Written by Pastor Ed
The God Who Cares
June 25, 2017
Gen. 21: 8-21
Psalm 86: 1-10
Have you ever read stories in the Old Testament and wondered why in the world those stories are there, or what was really going on? I found some of those stories featured in the lectionary for the next several weeks, and thought it would be interesting, at least to me, to explore them a bit further. My experience has been that when people write their own history, they tend to leave out things that make them look bad, or that might reflect badly on who they see themselves to be. However, the Bible doesn’t do that. Some of the main characters, particularly in the Old Testament, are some of the most flawed.
Today’s story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael is one of those stories that we don’t refer to very often. There are two accounts in Genesis that involve Hagar and Ishmael, the first in Genesis 16, and then the one we read from Genesis 21. They are only mentioned several other places in the Bible, as see later on.
We are introduced to Hagar in Genesis 16 as one of Sarai’s slave girls, an Egyptian undoubtedly picked up while Abram and Sarai were in Egypt during the famine years. She is referred to several times as an Egyptian slave-girl, so that seems to be an important point. Since having descendants was an important thing, it was a practice at that time that if a wife was unable to have children, then servants girls were given to the husband in order that they could produce offspring. A practice we would find rather odd, and immoral, but was generally accepted in that society.
Thus, when Sarai seemed unable to conceive, she felt badly and offered Abram her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar to Abram as a substitute, and Abram accepted. And Hagar became pregnant. And, we are told, when Hagar realized she was pregnant, she began to look down on her mistress, Sarai, which of course only made Sarai feel even worse.
She complained to Abram, laying the blame on him; some interesting family dynamics going on here.
Abram essentially said, “Well, she’s your slave girl, you can do whatever you want with her.”
And so Sarai began to treat Hagar badly, and Hagar ran away into the desert where Hagar was met by an angel of the Lord who asked, “What are you doing out here?”
And when Hagar said that she was running away from her mistress, the angel told her to return and promised that her son, whom she should name Ishmael, meaning “God hears” would become a great nation, so great they couldn’t be numbered, but they would live at odds with all his relatives. And so Hagar returned and bore a son to Abram when he was 86 years old. Although we are not told, I would suspect that there was a bit of tension in the household!
The next time we hear of Hagar is 14 years later. In the meantime, circumcision has been introduced, and Ishmael is specifically included along with Abraham in this sign of the covenant, the promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah is renewed, and indeed, Sarah becomes pregnant and has a son, whom they name Isaac, which brings us to the account we read. Just a reminder. At the feast celebrating Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees the two brothers playing together, a nice family scene of older brother Ishmael, 14 years older, playing with his younger sibling, Isaac. And the old jealousies arise and again Sarah complains to her husband. Abraham is reluctant, but receives assurances from God, and so Abraham supplies Hagar and Ishmael with a loaf of bread and a bottle of water and sends them off into the wilderness.
As you might imagine, the bread and water didn’t last all that long with a 14 year old boy, and so Ishmael is left to die until an angel again intervenes saying that God has heard their cries, promising Hagar that her son will become a great nation, and pointing out a nearby spring where they can be refreshed.
We are, of course, not given any account of how Ishmael felt about all of this, but remember, his mother was a foreign slave, and children had few rights or privileges in that society. The writer does tell us that Ishmael went on to become an expert archer,
and that his mother found an Egyptian wife for him. Later in Genesis, chapter 25, we are given a listing of Ishmael’s descendants, a listing of twelve princes and their tribes who settled to the south of Palestine. There is also an interesting note in chapter 25 that when Abraham died, he was buried by his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. (25:9) Clearly the banishment didn’t mean that there was no communication and the sons stayed in touch.
That is also confirmed in Chapter 28 (6-9) where we learn that in the next generation, Isaac’s son Esau, twin brother to Jacob, after marrying some Hittite wives whom his parents didn’t approve of, went to Ishmael and married one of Ishmael’s daughters, who was more acceptable. However, their descendants became the Moabites, bitter rivals of Israel. Family counselors would have a hay-day analyzing this family!
So what might we glean from this these stories of a complicated family that might have some relevance for us today? I’m not going to try to analyze the family dynamics, nor raise moral judgements on a society very far removed and different from ours. But there are some things I believe we can learn.
First of all, as I noted at the beginning, it is interesting that the authors of Genesis included these stories, particularly given that descendants of Ishmael would have been seen as enemies of Israel. Yet, they also recognized that those descendants were also children of Abraham and thus related. It’s one of the things that we often forget, that in some ways all of the conflict in the Middle East is still an extended family conflict as many of the peoples of that region would trace their ancestry back to Abraham. As the writer in the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary says, the inclusion of these stories recognizes that the children of Israel believed they were related to the “wild, warlike Bedouin peoples of the South of Palestine.”
But perhaps even more than that, these stories tell us something about the Biblical view of God. When Hagar met God in the wilderness the first time, she called God, El-roi, the God who lets himself be seen, and Ishmael was given a name that means “God hears” because God heard the cries both of Hagar, the foreign slave-girl, as well as the cries of her son. And it is a God who is seen by, and hears, not only the chosen descendants of Abraham, Isaac and his descendants, but also by those descended from Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian slave-girl.
In some ways, that’s an amazing view of the God worshipped by the those descendants of Abraham that wrote the Bible. In most cultures the gods are clearly seen as favouring, and listening only to one side, our side. To suggest that God might also care about, listen to, and allow Godself to be seen by foreigners would be heresy. Especially when those people were seen as enemies! And yet, that is exactly what we see in these accounts.
There is a rabbinic tale that after the children of Israel had safely crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army had been drowned in the returning waters, Moses found God weeping and inquired why God would be weeping when all of his children had gotten safely across and escaped from Egypt. And God replied, “Yes, I am happy for all my Israelite children who escaped, but I am weeping for all my Egyptian children who were drowned in the sea.” Clearly in this as well as many other instances, we get a picture of a God who cares for all God’s children, not just those who call on God by name.
And, if we believe that Jesus shows us the fullest representation of God, then we can also see that attribute of God played out in the life of Jesus as well. Again and again Jesus listened to, revealed himself to, and cared for those whom the Jews considered outsiders, or even enemies: the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, the lepers and collaborators. That was expanded even more as the early church moved out from Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It was reinforced in Peter’s vision and his subsequent conclusion that even the Gentiles were to be included in God’s kingdom.
And yet that lesson has been forgotten or ignored many times over the centuries, and is still ignored even today. Too often we think that God only cares about us and our side. It was that idea that was put forward in what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Europeans to see the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa as less than human and therefore open to being wiped out and their cultures destroyed. It what allows wars to continue because we think God is only on our side, and couldn’t care less about those we are fighting. It’s what is allowing the Israeli government to oppress their cousins, the Palestinians, forgetting that they are all descendants of Abraham and the stories of Hagar and Ishmael.
As soon as we think that God only cares about us Christians, or us Jews, or whomever we want to name, we have limited God in ways that the Bible does not and we forget that God chose his people not to make them his exclusively, but to be a blessing to all peoples, because God created humankind and calls all people his children. God loves all his many people. May we remember that and act in such a way that we are a blessing to all, thus showing God’s love to everyone.
I invite you to join me in a prayer found in Sing the Journey #142, and also projected.
Leader: God of all nations,
Your love is without limit and without end.
Enlarge our vision of your redeeming purpose for all people.
By the example of your Son,
Make us ready to serve the needs of the whole world.
ALL: May neither pride of race nor hardness of heart
Make us despise any for whom Christ died
Or injure any in whom Christ lives;
Though the same Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.