David A. Davis
June 25, 2017
This was not Hagar’s first time in the wilderness, not her first time fleeing Sarah’s wrath, not her first time wandering and wondering about Abraham’s choices. No not her first time. Back when Abraham was still Abram and Sarah was still Sarai and Hagar was still Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl. Back when God promised to make Abram a great nation, it was Sarai who suggested Abram have a child with Hagar. Sarai was barren. “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children”, she said to Abram. She wanted Hagar to be her surrogate and “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”. But as soon as Hagar conceived, Sarai “looked with contempt on her mistress.” The Book of Genesis records that Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar and so Hagar ran away. “An angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness.” The Lord found Hagar… in the wilderness. The angel said to her “where have you come from and where are you going?” “I am running away from my mistress Sarai”, Hagar responded. The angel told her to go back, that her offspring will be so greatly multiplied that the multitude will not be able to counted. “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” And according to the text, “Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was 86 when Hagar bore him Ishmael.” Three times the name is repeated there at the end of Genesis 16. Ishmael. Ishmael. Ishmael. His name means “God hears”.
So in Genesis 21 when we get to “and she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba”, it wasn’t the first time. Which sort of makes the whole thing all the more difficult, painful, hard to read. “She departed”. There’s a narrator’s whopping understatement for you. “She departed”. That makes it sound like a post grad heading off to bounce around Europe before starting a job. Last week I sort of defended Sarah for her laugh. It all feels different this week. The text. The story. Abraham. Sarah. Hagar. Ishmael. Isaac. Sarah cast them out to the wilderness. Oh, yes, she did.
It didn’t take long for this particular blended family to fall apart. Abraham was now a hundred years old when Isaac was born. Isaac, the name means “he laughs”. With a statement of joy Sarah announces “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Isaac grew and to celebrate his starting a bit of solid food, Abraham threw a big old family party. Everyone knows how big old family parties sometimes go. The text tells us “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she had borne to Abraham playing with her son Isaac.” She saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian playing.
Careful readers of Genesis will see the footnote that indicates the Hebrew text stops with “playing”. The Hebrew does not include “with her son Isaac.” Sarah saw Ishmael playing. Now if one goes by the biblical recording of Abraham’s age, Ishmael was a young teenager by now. Tradition, interpretation, and translations tend to place the burden on Ishmael. Some translations indicate that Ishmael was “mocking” Isaac. After all back at Ishmael’s birth announcement, the angel of the Lord says “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” So of course Ishmael must have been mocking Isaac, must have done something to deserve his deportation to the wilderness. It’s a fascinating example of how tradition, interpretation and translation can so easily be influenced by the assumptions, the biases, the humanity we all bring to the text. All the text says is that Sarah saw him playing. And some scholars of the Hebrew bible working with this text argue that the word for “playing” can also be translated “laughing.” Sarah saw the young teenager laughing. Given the meaning of Isaac’s name, and given the deep meaning and story behind Sarah’s laughter, well, how dare Ishmael laugh. The deeper literary, play on words, insult comes to the fore. In Sarah’s eyes only Isaac should have the privilege of laughing. Why assume that the “wild ass of a man” did anything wrong here, that he didn’t do anything other than laugh? Sarah sends Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness simply because he’s not Isaac. That and maybe it’s just always about the money. “No son of that slave woman is going to share an inheritance with my son Isaac”, Sarah announced.
Genesis tells us that ‘the matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” At that point its not all that clear which son Abraham was worrying about. But God tells Abraham to do as Sarah said which isn’t all that comforting for the reader coming from God. But the instructions do come with a promise about the nation to come from Ishmael. Abraham rose early in the morning, put together some bread and water (thank you very much) and sent her away. He sent them back again… into the wilderness.
Then the heartbreaking scene unfolds with Hagar leaving her son under the shade of a bush to die. She sat down somewhere opposite so as not to see, and she lifted her voice and wept. God heard the voice of the boy. An angel of God again came to Hagar in the wilderness and told her not to be afraid. God heard. God heard the voice of the boy. God heard the boy right where he was. God heard the boy…..in the wilderness. “I will make a great nation of him”, was the word from the Lord. God opened Hagar’s eyes. Hagar saw a well and took water to Ishmael. God was with the boy. God heard. God opened. God with. Ishmael. Ishmael. Ishmael.
Ishmael isn’t mentioned again in theses chapters of Genesis until Abraham dies. According to the bible, Ishmael returns to join Isaac in burying their father. “His sons, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave” (Gen 25). Actually, after Isaac was born, Ishmael isn’t mentioned by name in Genesis until Abraham’s burial. It is very striking. Once Isaac is born, Ishmael’s name falls off the page. He is no longer Ishmael. He becomes only “her son” or “that boy”. This account of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away to the wilderness, it never refers to Ishmael by name. Even the narrator doesn’t use his name. Here in the story that tells of when “she departed”, the only reference to the boy’s name comes in God’s action. As in “God heard”. In the Hebrew text, to the ear of someone knowing Hebrew and listening to the Hebrew, Ishmael is named even as God heard. His name comes in the verb. Hagar lifted up her voice. Hagar wept. But God heard the voice of the boy himself. God “Ishmaeled” the boy… in the wilderness. The boy, who by now, according to Sarah and Abraham and the scribes of Genesis, is pretty much nameless. God heard. God knew his name. God was with Ishmael in the wilderness. Ishmael. Ishmael. Ishmael.
Sarah, Abraham, and the scribes of Genesis. They did what we all do. What we all do to the other, to those in the wilderness, to those on the margins. To the ones we would rather see depart. Him. That boy. Her son. That one. Them. It’s what we all do those on the other side, to the ones we would rather not see, to those we wish weren’t there, to the ones who makes us angry, to the group we don’t understand, to those that just won’t go away. Having a child by a surrogate slave-woman, sending a teen age boy and his mother off to the wilderness with just a bit of bread and water, an angel speaking; maybe that’s just all the old strange world of the bible. But treating the outcast (outcast defined as someone you or the world or those with all the power and privilege and authority have no more time for), treating the outcast with such disdain you can’t even say a name? Oh yeah, been there, done that. We all have. There are no favorites when it comes to how we treat the other. The nameless other. We’re all in. We all do it, just like Sarah, Abraham, and the scribes of Genesis. But everybody in this disorienting wilderness of bitterness and demonizing the other that is so typical of life right now, everybody has a face and has a name. Even them. God knows everybody has a name.
“Thus, says the Lord, the Lord who created you, O Jacob, the God who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43).
What is the Christian name of your child? Thomas, Annabelle, Charlotte, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This water, it is a seal and a sign that points to the very love and grace of God that goes with you all the days of your life. God hears, God knows, God is with you. Always. Een in the wilderness.
Thomas, Annabelle, Charlotte, and… them.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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