Prayer: Lord, we seek to understand the heroes of scripture, even when we are separated from them by 4000 years and enormous cultural differences. Lead us to the eternal truth contained in the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael.
This note before I start: Much will be said about Abraham and Sarah. Their names were changed from Abram and Sarai during the period I will explore, but I will use only the later, well-known names to avoid confusion.
Here again is the first verse of today’s Old Testament passage: Genesis 21:8 “The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.”
It is perfectly clear that the verse is not the start of a story, but something in the middle of it. In working on the sermon I kept being pulled back to earlier passages in Genesis that explain what was going on.
Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt to avoid famine. Sarah is a beautiful woman, and the Egyptian rulers want her in the king’s harem. The Bible does not use the word “harem” except in the book of Esther, but that surely must have been their purpose. Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister, so that the Egyptian rulers won’t kill him in order to get their hands on Sarah. (Genesis 12:11) This is deceptive, but only half a lie; Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister (Genesis 20:12). Marriage partners must have been scarce in the desert at the time. I won’t speculate on what this genetic commonality might have meant to Isaac, the lone offspring.
By releasing his wife Sarah to enter the court of the king of Egypt, Abraham dishonors her, and thus achieves an unwanted aspect of his generally favorable immortality. A new book includes this observation: “Misinformation has been a fixture of human life. Abraham provides misinformation about the identity of his wife, Sarah, to King Abimelech to protect himself.” (Daniel Levitin: A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics.) In any case, the Egyptian king must have been pleased to have Sarah at hand, because the king gave Abraham flocks of sheep and goats, cattle, donkeys, slaves, and camels. (Genesis 12:16) But God sent terrible diseases to afflict the king and his court. Abraham is suspected to be the reason for the trouble, and when it is revealed that Sarah is his wife, the Abrahamic group is thrown out of the country. They all go back to Canaan.
Abraham now has slaves, and it is highly likely that Hagar, who becomes the servant to Sarah, was an Egyptian slave. God promises Abraham that he shall be the father of a mighty nation, but Sarah, his wife, is barren. Desperate for lack of a child, Sarah says to Abraham, “Why don’t you sleep with my slave? Perhaps she can have a child for me.” (16:3, Good News Study Bible) Abraham takes his wife’s advice, and Hagar conceives. While she is pregnant, she reminds Sarah that she, Hagar, is the superior woman, and Sarah is mightily offended. Sarah complains bitterly to Abraham, blaming him for the messy situation. Abraham avoids his responsibilities as the patriarch of the troubled family, and tells Sarah that she can do as she pleases with her slave. Sarah treats Hagar cruelly, so that Hagar departs for the wilderness. There an angel of the Lord tells her to go back to Sarah, and she does.
God tells Abraham that he and his wife will have a child. Sarah, standing at a distance, hears this and laughs. She knows she’s too old to give birth, but the two of them give it a good effort, and a son is born about a year later. God says to name the child Isaac, which means “laughter.” Now we finally have enough background to look at the assigned text and hope to understand what is going on in this drama.
Before Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah, a son is born to Hagar, the slave. The child is named Ishmael, which means “God hears.”
Sarah continues to mistreat Hagar. When Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, she’s had it, and says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
Soon after, Abraham got up one morning, summoned Hagar, gave her bread and a skin of water, put Ishmael in her arms, and sent her out into the desert. The two walked until the water was gone. Hagar then put Ishmael down under a bush and walked away from him, saying that she could not bear to see her son die. She wept. Soon the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, according to 21:17, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
21:19 “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.” Now we have enough of the story to expect a happy ending. Ishmael became a strong, desert-adapted young man, and Hagar went to Egypt to find a wife for him. The couple had twelve sons, and their descendants are one of the population lines of today’s Muslims, who hold Abraham, Ishmael’s father, in great esteem. Islamic tradition even says Abraham was ordered by God to take Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca. (Wikipedia)
Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, also grew to maturity, and married Rebecca, who had twins, Esau and Jacob. The children of Jacob, who was renamed Israel, became the Israelites.
The story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael is one of the oldest stories in the Bible. It exposes several important aspects of their culture. Some of these are so enduring that they influence us. Here are some connections we can make to the story.
1 The question, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid” is powerful, and could easily be the starting point for a sermon on trust. Hagar had reason to fear, alone in the desert with her young son and out of water. Hagar’s dire circumstances have become a model of suffering womanhood for African-Americans, going back to the time of slavery. “No other biblical image could have been more appropriate than Hagar in the wilderness for representing the African-American past and present.” (Delores S. Williams: Sisters in the Wilderness. Orbis Books, 1993, p. 117) The Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church was founded in Detroit in 1923. Today there are congregations in 12 states. The Economist, May 13th, 2017, page 12, refers to Hagar as the first surrogate parent, i.e., one who bears a child for a couple that cannot produce their own. The article refers to the Old Testament account as “an ugly biblical story.” Now, 4000 years later, surrogacy has not attained universal acceptance. The Old Testament provides a lot of stories that call for trust in the Almighty. Details aside, we gain the strong impression that God is interested in the conditions of human life.
