Monday, July 31, 2017

Joseph - Viceroy of Food

Genesis 42-50

So we usually think of the story of Joseph as the story of
a dysfunctional family,  how dreams and reserves of grain
and forgiveness help them to reunite after 30 years.
and how God can make good out of evil.

Which is a lovely story and a fitting ending to of Genesis,
a book about the first five generations of our ancestors of faith.
But maybe there’s a little more to this story too.

The brothers reunite in chapter 45, but the book goes onto chapter 50
The last five or so chapters take a lot of effort to tell us
how all the Israelites get to settle in Egypt
And the work Joseph continues to do for the Pharaoh.
There’s a little more information than just a great reunion.

So just to remind you what happened last week:
Joseph is in prison, falsely accused of molesting Potiphar’s wife.
While he was there, he interpreted the dream of two of the Pharaoh’s staff
Joseph tells the wine steward, the one who was returned to his job,
to remember him to Pharaoh and get him released.

Today we heard that
Two years pass and the Wine steward has forgotten about Joseph.
Then Pharaoh has a dream about cows and grain.
The basic dream was seven fat cows come out of the Nile river,
then seven emaciated cows come out of the river and eat the fat cows.
Then seven full heads of grain are eaten by seven scrawny heads of grain.

Pharaoh cannot get anyone to tell him what the dream means,
but then the wine steward remembers Joseph from 
two years ago correctly interpreting his dreams.
So Joseph is brought out of prison to Pharaoh.

And Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams:
There would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph even has a plan in response to these dreams:
Joseph suggests that the empire take the 7 good years to storehouse grain,
then they will have enough for the times of famine.
Joseph even suggests that someone be put in charge 
of collecting and then distributing the food.
Pharaoh was so impressed with his dream interpreting skills that he appoints Joseph.
So, basically, the story is that  the most powerful leader of the region,
the leader of the strongest empire, the richest man around,
has a nightmare about not having enough
and he decides, with the help of Joseph, to get more.

As Walter Bruggemann, the well known Old Testament theologian says,
it’s the first time in the bible someone said:
“There's not enough. Let's get everything.”

So Joseph is put into power as the viceroy of food,
And Pharaoh’s nightmare is put into policy.
A policy about food: The government would collect 1/5 of
everyone’s crops and then dish it out when the famine comes.
This was a good idea. It actually seems benevolent to all.
But food is a necessity, and when necessities become scarce,
necessities become power.

The plan works like a charm and the empire saves tons of grain.
More than they can count, then when the famine comes,
everyone has to come to the government in order not to starve.

Including Joseph’s brothers from Caanan.

As we heard, after Joseph tests their honesty,
he reveals himself to them and they have a tearful reunion
where Joseph tells them that they will all come live with him in Egypt.

That happens in chapter 45 and then the family saga is mostly over,
But in Chapter 47 there is an important section
which my translation calls “Joseph Centralizes Power in Egypt

13 There was no food in the land because the famine was so severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan dried up from the famine. 14 Joseph collected all of the silver to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan for the grain, which people came to buy, and he deposited it in Pharaoh’s treasury. 15 The silver from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan had been spent, and all of the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes, just because the silver is gone?

16 Joseph said, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock if the silver is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food for the horses, flocks, cattle, and donkeys. He got them through that year with food in exchange for all of their livestock.’

 18 When that year was over, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We can’t hide from my master that the silver is spent and that we’ve given the livestock to my master. All that’s left for my master is our corpses and our farmland. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, we and our farmland too? Buy us and our farms for food, and we and our farms will be under Pharaoh’s control. Give us seed so that we can stay alive and not die, and so that our farmland won’t become unproductive.”

20 So Joseph bought all of Egypt’s farmland for Pharaoh because every Egyptian sold his field when the famine worsened. So the land became Pharaoh’s. 21 He moved the people to the cities from one end of Egypt to the other.

