29 March 2020
If ever you think you've got it all sorted out about who is in and who is out in God's plan then read this story about Sarah and Hagar. If we take the scripture seriously then we have to struggle with obvious questions such as how could a loving God seem to condone the abuse which Hagar the slave woman suffered? A this is just for starters. But we have a much bigger question for today, for us, as we live in a Western civilisation beset with the fear of the Muslim threat Muslims in the "war against terror".
This passage is one which we basically share with the Qu'ran
The story could easily run as a soap opera. Abraham is given the promises from God in stages as he progressed on his journey, of many offspring and a land and they will be a blessing to the world. Abraham, knowing he is getting old and his wife Sarai is beyond her child bearing age, first tried to adopt his nephew Lot. But that ended in disaster. Then Sarah, who has the responsibility to produce the heir by whatever means, gives her he slavegirl to Abraham so she can have a child for Sarah. We note that never does Sarah name her slave, she refers to her as my servant and later as that slave woman when she really wants to get rid of her [slavery is not nice].
Hagar soon got pregnant, which made it clear to everyone that the couples inability to have children all these years was Sarah's fault, not Abraham's, so Hagar, we are told, looked down on Sarah and shamed Sarah. So, Sarah, the Israelite ill treated her Egyptian slave with the result that Hagar fled into the wilderness. [Wait a minute did we hear that. The Israelite ill-treating the Egyptian? Isn't the story meant to be the other way round? We get the clues that this just may be subversive, not just for us but for the Israelite readers]
God sent an angel to meet Hagar there in the desert. The angel promised her that her son would be the father of a great nation and told her to name the boy Ishmael meaning "God Listens" We find that Hagar who badly needed support, is the one who has the divine visitation rather than Sarah. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to say the name of God. "God who sees". Also we are not told if Hagar worshipped God or not, the matter simply does not arise.
Hagar found she couldn't survive in the wilderness and the angel sent her back to live with Abraham and Sarah.
Then Sarah has Isaac - remember the name means laughter - or "little joke" and all is well. Until one day, as the scriptures tell, us Sarah saw the two boys playing , the joyful laughter of Isaac became mocking laughter, [there is a deliberate word play here,] as Sarah watched. She saw Ishmael - the oldest son of Abraham and due by custom the "double blessing", as a threat to her son's inheritance. Sarah sent Ishmael and "that slave woman" into the wilderness. Abraham agreed to send Hagar and his son away, in fact was directed by God to do so., What sort of God, we may ask, sends a mother and son - probably a thirteen years old, into the wilderness? But God did assure Abraham that God would care for them. So Abraham "sacrifices" his first born son.
You heard the story today. Isaac now has centre stage, and we can go on with the story of the chosen ones, the promised nation, our eyes on Isaac the son of Sarah from whom Jacob and the tweleve tribes of Israel will be born. We can leave Hagar in the wilderness with her child of God's promise. As far as we are concerned, Ishmael's 12 sons disappear into the Arabian desert
Or do they?
Our scriptures tell us that God made Ishmael into a great nation. Esau took his wives from the Ishmaelites. And both Ishmael and Esau became ancestors of a people that would later compete with the Israelites in the land.
For hundreds of millions of people, who are Muslims. Ishmael and Hagar are central figures.
In the Qur'an, which developed after the Bible was written, the traditions say that Ishmael is a prophet, a messenger [of Allah and Abraham settles Ishmael and Hagar in Mecca.
Muslim pilgrims to Mecca follow the journey of Ishmael and Hagar. Pilgrims walk seven times around the Ka`ba, that holiest shrine in Arabia, the cube-shaped structure that according to tradition was built by Adam and then rebuilt by Abraham when he paid a visit to Ishmael. Near the Ka`ba is the holy well Zamzam, whose waters miraculously appeared and saved Ishmael's life.
After pilgrims have gone around the Ka`ba, they run, seven times between two low hills in imitation of the frantic Hagar searching in despair for water for the crying Ishmael.
These traditions of Ishmael and Hagar function in Islamic tradition the way narratives about vulnerable children - Moses cast adrift in the bulrushes, Joseph and Mary carrying Jesus on the flight to Egypt - do in our biblical tradition. One might say that Muslims are looking over our shoulders when we read this passage. "Those people are our people. Be aware that we share these stories, even though we hear them differently than you do."
The need for good biblical scholarship is vital as we live in a world where Muslim and christian must meet and engage in in our daily lives.
We need to know and understand that Muslim claims that Ishmael is in fact the inheritor of the promise of the covenant are based on his being the oldest child. Ishmael does have that place of being the elder. He is the bearer of a promise and a future but Abrham is told more than once by God that it is Isaac with whom the covenant remains.
An important strand of Biblical tradition is about how God moves beyond the boundaries of settled structure of human power and authority. So often it was the youngest child[David and Jacob], the powerless widow[Ruth] the unimportant tribe[Benjamin] or even a young girl from the backwaters of Galilee [Mary ]with whom God choses to work. In this terrible story of a family being cast out, we are also reminded that the stereotypes that we hold dear are challenged.
Muslims are challenged in their claim that Ishmael held the promise of the covenant because he was the oldest son, We are challenged in our comfortable assumption about where God works and those who claim the Muslim Allah is not the same as the God of Jesus need to read their Bibles.
It may be a distorted and distant picture of God that appears to Christian eyes. God seen without the knowledge of God with us, Emmanuel,in Jesus. A God often , as for christians also, further distorted by culture, custom and power but the God who saved Ishmael is the God who sees, the God who gives water in the desert. We cannot claim the God of Jesus and Isaac and Abraham to be a different God to that which Mohammud heard about and set out to worship.
The God's own self, of love and forgiveness and reconciliation, who is revealed to us in Jesus is not yet recognised and is missed by the followers of the prophet Muhummed. But Christian's, Jews and Muslims share the scriptures, Isaac's line is recognised and Jesus is a prophet to Muslim people who know their own tradition.
Brachter comments that In this story it is God who acted to save the child. The Israelites later celebrated God as the one who had heard their cries when under hard service to Pharoah. They learnt from God's rescuing them from slavery in Egypt that it is the character of God to hear the cries of the weak and oppressed and to act in history to bring deliverance and redemption. So God was acting in character in his saving of Hagar and Ishmael.
God heard the cries of the boy. And Hagar is called to trust this God who hears cries of pain.
Both sons carried the promise of God - but Abraham is told again that only Isaac carries role of keeping the covenant to bring blessing to the world. Why? We can only answer that God does not work according to human ways.
We are also reminded that to be the chosen one carries responsibility. The gift of God was not for Sarah herself, even although she desperately wanted a child and God has worked the miracle in her. She could not claim this as personal privilege. Over and over again in biblical stories and in our history, there is an abuse that comes from people taking God's choosing, gift, as personal power rather than realising the responsibility of using that gift for others.
The recipients of God's gifts are not called to privilege but responsibility. They do not own God nor can they limit where God works. We are called to use the gifts God give for God's world.
Jesus tells us that God hears, and more than that, shares the pain of those in need. When those in need are those we may be keeping at a distance or people or groups we ignore as being threats to us and our children, God will still work despite us.
But we will be so busy hugging our knowledge to ourselves and keeping the divisions between the children of Sarah and Hagar, that we will miss knowing the incredible breadth of God's love for the world.
May God gift us with wisdom of how to love and to keep the faith that God is with us and leads us into life.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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