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.

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