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October 19, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Hagar and Ishmael

Genesis 16, 21


            I have been thinking a lot about the role of a grandparent.  I have said for some time that grandparents and their grandchildren get a long so well because they have a common enemy.  Just let that sink in for a minute. 

Clare and I have just returned from a trip to Nashville.  Our sweet daughter-in-law June and her husband, Ian, now have a baby girl.  Clare eventually relinquished her, and I finally got a chance to hold Virginia June in my arms.  For those of you who are fishermen, I will tell you that she is big enough to keep.  We are not going to throw her back.  June and Ian have asked us if we would be a third set of grandparents for Virginia June.  Of course, we are delighted to do that. 

I was in Nashville for a preaching conference that I had signed up for earlier in the year.  Of course, I knew at that time that June was expecting a child.  This conference just happened to coincide with her due date.  We really went to Nashville for the preaching conference.  “Yeah, right,” some of you are saying.  I really did plan it so that we could also see their baby if things worked out well.  We wanted to see June, Ian, Betsy, and Mark.  We also had lunch with Hudson and Lindzey while in Nashville. 

The first keynote speaker for the conference, which began on Thursday, was Walter Brueggemann, a long-time professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary.  He is one of the foremost scholars on Old Testament theology.  He reminded me of Winford Brimley, the good-looking actor who makes oatmeal commercials.  Brueggemann is also a slightly balding, heavy-set man with a mustache and gray hair.  He is very animated, very passionate about his work; and he has a long reputation for being able to connect the ancient text of Hebrew Scripture to our contemporary life.  Brueggemann is a wonderful teacher, someone from whom I have learned a lot, simply through his writings.  It was a real treat to hear his lectures. 

Brueggemann began his lecture by talking about the importance of grandparents, immediately capturing my attention.  He said that in America, we tend to suffer from a kind of cultural amnesia and simply do not learn very well from the past.  He said that the primary purpose of grandparents is to help their grandchildren remember.  Wisdom skips a generation.  It is transferred from grandparents to their grandchildren.  Part of the grandparent’s task is to help grandchildren remember where they came from, remember the family stories.  This series of sermons, Our Family Tree, helps us remember the stories of our ancestors.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that we pay attention to these stories as if we were listening to a grandparent tell us about our heritage. 

Today, we come to a story within a story.  As we consider the story of Hagar and Ishmael, we might well wonder why this story, which actually begins in Genesis 12, is included.  Let me remind you that Abram and Sarah’s arrival into the land of Canaan coincided with a famine.  Unable to find enough grazing land for their flocks, they were forced to leave this area and continue on to Egypt. 

Sarah, a beautiful woman, was the wife of Abram; but she was also his half-sister.  We know that from a later passage in Genesis 19, where Abram says that they had the same father.  When Pharaoh was attracted to Sarah, Abram behaved unscrupulously.  He encouraged her to claim that she was Abram’s sister.  That was not entirely a lie.  Of course, pleased, Pharaoh gave Abraham lavish gifts and added Sarah to his harem.  Abram’s behavior – giving Sarah to the bed of a stranger – was humiliating, demeaning.  She had trusted her husband.  She had traveled all the way from Ur with him.  His treating her like chattel brings our sympathies in line with Sarah.  We see her now as a woman who has been treated unjustly, a woman caught between the whim of two men.

When a plague hits Pharaoh’s house, Pharaoh confronts Abram and asks, “What have you done to me?”  Very angry, he orders Abram and Sarah to leave Egypt.  Pharaoh had already given Abram sheep, oxen, camels, and male and female slaves.  Among those female slaves was Hagar, whose name means “stranger.”  One Jewish commentator suggests that Hagar might well have been a daughter of Pharaoh.  Perhaps he gave Hagar to Abram as a slave, hoping that at some point she would have an opportunity to even the score.  We have no scriptural proof for that; but she does, in fact, even the score. 

