Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 16 & 21

Recently a baby was brought into the Waikato Hospital A&E. It had been knocked around in its own home.  Because of the severity of its injuries it was transferred to Starship Hospital in Auckland.  A few days later it died.  It was 9 months old.

The same week also saw the trial and conviction of one of the people who had stupidly given a 9 year old boy alcohol in a Hamilton skate parkGodzone1 in January.  The incident became widely known because someone took a video of the boy in his drunkenness and posted it on YouTube.  So the boy who had been let down by one group of adults was taken advantage of yet again.  How the person who posted the video thought that they had the high moral ground, I am not sure.

Now we all know that the Waikato isn’t the only place in New Zealand  where vulnerable children live.  There are children in the greater Wellington region too, who are being knocked about verbally and physically by those who have a duty of care to them.  There are children who are being neglected and children whose sense of worth is constantly undermined by harsh words or indifference.  And there are children, who are treated as a project rather than a child- whose days are over organised, who have little time to live their own life because one or other parent is insisting on living their life through them.

Don’t get me wrong.  In the right family New Zealand is a very wonderful place for a child to grow up in…  in the right family.

The stories of Genesis are gathered from written and oral sources.  To begin with they would have been handed down verbally through Israelite families from generation to generation.  They were the stories that told the family who they were and how they fitted in the world as they knew it.  Some parts of the family may have told the story in a slightly different way to other parts of the family.  They may have emphasised different parts of the story as they told it, because those things were the things that they saw as important.  Some parts of the story may have been remembered by one family and dropped out of the memory of others.

The people who gathered the stories harmonised them into a single story, but within the book of Genesis there are hints of these earlier stages.  In the story we are looking at today there are some discrepancies about the exact age of Ishmael that may be due to different parts of the story being taken from different strands.  Some of you may have heard of ancient sources for the Hebrew Scriptures that scholars called JEPD- Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist.  Things were probably more messy than that, but the first half of Hagar’s story comes from what is talked about as the J source and the 2nd half comes from what has been called the E source.

The Hagar and Ishmael story begins with the childlessness of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah had been trying for years and years to have a baby.  Way back in Mesopotamia before they had come to Canaan, Abram, as he was called then, had heard God promise that there would be a son and heir.  The new beginning in a new land would not just be for him and Sarah and his nephew, Lot, it would be for the next generation and the generations to follow, as many as the sands of the sea.  A new land for a new people and both would come through him and Sarah.  God had spoken.  Amen.

Godzone2But time went on.  He and Sarah had done their bit.  They had made the move, and to an extent God had blessed them.  They had done all right for themselves.  They were well enough off, but the promised child never arrived.  Perhaps God had forgotten that bit or perhaps Abram had misheard.  Perhaps he had only heard it because he had wanted so much to hear it.  And so the Amen, over time became more muted.

But the promise wouldn’t quite go away.  Every now and then God would remind Abram of it and occasionally Abram reminded God of it.  At one point Abram returned from a local skirmish and encountered God in a vision.  God said, ‘ Don’t be afraid.  I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward.’ To which Abram replied, ‘Thank you, Lord God, but there is not a lot of point really.  I have no children to inherit it.  You’d just be making one of my slaves wealthy.’ On other occasions both he and Sarah get the giggles when God once again repeats the promise of a son.  They are well over child bearing age.

It was a vulnerable situation to be in.  An elderly expat couple with no close family around, no social security, relying on the loyalty of their slaves to see them through to the end of their days.

So Sarah decides to give God a hand.  In a custom of the day she has her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, sleep with Abram.  Any child from the union would be counted as Sarah’s.  It will be their ‘that will just have to do us’ child.  As luck will have it Hagar has no trouble what so ever getting pregnant.  Given that she has been able to do the very thing that Sarah has never been able to do, she starts acting as though she is superior to her mistress, and she is condescending and nasty towards Sarah.

Sarah realises that giving Hagar that sort of power over her was a very bad mistake, and she promptly blames her husband for the situation.  He shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘well do what you want to do, she’s your slave.’  So Sarah begins to make Hagar wish that she had never been born.  All Sarah’s hurt at not being able to bear a child, and her anger at the unfairness of Hagar being able to do that so readily, and her indignation at the way Hagar has thought she could get away with treating her, bubble over.  She is the mistress from hell and Hagar’s life becomes so intolerable that she runs away.

And so the angel of the Lord meets Hagar, at a spring on the way to Egypt.  ‘Hagar where are you going and where have you come from?’

‘I am running away from my mistress.’

‘Go back’, the angel tells her.  And then he goes on to make a most extraordinary promise to her, (an Egyptian slave girl), of countless descendants, and he names her son, ‘Ishmael’ – God listens.

Hagar is astonished, ‘Have I really seen God and lived to tell the tale?’   The experience shapes her sense of God.  ‘She called The Lord who had spoken to her ‘a God who sees’.’

So she returns to Israel’s first family and she has her son, Ishmael.

According to this strand of the story, the long awaited son and heir, Isaac, is born some 13 years later.    When Isaac is weaned another 2-3 years after that, Abraham throws a big party… that would make Ishmael a young man.  However the 2nd part of the story in Genesis 21, seems to indicate that Ishmael was quite a lot younger than this.

Isaac’s name means ‘he laughs’, and Sarah is on top of the world at his birth.  ‘God has brought me joy and laughter.  Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.  Who would have thought that I would be nursing a child at my age?’

But sometime after the big party that marked Isaac’s transition from babyhood to childhood, Sarah catches sight of Ishmael playing.  That is all that the Hebrew text says.  Some very old translations add playing ‘with Isaac.’ And some traditions suggest that he was making fun of Isaac.  That’s the tradition that Paul picks up in his letter to the Galatians.  I guess they expand on the Hebrew text to try to explain what happens next.  Maybe Ishmael was being a bit spiteful; siblings are from time to time.  But the Hebrew just says that he was playing.

And the sight of Ishmael playing or horsing around brings back all the old jealousies of Sarah, and the fraught relationship she had with the boy’s mother.  She has never liked that boy, and there is no way that her little prince, the child of promise, the son and heir will be deprived of any of his inheritance because of Ishmael, the ‘that will just have to do us’ child.

And so she goes to Abraham and demands that he send that boy and his slave girl mother away.  They have no place in this household.  There is no way that Isaac should have to share anything with that child.

Abraham is churned up by what Sarah is demanding.  Ishmael may not be Sarah’s son but he is his son.  God comes to Abraham with a promise of care for Hagar and Ishmael.  The line that God has promised Abraham all along will come through Isaac, but there is a promise that both children will be patriarchs of their own people, for both boys are his sons.  Hagar’s child and Sarah’s child have a future guaranteed by God.

Early the next day Abraham gives Hagar some food and a water skin and he puts Ishmael on her shoulder and he sends them away.  The boy and his mother wander around in the wilderness round Beersheba.  In time the water runs out and things are desperate.  The boy is badly dehydrated and Hagar lies him down in the shade of a bush and she herself sits down in the shade some distance off.  She cannot bear to watch him dying.  She sits and sobs, and in the distance her boy, Ishmael, moans.

And God is listening out for the boy whose name, Ishmael, means ‘God Listens’.  In her misery, Hagar hears a voice from heaven.  ‘What is distressing you Hagar? Don’t be afraid.  God has heard your boy.  Go to him, pick him up and comfort him.  He has a future in me.  And Hagar looked up and she saw a well, and she took the skin and filled it and gave the boy a drink.

They lived in the wilderness, and God was with the boy as he grew up.  He became an excellent hunter, and in time his mother found him an Egyptian wife.

Clare Lind