Studying Genesis 21 8-20

We are studying Genesis 21:8-20 for Sunday, January 9. This text narrates the final episode in the Biblical account of Hagar and Ishmael. Final, that is, unless you count the note in Genesis 25:9 that Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father in the cave of Machpelah. And unless we suppress all our human emotions, it’s one of those terrible Biblical stories that contemporary readers are almost sure to struggle with, even though it has a “happy ending.” It’s one of those stories about Abraham, whom we know we’re supposed to think highly of, where we will probably ask ourselves how we’re supposed to do that. God, as we might expect, comes off better than the humans. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text, for what they’re worth:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The Biblical account of the life of Abraham begins in Genesis 12, with God’s call to Abraham to leave his father’s house and “go to a land that I will show you,” the incentive being the promise of blessings to come. It continues through Abraham’s death and  burial by his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and the summary account of Ishmael’s descendants in Genesis 25. After that, the story shines a spotlight on the descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac, with the story of his children Jacob and Esau, and its aftermath in the story of “the children of Israel” (Jacob).

The story of Hagar and Ishmael forms a significant piece of this larger story. It begins in Genesis 16, which tells the story of Sarah’s bright idea to take advantage of Hagar’s [presumed, at that point] fertility. Because Sarah herself hasn’t been able to conceive a child. Which leaves Abraham without an heir. This plan does not go smoothly. I have read a lot of commentary that takes the position “this is what you get when you don’t trust God to take care of things.” I confess, I have a tendency to want to respond to that by saying “maybe, but it’s definitely what you get when you treat human beings like things.”

Presumably God does not treat human beings like things. God at least talks to Hagar, and says her name.

Our text is the story of the episode that is, in a sense, the direct consequence of the events in Genesis 16. At this point, Sarah herself, thanks to the power of God, has miraculously conceived in extreme old age, and has given birth to Isaac. Now Ishmael and his mother are a problem, in Sarah’s eyes. Genesis 21 tells that story, and the story of what happens next.

This has probably always been a difficult story to talk about and think about. But in our own day, now that forms of sexual abuse that used to travel “under the radar” as more or less “harmless” or “everybody does that” kinds of practices have come under #metoo scrutiny, it may be even harder. Saying “it was accepted practice in Ancient Near Eastern society to use bondservants as surrogate mothers” or “to use bondservants for sex” frankly doesn’t cover as much heinous patriarchal practice as it used to. Or heinous matriarchal practice, either. Even WITH our empathy for Sarai/Sarah’s predicament, being childless in a patriarchal culture where her own social standing, as well as her own social security, depended in important ways on her having borne a son or sons who would establish her social value, and who could and would support her in the event of widowhood.

It’s not merely that “our modern sensibilities” or “modern ethics” are scandalized. It’s that they’re scandalized by people who are supposed to be “heroes of the faith.” So, we have to be prepared to deal with a lot of cognitive dissonance when we read this story, and with our conflicting impulses to judge, to find ways not to judge, and to try to learn how to be better people, than ourselves as well as than our forebears.

If that weren’t enough, we have the knotty problem of how to imagine the social situation from which this story emanates. Both language and the narrative categories we have available to us probably fail us there.

For instance, there are nuances involved in translating the Hebrew words used to identify Hagar. Commentators suggest “handmaid” or “maidservant” for the term (amah) used in our story; they go into some detail about how such a person’s “sexual services” would be “under the control of the woman” rather than [legitimately] simply available to the family patriarch. But however we translate the words, they probably don’t capture for us the apparently familiar social situation they referred to in their own day. We don’t live this way any more [thank God].

For further instance, we have the idea that we know something about “slavery.” But projecting the things we know about “slavery” from, for instance, what we know about mid-nineteenth century American history back onto the family of Abraham probably also distorts our imagination of that family scene. For instance, there’s midrash that tells us that Hagar was one of Pharoah’s daughters, who became Sarah’s servant during Sarah and Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt. That would make the model of the relationship more like that of a noble daughter who becomes a lady-in-waiting to another noble family.

My main point here is that whatever we imagine, whatever we see in our mind’s eye, when we read this story, is probably distorted in some way. Precisely because we don’t have a good way to un-distort it, we need to stay aware of the possibility that the situation on the ground might have been a little, or a lot, different from the first thing that comes to our minds. If we think the characters “had no choice” – well, we need to remind ourselves that each probably had somewhat more choice than that. If we think we know all about their relationships with one another – well, we need to recall that we most likely do not. We need, rather, to challenge ourselves to imagine the scene playing out more than one way – and rise to the challenge of thinking about the practical and ethical implications of those different possibilities.

One thing, however, we know for sure: God speaks to Hagar a lot.

If face time with God is a mark of importance in the Bible, Hagar is one of the more important characters. That may be the main source of consolation in this whole sorry saga.

This story is the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible narrative lesson in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. Regular churchgoers have probably heard at least one or two sermons on this text. It’s paired with sayings of Jesus in Matthew 10, including the one where Jesus tells his listeners

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

Matthew 10:37

There’s another angle on our “modern sensibilities” with respect to Abraham, perhaps.

