Thursday, June 28, 2007

Considering Hagar's story, Part 2

After her surprising encounter with God on the road to Shur, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to her child. Abraham names the boy Ishmael, as God instructed, and for the next 13 years Ishmael is the presumed child of promise. It isn't until God appears to Abraham and give him the covenant of circumcision that Abraham is told that Sarah will bear a son and his name will be Isaac. (Interestingly, while Sarah has the bad reputation for laughing at God, it is Abraham, the father of the faithful, who laughs at God first. Notice 17:17 where the narrator describes Abraham falling on the ground with laughter at the idea that Sarah would give birth. At least Sarah had the presence of mind to "laugh to herself" instead of in God's face [18:12].)

By the time Sarah gives birth to Isaac in Genesis 21, Ishmael is around 16 years old. Hagar hasn't been mentioned for five chapters and seems to have bowed out of the picture for good. But then a problem arises during a feast held to celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Genesis 21:9 says: "But Sarah saw the son mocking--the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham."

The word translated "mocking" in v. 9 is translated this way in almost every English translation of the Bible. I find this exceedingly interesting. In Hebrew the word is a form of the same word translated "laughter" or "laughing" earlier. It is clear that the narrator is playing off the word laughter throughout the story of Isaac's birth: Abraham and Sarah both laugh (17:17; 18:12); Sarah exclaims that God has made her laugh and all will laugh with her (21:6); and Isaac's name means "he laughs" (17:19). The translation of Ishmael's behavior as "mocking," I think, is indicative of our desire to see Ishmael as a "bad guy" and Sarah's actions toward Hagar and Ishmael as justified. Later rabbis even interpreted mocking to mean "hurting," as if Ishmael was trying to kill the young Isaac. I think this is preposterous. The most natural reading of the word in v. 9 is that Ishmael was "playing" with Isaac or perhaps even "teasing" Isaac. There is no reason to suspect that anything sinister is going on between them, although it is certain that Sarah saw what was going on as a threat.

It is also interesting that the narrator is careful to point out that "the son" in v. 9 is "the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham." Here the emphasis is on Hagar's foreigner status again, along with the foreign status of her son as a result. Moreover, the phraseology is exceedingly sad when you consider that for 16 years Ishmael has been considered the first born son of Abraham and Sarah. Remember, Sarah had Hagar give birth to Abraham's seed as a surrogate mother, so any child born to her would be Sarah's. Presumably, Sarah and Abraham have been raising Ishmael as their own child. Ishamel has become a young man under Abraham's care, even being circumcised into the covenant relationship with God. Now, however, Sarah sees Ishmael as a serious threat to Isaac and, in effect, turns against her adopted child.

Seeing the carrying on between Ishmael and Isaac, Sarah says to Abraham: "Drive out this slave with her son, for the son of this slave will not be a co-heir with my son Isaac!" Can you hear the infuriated Sarah spit out these words? Notice the emphasis on the fact that Ishmael is "her son" and Hagar is "this slave." In fact, Sarah never calls Hagar by her name. Not once in chapters 16 and 21 does Sarah refer to Hagar as anything but "my slave" or "this slave." At this point, I think Sarah's motivation becomes crystal clear: Seeing the young man with the baby boy, Sarah realized that even though Isaac is the child of promise, Ishmael will always be the oldest. In the ancient near east, the oldest son was the most important and I don't think she could stand the thought of Ishmael as Abraham's oldest son and a co-heir with Isaac.

Abraham's affection for Ishmael is apparent in his response to Sarah's fury. Verse 11 says, "Now this was a very difficult thing for Abraham because of his son." In Abraham's mind, Ishmael was "his son," not some foreign interloper. Sarah's demand that Abraham "drive out" the pair was essentially abandonment, something that would likely lead to their death. He knows the severity of this action and he is deeply troubled by the thought.

Thankfully, God intervenes again into the family troubles of Abraham. He instructs Abraham not to be worried, but to go ahead and do whatever Sarah says. Indeed, Isaac will be the one through whom Abraham's seed is traced and God promises to make a "great nation" out of Ishmael as well. This promise from God assures Abraham that at least Ishmael will not die and he submits to the will of Sarah.

Certainly it is a great thing that Abraham has confidence in God's preservation of Ishmael, but that makes the following situation no less perilous for Hagar and her teenage son. Rising early in the morning, Abraham takes bread and a waterskin and puts them on Hagar's shoulder. I doubt that the bread and waterskin were significant enough to last more than a few days, especially between an adult woman and a teenage boy. The narrator sums up the distressing scene in minimal language: "he sent her and the boy away." Can you imagine the sorrow and despair of Hagar and Ishmael in this moment? A father sending away his oldest son. A woman being cast off by the only family she's ever known. A mother and son being sent into almost certain death in the wilderness. The reader knows God's promise, but Ishmael and Hagar have no such assurance.