After the famine was over
23 Joseph said to the people, “Since I’ve now purchased you and your farmland for Pharaoh, here’s seed for you. Plant the seed on the land. 24 When the crop comes in, you must give one-fifth to Pharaoh. You may keep four-fifths for yourselves, for planting fields, and for feeding yourselves, those in your households, and your children.”
25 The people said, “You’ve saved our lives. If you wish, we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” 26 So Joseph made a law that still exists today: Pharaoh receives one-fifth from Egypt’s farmland. Only the priests’ farmland didn’t become Pharaoh’s.

The writer takes a lot of time to detail the slow descent of the
people of Egypt decent into servitude to the powers that be.

Now to our capitalistic eyes, this might look like business as usual.
We have been steeped in a world where government and businesses
use whatever leverage they have to amass wealth and gain power.
But to those people to whom land was life and heritage and a future,
having someone else own your land was an utter disaster

If you owned your land, you could always sell off a portion of it,  to make up for a bad year for the crops,
or rent it out, or let cattle graze on it, or something, with land you had some power.
But without land, when you’re a sharecropper, which is what this is describing,
when your crops don’t provide enough one year, you end up borrowing,
and if no one around you has anything , you end up borrowing from the government
and when those debts piled up in Egypt, the next step was slavery.

We know that from our own countries’ wide spread
history of share cropping after the civil war.

So Joseph is the hero of our story for sure,
we won’t take that away from him.
He’s the Israelite boy who 
made good in the empire.
He saves Egypt the surrounding countries and his family from starvation.
But if we notice, 
after he’s appointed by Pharaoh,
he has no more dreams, 
no more interpretations.
That era is over. He is no longer the dreamer, he is just the viceroy.

The author of the story has done something very tricky here.
The hero of the story is the unwitting puppet of and circumstance and the will of the empire.
He’s  still he’s the hero, but he’s also the author of the consolidation of food,
then all power into the hands of the empire.

He tried to serve two masters:
God’s promise and the empire.
He probably died thinking that he balanced them out.
Jacob and his brothers and all their wives and children
all the Israelites had moved to Egypt and were alive.
But this laid the groundwork for the next chapter 
in the Israelites life and the next chapter of the bible,
which was Slavery in Egypt. 

The Israelites were all settled in the Empire of Egypt
and the power was consolidated in the Pharaoh’s hands.
There were lots of Israelites and the New Pharaoh
feared they would get too powerful

Walter Bruggemann writes:
Slavery happens in the Old Testament because the
strong ones work a monopoly over the weak ones
and eventually exercise over their bodies.
And the slaves are grateful for it.
The slavery of Egypt happen because of a manipulation
of the economy in the interest of a concentration of
wealth and power for the few
at the expense of community.”

Now I’m not sure if Joseph could have done differently.
There was a famine. Without his dream interpretation,
without his strategy and leadership, the people may have starved.
Or maybe the people could have saved 1/5 of their 
food themselves and not had to go to the government.
Or maybe they would have migrated elsewhere.
Or maybe they would have expanded their crops or looked for new sources of food.
Or maybe the empire could have given out the necessity to the people without taking everything they had.

And Pharaoh’s fear was not just fear for himself,
but all the people he was responsible for.
But fear made into policy, hurts the people.

Joseph made a choice that seemed to be in the best interest of the people.
And in taking sliver, then livestock, then land, then their labor, then their bodies.
He served the best interest of Egypt and the pharaoh that he was working for.
But we can’t deny that it was detrimental to the Israelites and to the other Egyptians.
And the people gave into it eagerly and willingly.

This is a complicated story and scenario
that this first book of the bible sets out.
A dilemma that all humanity has had to face.
A rock and a hard place that we are still put in between in this world.

Today, we mostly don’t deal with grain and livestock,
we don’t deal with Pharaohs taking our farms and cattle.

But we do deal with the reality of mega companies
that amass wealth and power and exploit workers and manipulate our economy.
These companies are part of everyone’s lives, we can’t avoid them
We live in a world and an economy created by them.

Take Walmart for insistence.  
I’ve been there. You’ve been there.
Some of us work there, or have worked there.
Most middle class and poor Americans have been there.

