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June 22, 2008
Genesis 21:8-21

This is the second story of Hagar and Ishmael implanted into the family story of Abraham and Sarah. The earlier one is in Genesis 16. The repetition of such stories is not new. For comparison, note there are also two stories about Abraham and Sarah in foreign courts (Gen 12:10-20; 20). In each case, these ‘side stories’ reveal something significant in relation to the story of the main characters.

Earlier Christian commentaries frequently offered a moralistic reading of the suffering of Hagar, attributing it to the failure of Abraham and Sarah to trust God for their ‘miracle’ baby. However, such a reading was not likely intended by the editors. The thrust of this story, and the earlier version in Genesis 16, is in a much more positive direction, as we shall see. Various kinds of concubine relationships, such as that of Hagar and Abram, were an accepted and legal custom at the time and in the context the story is set. Abraham and Sarah were indeed lacking in trust when Sarah proposed that Abraham father a child through Hagar, Sarah’s servant girl. On the other hand, it was a perfectly reasonable way of seeing the promise of an heir fulfilled. It was just not the way Yahweh intended, as the story reveals.

In both Genesis 16 and here, even though Sarah had agreed to give her servant girl to Abraham, she soon feels herself threatened by the existence of the boy Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. Abraham accedes to her wishes to have Hagar removed, although reluctantly in this second story (v. 11). It seems as though Abraham had developed a fondness for Ishmael, who after all was his first born. One could possibly detect a touch of divided parental affection in the story with Isaac referred to as ‘her (Sarah’s) son’ in v. 10 and Ishmael as ‘his (Abraham’s) son’ in v. 11. However, it is the intervention of God which breaks the tension. First, God directs Abraham not to be concerned for God will take care of Ishmael, making of him a nation too (v. 13). At the same time God makes it clear to Abraham that the heir promised is indeed Isaac (v. 12). In a scene reminiscent of the one which will appear in the next chapter with regard to Isaac (Gen 22:3), Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away into the wilderness. This then becomes the second occasion on which God intervenes. As things get desperate for Hagar and her son in the wilderness and as she accepts what seems inevitable death, not bearing as a mother to look on the death of her son, God hears the voice of the boy and calls to Hagar (v. 17). This scene also has its parallel in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 where God calls to Abraham as Isaac was about to be killed. The promise of becoming a great nation, initially spoken to Abraham about an as yet unborn son, is reiterated here in relation to Ishmael (v. 18; cf. v. 13). God’s promise sees to bear its own ambiguities. As the story moves on it notes too that ‘God was with the boy’ (v. 20). Thus, we see that these verses apply to Ishmael language familiar in the stories of God’s relationship with Israel and its leaders. In the light of the more affirmative story ending in Gen 21:20-21, commentators have questioned the common negative reading of Gen 16:12 in relation to Ishmael. A ‘wild ass of a man’ may mean a survivor, and the verse may simply reflect the nature of semi-nomadic life in which small family units looked out for themselves. The divisions between Arab and Jew, with a negative understanding of the former so often traced to these stories, may not be part of this tradition at all. The two stories (Genesis 16 and 21) with their several close parallels indicate a common theology that God’s saving grace extends far beyond the covenant community. This story is an example of many in the Hebrew Bible that deconstruct a purely exclusive view of God’s ways with Israel. Outsiders like Hagar and Lot, both saved by the angel of God, show that in the earliest biblical traditions human experience and the vision of God are as much the property of the marginal and the outsider as of the faith hero at the centre of the tradition. The tradition that God is for ‘the other’ is thus present long before it is affirmed in the Gospels.

Many unique elements find expression in the story of Hagar. As well as having experiences similar to Abraham’s, namely receiving a visit from a divine messenger and to receive a divine promise of descendants, Hagar is the first person in scripture who dares to name the deity (Gen 16:13), the first woman to bear a child and to hear an annunciation and the first to weep for her dying child. Phyllis Trible concludes in her book Texts of Terror that ‘Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of … all mothers in Israel’. For preaching purposes, as Trible so eloquently writes, Hagar’s story encompasses the experience of all sorts of rejected women, including ‘the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, … the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, … and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.’ (p. 28)

The figure of Ishmael also speaks of the place of the other under God’s grace. Like Abraham, he will be father of many (Gen 16:10; 21:13, 18), but differences between Ishmael and Isaac are set forward in Genesis 17. God guarantees that Ishmael will share in the blessing (17:20), already affirmed in 12:2-3. However, the covenant will be worked out only through Isaac (17:21).

Christian preachers need also to consider whether Paul’s treatment of Hagar in Galatians 4 does justice to the Genesis accounts. As a Jewish scholar, Paul makes a midrashic allegory of Ishmael and Isaac, to contrast slavery to Law and freedom in Christ. The unwarranted condemnation of Jewish Law by Christians down through the ages probably owes much to such a passage as this just as the unwarranted condemnation of descendants of Ishmael down the ages owes much to a misreading of Genesis 16 and 21.

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