Throughout the book of Genesis, we see that men, the patriarchs, primarily make the decisions.  When we come to Chapter 16, however, we see now initiative on Sarah’s part.  Unable to bear children, she tells Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children.  Go sleep with my maidservant, Hagar.  Perhaps I can build a family through her.” 

Sarah behaves as unscrupulously as Abram.  She gives Hagar to the bed of a strange man, Abram.  Sarah becomes the one who dominates, and our sympathies shift from Sarah now to Hagar.  This story makes you feel as if you are following a soap opera or reading an ancient version of Desperate Housewives.  Maybe The Young and the Restless comes to mind.  These individuals are not young and restless; they old and disillusioned. 

If you have been following along with this series, Our Family Tree, you certainly know by now that we have come from a dysfunctional family.  It is at once bothersome and in some way refreshing that the book of Genesis presents this narrative of conflict with such clarity, openness, and honesty.  Men receive much of the blame when circumstances go wrong, for the dysfunction.  That is as it should be in most instances.  Here, the women must also bear responsibility.

As the story unfolds, the strife and conflict within this story becomes evident.  Poor Sarah cannot bear much more.  After all these years of waiting, she has not been able to bear a child.  Her strategy, driven by the shame of being childless, unfolds.  For her, the ache of being barren is stronger than the pain of giving her husband another woman, placing another woman in his arms.  It is very important to note that her behavior was acceptable, according to the Middle Eastern cultural expectation.  The culture of the Chaldeans legally required a woman who could not have a child to give her husband a slave who would serve as a surrogate mother.  The Qur’an depicts Sarah as being gracious and generous in allowing Abram to go to Hagar. 

Hagar, this Egyptian slave, becomes pregnant with Abram’s child; and the story intensifies.  Old, barren Sarah is bitter.  Young, fertile Hagar is haughty and contentious.  You have all heard the expression, “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.”  Try having two women in the same tent, which is the situation here.  The Chinese symbol for trouble is two women under the same roof.  The two women in Abram’s life cause conflict in the tent, strife in the kitchen, resentment in the living area, and little rest in the sleeping area. 

Sarah was harsh, and she wept bitter tears.  Look with me at Chapter 16, Verses 5-6.  Sarah speaks to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.  I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me.  May the Lord judge between you and me.” 

“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said.  “Do with her whatever you think best.”

When Sarah harshly mistreats Hagar, the young, pregnant slave girl runs away from the tent.  As far as we know, this is the first time a young pregnant woman runs away in biblical accounts, but certainly not the last time.  Hagar experiences the first angelic appearance recorded in Scripture when an angel asks her a provoking question, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?”  Of course, Hagar has no good answer.  People run away from their problems, thinking a new geographical location will provide the solution to their problems.  That almost never works.  Hagar has no clue about where she is going. 

The angel commands Hagar, “Go back and submit to your mistress, Sarah.”  Then the angel, speaking for the Lord, gives her a promise, “I will so increase your descendents that they will be too numerous to count.”  Here, we have a question, a demand, and a promise.  Hagar responds by calling the place “the God who sees me.”  The child’s name is to be Ishmael, closely related to the word Shema, that great passage in Deuteronomy 6:4 that begins, “Hear O Israel…”  This is the God who sees, and this is the God who hears. 

We pick it up now in Genesis 17, beginning at Verse 18.  When Ishmael is born, God makes a new covenant of circumcision with Abram.  God also changes Abram’s name to Abraham and promises him a son by Sarah.  Abraham responds by falling facedown in laughter.  When Abraham makes a plea in Verse 18, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” God replies,


“Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.  I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendents after him.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard you:  I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.  He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” 


God makes a promise to Abraham that Ishmael, already born, and Isaac, a son yet to be born, will both be blessed.  They will both become the ancestor of a great nation.  Abraham cares about both sons.  In time, Ishmael is circumcised.  In time, Isaac will be circumcised on the eighth day.  Both sons are of the covenant.

