What sort of week have you had? If you’ve been able to enjoy the sunshine and sit in the garden then you need to know that there is some tough stuff coming up that will take us a long way away from everything being ‘sweetness and light’ as we reflect on our Old Testament lesson. There is some good news to be found in Genesis chapter 21 but you have to work hard to find it. Because today’s story throws us right into the middle of a dysfunctional family that is coming close to implosion. We have slavery, forced surrogacy and the abuse of a woman, jealousy and rejection, a father separated from his son and a mother and son brought near to dying from thirst, abandoned in the wilderness. And somehow this is meant to be good news.
The reading is set at a feast. It’s meant to be a happy occasion. Abraham is a wealthy man, there are guests (presumably), gathered to mark the weaning of a son whose name (Isaac) means laughter. But far from there being laughter, as the feast is served our narrator shows us Sarah and Abraham in the middle of a ‘domestic’ over Abraham’s first born son, Ishmael. This isn’t the first time in the scripture that Ishmael has been the focus of Sarah’s jealousy. Back in Genesis chapter 16 Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) ran away from the camp to get away from Sarah’s venom. There, Hagar was pregnant with her unborn child, and we were told that an angel of the Lord sent her back to Abraham. But here, in chapter 21 Ishmael is a teenager. He is Isaac’s older brother and, as far as Sarah is concerned, he is a threat to her son inheriting Abraham’s wealth.
Because we also need to remember that Abraham (desperate to have a child –and with Sarah’s full consent), had fathered Ishmael with Hagar, his slave. He (and Sarah) had used Hagar as a surrogate. We are really in Handsmaid Tale territory. Hagar presumably did not have any say in this arrangement. And for all that the bible story was written centuries ago some things haven’t changed in the least. Poor women around the world (and not so far away in Europe and indeed this country) are still, in effect, subject to sexual exploitation, sold into slavery and trafficked for the benefit of richer men and their purposes – (isn’t that what the trial of Andrew Tate in Romania is about…and what the surrogacy industry (for that is what it is) in Ukraine reveals – poor women’s bodies sold for others’ gain?)
There is no love here as far as we can see between Abraham and Hagar but he feels a responsibility towards her and their son. Whilst Sarah can disparagingly speak of ‘this slave woman’ (she won’t even use Hagar’s name) and ‘her son’ (she won’t allow herself to contemplate Abraham as Ishmael’s father) Abraham feels distressed at the request to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
But somewhere in this potent mix God is at work. We all know, as Christians, that Isaac was the child of promise. But back in chapter 16 God has spoken to reassure Hagar. Here God speaks to Abraham: ‘Don’t worry, do what Sarah tells you.’ Yes, there is sin here: Sarah’s jealousy has tipped over into hatred. Yes, there is a lack of faith here: because both Abraham and Sarah had shown a lack of faith in not believing that God would provide them with a child and gone about Ishmael’s birth in a way that hurt and abused others…BUT God reassures Abraham that He is sovereign, He can cope with our failure. As the guests knock back another drink and the next course is served it truly is all a mess: but God knows, God sees, God hears and understands…so there is hope.
‘God sees, God hears’. These are actually important statements about God. Why? Because when Hagar had first made a dash for freedom the angel of the Lord had told her to name her child Ishmael – and what does that name mean? It means ‘God hears’. He heard her distress. And comforted by the angel Hagar had named the place where she was ’God sees’: He noticed, ‘saw’, her. To be noticed, seen by someone is a powerful thing!
So, God is seeing and hearing the agony that this family is going through as Abraham rises early in the morning, gives Hagar and the boy some food and drink and sends them on their way. (In passing, do you not notice that this ‘rising early’ sounds remarkably like what happens with Abraham’s other son Isaac a few chapters hence when Abraham is called to entrust him to God?). Off they go, (Hagar and Ishmael, carrying the weight of Sarah and Abraham’s failure) to wander in the wilderness. Later in the scripture we will read of how the scapegoat is to be cast out of the community carrying the community’s sins with it. This mother and child have been made the scapegoat of the patriarch’s lack of faith….and for all the anxious farewells of that early morning departure they have (in truth) been sent off to die: ruled out of the story, best forgotten. There is truth here, a painful truth that bears reflection. For all of us are prone to project our failure onto others. Individuals do it. Families and communities do it. Nations do it. We like to preserve our sense of moral rectitude for we must always be blameless in the story we tell about ourselves: it’s hard for any of us to admit failure. They however (usually those with no voice – those whose voices we won’t allow to be heard) …they are the ones to blame, they are the ones to be written out of our story. At a personal level we might see this reflected in how we speak about a broken relationship in a family, or a broken marriage, or between generations within a family. Nationally we have yet to find a way to deal with the legacy of slavery. Lord knows we have yet to find a way to talk sensibly about immigration. For a quiet life the easy way out is to blame ‘the others’, to cast them out, ignore them and trust that they will go away. ‘Not my problem anymore.’ Hagar and Ishmael are an inconvenience – so they must be written out of the story.
But the remarkable Good News is that ‘God sees and God hears’. The more you flick through the pages of Abraham’s story the more remarkable it is that here, in scripture, God makes room for Hagar and Ishmael and, indeed, He speaks to this ‘slave girl’. She, (no longer welcome, thrown out never to be seen again by Abraham) is seen, heard and spoken to by the LORD. She, this victim of sexual abuse, becomes one of a select few who are granted this relationship with God in the Old Testament. All hope gone. Mother and son on the edge of death…and God speaks, God acts. She is unwanted. She and her child are a mistake – at least Abraham has begun to think so – but there is room in the mercy of God for all our mistakes to be woven into His story and made good. No wonder we worship. This is the God who has compassion on the poor and needy, the God who hears the grief of every mother down the ages mourning for their children. This is the God we will see at work when Abraham’s great grandchild (Joseph) is sold into slavery (to some Ishmaelites by the way.) This is the God we see in Exodus (when the people of Israel find themselves in slavery). Ours is a God who sees and hears…and redeems.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael continues. God opens her eyes to see a well of water, and before drinking herself she gives water to her son. And what does the scripture then say? ‘God was with the boy’. Emmanuel: God with us. Later in Genesis God’s promises to Hagar (and indeed to Abraham) are fulfilled. Ishmael becomes the father of many nations: he has 12 sons (remind you of anyone?) and he is greatly honoured. He is still honoured we should say. Why? Because the Arab nations trace their ancestry back to him. And Hagar his mother has an honoured place too: For Islamic tradition says that the Hajj pilgrimage takes its name from the name for Hagar in Arabic: Hajra – and the circling of the Kaaba at Mecca echoes her search for water for her son.
The story is a mess. Faithlessness, jealousy, anger, despair, abuse, hurt, tears, guilt. It is an all too human story which probably accounts for why it has been preserved. But is also a story of God’s great goodness and loving kindness: to Abraham and Sarah (who have so badly failed him) and to Hagar and Ishmael who He raises up and sets on a new path. This is a story that speaks to our regrets and failures, to the things we could have done better but which are long past and over which we have little or no control. This is a story that speaks to our sins of commission and omission. God sees, God hears, God redeems. None of us can change the past – what is done, is done- but in the mercy of God there is always hope for a better future.
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