If you don’t mind, I’d like to concentrate on our Old Testament lesson today. After all, the Old Testament is just as much sacred scripture as the New Testament is; and some of the narratives in Genesis, like our passage today about Abraham and Hagar, are such wonderful stories that they’re just too good to pass up.
I say it’s a wonderful story, but of course it’s also a distressing story. That’s probably part of what makes it a good story. After all, there would be no Star Wars trilogy without Darth Vader, no Alien trilogy without that creepy monster popping out of people’s chests, no Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West and her cackling laugh. You usually need something bad to happen to make a good story. Maybe if we were more like angels we could enjoy a story that was full of good things only. But we’re not. We need some shadows on our landscape to make it an interesting landscape. Maybe this is because we have so much anxiety inside ourselves that a story that doesn’t reflect that anxiety doesn’t seem like it’s talking about us. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself.
Anyway, our story has plenty of anxiety. It’s loaded with psychological tension, with sexual and others sorts of jealousy, with hatred, with despair. When I think of the dynamics here, I think of the ramshackle frame house I lived in in Seattle’s University District in the late sixties. The house was called“The Magic Mountain.” I’m not making this stuff up. As Paul says in Galatians, “I swear before God, I’m not lying.”
This house was inhabited by various odd counterculture types, and among the oddest was a middle-aged guy, who said he was the head of a revolutionary organization called the White Panther Party. He once showed me a photo of himself dressed up to look like the head of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, with a black leather jacket and a beret and an ammunition belt slung over his shoulder. I think this guy’s name was Jack, though I can’t be sure, it was so long ago. Anyway that probably wasn’t his real name.
But in addition to being the head of the White Panther Party, Jack also claimed to be a Mormon. And not a modern, compromising sort of Mormon, but one who embraced the original doctrines of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, including polygamy. And he lived in one big room in the basement of The Magic Mountain with his two wives, one of whom I’d say was in her late thirties, and came from Cuba, and with whom he’d had a couple of kids, and the other of whom I’d say was in her early twenties.
And Jack and his two wives and the kids put on a good show of being one big happy family, but late at night screaming arguments would often break out between the two wives, or between Jack and one or the other of the wives, or between Jack and both of the wives. Before I lived with them, I had thought that polygamy seemed like kind of a cool idea—well, I was seventeen years old at the time. But, as we used to say in those days, I began to get bad vibes from Jack and his family, and being a perceptive youth, I thought I perceived that there was some tension simmering beneath the surface.
Well, there’s a similar tension in Genesis 21. It’s a story that is fraught with anxiety, and sometimes the anxiety shades over into despair. The despair first hits Abraham, though he doesn’t start the story that way. Rather, he’s celebrating the birth of his son Isaac, whose name means “he laughs”—a name that was foreshadowed when his wife Sarah laughed in mockery when the angels announced that within a year she would bear Abraham a son. A year later her mocking laughter had turned to joyous laughter when Isaac was born. But now, for Abraham, the laughter seems like it’s about to end.
Because Sarah has come to the conclusion there’s room for only one source of laughter in the household. She, of course, was Abraham’s original wife, but she hadn’t been able to get pregnant. And finally Abraham had given up on her, and Sarah had given up on herself—they had both come to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to bear him any children. So they hatched a plan together whereby Abraham would protect his inheritance by having sex with his slave-girl, Hagar, in the hope that she would produce an heir, who could then be adopted into the family. This Hagar had done, and the boy was named Ishmael. And since this is a biblical story, that name is also symbolic: it means “God hears” (the “shma” sound in “Ishmael” is the same “Shema” that’s found in the central creed of Judaism, the Shema Israel, which means “hear, O Israel”). The full significance of this name will become apparent as our story unfolds.
Interestingly, however, the name “Ishmael” is never pronounced there. When Ishmael is referred to, he’s never referred to by name, but only as Abraham’s son, or Hagar’s, or as the yeled, “the boy” or the na’ar, which I would translate “the young ‘un.” And it’s important sometimes in biblical narratives to observe not only what a name means, if it’s mentioned, but also when a name is not mentioned.
I don’t want to go all post-colonial on you, but I think the absence of the child’s name here is because Ishamel and his mother Hagar are powerless characters—he, even more so than she. They are slaves—not “servants,” as older translations euphemistically call them, as if they had stepped out of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs. No, they are slaves; they are property. They belong to the master and mistress. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on this biblical story, this sort of absence of agency is symbolized by the main character’s lack of a name—she is referred to as Offred, because she belongs to the high official Fred, not by the name her parents gave her in the good old days before a fundamentalist sect staged a coup.