2 Patriarchal culture. While there are a few mother-centered societies in the world, called matriarchies, domination by men is far more common, and always has been. Abraham is the most famous early patriarch, though it must be said that when he told Sarah to settle things herself with Hagar, he was more of a wimp than a sturdy patriarch. It always annoys me when, in the Bible, sons are listed and daughters are ignored. For example, the twelve sons of Ishmael are named. Only later do we learn of a daughter in the family. The probability of having exactly twelve children, all of the same gender, is one in 4096. Thus a family with twelve sons and no daughters is very unlikely. Patriarchy is still alive and well; hardly a week goes by without a news story on unequal salaries for women and men in the same jobs.
3 Polygamy, i.e., a man with more than one wife, occurred repeatedly in the Old Testament; it was part of the culture. That we no longer accept it is not a sufficient reason to condemn its practice in ancient times. Sadly, Anabaptist leaders of the dreadfully heretical colony that briefly controlled Munster, Germany, practiced polygamy in 1534. The actions in that town so stained the Anabaptist label that some church historians subsequently rejected all Mennonites. In our own country some Mormons practiced and defended polygamy, citing the Old Testament model and claiming religious freedom. It may still be practiced in a few isolated Mormon villages, but the Church of Latter-Day Saints rejected it a century ago. The late Charles Kuralt, beloved UNC graduate and CBS traveling newsman, had a wife on the East Coast and for nearly 30 years a common-law wife in a cabin in Montana. He is buried in the cemetery on the UNC campus.
4 Slavery is another common practice among early cultures, and of course it existed in the USA until after the Civil War. We now recognize it as America’s original sin, and an abomination, but there is still some sympathy for mild forms of it.
5 Famine. Abraham took his family to Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan. Three generations later his descendants also departed for Egypt to escape famine. The obvious cause of famine is drought, but Egypt’s Nile River assured that there would be fertile land along its banks from year to year. In today’s troubled world we create famine in time of war by denying food to certain people. The long-range direction of human life is not always toward progress.
6 God as a direct actor in human affairs. Today we don’t think in terms of moments when God or an angel speaks directly to anyone. If someone boldly claims to be relaying God’s word directly, we are likely to be suspicious, and indeed the suspicion is often justified. We are far more inclined to subject the thoughts of one outspoken person to the wisdom of the believing community. In this respect we are good Mennonites. We are as much in need of divine counsel as people were in Biblical times, but we expect to hear it differently.
7 The first great commandment. We normally consider the first commandment, as found in Exodus 20:3 to be the greatest commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. But “Be fruitful and multiply” is clearly a much earlier commandment, and worthy of being called the first commandment. In Genesis 1:28 God tells Adam & Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Six verses earlier he says the same thing to the sea creatures and birds, though I do wonder what language God was speaking. God doesn’t wait around; he says this even before the grand task of creation is done. It’s important. Be fruitful and multiply. In Genesis Chapter 9 God says it three more times to Noah and his sons after the flood; it’s timely advice, because Genesis 7:23 reports that only Noah and those that were with him in the ark were left to repopulate the earth.
Because the instruction to be fruitful and multiply is prominent early in Genesis, God’s people felt a profound obligation to have children. This must have been passed from parent to child through the generations, because it was not written down at the time. Abraham and his family were nomads; life was hard, and the continuation of the family line could not be taken for granted. This explains the pressure Abraham and Sarah felt to have children, a perplexing situation when Sarah was barren.
(For the moment I seem to leave the subject, but I will soon return to it.) The Scopes Trial, held in Tennessee in the summer of 1925, brought charges against a substitute biology teacher for teaching human evolution, which was unlawful in the state’s public schools. Each side in the trial had a famous lawyer, and the trial attracted attention by means of a nationwide radio broadcast from the courtroom. Young John Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. For long years some have seen science as an enemy of Christian belief, going back as least as far as Galileo, who got in trouble with Pope Urban VIII by insisting that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. That makes it particularly interesting when the Bible and modern science agree on something important, as can easily be shown. Charles Darwin expounded the idea of evolution, which occurs only because species can produce offspring. Nothing else matters as a primary factor in the survival of the species. Thus the behavior that keeps evolution going is repeatedly stated in Genesis, thousands of years before Darwin: “Be fruitful and multiply.” We reach the same important conclusion from two starting points, Genesis and Darwin, that have for more than 160 years been considered by some to be in fierce opposition.
The impact of the command to “be fruitful and multiply”, so important to Sarah and Abraham, needs a context. So as not to think that having children is the sole measure of a successful life, keep in mind that Jesus had no children, and is widely considered the most influential person who ever lived. In matters both sacred and secular we must always be careful not to make things too simple.