Saturday, April 5, 2014

Abraham, Hagar, and the God who sees me.

Il Guercino, Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael

Few stories in the Old Testament are as dramatic as Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac. The story is troubling, moving, confusing, and compelling. We can't help but imagine ourselves in Abraham's place — or in Isaac's. We can't help wondering how God could require such a thing, and how Abraham could dare to tie his son to the altar and raise the knife. We feel immense relief and release when the ram in the thicket takes Isaac's place. And the sense of relief is real: we too have been spared by a Lamb that God has provided.

When that lesson comes up every four years in the curriculum cycle, it makes for a rich discussion in Sunday School. Some class members are genuinely inspired by Abraham's faith and subsequent deliverance; some draw from Abraham's example the courage they need for their own tests of faith. I appreciate hearing how others find meaning, but I always seem to come to the story in a state of emotional conflict, a state of protest. I am reluctant to celebrate it as a great example of obedience and sacrifice. It's just too disturbing. Does God really test people by telling them to murder their own children? That question looms large for me, and pretending that everything makes perfect sense is not helpful. In fact, it's impossible. Hearing from other members of my faith, those with different viewpoints, gives me balance. Our collective grappling with the story adds depth and perspective to my private struggles.

As showstopping as the near-sacrifice of Isaac is, this time through I found myself focusing on a part of the lesson that is usually not given much attention: the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Maybe it's because I have two boys of my own now, maybe it's because oppression is on my mind, or maybe it's just that I'm paying closer attention this year. Whatever the reason, Hagar's and Ishmael's story wrapped itself around my mind.

Hagar is Sarah's Egyptian bondwoman. She is owned by Sarah1, and when Sarah can't conceive, she gives Hagar to Abraham as a second wife or concubine. When Hagar gets pregnant, "her mistress [is] despised in her eyes." Sarah, blistering at Hagar's disrespect, responds so harshly that the pregnant Hagar runs away. But Hagar sees an angel who tells her to turn back and reassures her that she will have many descendants through the son that she is carrying.

Years later, when Ishmael is probably in his teens, Sarah bears Isaac, the promised child of the covenant. And then comes the abandonment. This is the first time I've pondered the story of Ishmael since having children of my own, and I almost can't bear the sadness of it. Sarah sees Ishmael "mocking2." She tells Abraham to banish his own child, saying, "the son of this bondwoman will not be heir with my son." Incredibly, God commands Abraham to go along with it. Hagar has to leave her home. Ishmael has to leave his father. Abraham loses his son.

With all of the drama of the sacrifice of Isaac, this earlier sacrifice of Ishmael is understandably overshadowed. But this time, Abraham and Ishmael are not spared. There is no ram in the thicket. Ishmael is gone.

We know that Abraham loves Ishmael. After God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a son and become the mother of nations, his joy is mixed with concern for his first son. He cries, "Oh, that Ishmael might live before thee!" I imagine that Abraham is saying, "But what about Ishmael? Can't he be a covenant child too?" Indeed, it is a mystery to me why Ishmael and Isaac can't both be part of the covenant. Maybe Ishmael and Hagar are not willing to follow God's laws. They are both depicted in the Biblical account as lacking respect, at least on occasion, either for Sarah or for her son. We might describe them today as having "bad attitudes." Given the family structure that they are part of, I can hardly blame them.

So Ishmael and Hagar are cast out from the household and left to wander in the desert with bread and a bottle of water. When the supplies run out, they almost die, but Hagar again sees an angel, and this one saves her life. He shows her a well of water and tells her that Ishmael will become a great nation. We can take some solace in the statement that God is with the lad as he grows up, and perhaps in the fact that much later, when Abraham dies, he is buried by both Isaac and Ishmael. (I wish we knew more about what must have been a poignant burial and family reunion of sorts.)

