Families can be complicated. There was this older couple. They didn’t have any children, which was a great concern to them, as they were quite well-off and they wanted someone to inherit and continue the line and the business. So the woman had an idea. She had a slave, an Egyptian woman, a younger woman. So she suggested that her husband took the slave as a concubine, so that the slave woman could have a child for the couple, a surrogate baby. And that’s what happened. The slave woman had a baby boy. However, the family dynamics rapidly went down hill. There they were, all living under one roof, the barren wife, the slave girl mistress with her child, and the old man. Maybe the older woman felt a bit threatened. She had tried to control the situation and wanted to manage the slave woman and her child
Then amazingly, the older woman got pregnant, and she had a baby boy. So there was the old man, his wife, his mistress and the two children. It was getting ever more complicated. Then came the time when a party had been arranged for the younger boy, the legitimate heir. His mum saw the two children playing, the older one making fun of the toddler. She is probably also anxious that the older child will compromise her son’s inheritance. She was angry, so she demanded that the husband throw out the slave girl and he child. He was very reluctant because he was fond enough of the slave woman and loved his oldest son. But his wife insisted. The foreign woman had to go.
That night, the old man had a dream in which God told him to let the woman and the boy go. God promised to take care of them. That was fine for him! It gave him comfort. He could follow his wife’s demands and still feel that he was doing the right thing by God. Nevertheless, it was a terrible thing that he did.
In the morning, he gave the slave girl some bread and water and sent them off into the desert. There was no thought about how they were going to survive. The bread and water were not enough for any length of journey. And as for the older woman, she has to bear a good part of the blame for the way she treated them.
It wasn’t long before the water ran out. They were in the wilderness. There was no source of water to be seen. The boy, Ishmael, was desperate. The slave woman, Hagar, lost heart. She was convinced that this was it. She wept and prayed. And the boy wept and prayed. God heard him. The name Ishmael means “God will hear”. An angel came and showed Hagar a well, so she was able to refill the water bottle and they were able to drink and survive. They found a way of living in the wilderness, and they made a life, independent of Abraham and Sarah who had thrown them out.
It is, for me, one of the more difficult stories in the bible because it shows Abraham and Sarah behaving so badly. It sounds like the plot of a soap opera. And you only have to look around the area to see broken families, people who treat others cruelty and unfairly. Sometimes, the bible shows us how not to behave. When I read this story, it makes me squirm inside, it makes me feel very uncomfortable. When we read the stories in the bible, they often reflect on us, the readers. In this story, we can see our own shadows. It reminds us of the times when we have been cruel and heartless, when we have put our own interests first and failed to care for others, when we have made pious excuses for not doing the right thing.
It also shows God going along with Sarah’s cruelty, though he is able to turn it round and God’s care and protection help Hagar and Ishmael survive.
The story is important for another reason, because the story of Ishmael is also important to Islam, though his story is told very differently in the Quran. In the Quran, both Ishmael and Isaac are regarded as prophets, but Ishmael as the older son has priority, even though his mother was a slave woman. Ishmael was regarded as an ancestor of Mohammed, so he is particularly important for Moslems who claims a continuous link to Abraham through Ishmael and Mohammed. For Jews and Christians, the link to Abraham is through Isaac. Moslems believe that Jews and Christians have twisted the original story to make Isaac more important. It is a major cause of disagreement between the three Abrahamic faiths.
The one positive thing I can take from this story is that God can use a dysfunctional family to bring about God’s will and purpose. Abraham is the first of the patriarchs. His son Isaac went on to have twin sons including Jacob who was later renamed Israel, became the father of twelve sons who headed up the twelve tribes of Israel. The bible shows Isaac to be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, and part of the covenant between God and the people who would become Israel.
But God makes promises to Hagar and Ishmael too. When her baby is expected, God tells Hagar that Ishmael will be “a wild ass of a man … [who] shall live at odds with all his kin”, which has turned out to be a pretty accurate description of the relationship between Arabs and Jews. There is a place for Ishmael in God’s plan. And that’s something we need to remember when there are tensions between Moslems and Christians. Hate crimes against Moslems have increased, as have animosity towards refugees and asylum seekers, and that is just wrong. One thing we can learn from the difficult stories is that violence is never the solution to disagreements and difficulties.
What do I want us to take away today from this story?
- A willingness to look at our own behaviour, all the times when we have been cruel and have caused pain and distress to others and bring those before God;
- A bit better understanding about the Islamic faith, and the reason for an aspect of disagreement between the faiths;
- The opportunity to pray that God will use our own difficult experiences and turn them to God’s glory.