Hagar leads out the narration from this point forward and it says that she "left and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba." Who knows how long this wandering lasted, but very soon after their departure, the resources run out. When the water is gone, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush. (This phraseology has given the false impression to many that the boy was a baby, but the chronology of Genesis is such that it is certain Ishmael was a teenager.) Hagar leaves her son in the shade and finds a place to sit nearby. But, she is far enough away so that she cannot see him. Hagar knows that without water they are going to die in a few days and she cannot bear to watch it happen. The despair in Hagar's thoughts in palpable: "I can't bear to watch the boy die!" Can you imagine a mother knowing that her son is going to die of dehydration and that there is nothing she can do about it? The scene is terrifying in the extreme. With no recourse for help, Hagar weeps loudly.

(There is a textual variant in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which says that it is the boy who weeps loudly. The translators probably made this change because the next verse says that God hears the voice of the boy, not the voice of Hagar. Either way, though, the point is the same: both Hagar and Ishmael are in despair, near death.)

In the final surprise of Hagar's story, the angel of God appears to Hagar from heaven once again. His words reiterate God's provision for Ishmael and even play off the meaning of his name "God hears." The angel says, "God has heard the voice of the boy from the place where he is." Once again, God hears the cries of the outsider and the outcast. He instructs Hagar: "Get up, help the boy up, and sustain him, for I will make him a great nation." One wonders what Hagar can do to "sustain" the dehydrated boy, but the next verse answers this dilemma. God opens Hagar's eyes and she "sees" a "well of water." Notice that "The God Who Sees" (16:13) now allows Hagar to "see" and what she sees is the source of their physical salvation. Hagar goes, fills their waterskin, and gives Ishmael the needed refreshment.

The narrative seems to stop abruptly at this point. It is as if once Hagar encountered the Lord again and Ishmael was given into God's care that there is no need to detail the rest of what happens. The reader is given a summary of Ishmael's life: "God was with the boy, and he grew; he settled in the wilderness and became an archer. He settled in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt" (21:20-21).

I observe a source both for sadness and joy in this bare description of Ishmael's growth into manhood. It seems that from the time Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael that he never saw either of them again. The woman who bore Abraham's first son is never mentioned again and Abraham mourns and weeps only for Sarah when she dies. Hagar vanishes into the pages of history. Moreover, Ishmael never sees his father again and it is his mother who must get a wife for him (an act typically reserved for the father [see Genesis 21]). At his death, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (25:9), a fact often overlooked by those who want to see contentiousness between the two brothers, but the man who brought him into the covenant with God never encounters Ishmael again. It seems that father-less families are not only the problem of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Even with the sadness in this story, though, there are reasons for joy as well. Notice that the narrator says, "God was with the boy." We live in an age of tremendous hatred for the presumed descendents of Ishmael. Many would like to think that because Isaac was the child of promise that Ishmael was ignored by God. But, nothing could be further from the truth. God was with Ishmael. This is the same way the Bible speaks of God being with Joseph. God blessed Ishmael intentionally and he had twelve sons in a way parallel to Jacob, lived a long life, and upon his death "was gathered to his people" in the same way Abraham was. Apparently, the promise to Hagar that Ishmael would live in opposition to all his brothers (16:12) had more to do with geography than behavior, for Genesis 25:18 points out that Ishmael's family settled "from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt as you go toward Asshur." Ishmael, being part Egyptian, literally lived in opposition to all his brothers (25:19).

Moreover, I take great joy in the fact that the God who found the frightened, pregnant Hagar in Genesis 16 and offered her a promise of innumerable descendents is the same God who finds the dehydrated, dying Ishmael in Genesis 21 and reiterates his plan to make him a great nation. What looked like a serious blunder in the life of Sarah and Abraham, something that was indeed a source of serious suffering and trial for Hagar the slave woman, God turns into a way to further bless the world with the descendents of Abraham. The God of Hagar is a God of wondrous generosity and care for outsiders. Many surprises, twists, and turns cannot thwart God's plan to bless the nations and the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael are included in God's providence.

So, to go back to where I started, that's why I wish I could name my first daughter Hagar. She's one of my favorite women in the history of God's people. I know that Ronnie won't go for it, though. Perhaps I can convince Brad and Angelina that no greater namesake exists for their next adopted daughter than Hagar, the mistreated, abandoned Egyptian slave woman who became the matriarch of the descendents of Ishmael. We'll see...