When a Walmart shows up in a small town,
it’s often seen as a savior providing jobs where there were none.

And Walmart is the largest givers of in-kind gifts to food banks
around the country which is wonderful they claim to have given
1.3 billion dollars in grants and contributions in 2014,
which s astonishing.

But their low wages force many of their employees
to go to those food pantries to survive  and use other services.

Forbes magazine estimated that Walmart, through its employees
 cost taxpayers  6.2 billion dollars a year in public assistance.
And then almost 17% of all food stamp sales in the country are spent at Walmart
so the money goes back into their profits.
And Walmart has consistently fought mandatory wage hikes in California,
actually choosing to close stores rather than pay the wages.
And they’ve fought employees unionizing  in their stores at every turn.
And Walmart’s business model is to compete harshly with other local businesses creating a monopoly in many towns.
Walmart’s profit for 2016 was 17 billion dollars.

It’s more complicated than silver and livestock, but it’s the same premise.
Accumulation of wealth and then power.
The fear of scarcity is put into policy
a few people benefit  and most people suffer.

And Walmart isn’t the only one, but large companies like this
set the tone for the economy and the nation,
and the people have no choice but to become beholden to it.

And the disassociation between the powerful and the poor
is an ongoing theme in bible
Even  in 500 BC or whenever the book of Genesis was written,
they could see this growing division between God’s promise of plenty for all,
and the world’s tendency to take it away and keep it for a few.

The book of Genesis starts with a liturgy of abundance:
a beautiful 6 day procession of the fruit of all creation:
plants, animals, birds, fish, all placed at the feet of humans.
enough for everyone to enjoy and live and thrive,
and there is even a day of rest thrown in.

And the book ends with the already rich and powerful having a nightmare of scarcity
and then that nightmare becoming policy.
Genesis presents this dichotomy that humanity will continue to face to this day:

When times are bad,
Do we trust in God’s abundance, or do we give into the nightmare of scarcity?
Do we trust in the promise, or do we act on the fear?
Do we trust in God, or do we follow the empire?

And this story I think asks an even deeper question:
Can we choose? Do we have a choice?
Could Joseph have chosen a better way?
Or were his hands tied by fate and reality?
Will the people of God always be consumed by the wants of the empire?
or Will God’s way ever be our way?
Like any good story, Genesis doesn’t give a clear answer.
It only poses more deeper questions for us to ask ourselves.

The opening book of the bible is a complicated story of
birth and death, scandal, betrayal, and promise.
From Abraham and Sarah, all the way to Joseph and Pharaoh.
It follows one families’ struggle to be faithful to the promises of God.
As confusing and weird as those stories are
their stories are our stories and they tell us the same
thing they have told faithful people through the ages:

Even though we are dysfunctional people and we live in a dysfunctional world,
the one God, who created us out of nothing will never leave us,
and it might take a long time,
but God will make good out of evil.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Joseph: The Dreamer in Exile

Joseph Pt. 1
Genesis 37-41

Before we go into this story,
I feel the need to go back and review the entire history of the Jewish people.
It will only take a minute, I’m just covering a couple thousand years.
Now keep in mind that these are all approximate guesses,
And not everyone agrees on it, and some things don’t add up,
but that’s how it is when you’re working with ancient history

And this was a group of people who most everyone else didn’t
know how important they would be to us today, so lots of stuff
wasn’t recorded, but this is the best info that I could find.  

Here’s the good years:
1800 – 1700 BC – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael,
1500 BC – Joseph
1280 BC - The Exodus
1200-1000 BC  - Judges
1025-1010 BC – King Saul
1010-970 BC King David
960 BC – Solomon’s Temple Completed

Then things started to go not so good for them.

931 BC – Split between the Northern and southern kingdoms: Israel (
Samaria) and Judah
740-722 BC – The Northern kingdom Falls to Assyria
597 BC -- First deportations to Babylon
586 BC – Jerusalem falls to Nebuchadnezzar and Solomon’s temple is destroyed – The Exile
540 BC – Jews allowed to return to Israel

See that didn’t take long. I’ll tell show you why I reviewed that in a minute.

