Today's text from Genesis is an unseemly part of the story of the patriarch and matriarch of the Biblical peoples. It is an all too familiar story of power and exploitation, jealousy and envy. Most of all, it is a story of two women both trying to make it in a system where they were very much disadvantaged.
Male Biblical scholars have generally interpreted the story from Abraham's point of view. Feminist scholars have looked at it from Sarah's point of view. But what about Hagar, the most exploited person and the one with the least power of the group? Black, Womanist theologians have helped us see it from the point of view of Hagar. One of those scholars, Renita Weems, in her book, Just a Sister Away, deals with this story in her chapter, "A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy." She uses it to draw powerful parallels to the history and relationships between black and white women in the United States. I highly recommend it. But as a male, white male in particular, that is a subject of which I have no right to speak. Especially because, though these women had significant differences in power and status, both of them were functioning under a male dominated system that exploited them. Their status was derived from what they were expected to produce - a male heir. We will keep Hagar's perspective in view during this sermon.
To get to the beginning of the story, we have to go back to Chapter 16. This is before the Lord appears to Sarai and Abram in their very old age, promises them a son, and changes their names to Sarah and Abraham. As you may remember, at this news, Sarah laughs - not out of joy, but out of disbelief as it is so preposterous. Thus, the name of the son she bore, Isaac, which means laughter.
Hagar is Sarah's slave. And given that Sarah cannot conceive - the thing she is most expected to do-she convinces Abraham to take her servant, Hagar, in order for her to conceive. As Hagar literally belongs to Sarah, any child she has will be Sarah's. Providing an heir for Abraham was one of Sarah's goals, but not the only one. She says, "Perhaps through her, I will gain esteem." You have to feel for Sarah. You have to feel even more for Hagar. So Abraham takes Hagar and she conceives.
As Weems points out, through her slave woman, Sarah seeks status for herself, but the tables are turned. The text says that "When Hagar saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt at her mistress." Whether this was real or imagined on Sarah's part is impossible to tell, but at any rate it causes Sarah to become more aware of her inadequacy. She takes it out on Hagar and she blames Abraham for taking Hagar as a wife. When she complains to Abraham about this untenable situation, he takes the coward's way out and tells Sarah that Hagar is her slave and she can do as she wants with her. So Sarah's treatment of Hagar becomes even harsher and Hagar runs away into the wilderness.
In the wilderness, Hagar is visited by an angel of the Lord who tells her to go back to Sarah, and that she should name the child of her womb, Ishmael. Then the messenger says something very similar to what he will later say to Sarah. "I will so greatly multiply your offspring so that they cannot be counted for their multitude."
Ishmael is born to Hagar. In the meantime, Sarah receives the promise from God, and she conceives and bears a son, Isaac. Isaac grows and when he is weaned, Abraham throws a feast for him. During the celebration, Sarah sees Ishmael "playing" with her son; literally the Hebrew means "laughing with her son" (a pun on Isaac's name - that represented Hebrew humor), and she is jealous. She cannot stand the thought that this son of a slave woman, though equally Abraham's son as Isaac, will inherit along with her son, Isaac.
So she convinces Abraham to cast both the slave and her child out into the wilderness. Abraham is distressed, but does not use his power to protect them. He sends them out, with only a goatskin of water and some bread. That is where our text for today picks up.
As you heard, God hears the crying of Ishmael. In fact, Ishmael means "God hears." God opens Hagar's eyes and she sees a spring from which she can get water. The text ends again by saying that God was with the boy as he grew, and that God would make a great nation of him. That promise is repeated three times. He grows to manhood and the text says that his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Isaac and Ishmael must have had contact, for when Abraham dies, Ishmael and Isaac both bury him (Chapter 25). Then it is noted that Ishmael lived 137 years (longevity a way of conveying importance in the Hebrew stories) and his descendants are listed in 12 tribes, just as the descendants of Isaac had 12 tribes.
Sarah's first sin is jealousy. She functions under the mistaken notion that God's love and generosity are only enough for one. Most religion functions that way today. Our way is the only way. We mistakenly think that allowing God to work in different ways threatens the truth of our claim. But if we know that we as mere mortals love each of our children equally, though differently, how much more capable is God of that than we are.