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post and one that has many theological implications. I have never read your blog before and found it through another's blog. However, my question is based upon Galatians 4 which states that: "he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit" (v.29). As a result, they were cast out...

My question is, do you believe that God saves Muslims who deny Christ--the promised Messiah? Truly, God provided for Hagar and Ishmael, but does God's promise of making him a great nation include salvation apart from implicit faith in Christ, instead, being based upon a salvation of works?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your question. Let me begin by saying that there were no underlying theological agendas at work in this post. I do not have a theological "axe to grind" here. Honestly, I really love the story of Hagar and that is the only reason I blogged about it.

That said, it is probably clear that I was not posting about Muslims or salvation. I understand the connections you are trying to make, though, so I'll entertain them.

I have a quibble with your reference to Muslims. In the story, Ishmael is at least outwardly included in the covenant with Abraham and is never identified with Islam or any other religion (of course our Muslim neighbors would disagree with me here). Often, we assume that the descendents of Ishmael are Muslims (especially because Muslims claim him as their forefather in the covenant with God), but there is not hard-and-fast evidence available to us that descendents of Ishmael = Muslims. I think the closest we can get is descendents of Ishmael = Arab peoples, and even that could be debatable.

I don't think we need to read into God's promise to make Ishmael a great nation anything more than that. God multiplied the descendents of Ishmael and they have become a great people group. The record in Genesis of Ishmael's twelve sons is the narrator's way of testifying that God fulfilled his promise to Hagar.

That said, in my opinion, anyone who has not submitted themselves to the reign of God in Christ remains in their sin and in an unreconciled state with God and the world. Christ is the head of a new humanity and the firstfruits of a new creation. All who are not in Him miss out on reconciliation and recreation.

God's relationship with humanity--from Abraham to today--has always been based upon grace. In my opinion, there has never been a "works-based salvation" for God's people. So, any person, in any nation, in any religion, who submits their lives to God's rule does so because of his grace and mercy.

I hope this has answered your questions. Is there something I've missed?

Have a great weekend,


P.S. If you feel comfortable, I would appreciate having a name to attach to a comment. You can choose "other" as your identity in the "leave your comment" box and include your name there.

Bo said...

Concerning your statement:

"God's relationship with humanity--from Abraham to today--has always been based upon grace. In my opinion, there has never been a "works-based salvation" for God's people. So, any person, in any nation, in any religion, who submits their lives to God's rule does so because of his grace and mercy," (and I just question this for clarity), is it not true that the Muslim faith is based upon a belief that if their good works out-weigh their bad works (or if they die in military conflict in the name of Allah), then they will be ushered into Paradise?

Also, would God "mercifully" and "graciously" lead someone of another religion (i.e., Islam or Hinduism) to continue in that religion, denying His Son, all they while believing that they are pleasing God through merited righteousness via zakat, Hajj, etc.? Would this be a viable way to God, though the Bible teaches differently? Or would he point them out of that to Christ as the means of salvation? (I know this is shifting off topic a little, but I wondered about the meaning of your response).

I'm not trying to be mean- spirited here. I have lately wondered about the story of Hagar and its significance...

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Dear Bo,

Thanks again for your questions. Sorry for the delay getting back to you.

I should say from the beginning that I am not an expert in Islam, nor have I studied deeply enough in the subject to speak with authority on the matter. We have some friends who have lived in an Islamic country for many years, so my knowledge of Islam is second-hand and very limited.

I don't know for a fact that your characterization of the Islamic belief about Paradise is correct ("works-based"), but from what I can tell, it seems to be the case for most Muslims. I would refer you to a Muslim or a local mosque for "from the horse's mouth" information on the matter.

As to your three questions regarding finding "salvation" within Islam (or another religion), I confess that I am not quite sure how to address the first question. So, I will leave that one aside and look at the last two.

You said: "Would [Islamic practices, like zakat and hajj] be a viable way to God, though the Bible teaches differently?"

I think the answer to your question is determined by what you mean by "viable way to God." Because all Truth in the world is God's Truth, then I believe it is possible to encounter some aspect of the Truth in many different cultural and religious forms. The Muslim going on pilgrimage genuinely desiring to hear from God may in fact hear from God in the process. Who am I to say that he won't? God appeared to Cornelius, a non-Jew Roman soldier, in Acts, so why not an Iranian pilgrim?

If by "viable way to God" you mean more than encountering the Truth, that is, living in the Kingdom of God ruled over by Jesus Christ, then I would affirm that zakat, hajj, and for that matter prayer, going to church, or communion, are not sufficient for coming under the rule of Christ. In that case, anyone in any religious setting will need to submit their hearts to the rule of God in Christ. The best place to begin for an understanding of what that means is the New Testament Gospels. I would suggest Matthew or Mark.