So the common mythology that was believed until about the 19th century is that Moses wrote the book of Genesis. The image was that at some point when he was wandering around the desert homeless trying to take care of every Israelite, and he sat down and wrote a book.  Some people still adamantly adhere to this belief today, like really adamantly.

Until the 1940’s the Catholics banned their scholars from investigating the origins of Genesis and the rest of the Pentatuch, the first five books of the bible, because they thought it was sacreligious to suggest it wasn’t Moses.

In the 19th century, biblical scholars started to realize that the stories of Genesis did not look as uniform as if they were done by one writer. They seemed like they were more hobbled together from many sources. Some use one name for God, other parts use another. There’s repetition and contradicting narratives. The oral sources are called JEPD.  
We could talk for hours just on this topic, but I’ve got other places to go today.

So today, scholars believe that parts of the book of Genesis were shared orally and pieces were written down by many different authors and shared for centuries and then complied together sort of into what we know as Genesis around the early 500’s BC.  

Now the story of Joseph in contrast to the rest of Genesis seems to be consistent and fluid and seems to be written down by one person and not shared orally first. Scholars think that it was written in the early 500’s, same time that the rest of the stories were complied together, and then put on the end of Genesis.

So, what was happening in the early 500’s?   
The Babylonian Exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, the King and his sons were killed and a large portion of the people of Judah were separated sent off to Babylon and lived as Exiles in a gentile country. 

With some adjustments, I think it would have been akin to the Syrian war and the refugees made to leave their home.

Now the Jews that were made to leave, were at least given a place to settle in Babylon.
But this was still horrible moment for the Jewish people.
It was the demolition of their home, their religion, a separation of their people their family, their heritage,
and mostly it seemed like the destruction of God’s promise to them.

The survivors lived in a foreign country against their will and were often treated with hostility.
It was a test of faith in God’s promises.
For the people who thought that God was with them and for them,
they wondered if God had abandoned them,
or if this was all seen as punishment from God for sins.

So this is the time when Genesis and actually most of the
Old Testament was compiled and written down.
It's obvious why land and offspring, and heritage,
and long term stability for their people were the recurring desires in Genesis.

Now I was just reading someone’s  take on this in some book,
and Facebook  Jesus came through again. He wrote:

The Hebrew Scriptures are an artifact of a dying civilization lying on the ground bleeding, going back through its life and wondering what went wrong.
This gave me a interesting take  Joseph and the rest of Genesis that I didn’t really have before.

Joseph, and all of Genesis was written by people looking back from the middle of a huge disaster that  tore apart their whole country, people, and religion.  

If we forget this fact and when it was written, the story of Joseph is just a great adventure story of a slightly conceited, cocky, young guy who has some problems, but always comes out on top because he believes in Yahweh and follows God’s law.

Which isn’t terrible, but it sounds a little like a prosperity gospel,
believe and do your best God will reward you type of story which is not what we usually see.

But if we remember that Joseph was written at the Israelites lowest point,
when it looked like they were utterly destroyed and God had left them,
I think it makes a lot more sense.

So many of us know the basic story of Joseph because it’s been used a lot  in popular culture.

Joseph, the dreamer, is sold by his brothers to some traders, and then he gets sold then as a slave in Egypt, to Potiphar, a high ranking official in Pharaoh’s court.

So the dreamer is displaced from the promised land in the gentile land, Egypt, the empire.  

While he’s in the empire, Joseph is falsely accused based, his strange religion is called out,  and he’s put into prison.  Desperation upon desperation. 
This is not just the story of one boy, it’s the story of the Jewish people.

Joseph Sold into Slavery By His Brothers
Karoly Ferenczy
When we look at it this way, the story of Joseph is a story of hope in desperate times.
It’s about having faith through terrible situations,
it’s about  living as an alien in the middle of the empire, and  not letting God’s dreams die.