In this deeply disturbing story of family dysfunction and cultural oppression, there is one passage that particularly touches me and offers a glimmer of hope. When Hagar runs away from Sarah, the angel of the Lord appears to her in the desert. Before giving her instruction about her future, the angel address her: "Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?" I find it significant that Abraham and Sarah refer to Hagar as "my maid," or "thy maid," or "this bondwoman," but that the angel of the Lord calls her by name3.

Hagar is evidently moved by this encounter, and I am moved by her words:

And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? Genesis 3:16

I find it striking that Hagar calls the name of the Lord, "Thou God seest me." Other translations give her these words: "You are the God who sees me."

You are the God who sees me.

The concubine, the runaway bondwoman, the person with the least social standing in the family, living under the weight of oppressive cultural traditions that rob her of her dignity, is twice visited by an angel.

She is seen by God. And in the end it is God who saves her.

1For simplicity, I am using the names Sarah and Abraham here even though at this point in the story, their names are actually Sarai and Abram.
2An interesting detail of this story is that the name Hagar means "flight," giving rise to speculation that this was not her personal name, but a descriptive name used later when the story was recorded. Read more about the name here.
3The word "mocking" is loaded with connotation, including possible sexual overtones. Click here and scroll down to the comments to read my questions and discussion about the word with the author of the blog Benjamin the Scribe.


Bonus Material:

If you stuck to the assigned reading, you skipped Chapter 20, which wasn't included in the lesson. Here, Abraham's story takes on an almost goofy absurdity. To my weary mind, it was a welcome change from the gravity of the other chapters. Here is a summary:

When they journey to Gerar, Abraham tells everyone that Sarah is his sister so that King Abimelech won't challenge Abraham to a duel (or whatever they did in those days) in order to win Sarah for himself. This is the second time Abraham has pulled that trick (see Genesis 12 where the same thing happens in Egypt), and sure enough, Abimelech takes Sarah into his household. As a punishment, God makes the women of Abimelech's house infertile. Luckily, before Abimelech gets a chance to have his way with Sarah, the Lord explains the situation to him in a dream. So he returns Sarah to Abraham, along with a bunch of extra servants and livestock and stuff, to make up for taking his wife. Abraham explains that he technically wasn't lying, because Sarah actually is his sister — same father, different mother! The story ends happily with Abraham healing Abimelech's household.

If we read these chapters chronologically, this episode happens when Sarah is pretty old. It comes after Ishmael's birth, and after Abraham is promised a son through Sarah and responds, "Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?" This is probably a good example of the need to take Bible chronology with a grain of salt. On the other hand, I kind of like the idea of an ancient, white-haired Sarah being totally irresistible to Abimelech, king of Gerar.  


  1. Very interesting. After reading your post, I wonder if Abraham's trial from God to sacrifice Isaac may have precipitated out of his willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and Hagar. Perhaps that trial was a form of atonement for what he did that then brought him to a greater understanding and need for the atonement.

  2. Maybe the trial Abraham underwent was a fulfillment of God's promise to Hagar that he saw her and recognized her injustice.

    1. Katy, thank you for those comments.

      The strange thing is that God seemed to endorse, or at least allow, the injustice. Of course, today such a thing would be unthinkable. Send your child and his mother out of your home into the desert with some bread and water? We would probably not believe anyone who told us, "God told me to do it."

  3. Apparently Jewish thinkers have had the same thought as Katy (see the Wikipedia article on the Binding of Isaac--which also points out the shortcoming of this view that you mention, Genvieve). Another interesting take (also mentioned in the Wikipedia article) is that Abraham was testing God. This makes some sense to me: Abraham left the religion of his fathers where apparently they sacrificed their children, only later to find out that God wished him to sacrifice Hagar and Ishmael. Maybe Abraham was completely disillusioned at this point, going through a crisis of faith, wondering whether God was really just the same as those gods he was running from.

    1. It's nice that Katy's interpretation shows up in Jewish thought. Jamie, your take on it is intriguing. I like the crisis of faith idea.

    2. I guess that really is the power of the Akedah story: so many ways to think about it, all of them disturbing and unsatisfying. It's a story you can't leave alone because you've never come to grips with it, or at least that's how it is for me.