June 22, 2014

Hagar and Ishmael

Passage: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39
Service Type:

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.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” exudes the Apostle Paul. “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness”, indeed Abraham is “the ancestor of all who believe”. (Romans 4:3, 9, 11) And then we read Genesis and find out that this hero of faith sent his concubine and son packing without so much as a train ticket or hotel reservation, though he could have well afforded both. (OK, yes a bit of bread and some water but not much). It seems this way with many of the Biblical faith heroes—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had issues. This may be why many abandon their trust in the Bible; why these stories are not popular preaching texts.

In the Sundays of this summer I plan to explore some of the Genesis stories and get into the grit and grime that appears. The Lectionary Old Testament readings follow stories of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis. The stories may seem old and the events harsh—if you open today’s newspapers the stories may be new but the harsh actualities are not. The question to explore is what did God say to them; how was God engaged with them? Exploring those stories will help us to see our own stories both exposing harshness for what it is and knowing of God’s engagement with us.

1. I remember a teenage friend in high school who was sent packing from home. “My old man kicked me out of the house”, was the way he put it. (Fathers were referred to as the “old man”, in those days) To hear my friend tell the story, it was completely a capricious act on the part of his father. It may be true that his father was unpredictable and mean; life experience since then has taught me that there is usually more to the story. Even so, the social, psychological, spiritual, and relational pain is not mitigated by the source of the pain. A family separated by reason of natural disaster feels the pain of separation as acutely as those separated by disagreements. Sending a teenager from the home may not have been intended to be cruel; yet, it certainly felt that way.

“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.” Is Abraham (and Sarah) simply capricious? A lot has happened before we get to this point in the story as is the case in most stories like this. A breaking point has been reached. Ultimatums are acted upon. It seems so sudden at the time yet hindsight shows us otherwise.

Abraham and Sarah have been given a promise by God that “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:3) Abraham’s heir would not only inherit all that was his but the promises of God as well. “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he (God) said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)

In the social structures of that era of history the eldest male was a position loaded with power and possibility and prestige. He was heir to the family property and business, the ruling member of the household. If you had no male heir certain other options were possible. If you had daughters a son-in-law could be so named, or the son of one of your household slaves. Abraham—having no daughters—had, at first, gone the route of appointing a certain “Eliezer of Damascus” to be his heir. It was in conversation with God about Eliezer that God promised the heir would in fact be their own child.

But the biological clock is ticking for Sarah; truth be told it had stopped ticking. “The Lord has prevented me from having children”, she reasoned. (Genesis 16:2) So she proposes to Abraham the option of last resort; a concubine for Abraham. Oh, they have the best of intentions. They will help God out. Sarah has a slave-girl named Hagar—a person treated by Sarah as property—who will be a surrogate mother. Abraham agrees, and Hagar conceives. But even before the child is born Hagar looks with contempt on Sarah thinking she will replace Sarah as number one wife. Sarah thus treats her harshly and Hagar runs away but an angel of the Lord encourages her to return. Hagar returns and Ishmael is born.

Fourteen years later Sarah gives birth to Isaac. You can already see that the divisions in this household do not bode well for future harmony. Which son will be the heir? Both are Abraham’s issue. It was on the day of celebration for Isaac as a weaned child (our reading today) when everything blew up. Sarah saw Ishmael “playing with her son Isaac.” (NRSV reading). The Hebrew word used here carries the idea of “playing with” to mean mocking. Sarah fears an unsafe future for Isaac and is unsure of Isaac’s place as heir in Abraham’s mind. No doubt driven by a good portion of jealousy she tells Abraham that Hagar and the boy need to go. Even God concurs that Abraham should do what Sarah asks. “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. “

I am sure that, initially, Abraham and Sarah had the best of intentions. Their plan with respect to Hagar was to serve the highest of ideals—fulfilling God’s promise for an heir. What could be loftier that doing something for the sake of God? Most people don’t wake up in the morning and think—“what can I do today that will make the greatest mess of things?” Yet we find that having the best intentions does not always mean smooth sailing or fabulous outcomes or prevent us from messing things up.

Robert Alter is the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter is a Jewish scholar at Berkeley whose expertise is ancient Jewish literature. In his book he says there are two institutions present in the Book of Genesis that were universal in ancient cultures: polygamy and primogeniture. Polygamy said a husband could have multiple wives, and primogeniture said the oldest son got everything—all the power, all the money. In other words, the oldest son basically ruled over everyone else in the family. Alter points out that when you read the Book of Genesis, you'll see two things. First of all, in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. Second, when it comes to primogeniture, in every generation God favors the younger son over the older. He favors Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Alter says that you begin to realize what the Book of Genesis is doing—it is subverting, not supporting, those ancient institutions at every turn.