So given the reality of the conditions under which it was written, the questions I think this story asks are:

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Is the dream over?
How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?
So we’ll go right to the first question

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Things are bad for Joseph.
His dream interpretation skills get him in trouble,
his favor with Jacob gets him in trouble.
Even his coat gets him in trouble. He’s sold into slavery, he goes to prison.

If bad fortune was a sign of God’s punishment,
 then Joseph would have to have done something very wrong to anger God.
But we know from the beginning that that was not the case.
The story does not portray Joseph as doing anything worthy of punishment.
Also, we know that Joseph was Jacob’s son,
and if God didn’t punish Jacob then God was not going to punish this family.

Actually, every time he comes into a bad situation, his the special gifts that
God’s gave him seems to come through and he’s put into the best position he can be put in.

This was actually something that happened to Israelites
while they were in exile. Some rose to prominence in Babylon.
They were allowed to live freely and work and run businesses.
They still longed for home and stability and their own land and people,
But it says that when they were able to return to Jerusalem,
some opted not to, but stayed where they were, like lots of refugees do.

The Joseph story shows us bad things happen to good people.
And God can work good things out of bad situations.
This was a hope and consolation for those living in exile.

Now  I don’t want to give the end of the story away, but
Joseph is reunited with his brothers after about 20 years, and
they wonder if he will be angry with them and punish them.
But Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid.” “You planned something bad for me,
but God made something good from it.”

I do like how this translation words this.
The brothers planned something bad, but God made good.
The world does bad things to us. Not God.
God makes good out of a bad situation.
In this world where things are unfair and evil thoughts and actions exist,
the righteous will suffer.
God is always working at bringing good out of bad.
Joseph is seen as nothing but a good servant of God.
His suffering is a sign of the world he lives in and not God’s displeasure.
He actually suffers because of his righteousness.
In the age of the prosperity gospel,
this is a message that we need to be reminded of again and again.
Bad things happen to good people.

So, onto the next question:

Is the dream over?
Joseph, God’s dreamer is sent to a foreign land and then he’s imprisoned. if Joseph isn’t being
punished by God, then it might look like God has lost or given up or left us all together.

Lots of people note, that until this story, God is an actor in Genesis.
He comes and personally talks to people or he sends messengers to consort with them.
But in this story, God is silent. God is mentioned, but God is not to be seen.
Has God lost? Have we lost God?   No, but God is hidden.

In times of crisis, sometimes we have to look beyond the obvious
to find God’s presence and power working through our hopeless situations.
God abides in Joseph, the hero of the story, in the faithful, in the dreamers,
blessing the world, even though the world may not know or serve God.
This blessing comes through Joseph, but it’s never fully in Joseph’s hand.  SLIDE

Just because things are not looking good,
it doesn’t mean that God is lost or the dream is over.
As Joseph shows us, the dream may be in a foreign land,
the dream may be in prison, the dream may be serving another country,
The dream may not look like we think the dream should.
But God’s dream of  people that number more than sand in the desert
and stars in the sky, that  live in harmony and worship him,
and who are a light to all the nations, that dream has not died
and will never die it still lives in the hearts and lives of those who believe,
like it lives in Joseph and in us.

So if God is not punishing us and the dream is still alive,

How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?

Joseph is definitely depicted as a model for how to act in his displaced situation.
Although Potiphar’s wife tries to, It says that Joseph doesn’t want to sleep with Potiphar’s wife
because he doesn’t want to betray Potiphar or to “Sin against God.”
So even thought Joseph is not in the land of his ancestors,
or the place where Yahweh is worshipped, he still follows Yahweh’s teachings.

Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife (who has no name)
tells us not to be seduced by the wiles of the empire.
Now, some might assume that is a moral for Jewish men not to have relations with gentile women
but by the end of the story, Joseph marries Aseneth,
the daughter of an Egyptian priest,
so Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife is more than a sexual moral.

It’s about not being seduced by the trappings and comforts of the empire which are tempting.
It’s a warning about all the seductions of living in a powerful and well-off place.
It’s about not forgetting that we are God’s children and should behave like it.

