top of page

Proper 7A Alt 1st Reading

Genesis 21:8-21

J Thomas Johnson

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.