Besides dehumanizing Ishamel by depriving him of his name, our story reveals the brutal reality of slavery in other ways. Because the basic reality of slavery is that the slave is in the master or mistress’s hand, to do with as they will—a tool rather than a person. We’re not told how Hagar felt about spending the night with the hundred year-old Abraham, but we might be able to imagine. We’re not told whether Abraham was gentle or brutal with her. The story seems to have no interest in such details. She simply does what she’s supposed to do. And it’s not even Abraham himself who comes up with this ingenious scheme, but Sarah, to make sure the wealth stays in the family. Sexual jealousy is all very well, but the bottom line is more important.
At least for a while. Because later on Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and her child, and tells Abraham to drive them out into the desert, and he, rather spinelessly, does so. And this happenes not once but twice, because our story is more-or-less a repetition of the events five chapters earlier, in Genesis 16. But this time it’s a permanent banishment, unlike the one in Genesis 16, because now Sarah has her own boychik, and she doesn’t need Ishmael anymore. The tension here becomes unbearable—and it’s increased when you realize that the description of Ishmael “playing,” which is the pretext for his and his mother’s banishment, is another instance of the theme of laughter. Because the Hebrew actually says that Sarah got mad because she saw Ishmael laughing—another pun on his half-brother Isaac’s name, which means laughter. There can be only one laughing child in the family, and you can be sure as shooting that it’s not going to be the son of the slave.
So Abraham sends Hagar and her anonymous son out into the wilderness, with a waterskin and a loaf of bread on one shoulder and her son on the other. I’m not sure exactly how we’re meant to picture this. Or maybe the implication is that she’s leading the son with one hand while she’s holding the rest of the stuff on her shoulder with the other. Anyway, off she goes, with no word of protest. After all, the master has spoken, and even more relevant, so has his wife. So off go the concubine and her nameless son into the desert to die.
The story now reaches its crisis point. After some time the water runs out, and Hagar knows that her child is about to die. So she throws him under a bush. Notice the pathetic combination of callousness and care: she abandons her child to die, she physically throws him down—a gesture expressive of rage or desperation. But at the same time she puts him under a bush, so he won’t be visible to scavengers or exposed to the rays of the hot sun. She abandons him, she goes far enough to be out of earshot of his feeble cries, but not that far away–she doesn’t turn around and walk several miles in the other direction. She goes just far enough to separate herself, to put herself out of the way of hearing or helping, but not far enough away to block him out altogether. And in this agonizing paralysis of spirit, she cries.
Some of us are probably able to relate to this picture of parental paralysis–God help us. Hagar has given up hope for her child’s recovery. The next call she gets may be the one that tells her he’s dead. And so she has separated herself, because it’s too painful to see your child wasting away and dying. It’s too painful to stay there and watch. But she also can’t leave.
Fortunately, there is another actor in the story—an actor I have not mentioned until now, though there have been hints about his presence all along the way. And this other actor hears, not only the feeble cries of the child, which the mother is trying to block out, but also the mother’s own cry of despair. This other actor hears, and in so doing he fulfils the boy’s unspoken name, Yishma-El, “God hears.” When we’ve given up, when we’ve even stopped listening, there may be someone else who is listening, someone else who can act.
This week, I’ve been thinking about Sarah and Hagar, and about Isaac and Ishmael, not only because of the lectionary but also because of the lectionary of our times. It is now fifty years since the descendants of Isaac conquered the land on which the descendants of Ishmael had been living. Fifty years of occupation; fifty years of dehumanization; fifty years of terror on both sides; fifty years of hope drying up like a raisin in the sun. Of course, the story didn’t begin just fifty years ago, but 1967 was a turning point. And both before and after that turning point, the dynamics of our biblical story have been repeated many times. There has been hatred; there has been exile; there has been despair. Well-intentioned people have tried, from time to time, to do something about it, but their efforts have mostly come to naught, and some of them were killed for their efforts.
Well, what is to be done? It is tempting to cut one’s losses, to concentrate on protecting oneself and one’s people, to build a big wall and hide behind it, and wait for the next explosion. That is a perfectly natural way of reacting to the trauma. But our story suggests that there may be another way.
Because, although the story is obviously written from the point of view of the children of Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) it still, surprisingly, acknowledges God’s care for the children of Ishmael and Esau (the Arabs). It breaks through the power dynamics encoded in the rest of the story to acknowledge the other side’s humanity–even, amazingly enough, its election by God. And it does so in words that are strikingly similar to the promises God made earlier to Abraham about the Jewish side of his family: “Get up, take your son’s hand, for I will make of him a great nation” (21:18; cf. 12:1-2).
I conclude with a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who was born in Germany in 1924, fled with his family to Palestine in 1935, fought in the armed conflicts from the War of Independence in 1948 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and died in 2000. It was written when Amichai lived close to the wall that, between 1948 and 1967, divided West Jerusalem, which was in Israel, from the Old City and East Jerusalem, which were in Jordan.
On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
At the other end of the string,
I can’t see
because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.
(Trans. Stephen Mitchell)