Sarah also functions from a sense of scarcity. She thinks there is not enough. Or is it just greed. She doesn't want to share Isaac's inheritance. It is a sin perpetuated through the ages. We tend to think, "If we share, there will not be enough for me and my family." Or is it just greed? But it is clear just the opposite is true. If we do not share, if some hoard, if societal systems are set up to aid the rich and continue to exploit the poor, there is not enough for many. We see it all too clearly today.
Sarah also made the mistake that we seem destined to repeat. That is, she did not see all children as her children. She did not see her responsibility for the child of her servant. Even though a mother, she did not sympathize with the distress of another mother threatened with her child's starvation! How different that is from when women in the U. S. and the Soviet Union came together during the Cold War to demand their governments denuclearize. Or the women who came together for the first Mother's Day, with Julia Ward Howe, to protest the Spanish-American war, that their children not be trained to kill other women's children. Yes, we are to be protective of our children, but not at the expense of other people's children. Shouldn't our care for our children knit us together, knowing how terrible it is when they are distressed, rather than make us competitive? Yet we have seen terrible things done to children - we saw it with the desegregation of schools - hateful adults yelling at little children. We see it in the funding disparity of our schools where inner-city schools, predominantly black and brown, with the most need, get the least funding. We see it in the proposed healthcare bill that will leave millions of parents unable to get healthcare for their children - more parents in a wilderness of desperation, like Hagar. Must we repeat Sarah's sin of thinking that God plays favorites, and that all children are not our children?
We see in this story the sin of thinking that one set of people or beliefs has an exclusive claim on God and are the only ones blessed by God.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this story is that it is there at all. Though the Hebrews saw themselves as God's chosen, that did not mean chosen for special privilege. It did not mean they were the only ones with whom God worked. It meant chosen for a special mission - to show God's love and justice, to illustrate what a nation under God looked like, and in that way to be a light to the nations.
The Hebrew Scripture is exactly that, the story of their understanding of God's interaction with them. It is their salvation history. But that doesn't mean there are not other stories. That doesn't mean that others are not blessed by God as well. The Hebrew story, in fact, takes pains to include Ishmael, to note him as Abraham's offspring, cared for by God, heard by God, and that God will make of him a great nation as well. Jon Levenson, a Jewish scholar, puts it this way, "Ishmael is read out of the covenant but emphatically included in the promise that is larger than the covenant and that preceded it."
The Islamic faith is also an Abrahamic faith through his son, Ishmael. The Islamic faith believes Hagar took Ishmael to Mecca where he took an Egyptian wife. While it is not accurate to say that all Arabs are descended from Ishmael, many certainly are. But, of course, these are not separate blood lines. Esau's son - Isaac's grandson, marries an Ishmaelite, so his children are equally Hebrew and Ishmaelite.
Muslims can legitimately claim that they are also blessed by God through the story of Ishmael in the Hebrew Scripture.
How different things would be in the world and in the Middle East particularly, if we saw ourselves from the same bloodline, sisters and brothers. How different things would be if we allowed God to work in many ways!
I am unapologetically Christian. I believe we see God best through the lens of Jesus Christ. But, as you have heard me say before, that is a claim on me, a claim I am willing to live and die for. It is through Jesus that I see the love of God, and judge whether an action or belief is of God or not. But it doesn't have to have a Christian label. That doesn't limit God to only working in the way that I can see. Who am I to limit God?
We see in Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman a reflection of the debate in his day of who had an exclusive claim on God. The Jews said the only true worship was in the Temple. The Samaritans said it was on Mt. Gerizim. Jesus, in effect, says neither has an exclusive claim. God is worshiped in Spirit and in Truth. Paul says, even of those who worship false gods, that if they are sincere in their belief and worship, God will hear their prayers.
How long must we repeat Sarah's sins? How long must we, like Abraham, ignore the needs and pleas of our children? Must we continue to cast Ishmael out?
Weems concludes her writing on this chapter with these haunting words.
Just as Ishmael must have wept for the senselessness of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham's ways, maybe it will take our children weeping on our behalf - our children weeping for the sins and prejudice and stubbornness of we, their mothers and fathers - to convince God to intervene on our behalf. Perhaps as a global community, we will be saved - if we are to be saved at all - because of the little children whose innocent tears will prostrate heaven. Though their tears have not always moved us, hopefully, they will move God.
God, have mercy on us.