Joseph cannot win in this situation, if he sleeps with her, he’s doomed and if he doesn’t he’s doomed,
so Joseph opts to maintain his integrity and his ideals
and face the consequences of not adapting to the culture.

As believers living in the empire, we should be “in the world, but not of the world.”
Sound familiar.
We can talk next week about whether Joseph
actually sticks to his principles by the end of the story.
But for right now, he’s doing pretty well.

There’s also another element to this question.
Again, I don’t want to give away the story if you don’t know it,
but it turns out incredibly well for Joseph
and actually for everyone in the end.

Besides reuniting with his brothers and his father,
Joseph’s presence and actions save the people of Egypt,
and his whole family and all the Israelites from starvation.
Joseph and the dreams that he carried with him were a blessing to others.
So, in a foreign land, even in a hostile land,
the children of Yahweh are a light to the other nations.

Now even though most of us have been born in this land and lived here all our lives,
this advice is still relevant for us.
We are believers in God’s dream and a land that is
hostile to God’s dream.
Sometimes it probably feels  like we are aliens in our own world.
And it should. We live a different way.

But while we’re here, we should not be seduced by the trappings of the empire.
Not be sucked in by the comfort and the ease of living, but remember who’s we are.
But we should still be a blessing to this world whenever we can.

So the story of Joseph is not just a story of one plucky young man
who follows God and is rewarded.
It’s the story of a dream in exile.
Of a people trying to get their heads around how to live in a new reality.
It’s about whether or not God is with us, when everything seems to be against us.
It’s about not giving up on God’s dream no matter what the world gives us.

This is the story of believers throughout the ages
living in a hostile world, but knowing God will always be there.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hagar & Ishmael

Genesis 16 & 21
Hagar & Ishmael

These are not easy stories for us in this day and age.
Abraham and Sarah don’t end up looking so much like models of the faith,
not to us anyway.
They seem petty, weak, callous, and cruel.
By the way, for part of the story, they are Abram and Sarai
and for the other part they are Abraham and Sarah.
I’m just calling them Abraham and Sarah to not confuse myself.
Hagar & Ishmael in the Desert, Emily Mineo

The short story for us is that Sarah got impatient and wanted a baby  
and she forced another woman, her slave, Hagar, to have a baby with her husband.
But Sarah gets all jealous cause it’s not her baby
so she has Abraham dump Hagar and the baby in the desert to die.
Sounds like the Real Housewives of Hebron or worse.
And God seems to go along with all this, at least he doesn’t complain about it.

These are the father and mother of our faith.

Now for sure, this is not Abraham and Sarah’s  best moment.
But I’m guessing that the first hearers of this story would not have be so unnerved by it
they wouldn’t have judged them so harshly and their actions would have made much more sense at the time.

Much this story is motivated by the norms of their society,  
which are foreign to us and might explain their actions.  Some of them are:

  • Having offspring (especially male) was an absolute driving force and the purpose of marriage.
  • Sarah and Abraham were old and childless, which was seen as shameful.
  • Men often had several wives, often in order to ensure offspring.
  • Slavery and the caste system created by it was unquestioned.

So to explain these. .

Having a male offspring was an absolute driving force and was the purpose of marriage.

At this time (and really for most of history) marriage was not driven by love,
or romance, or companionship or any of the things we now assume marriage to be about.
The sole reason to be married was to have children, specifically male children,
in order to carry on the family name and business and wealth into further generations.
This and having land were of primary importance to a family, and notice that God’s promise to Abraham includes both of these things: land and offspring.

The oldest male was the ‘favored’ one who would inherit the family business
and most of the family’s wealth and responsibility passed on to him.
Younger brothers got “gifts” , but the oldest got most everything else.
The oldest would have stayed with his parents, taking care of them
and the family and the slaves and everything else they had. 
The females would have joined other families, the younger men might join another family too.

