Genesis 21: 1-21 (full text at end of post)
My husband Tom spends time working on the ancestry of his family. He has gotten very good in his research. He searches the internet to find the scans of the actual church records in the Scandinavian countries the families have descended from, learning Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish terms for born, died, confirmed, transferred to another parish, emigrated, etc in order to decipher the poor penmanship of the priests who made notes in the official records.
The stories he has unearthed have been marvelous- or terrible, depending on how you feel about family secrets and untold stories which come to light. Tom tells me “I heard none of these things growing up- no one talked about what had happened in the previous generations”. He is unsure whether his ignorance about the family narrative is due to the older generations not knowing the stories, or being determined to keep them buried. Probably a bit of both.
This story in Genesis is one of those tales- an account of the very different treatment of two half-brothers. Many of you know who Abraham of the Old Testament is: the patriarch, the father of the people of Israel, the one to whom is given the promise of God to make Abraham’s descendants a great people. This indeed happens, and Abraham’s family becomes the Jewish people. Jews and Christians both regard Abraham as a father of the faith.
But I would also say most of us are unfamiliar with the story of Ishmael, Abraham’s first born child, and according to the traditional rules of those ancient times, should have been the one who would inherit Abraham’s land and power.
And many of us are unfamiliar, I would also say, with the stories of women in the Hebrew Bible. Women were bound by the rules of the time, which favored the masculine, and in response to the lack of direct power, many women used trickery and deception to advance themselves or their favorite children. If you are left without choices for your life, you find another way.
Let’s review the outline of the story, the struggle between Sarah and Hagar. Abraham and Sarah had been promised a child together, but it had been many years, no baby had been conceived, and Sarah has lost faith in the promises of God.
It is not only for the sake of the blessing promised to Abraham as the father of a great nation; Sarah also acts out of sheer human pain in her own humiliation as well. In those times, a woman without children was considered one despised and disfavored by God; status for women was exclusively in the realm of the family and the heirs produced. Thus Sarah, for all the wealth and power of her husband, was the object of scorn among those she lived among. Both Sarah, the barren wife, and Hagar, the slave girl, are negatively affected by the rules made to constrain them, but instead of seeing their plight as bound together, they play along with the rules to hurt each other.
The two women in our story, Sarah and Hagar, each with a lack of power and a tenuous grip on honorable status, decide that their problems can be solved by attacking the other rather than seeing the face of God in their common humanity.
Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands. In a manner not out of the ordinary for an wealthy woman of the ancient world, she gives her slave girl Hagar to be used as a surrogate mother. It seems she has found a way around the rules, for any children born of Hagar belong to Sarah. Of course, no one asks Hagar for permission in this.
Sarah’s plan works for a tim3e, but later backfires. When Hagar produces not only a child, but a son, she is filled with the sense of her own power. Hagar, now a mother, becomes the one to laud it over Sarah, for even though Sarah may have legal power over the son, Hagar has the bragging rights of childbirth.
But God’s promises are not thwarted. In old age, far past the time of childbearing, Sarah finally has a son by Abraham, named Isasac. Our passage starts with a celebration, almost a big birthday party for Ishmael, the son of Hagar the slave, and Abraham. Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together and suddenly all her vulnerabilities come rushing back. What if Hagar persuades Abraham to give Ishmael his blessing?
What will happen if Ishmael takes his rightful place as oldest, and demands the inheritance promise?
Sarah goes to Abraham, as Abraham has the power to make and carry out such decisions, and convinces him to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, into almost certain death.
Sarah was unable to see beyond her own need for identity and worth, not unreasonable demands in themselves, but she was blinded by them and led to commit an act which could be called vicious. This is not an old story. Certainly the willingness to be cruel to other people and their children in the belief that it protects one’s own family still happens.
Sarah forgot about showing God’s love and grace. All she could see was her own history of pain, disappointment , and bitterness, and a feeling of vulnerability that her new-found honorable status as the mother of Isaac could still be taken from her. There is a well-known commentary about women in the Bible, called “Just a Sister Away” by Renita Weems, which starts with this story of Sarah and Hagar. This story is still true, when women divide over race, over status : stay at home mom, professional woman, underemployed, blue collar worker, each trying to downgrade the others to prove the worth of their own situation.
Sarah could have prevented the suffering of Ishmael and Hagar, by stopping her cruel scheme of sending Ishmael and Hagar into the desert without the provisions to sustain themselves. Sin is when we see only ourselves, not the stories of other women and the lives they choose or are forced to live. But women can be a powerful force of good for each other.
Weems calls this “just a sister away”. We women are just a sister away healing, from support, from solidarity, and if we can see how much we need each other, it is perhaps easier to see how much we need the love of God and our brothers in Christ as well.
In our story, how are the tossed-away mother and son saved? By God, who lives up to the meaning of Ishmael’s name as “God hears”,and who hears Ishmael’s crying. God speaks to Hagar, one of the very few times in the Bible of God addressing a female directly. The promise to Abraham and Sarah is fulfilled through Isaac, yes, but Hagar’s son Ishmael is to have a promise of his own. He also is to become a father of a nation, and God will bless him. The members of the Muslim faith claim Ishmael as their spiritual father, which means that Jews, Christians and Muslims all link back to a common father Abraham.
God told Abraham and Sarah that they were to be a blessing through their descendants, and the blessing would come through the child of Sarah. This does not mean Sarah was justified in her actions toward Hagar and Ishmael. God’s love did include Hagar and Ishmael, indeed Ishmael is given a promise of his own to be the father of a great nation.
Tom has discovered all kinds of interesting things in his research, stories of joy and pain, sorrow and joy, and scandalous stories- deeds of the past which some in the family might rather be left there. But it is only in our common story, under the God of heaven, all of whom are loved, that we understand how important is the story of each individual, those rarely noticed, and those written in large letters.
It is not a good idea to do nothing to ease the suffering in the world. God is probably looking for YOU to be the one who see and shows God’s love. Sarah had the opportunity, she let it slip away. All of us: woman and men, are sisters and brothers of God, are given grace and mercy to live out grace and mercy. God give us strength to do so.
Genesis 21: 1-21
1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 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? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.