The story of Hagar being sent away is told just after the story of the birth of Isaac – a time when there should have been joy for the whole community. But alas, the joy is not long-lived.
The Bible does not shy away from the brokenness and ugliness of human nature – and this story is a case in point. We like to think of women being natural community builders, cooperators etc., but… that is not always the case. Jealousy, greed, fear and self-righteousness are blind to gender, race, religion.
The name Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son means `God hears.’ We don’t hear a lot about Ishmael, but with a little sleuthing we find, that the conflict between Sarah and Hagar begins even before his birth. When Sarah fears she will not have a child she instructs Abraham to have intercourse with her slave girl, Hagar. Margaret Atwood, the author of the Handmaid’s Tale, (now a TV series) takes the premise of her story straight from Genesis 16. Theirs is not an easy household to live in. As we heard at the end of Chapter 21, Hagar and Ishmael survive and Ishmael goes on to marry an Egyptian woman. Hagar herself was Egyptian. That’s usually all we hear about Ishmael in the lectionary reading, but it might be helpful to know that he went on to be the father of 12 son (a parallel with the 12 tribes of Israel), and is considered to be the father of the Arabic peoples. Ah, and in Genesis 37:27-28 we find that Joseph’s brothers sell him to some Ishmaelite traders for 20 pieces of silver.
So… this ancient story of conflict has a historical legacy that still bleeds into conflicts in the Middle East today
What can we take of it but that God loves Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, you and me. But I want to explore the story of Hagar a bit more through the practice of midrash.
Introduction to Midrash
No, this is not about having an unfortunate case of the shingles. Midrash, comes from the Jewish tradition and it’s about exploring scripture through story – the story behind or beyond the story presented. Who are the characters? What might they be experiencing? What might that say about human nature? Where is God in it all? I had the wonderful opportunity to explore the power of midrash, at a course at the Vancouver School of Theology with the great writer Madeleine L’Engle. (author of A Wrinkle in Time) Here then is a character whose story called to me. Please welcome Hagar.
(At this point in the sermon I put on a back headscarf made by a Palestinian woman, and became Hagar.)
“Stop your whining and keep up Ishmael”, I snapped. “I can’t drag you along like a sack of wheat.”
The sun beat down mercilessly and my jaw clenched with anger and determination. How had all this come about? After all that I had done and given, to be cast out like some old sandal – useless, rejected. Had I not born a son for the old man? Had I not bowed my head meekly for Sarah? And now this; sent to the desert to die.
“Keep up will you”, I hissed at my son. “If only you hadn’t teased and tormented that spoiled little brat Isaac, we would be safe in the tent of your father at this moment. Abraham would have let us stay, but you – you had to push it, you had to brag about being the first-born. Don’t you know when to be quiet?”
His brooding eyes met mine for a moment. He was large and clumsy. “He’ll be a donkey of man”, they predicted in the camp of Abraham. Yet his skin was still soft and there lingered a childish chubbiness about his face.
I felt a stab of guilt. “Oh Ishmael,” I said, grabbing his hand, “I’m sorry. Momma’s sorry. It’s not your fault. Not really. A child shouldn’t be made to bear the blame; even if they think of you as a man. You’re my baby. You’ll always be my baby. We can stop for a moment. Rest here under this scrub bush.”
As he rested, my mind continued to race. How could they do this to us? I did what they wanted me to. Ishmael was right, it was their lack of faith that put me in this position.
Position – ha! I remembered the very awkward position lying between Sarah’s legs, while Abraham, with all the dignity and strength he could muster performed his act. I began to move my body, to help him along. I still remember the sharp sting of Sarah’s hand against my face to this day.
Then came the birthing. Pain beyond anything that I could imagine. “I’m going to die”, I thought, as my body tore and I found myself sinking into unconsciousness. The promise was that my son will live, not that I will live.
I remember laying there, bleeding, teeth chattering in shock, while Sarah snatched my baby from my side, carrying him out to the waiting camp. “My son”, she shouted triumphantly; alone, I rocked myself and cried.
The midwife returned. “You’ve given birth to a fatted calf”, she teased. Oh, he was a big baby, my body knew that very well. And he grew. “Just like a bad weed”, Sarah was fond of saying.
Things were good when there was just Ishmael. Abraham would take him along to see the flocks, and speak with passing merchants. He even carried him on his shoulder when he was very small. But now look at him, big brute of a thing, weighing as much as me and more. I loved him with all my heart, yet was ever a burden so heavy?
All these things I wanted to tell my son. But there was no time for sentiment, only survival, and despite the apology I could not retract my words of blame.
He stirred and whimpered. “I want to go back home. I miss Dad.”
I held my tongue. What point would there be to remind him that `Dad’ had allowed us to be sent packing.
I knelt beside him and wrapped my arms around his hulking frame. “It’s alright”, I cooed. “Momma’s here. It will be alright. God will not abandon us; I promise you that. We must get back to the road Ishmael, perhaps a caravan will pass by and be merciful.”
I was a slave, and now a refugee, but my son and I will not die here, we will make our way to the land of my birth. I helped him to his feet and hand in hand we turned back to the road running south. “Sing with me Ishmael. Sing, my son.”
“Joy shall come even to the wilderness,
and the parched land will then know great gladness.
As the rose, as the rose, shall deserts blossom,
deserts like a garden blossom.
For living springs shall give cool water, in the desert streams shall flow.
For living springs shall give cool water, in the desert streams shall flow.”
(story copyright by Juanita Austin – draft for book “Cup of Wine & a Piece of Bread.” ) Hymn `Joy Shall Come’ Voices United # 23