This singular ambition to have a male heir drives both men and women to do things that seem very strange and out of place to us like Lot’s daughters, and Tamar, it’s the reason for a Levrite marriage, where a widow would marry her brother-in-law.  Many of the sexual, family things in the bible that we think of as weird  can be traced to this one objective.

Sarah and Abraham were old and childless (which was shameful.)

So when God promises Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are
stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert,
Abraham is 75 and Sarah was about 65 they have no children.  
Now some people say that these numbers are actually exaggerations of some sort. Some say that you need to divide by 5, some say that it means months not years.  But it’s not clear. Genesis says that Abraham lived to 175, but it says that Noah lived to 900 so Abraham was pretty young comparitively. Many religions have longevity myths about  their ancestors. Regardless of the actual age, it says that Abraham and Sarah were old. Too old to by many people’s estimation to have children.
So the promise is given to Abraham when he is 75 and Sarah is 65. When Sarah has the idea to give Hagar to Abraham, Abraham is 85 and Sarah is 75. 10 years have passed.  It really doesn’t seem like this important thing is going to happen.
Given the last thing we know about offspring and male heirs, this would have made Abraham and Sarah’s marriage -- and even their whole lives -- a complete failure. The future of their wealth and all that they’ve worked for would have been in jeopardy.
Women were understood to have one job, and that was to have babies. If Sarah didn’t do that for the family, her life was in vein. Sarah was afraid of dying in shame. She was racing against the clock. It makes sense that Sarah would be impatient.

Men often had several wives.

If the sole purpose of marriage was to have heirs to carry on your name, then marrying more than one woman makes sense.  There was no fertility clinics, no adoption centers. If the first wife was not able to bear children, another was chosen or given (because it was assumed to be the woman’s fault.)  Most multiple marriages in Genesis were in order for children to be born, either for the man or for the woman’s sake.  The child born to a woman’s slave would have legally belonged to the first wife.
Thankfully polygamy seemed to fall out of practice around the time of the Jewish exile, thousands of years ago.

Slavery and the caste system created by it was an unquestioned norm of the day

Slaves were sometimes prisoners of war, sometimes they’ve sold themselves into a temporary state of slavery, or have been sold by their families to pay off debts.
And Hagar was probably given to Sarah at her marriage. Slaves that belonged to wives could not be automatically taken by her husband. Sarah would have to give her slave to her husband as a wife to Abraham and then the child would be her child. But Sarah would still be in charge of the slave.
So Sarah is driven by the overwhelming societal need to have a child and even though this all seems to be Sarah’s idea, it’s put her in an uncomfortable position.  The heir might have legally been her child, but it really wasn’t, and then on top of that, the slave that she offered up to be a surrogate was disrespectful to Sarah.
To the first hearers of this story, Hagar would probably
have been seen as the one who did wrong.
She did not  honor her place in this system.  

Unfortunately, slavery didn’t fall out of practice until just recently.

While Sarah and Abraham would not have seemed not at their best,
for the first hearers, this story wouldn’t have seemed completely erratic and cruel
because they would have been living in the same environment with the same rules.

Now if we said or did any one of these things or acted on them today,
we would be seen as crazy, we would get a stern talking to,
or we would be arrested, and I for one am glad.
We are different now, we’ve progressed, and God has had a hand in that.

But I’m not here to get Abraham and Sarah off the hook or make them look great.
I want to say that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as morally superior to them,  
because we are willing parties of our own cultures and norms,
And when we’re put into stressful situations, we often will
act on them instead of in the best way we know how.

Even if we have an inkling that something  is wrong,                                       
we are still part of these systems and we live within them,
many of us at least think that people should know their place and abide by the
written and unwritten rules and things might be better for them.
What will future generations say about us and where we are now?

But right here, just 21 chapters into the bible,
we see God challenging the world that Abraham and Sarah live in
and the rules they abide by.

Now the frustration for most of us is that God doesn’t work fast enough. 
God doesn’t just overturn unjust and cruel systems like violence and slavery and misogyny
and correct the problems of civilization in one stroke.
But God doesn’t completely live by them either.
God works against them gently, he’s undermining them,  he almost makes fun of them. 

