Thursday, April 17, 2008

The God of Hagar, 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 firstborn 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. Ishmael 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!" 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...

(The sculpture pictured above is called "Farewell to Ishmael," by George Segal [1924-2000], 1987. Abraham is embracing Ishmael, while Hagar steels herself for the journey and Sarah watches from the shadows.)


Hagar's Daughter said...

Hagar is my favorite woman of God, as you may guess from my title of my blog site and ID.

Her story is one of courage and faith. I love her boldness in naming God.

Have studied any of the womanist scholars - Emilie Townes, Jacquelyn Grant, Renita Weems? If not, then please do so.

I love your site. Do you consider yourself a daughter of Hagar's or a sister of Hagar's?

Steve said...

Wow, Sarah makes herself appear quite the manipulator regarding Hagar. There is a tang of editing about this episode that leaves me yearning to see more (delicious? revelatory?) details of their relationship and Abraham's probably all-too-voluble reactions (considering his LOL, ROTF earlier) that would show the in-betweens and the backgrounds.

Y'know, like a Disney cineplay.

Mel said...

Do you think Ishmael knew Hagar was his birth mom before the exile? In their custom, would Hagar have nursed Ishamel and then given him into Sarah and Abraham's house as soon as he was weaned? I'm just thinking how horrible if Ishamel always considered Sarah his mom, to realize she could so easily exclude him - not to mention his biological father in Abraham! Today that abandoned teenager would be thrust into counseling.

Rex Ray said...

Your thought of Ishmael not knowing his real mother is a thought I’ve never heard before. Interesting. That would put a double burden of heartache for him.

I saw a movie where it projected a different idea why Sarah was jealous. The idea was that Ishmael was so popular and well liked by the young Isaac, Sarah was afraid that Isaac would give his inheritance to Ishmael.
Anyway you look at it, this account brings out how ‘complaining’ by wives reveals Genesis 3:16 as interpreted by the New Living Translation: “…And you will desire to control your husband…”

President Ahmedinajad said...

THE FOLLOWING ISSUE CAN DESTROY ISLAM, ZIONIST RACIST ISRAEL AND THE TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH AND NOT THE WAY OF JESUS WHICH IS PERFECT. RESEARCH THE BELOW SMALL THESIS to see if there is any truth to it.READ THE FOLLOWING PASSAGES FROM THE BIBLE AS IT HAS IMPLICATIONS ON THE WAR AGAINST TERROR/ISLAM and the claim of Israel that god gave them the land. If the child is an infant than the Judeo-Christian version becomes null and void and we are wasting our time and resources i.e. we could save trillions of dollars and create a more peaceful world rather than fighting against Islam the religion of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all).The COVENANT with Abraham and his DESCENDANTS is central to JUDAISM/CHRISTIANITY/ISLAM.Please note this is not a competition between faiths but an attempt to decipher fact from fiction.Genesis 21:14 Contemporary English version se below Link
Early the next morning Abraham gave Hagar an animal skin full of water and some bread. Then he put the boy on her shoulder and sent them away.
GENESIS 16:16 And Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ish’mael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael to Abram.
GENESIS 21:5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.At Genesis 22 Abraham had only 2 sons others came later.The Quran mentions that it was Ishmael that was sacrificed hence the reference in genesis 22:2 your only son can only mean someone has substituted Ishmael names for Isaac!!BY DOING SOME KINDERGARTEN ARITHMATIC USING ARABIC NUMBERS (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)NOT ROMAN NUMERALS (I, II, III,IV,V,VI,VII,VIII,IX,X) NB no concept of zero in roman numerals.
100 years old – 86 years old = 14ADD 3 YEARS FOR ISSAC’S WEANINGTHAT WOULD MAKE ISHMAEL 17 YEARS OLD IN GENESIS 21:14-21 BUT IT IS A DESCRIPTION OF AN INFANT.Carefully read several times the above passage and then tell me the mental picture you get between the mother child interactions what is the age of the child. If the mental picture is that of a 17 year old child being carried on the shoulder of his mother, being physically placed in the bush, crying like a baby, mother having to give him water to drink, than the Islamic viewpoint is null and void. Why is there no verbal communications between mother and (17 YEAR OLD) child?
GENESIS: 21:14 – 21 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the (17 YEAR OLD) child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the (17 YEAR OLD) child under one of the bushes. Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the (17 YEAR OLD) child.” And as she sat over against him, the (17 YEAR OLD) child lifted up his voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the (17 YEAR OLD) lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the (17 YEAR OLD) lad where he is. Arise, lift up the (17 YEAR OLD) lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the (17 YEAR OLD) lad a drink. And God was with the (17 YEAR OLD) lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.The age of Ishmael at this stage is crucial to the Abrahamic faiths. If he is 17 than the JUDEO/CHRISTIAN point of view about the Abrahamic covenant is correct. This has devastating theological consequences of unimaginable proportions.This makes the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac and there descendants a work of fiction. I would strongly suggest it is clear cut case of racial discrimination and nothing to do with god almighty. The scribes have deliberately tried to make Isaac the only son and legitimate heir to the throne of Abraham??Please can you rationally explain this anomaly?I have asked many persons including my nephews and nieces - unbiased minds with no religious backgrounds but with reasonable command of the English language about this passage and they all agree that the child in the passage is an infant.
HOLY QURAN CHAPTER 37 verses 101 – 122
101. So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.102. Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: "O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!" (The son) said: "O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allah so wills one practising Patience and Constancy!"103. So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah., and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice),104. We called out to him "O Abraham!105. "Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!" - thus indeed do We reward those who do right.106. For this was obviously a trial-107. And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice:108. And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times:109. "Peace and salutation to Abraham!"110. Thus indeed do We reward those who do right.111. For he was one of our believing Servants.112. And We gave him the good news of Isaac - a prophet,- one of the Righteous.113. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to their own souls.114. Again (of old) We bestowed Our favour on Moses and Aaron,115. And We delivered them and their people from (their) Great Calamity;116. And We helped them, so they overcame (their troubles);117. And We gave them the Book which helps to make things clear;118. And We guided them to the Straight Way.119. And We left (this blessing) for them among generations (to come) in later times:120. "Peace and salutation to Moses and Aaron!"121. Thus indeed do We reward those who do right.122. For they were two of our believing Servants.
ISHMAEL IS THE FIRST BORN AND GOOD NEWS OF ISSAC DOES NOT APPEAR UNTIL AFTER THE SACRIFICE?????Therefore the claim that god gave the land to Israel is destroyed without the need of any WMD’s.
HADITH Volume 4, Book 55, Number 583:Narrated Ibn Abbas:
The first lady to use a girdle was the mother of Ishmael. She used a girdle so that she might hide her tracks from Sarah. Abraham brought her and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka'ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward.Ishmael's mother followed him saying, "O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?" She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, "Has Allah ordered you to do so?" He said, "Yes." She said, "Then He will not neglect us," and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka'ba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following prayers:'O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. So fill some hearts among men with love towards them, and (O Allah) provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.' (14.37) Ishmael's mother went on suckling Ishmael and drinking from the water (she had).When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times."The Prophet said, "This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, 'O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?" And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it."The Prophet added, "May Allah bestow Mercy on Ishmael's mother! Had she let the Zam-zam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zam-zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth." The Prophet further added, "Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, 'Don't be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.'The House (i.e. Kaba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada'.They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, 'This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.'They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water)." The Prophet added, "Ishmael's mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, 'Do you allow us to stay with you?" She replied, 'Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.' They agreed to that."The Prophet further said, "Ishmael's mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them.