Chapter 21 tells of Isaac’s birth.  They name him, as they were told, the Hebrew word for “laughter.”  Sarah comments that God has blessed her and that God has given her great joy.  Verse 6:  “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Sarah has great joy in this child. 

When it is time for Isaac to be weaned, Abraham decides to have a great feast.  Sarah notices in Verse 9 that Ishmael, “the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had born to Abraham, was mocking, and she said to him, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share the inheritance with my son, Isaac.”  Abraham, greatly distressed, consults God.  God tells him to do as Sarah has said; so he gives Hagar food, places a water skin on her shoulder, and sends her and his son out into the wilderness.  Again the Qur’an elaborates on the story and says that Abraham traveled with them as far as Mecca.  A small earthen hut is held sacred to this day by those who are a part of the Islamic faith.  They say that Abraham lived there with Hagar and Ishmael.  The people in the Islamic community commemorate this event, the Hajj it is called, at the time of Ramadan.  The Muslim pilgrims travel back and forth between two hills seven times, remembering Hagar’s search for water. 

As the story unfolds, Hagar eventually runs out of water.  She places Ishmael under a bush and goes away by herself, weeping, “I cannot bear to see the death of my child.” Depictions of this scene in art show Ishmael as an infant or a small child.  Actually, he was fourteen years old at the time.  Abraham is heartbroken at the thought of his son Ishmael possibly dying.  His emotion here is almost as severe as when he takes Isaac up the mountain and offers him to God as a sacrifice.  The placement of these scenes in two succeeding chapters emphasizes that Abraham loved both sons.  He does not want to send Hagar and Ishmael away, but he does so because God tells him to after Sarah’s great protest.

God provides for Hagar and her child.  Twice now Hagar has been in the wilderness, once when Sarah treated her harshly during her pregnancy and when Sarah she casts her and her child out of the household.   Like before, God gives Hagar words of compassion.  He reminds her that He will make a covenant with Ishmael and bless her child in the same way that He will bless Isaac.  Look at Verse 19 of Chapter 21:  “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy as he grew up.  He lived in the desert and became an archer.  While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.” 

With this scene, the story of the conflict between Sarah and Hagar ends as recorded in Scripture. Sarah is mentioned several more times, but Hagar and Ishmael basically disappear from the pages of Scripture.  Of course, the conflict that has existed for centuries between the descendents of these two – Ishmael, father the Arab world, and Isaac, father of the Jewish world – continues to this day. 

In this narrative, we see two mothers, both having just one child, become rival wives.  They never actually speak to each other though they do exchange angry sneers, harsh stares, and cruel glances.  Their communication is primarily through Abraham, who is always caught in the middle.  In many ways, Sarah and Hagar are mirror images of each other.  Their sons seem to get along better than the mothers do.  We see one instance here where they are playing together.  Later we see their respect for Abraham as they bury him. 

As the story continues, we see that both Moses and David actually marry descendents of Ishmael.  Joseph, when he is sold into Egypt as a slave, is transported by a caravan of Ishmaelites.  A constant connection exists between the descendents of these two.  Now, the connection has become so conflictual that it affects world history moment by moment, century by century.

I want to point out four important points when we consider this part of our family tree.  We might leave out this part of the unhappy story, but it is an important.  First, it is a story within a story.  In many ways, it is a tangent, even a dead end.  The story would flow quite well if we just went from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.  What we have here at best is an interesting aside and at worst a very disturbing interruption. 

We might ask why Scripture includes this episode.  Isn’t this exactly the way your life is?  Isn’t it true that when life seems to be flowing well, disconcerting interruptions happen?  Consider that today we are remembering those who suffer from breast cancer.  Think about the unsettling feeling that diagnosis brings into a family.  These intrusions, stories within stories, are a part of every life.  We all have rough patches, times of great turbulence in life.  This biblical account is included because sometimes those occasions allow for God’s activity, for God’s revelation in our lives that are more profound than when things are going along so well.  We pay attention and recognize, as Hagar did, that God is ever-seeing, God is ever-hearing.  In these times of turbulence, great disturbance in our lives, God is present and active.  Occasionally, He speaks.  You will notice that He responds to Hagar always with compassion, always with provision, always with reassurance.