For instance:
Hagar is in every way shape and form an outcast.
She is a woman, she is a slave, she is an Egyptian, from another culture,
She was given the privilege of bearing the child of her master,
and then she had the nerve to disrespect her mistress.
The tradition says she deserves to be abandoned in the desert and ignored.

But this story,
God’s messenger comes to her. To HER.
A pregnant, sassy, runaway slave.
And the messenger does tells her to go back to Sarah, maybe for her own safety,
but never scolds her or tells her to reconsider her ways.

On the contrary, the messenger tells her not to be afraid.
and announces to HER that God will give HER many children.
And that she should name her child Ishmael,
which means ‘God has heard her.’

Now these kind of announcements are not given to women.
Actually in the Hebrew Scriptures, this is the only time the announcement of a birth is given to a woman.

And then to go even further Hagar has the chutzpah to
names God. She calls him El Roi, Which means ‘God sees me.’
God names other people, people don’t name God. But Hagar did.

Just 16 chapters in to the book,
we see a God who is  not playing by the rules, who sees and hears the outcast,
who makes great promises to sassy women.

And then when Ishmael is 13 and Sarah finally does give birth,
Sarah sees the older boy, as a rival to her younger child.
And she has Abraham throw them into the desert with little water,
obviously with the intent that they would die there. 
God hears Hagar and the boy again.
And the messenger of God, uses that famous biblical line, “Do not be afraid”
and God gives her a well with water.

It says that God stays with Ishmael as he grows up. 
God does not abandon him or forsake him,
just because he was born out of Sarah and Abraham’s impatience.
But God makes a great nation of him too.

Now Muslims and Arabs trace their heritage to Ishmael.
They say that he was an ancestor of Muhammad.
In Islamic tradition, it is Ishmael who was the one to be sacrificed, not Isaac.
I learned something new.
And even though the story in Genesis continues to follow
Isaac and his offspring, Ishmael is no less treasured by God, 
He is not a second class citizen, he is Isaac’s brother and equal
and is given a special promise and  becomes great nation in his own right.

God loves the outcast.
As I said, God is not overturning societies and rules and customs in one stroke.
God’s just slowly undermining them, slowly overturning them.
Changing hearts and minds.

For the first people hearing them,    
these stories must have been shocking to them too, but for different reasons.

For them having  children would have been extremely important      
but the heroes of the story are two old barren people.
And then God makes them wait 25 years to make it happen.

And those people think that first born male heirs are important. 
but if you look in Genesis, almost none of the first born sons
who were supposed get the blessing and birthrights,  end up getting it.

Hagar talking to God must have been an outrage. 

Having Ishmael as the first born, not get Abraham’s inheritance,
but as the child of a banished slave still get God’s honor
and promise must have blown their minds.

If this is what God does, It’s hard to pick good and bad.
It’s hard to know who God loves and who God doesn’t.
It’s hard to say who is in and who is out.
And maybe that was the point.
With God, there is no in and out. Right from the beginning.

Like a slow erosion,  
God is taking centuries and millennium to do it,
but maybe one day we’ll really know and live this.
God is out to change the world, by changing
the hearts of the people in the world.
By making us so uncomfortable
with the way things are that we can’t live with it any more.
God is not just demanding that everything change.
God wants us to demand it too.
This is no short and easy fix.
God is in this for the long-haul.
God started right from the beginning, and
God is still working with us today.

The story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael should give us hope. 
God is still working through our outdated systems and cultures.
And through subtly challenging our prejudices and preconceived notions.
God is slowing working to help us get out of the knots we have gotten ourselves in.

And God is not swayed by our shortcomings and foibles and personality defects.
God is not turned away by our impatience, or our rivalry, or pettiness or weaknesses.
Not only is God not turned away, but God is working through them.

And for those people who have been cast aside by our   
own culture and systems and prejudices,
Those that our society has declared second and third class citizens
They are Ishmael and God is El Roi, God hears their cries and God sees them.