Abraham and Sarah are not being commended for their actions. Abraham’s sexual relationship with Hagar is not being held up for emulation. Dr. Timothy Keller in his book Center Church has a chapter on how the gospel affects everything. About sexuality he writes: “The moralist tends to see sex as dirty, or at least as a dangerous impulse. The relativist/pragmatist sees sex as merely a biological or physical appetite. The gospel shows us that sexuality is supposed to reflect the self-giving of Christ. He gave himself completely, without conditions. Consequently, we are not to seek (genital) intimacy while holding back the rest of our lives. If we give ourselves sexually, we are also to give ourselves legally, socially, and personally. Sex is to be shared only in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.” (Keller, p. 49)

2. Dr. Archibald Hart is a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He once observed that “hardly anyone reaches adulthood without collecting a few psychological scars on the way.” We must never diminish the pain in this story as if the characters were mere props for some moral lesson for us. We are told that it distressed Abraham greatly; but for Hagar and Ishmael it must have crushing. The social, spiritual, emotional, psychological, and relational pains are acute and they hurt.

When we experience relational hurts (whether through actions, words, or lack of encouragement), we often use phrases like "She broke my heart," or "He hurt my feelings," or it was like getting "punched in the gut." Researcher and neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman thought this was just too coincidental, so he set out to study the pain of social rejection. The most interesting part of his study is how people’s brains processed social rejection. To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg, as Lieberman puts it. In his book Social, Lieberman writes, "Looking at the [brain scans], side by side, without knowing which was an analysis of physical pain and which was an analysis of social pain, you wouldn't have been able to tell the difference." In other words, "When human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way it responds to physical pain."

Now before we go ripping away at Abraham and Sarah for their apparent heartlessness most families I know have some level of these rifts and tares and wounds. Last September a judge in Seville, Spain ordered a divorcing couple to split their 2,700 square foot apartment down the middle—literally. The property belongs to the husband’s parents, but the judge ordered the man to bisect it to create two independent abodes, citing economic considerations and the well-being of the couple’s two daughters. The potential for awkward encounters between the couple in the stairwell presented “the lesser of two evils in view of the economic situation presented by both parties,” the judge wrote, referring to the couple’s complaint that the crisis had decimated their earnings. Imagine the impact on the lives of these people.

It is important to note that God was present in all this mess with Abraham and Sarah; present not just to them but to Hagar and Ishmael as well.

You see, because God is present to all of life, every situation in life, every encounter in life, every struggle in life, every engagement, anywhere in life, is also an engagement with God ultimately. From a human perspective it appears to be no more than a purely human struggle, terrible as this often is. Yet since God abandons no one, since God forsakes nobody, any struggle anywhere in life is ultimately an engagement with God.

Let me say right now that because our Lord Jesus Christ was profoundly forsaken by his Father on Good Friday in Gethsemane and on Calvary for our sakes; because our Lord Jesus Christ was profoundly God-forsaken for our sakes, there is no human being, anywhere in the world, who is God-forsaken now or ever will be.

This is not to say that there’s no one who doesn’t feel God-forsaken. At some point we all feel God-forsaken, even as in truth we never are.

Neither is this to say everyone has come to faith, is going to come to faith, or wants to come to faith. I am not pretending that because God forsakes no one therefore everyone is now a secret believer. Still, the fact that some have not yet recognized God and acknowledged him; the fact that some have never heard of him; the fact that some have heard of him but choose to ignore him; none of this means that he is now ignoring them. God ever remains that “Other” with whom all men and women are involved at all times, whether they are aware of it or not. What appears to be only a human situation, however difficult, is also, always, an encounter with God.

Now about God concurring with Sarah to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Sometimes in life we find that severing ties is the thing that needs to be done. Be careful to note that this action by Abraham does not put Hagar and Ishmael beyond God’s help. “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring,” was our Lord’s promise to Abraham. We note, however, that, as painful as it is to do this, a potential future problem or conflict in the household is dissipated or avoided. Situations like this can go from bad to worse and more often than not do. Ishmael’s disdain of Isaac is not likely to mature into admiration. His aspirations as the oldest male not likely to subside to Isaac as the heir.

I have seen this sort of thing work out in organization life. A person behaves themselves into a corner where relationships with colleagues are difficult. They try to make course correction but the situation is so coloured by past behaviour that new behaviours are not seen or trusted as genuine by others. A new start in a new place with new behaviours is sometimes the better avenue.

We also note that Isaac and Ishmael can only fully realize who they are apart from one another. They both become “leaders of nations.” Think again of organizational life. I once did projects of outplacement consulting. A person was taken aside into a conference room and told of the termination of their employment. The next person they met was me and I was there for them to offer assistance for transition to something new. It was many times the case that greater and better opportunity emerged for the person than could ever have materialized staying where they were.

In making these observations, it is never to say that the parting isn’t traumatic nor painful; because more painful outcomes were avoided or a wider and greater future emerged is not to say that the behaviours that gave rise to the situation were good. It is to say that in all of these situations God acts to redeem peoples’ lives.

True stories often have both ugliness and beauty, and this I share with you now is no different. A married woman is sexually assaulted in California and becomes pregnant. Compounding her pain, her husband gives her an ultimatum: Abort this baby, or I’ll divorce you. The woman, however, decides that the child growing inside her is not the ugly part of her story, and gives birth.

She moves to Alabama, is put in touch with a Christian adoption agency. Two days after Molly’s birth, Peggy Dutton and her husband adopt her. Molly grows up and lives a gloriously average suburban life and now attends Auburn University as a horticulture student. Almost no one there knew her story—until friends urged her to run for homecoming queen—an honour she was awarded 2013.

Friends, we serve a risen Saviour who redeems life!