As a follow-up, you asked: "Or would [God] point them out of [Islamic practices] to Christ as the means of salvation?"

This is a trickier question than you might think. The reason its tricky is that I'm not sure what parts of cultural/religious Islam a Muslim must "leave behind" in order to come under the rule of God in Christ. The way your question is phrased, you seem to be assuming that a Muslim would have to leave behind every part of their culture ("point them out of that") in order to become a part of God's Kingdom. I don't think this assumption is correct.

I am of the opinion that American Christians (as I am) are quite ignorant of how many cultural/religious attachments they've added to the good news of the Kingdom. What I mean by that is, we tend to think that in order for someone to be a follower of Jesus, they must look like us, dress like us, eat like us, do "church" like us, etc. In the case of someone in a totally different culture, like Islam, becoming a follower of Jesus, I'm not sure they have to leave behind the many good and beneficial parts of their culture to join the Kingdom of God.

For example, the pattern of praying five times a day is a very good thing. In fact, followers of Jesus are exhorted to "pray without ceasing." If Muslim believers in Jesus are in the pattern of praying five times a day, why discontinue a good practice just because its not the "American Christian" thing to do? I think we have much to learn from our Muslim neighbors in their pattern of faithfulness to prayer.

Or, in the case of the way women dress in Islamic cultures. The desire to cover your body out of reverence for God is a very good thing, something to which women are encouraged in the New Testament. Why change this pattern of dress if it is a good and meaningful part of Islamic culture that corresponds with the teachings of the Kingdom of God? Surely such practices can and should continue in the life of a cultural Muslim who has become a citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ.

Does this make sense? I don't mean to be overly analytical, but I think you are asking some very important questions related to how one follows Jesus in the many different religious cultures of the world, not just Islam. Truly, I think its possible that American Christians wouldn't recognize the followers of Jesus in Islamic cultures because it would look and sound so different. (Just think of what Jerusalem followers of Jesus thought of the new Gentile converts in Antioch, eating pork and not washing their hands, etc. I think its a parallel situation.)

I hope this has been helpful. If you would like to interact more with someone who knows more, send me an email and I can put you in contact with the right person.

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...

I just have a quick point to ask. If women in this time were only considered "vessels" , that the male was the one with the seed, the why would Sarah be offended by the "half-breed" son that you mentioned? Yes it was later revealed to them both that Sarah would be the one to give Abraham a son , but I don't recall a genetic lesson being given to them as well. When did Sarah's thinking process go from giving her maid as a vessel Genesis 16, to feeling like Ishmael was a half-breed? Ishmael would indeed be of the pure breed line, having come from Abraham with their line of thinking then. I may be totally off the map with this line of thinking and need to read the story again but I must ask.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I think you make a very good point. I suppose the reference to "half-breed" has more to do with my knowledge of genetics than any possibility of Sarah understanding Ishmael to be a "half-breed." I know in my context, someone being "half" anything is normally a bad thing. But, you are right about Sarah. I don't think she would have thought of him as "half" Egyptian and "half" Aramean. I'll change my blog accordingly.

BTW: I do wonder if she would have imagined Ishmael being tainted somehow by having Hagar as the "vessel." She may not have known genetics, but I think that probably bothered her quite a bit: that her Egyptian slave gave birth to her husband's son. Just a thought...

Grace and peace,


Bo said...

Hi Emily,

Thanks for your response. However, I was not making any implications about about people converting from other religions to an "Americanized" understanding of Christianity. By "point them out of that" I meant point them out of the falsehood of Islam and to Christ for salvation or point them out of the polytheism of Hinduism to Christ.

Thanks and consider this horse severly beaten to death,


Anonymous said...

Back to the whole idea of why Sarah demanded that Hagar and her son leave. In my eyes, viewpoint, it didn't seem that Sarah had much use for Ishmael given that she had given birth herself to Abraham's heir. Along the lines of "out of sight out of mind." I am just appaled at how Sarah could have raised Ishmael, as her own son, for the better part of 13 years and she so quickly turned on him. That depicts a very different view of her heart than I had ever known existed. She wasn't a woman scorned, she asked her husband to do this act for the fulfillment of God's plan. It is surprising that she played the victim when Hagar conceived. Reading back in this story Sarai was a very strong woman. She followed her husband and seemed to have a genuine heart then. I wonder what changed in her heart? When or how did she get so bitter, the story never seems to tell us...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful interpretation of Hagar's life. I've loved this story for years, my favorite, but find that very few people have even taken the time to read it through, much less to find someone write about it as eloquently as you. Thank you! what a Blessing! it has been a great encouragement to me through the years to know that God Sees me and cares enough to intervene.