of what we talk about is families and their families especially, and most of them are nervous to do so, especially in front of their fiancé, I guess they’re worried they’ll scare them off after having carefully curated and managed interactions with their families during the courtship to try and hide all the crazy. But as we all know, you can only hide crazy for so long. So it’s best to get it all out there before the venue is booked, and the florist and the videographer and the caterer and all the rest of them. And certainly before the vows are made.
So one of the first things I do with couples is have them map out a special family tree that notes not just births and deaths and so forth, but relationships—something called a genogram. Where was there tension between family members, or distance? Where was there closeness? Was there substance abuse or mental illness? Infidelity? We often find that patterns emerge that are handed down through the generations. And in doing so we learn that there are no “dysfunctional families” or “crazy families,” there are just “families,” and the wider you cast the net and the further back you go, you realize that no one is immune from the hazards of living life in relationship with others.
This is no different in the family tree of the Bible, a fact which depending on how you look at it is either cause for discouragement or comfort. As I’ve heard it put, “God doesn’t wait to perfect us before working through us.”(2) God works through all our failures as much as through our successes. Even through those deviating, forgotten branches of our family tree.
As far as the story of the Bible is concerned, or even the family tree of our faith, this line of Hagar and Ishmael is something of a dead end.(3) And for most of Christian history, this is precisely how it has been seen. From our view here as spiritual descendants of the other line, the “chosen” line, the one that runs through Isaac and Rebekah, and then Jacob and Rachel, and then Joseph that eventually leads us to David and then to Jesus that is important. Ours, we claim, is the line that has been chosen to carry out divine purpose in the world. Isaac is the child of promise, and so Hagar and Ishmael should be inconsequential—a Biblical footnote. And yet here they are.
Here they are with their stories being told—here they are receiving God’s blessing.
Here Hagar is, some chapters before, with child, having run away at Sarah’s threats, with an angel of the Lord appearing to her, telling her to go back to her mistress, saying, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted”—a promise strangely similar to the one given Abraham—given to her, his Egyptian slave girl! And on top of that, this angel gives her another blessing that might also sound familiar:
Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
Reminiscent of a certain birth announcement recorded in the gospels! Phyllis Trible in her groundbreaking book, Texts of Terror, in which she lifts up these stories of forgotten and abused women in the Bible, puts it this way:
As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts…the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.
Hagar, she points out, is [also] a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits…[She’s] the first woman to hear [an] annunciation, the only [woman] to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first [woman in the Bible] to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian, she writes, is the prototype…of all mothers in Israel.(4)
Perhaps even all mothers, everywhere.
And here is Ishmael. The other son. Not the son of promise—a fact of which he was no doubt made well-aware through his childhood. But a son all the same, and a valued one at that. “Treasured,” some have said.(5) He is treasured by Abraham, who is in anguish at the thought of loosing him. And even more, Ishmael is treasured by God—God is concerned about the life of Ishmael. Before his birth the angel of the Lord promised his mother that he would be blessed, that God would provide for him. And now here, as he lay dying, God hears his cries, comes to his aid, and promises him, too, a great nation. God was “with” him, too, we’re told.
This will be a theme in the Bible; the tension between sons, one who is “chosen” and the other who is “not chosen” but is nonetheless treasured by God.(6) Think Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Think of the man with his two sons in the parable of Jesus, one who is prodigal and celebrated, and the other who is faithful, but neglected. On each of these, the light of tradition focuses on one, and yet the other is still there, his life still recorded in the family tree. And it’s left up for us to decide what to do with them.
Another thing we talk about in these pre-marital conversations is how we can never really escape our families. Even if we run away from them in so many ways, and decide we will do things differently, we’ll always do so in reference to them—there’s really no escaping it. The best thing we can do is pay attention to the patterns and values that define our families. So we can make clear decisions about those things we’d like to take with us in life, and those things we’d like to leave behind. Without taking the time to see and name the dysfunction and the pain that has been passed down through the generations in our family, we’re almost guaranteed to perpetuate it.
It’s hard to change the patterns we’re used to and to adopt new values and new practices, to see things in a different way. But in a sense, this is exactly what repentance means: to change direction. In Hebrew, literally to turn; to choose a new way. This is exactly what Jesus was trying to have us do: to look back into the family history of our faith, the traditions and teachings that had been passed down, and be honest about what was good and right and true and that we should hold onto and be sure to take with us, but also to be honest about what we need to let go of as a people.
Take hold of humility, he said, and compassion. Take hold of simplicity and hospitality and generosity—told on tightly to these things. Let go of wealth, and fear and pride and violence. Let love and grace rule the day, not legalism and judgment. Remember the poor and the weak—the children, the widows and orphans, the ones on the margins and the vulnerable—God is with them. And be suspicious of those in power. Love them, pray for them, but be suspicious of those with much to lose. All of these things are in the history and traditions of Israel—we inherit all of them. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is right there next to “an eye for an eye.” The command to care for the vulnerable is right there next to stories like this one, where the vulnerable are cast aside like refuse by the ancestors of our faith. The question is what will we choose to see? Which story, which path will we take hold of, and which will we lay aside and say, We’re going to do things differently. We won’t perpetuate that mistake.
So it’s a fair question, I think, to ask which characters in this story Jesus would have us see? Yes, Abraham and Sarah and Isaac are important—of course they are. They’re family and we can’t run away from them. But we also have to be honest about the ways they fell short, so we can commit to doing better—so we can break the cycle. And this requires that we not simply lift up the story of Hagar and Ishmael, but also ask who are they for us today?
Who is Hagar?
Is she the Syrian refugee woman, outcast and unwanted, clinging to her child, making her way across desert and sea, rejected at every pass? Far down the list of concerns of the rest of the world?
Is she among the immigrant Latina women who used to attend our Language school regularly but in recent months have stopped coming because they’re afraid to leave their house?
Is she the woman who comes by our church office every few weeks, strung out and with a new story of need each time—children sometimes with her, waiting in the car, sometimes not?
Is she the young girl at Crisis Line Safe House in Gray, who’s suffered unspeakable harm, and has not yet heard that blessing from God—Your child, too, will be treasured?
And Ishmael? How many “other sons” and “other daughters” are there in the world? Perhaps you are one. But on a different level, tradition tells us that Ishmael is the father of the Muslim world. What better time to be reminded that we all claim the same father, thatwhatever conflict there is between us is conflict between family members—which means it is the worst kind of conflict; the most heated, the most painful, but also the most pitiful. What would it mean for us to take seriously that our own Scriptures tell us that they, too, are included in God’s blessing?
Looking back at this family tree we’ve inherited, seeing all that’s there, remembering that as long as we have breath we still have time, what would we hold onto and say, This, this is who we are. And what would we let go of and say to our ancestors, We love you, but we’re going do things differently from here on out.
What would we take with us?
What would we have our children receive?
And what would we leave behind?
(1) Walter Brueggemann’s treatment of this story in his commentary on Genesis for the Interpretation series has been immensely helpful. 180-184
(2) Terence E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis, New Interpreter’s Commentary, 489
(3) Brueggemann, 183
(4) Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of the Biblical Narratives, 27-29
(5) Brueggemann, 182-184
(6) Ibid, 183