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CLOSER READING: In v8, Isaac, the child of the promise, has been weaned – probably telling us he’s about two years old – and Abraham throws a big feast for the occasion.

Some quick arithmetic tells us that Abraham, who was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5), must be 102 now. And Ishmael must be about 16.

In v9, Sarah sees “the son of Hagar the Egyptian” doing something objectionable to her – “laughing,” with mocking laughter, perhaps; “scoffing”– maybe with Isaac as the object. [The NRSV’s inclusion “with Isaac” comes from a different ancient source than our usual primary text, however.] Remembering that the name “Isaac” means “laughter“, Ishmael’s own laughter might hint that he’s a competitor with “Isaac / laughter.” Sarah seems to think so, based on the next verse.

Sarah, in v10, says to Abraham to “cast out” “this amah and her son” – making clear she does not want that boy to share any inheritance. It seems significant that she uses no one’s name here, but only words that emphasize the servile relationship “that woman” and “her son” have with Sarah. And she repeats that phrase for good measure.

What exactly the Hebrew word amah means, though, isn’t perfectly clear; it seems to include connotations of being a nursemaid, or a woman’s personal servant; insofar as it also implies or could imply being sexually available to the family patriarch, this seems to be up to the woman whose servant the amah is. What it does NOT mean, technically, is “concubine” or “wife / woman.” There are other Hebrew terms for those relationships, and they aren’t used for Hagar in this story. If either of those terms would have applied to Hagar “in real life” – the text here doesn’t say so.

This proposition, this “word” or “thing” Sarah says or demands, is “evil” in Abraham’s eyes – because of his relationship with Ishmael.

God, however, tells Abraham not to see this as an evil word, on account of “the lad,” the naar, AND on account of “your amah“. The wording might suggest that God senses some affection on Abraham’s part that Abraham doesn’t admit. [At least, it suggests that to me.] Instead, God instructs Abraham to go ahead and listen to Sarah on this one.

God’s speech to Abraham in verses 12 and 13 makes much of how Abraham’s “seed” will be regarded. It’s a little odd. While Abraham’s seed will be “called” in Isaac, it will still be important for the fate of Ishmael. God will make “the son of the amah” a nation, too, “because he [is] your seed.” That is: Isaac will be the recognized repository of Abraham’s seed, but Ishmael will still be Abraham’s seed, and that reality still counts. [Is it just me, or does this seem like a double message?]

V14 seems like a critical point in the story. Abraham gets up early, gives Hagar bread and a skin of water, and sends her and her son on their way.

Whether this indicates generous provisioning … I don’t know. How much more – or less – is this than what Abraham might have done for someone else? Or, than would make sense if you were sending someone out on a trek through the desert? Without, for instance, a camel or a donkey? I literally do not know. It’s more than nothing. But it seems like a lot less than, for instance, “a month’s food and drink, and a camel to carry them on.” If you catch my drift. And by this point in the story, we are well aware that Abraham is princely rich. It’s not as if he doesn’t have goods and money to spare. Just saying. But again … I really do not know what would have been customary, or considered ample, or stingy, or incredible under the circumstances, or more than he would have been able to give them if he’d waited till Sarah woke up …

Generous or stingy, by v15 that water is all used up. And Hagar puts “the boy (yeled)” under a bush, and goes off about “a bowshot” and (v16) cries that she doesn’t want to see the death of the boy. This is where the text breaks my heart. Hebrew yeled is a word for a young child; younger than a naar, which we’ve already learned that people call Ishmael. It’s as if the text gives us a window into Hagar’s maternal consciousness: her baby boy is about to die. As if – he may look 16 to everyone else, but to her, he’s still her little boy.

God, however, hears the voice of the “lad” and then communicates [by messenger, from heaven] with Hagar for a couple of verses, giving her instructions, and opening her eyes to a miraculous well of water, and reassuring her that God is going to make a great nation of her son.

So, God is with Ishmael. Ishmael becomes a great archer, perhaps reminding us of Hagar’s going off the distance of a bowshot a few verses earlier.

Hagar and Ishmael make a home in the wilderness of Paran. The location of the wilderness of Paran is not altogether certain. There is, however, tradition that identifies it with the Hijaz [the region of today’s Saudi Arabia that includes the area around Mecca – see the map here]. This makes sense of the tradition that is incorporated in the Muslim hajj, in which pilgrims run between two mountains, in a re-enactment of Hajar’s desperate search for water, and then drink the water from the holy well of Zamzam.

It’s definitely worth remembering, of course: God rescued Hagar and Ishmael.

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A few additional resources: Mathilde Frey’s meditation on the relationship of the story of Hagar and Ishmael to the Sabbath; David J. Zucker’s analysis of surrogacy in the stories of the patriarchs; Luke Hiller’s reflection on cultural context, and the importance of meeting God “at the margins” (on Genesis 16)

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painting Hagar in the Desert desert scene figures in foreground

Image: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Hagar in the Desert,” Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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