The second insight is one I have gleaned from Phyllis Tribble, who teaches at the Divinity School at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  She points out that Hagar is a stranger, an outcast out of Africa.  She claims that Hagar becomes the prototype for every rejected woman.  In Hagar, we see the faithful maid who has served a family and then is exploited.  In Hagar, we see African slaves at the time of plantations in the South used by male owners and abused by women who were their mistresses.  In Hagar, we see surrogate mothers who have children that really do not belong to them.  In Hagar, we see resident aliens, runaway pregnant teens, and the “other woman” in an adulterous affair.  We see the single mother, struggling to provide for her child.  We see the wife who has been rejected, divorced, expelled.  We see the homeless bag lady.  We also see the mother who is a welfare recipient, struggling to survive.  Tribble takes a passage of Scripture from Isaiah, one we ordinarily use when considering Jesus, and says of Hagar, “She was wounded for our transgressions.  She was bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). 

A third point to be observed here is that these two bickering mothers have nothing but strife for each other.  Think about what they could have done had they been united in a common purpose.  Think about the Protestant and Catholic mothers of Belfast who finally rose up above the politicians, joined arms, locked steps, and said, “Enough killing and enough.”  Those mothers essentially brought that conflict to an end.  Think about the mothers of Argentina who rose up as one, protesting the way their children, political prisoners, were being handled.  They convinced politicians to change that treatment.  Think about the mothers of the Sudan, especially in the Darfur region, who emaciated themselves and continued to nurse their children, trying to give them sustenance, trying to give them life.  Think of the mothers of Iraq, mothers of Afghanistan, mothers everywhere, who simply say, “We don’t want our children to die.”  Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat met with President Jimmy Carter for the Camp David Peace Accords.  President Sadat said, “I had a secret ally helping me negotiate this peace agreement, Egyptian mothers and Israeli mothers who do not want their sons and daughters to die in war.”  Think about what the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have done to help that particular issue in this country.  Think of what a band of mothers could do to bring peace to the world. 

I want to make one final point about God’s reaction.  We see Abraham’s dilemma.  He has two sons that are also God’s sons.  God loved both Isaac and Ishmael, the chosen and the unchosen, the elected and the unelected.  You know that the descendants of Ishmael are people of the Arab world.  Spiritually, they are of the Islamic faith, the Muslim world.  One billion Muslims live in this world, many of them in the United States of America.  Only about fifteen percent of them are Arab.  Islam is the fastest growing religion in our country. 

How does God feel about these people?  I believe God loves them.  When I was young, I learned the words of the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children”:  “Red, yellow, black, and white, they are precious in His sight.”  God, through Abraham, makes a promise to Ishmael very much like the promise He made to Isaac.  These are the children of God, at least in terms of inheritance.  He loves them.  God so loved the world, everybody, that He sent Jesus.  Christ died for these people.  It is the reason we send missionaries.  It is the reason John and Jenny Brady serve all of the Middle East.  We believe God loves these people, and we want to tell them about the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus.

How do we treat these people?  The intensity of the Jewish-Muslim conflict is very scary.  We naturally react as if people in Arab worlds, Islamic people, are our terrible enemies.  This is why Jesus said, “Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.”  At rock bottom, God loves these people.  They are people for whom Christ died, people to whom we need to show the love of Christ.  Our responsibility is to tell them about the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus.  Otherwise, they will never know.  We might wish we could omit this story, but we dare not because it is part of our family tree.  This story reminds us that God, the Great God of the Universe, desires for all of His children a strong relationship of love, love that is fully revealed in Christ Jesus. 


Kirk H. Neely

© October 2008

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