There are times in which contemporary sensibilities and the narratives of Christian Scripture run seamlessly together. Contemporary concerns with respect to environmental stewardship, for instance, and the biblical insistence in Genesis that humanity was created to care for creation are deeply compatible. However, at other times contemporary mores and Biblical narratives seem to diverge fundamentally. I suspect that the narrative we find in Genesis 21:8-21 is as good an example as any of this apparent divergence.
Genesis 15 recounts a covenant that God made with Abraham. At the heart of God’s promise was a miracle. God promised Abraham and his wife, Sarah, that after decades of infertility they would have a son. So, perhaps as a way of helping God along, Sarah suggested that Abraham take her maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine and produce a child through her. Abraham agreed, and the result of their union was Ishmael. And almost immediately conflict between Sarah and Hagar began to develop.
However, God’s promise to Abraham was not fulfilled in Ishmael. God had intended to provide a child to Sarah and Abraham together. So, in time, Sarah did become pregnant, and gave birth to a boy in her old age. They named him Isaac. And the conflict between Hagar and Sarah escalated.
This conflict is at the heart of Genesis 21:8-21. As Sarah observed the interaction between Ishmael and her baby, she uttered one of the crasser statements to be found in Genesis: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (NRSV, Gen. 21:10).
So much is bound up in Sarah’s charge to Abraham. A distinction of classes is, of course, explicit. But buried within these harsh words are pain and regret and envy and, perhaps fundamentally, fear. These are not surprising qualities to be found in Sarah given the narratives of Genesis which have preceded hers. What is surprising, at least to me, is that God instructed Abraham to follow her counsel. “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring'” (21:12-13).
In the text, we are told that Abraham loved both of his children, and it seems implicit that Abraham could only exile Ishmael and Hagar because of God’s promise to care for them personally. And God was true to His word. Genesis tells us that not only did God send His angel to communicate with Hagar and to rescue them both from thirst, but also, “God was with the boy, and he grew up;…” (21:20).
I’ve often reflected on why it was that God did not require these two rivals, Hagar and Sarah, to find a way forward together, and why it was that Ishmael and Isaac could not have been raised as brothers. And then, again, the risk to both in the culture was certainly great. When Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, married two women and took two additional concubines later in Genesis, the rivalry between the women and the children was painful and, in the case of the children, violent. It resulted in one of the sons being sold into slavery by the others. Was God’s decision to support Sarah’s desires rooted in this sort of cultural complexity?
Even more, when God became flesh in the Person of Jesus several thousand years after these events, Jesus taught us that God’s desire was for His followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He instructed His disciples to accept insults without retaliation and to respond to governmental oppression by going beyond what was being forcibly required. In the teachings of Jesus, certainly Sarah’s concerns would have received a rebuke, wouldn’t they? And yet, at the time, God consented to allow her callousness to persist.
As I reflect on this passage again, I am reminded that God begins with us where we are. The rivalry between heirs was pervasive in the culture of Abraham’s day, and Sarah’s concern for the safety and future of her son was certainly reasonable. And God, rather than asking Sarah to undergo a miraculous and radical transformation of character and worldview all at once, instead allowed her to remain uncharitable, while He Himself served as a personal example of watchcare and devotion to a child that was born outside of His expressed will. God became Himself the caregiver that Sarah could not find room in her heart to become. And by His example, the descendants of Abraham have learned that those who wish to be like God must follow Him into the wilderness and care for a child born out of an act of faithlessness.
I am convinced that Jesus could instruct His followers to embrace their enemies in part because God Himself had set the example for such practices in instances like that of Hagar and Ishmael’s abandonment. Sarah had never seen or experienced this kind of generosity of spirit, and so, she had no context out of which to obey such a command. It is only after God demonstrated His love to those He had not chosen that He asked humanity to respond in kind. God goes first where He asks humanity to follow, and no example of this reality is more fundamental in the church than that of Jesus journey to the cross.
Much later, the Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, would recall this episode in the life of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael, and Paul would suggest that God’s love for Israel herself had more in common with His love for Ishmael than with His devotion to Isaac. The canon of Scripture taken together suggests that we all are children born in a world of rebellion against God’s intentions for humanity. We all have come, in one way or another, into a world that has lost faith in its God, a world that has tried to fulfill God’s intentions by its own wisdom and with its own strength. Each of us has more in common with Ishmael than with Isaac.
And yet, God cares for children who would not be had He been trusted, and God has been with us. Perhaps this story, too, is echoed in Paul’s summation of the Gospel of Jesus: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (NRSV, Rom. 5:8). When we are faithless, God is faithful. Ishmael became a great nation. May the Name of the Lord be praised by our willingness to follow in His footsteps.