XX Sunday After Pentecost
not used this year
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary
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This reading of the conflict between Sarah and Hagar is hard to hear in light of our settled theological perspectives that define God's work in the world solely in terms of a "chosen" people or even in terms of a "promise" to Abraham. It is even more difficult to hear juxtaposed so closely to the climax of Isaac's birth narrative. The abrasiveness of this juxtaposition merits careful consideration lest we be tempted to minimize this narrative or reduce it merely to a footnote to the more positive story.
It is all too easy to discount the less than tidy aspects of such narratives that do not fit within our categories. We tend to read the narratives as a single unbroken and inexorable unfolding of God's plan. Yet, such "loose ends" of the narrative resist such reduction and call us to hear how the community of Faith has grappled to come to terms with how God works in very real history with very real people. It is in such grappling with the realities of life that do not easily yield to simplistic categories or to facile schematization that some of the most powerful insights into our own human condition and our own struggles to live in God's world may be best addressed.
This reading divides into two main sections. The first section (vv. 8-13) focuses on Sarah and her reaction to the two children of Abraham. The second section (vv. 15-21) focuses on Hagar and God's actions on her behalf, with verse 14 as a transitional verse connecting the two sections. This structure highlights the rhetorical movement in the story, defines the tension in the narrative, and helps direct us forward into the significance of the story as told at this point in the narrative.
Sarah and Oppression (21:8-13)
The mention of the weaning of Isaac (v. 8) connects this reading to the immediately preceding narrative of the birth of Isaac. There Sarah had joyously celebrated God's miracle with a comment about nursing Isaac. This connection clearly places this reading against the background of God's miraculous deliverance of Sarah from her barrenness. This comment also serves to indicate that some time had passed between verses seven and eight. In the context of the metaphor of a faith journey through history around which the entire Abraham story is constructed, this again suggests that the issue is still how to live out the promise of God's calling amid the realities of life.
The tension emerges immediately in the story as Sarah became jealous of the son of Hagar, who was also Abraham's son (v. 9). Here we can recall that it was Sarah herself who had suggested to Abraham that he have a son by Hagar. Sarah was no innocent bystander to this unfolding tension. She had a hand in creating the situation that she found so intolerable (16:1-2).
There is an interesting but unmistakable word play here that highlights the nature of this tension. While earlier in the narrative, the word play on the name Isaac revolved around its meaning of "laughter," here there is an equally significant play on another range of meaning of the word. The verbal form of Isaac's name can also mean "to play," and is the word here used to describe the interaction between the two children. While the Hebrew text is more subtle at this point, simply referring to the children playing, the Greek version adds the phrase "with her son Isaac," which serves to emphasize the play on the name.
Given the theological significance of the word play constructed around Abraham's and Sarah's laughter, the use of another meaning of the same word here cannot have been accidental. While the "laughter" of the couple that began as doubt and disbelief had been transformed by the miracle child "Laughter" into a joyful confession of faith, Sarah saw that same laughter now as a threat as it "played" out in the interaction between the two children. What had once been a joy was now clouded by human suspicion and jealousy, transforming the innocent play/laughter of children who have not yet learned such suspicion and the struggle for control into something sinister and threatening.
This is not a sympathetic portrayal of Sarah. While just a few verses earlier she had been the vehicle of God's marvelous new work in the world, she here became vindictive and mean spirited, driven by her own sense of needing to protect what had been given to her as a gift. We are not told if Sarah knew of the promise God had made to Hagar earlier (16:10-12). But there had already been friction between Sarah and Hagar due to Sarah's jealousy (16:6), so it is not surprising to see it work out again here.
It is interesting to note that God's word to Hagar had been to return and submit to Sarah (16:9). Since Hagar was back with Abraham and Sarah at this time, we may assume that she had done so. Since Hagar had obeyed God, the narrative presents her as the innocent victim of Sarah's jealousy, and portrays Sarah as the oppressor who wanted to drive her away solely to protect her own son from competition.
To Abraham's credit here, he was not as willing to eliminate Hagar's son from the household as was Sarah (v. 11). After all, this was his son. That was not as much a sentimental or emotional fact on Abraham's part as it was a negative commentary on Sarah's attitude. Even Abraham, who had struggled with the promise all those years, had a place in his thinking for Hagar's child, for his own other son. Abraham's world was larger than was Sarah's. But only slightly. Earlier, he had responded in a less than commendable way when Sarah had complained about Hagar (16:6).
But finally, Abraham could not even settle this matter since God intervened and directed Abraham's response. First, there was a clear reaffirmation of Isaac as the child of promise (v. 12). Whatever would unfold from this incident, God was still committed to this child and to the future he had promised to Abraham through the child. Abraham's future lay in Isaac, not Ishmael.
But just as clearly, Abraham's other son would also be the bearer of a promise and a future, even if different than Abraham's. His relationship to Abraham as the first-born son meant that he shared some dimension of the promise. An important strand of biblical tradition bears witness to the subversive nature of God's work in the world that tends to move beyond the boundaries of settled structures of human power and authority. And so, it was often the youngest child (David), the powerless widow (Ruth), the smallest army (Gideon), the unimportant city (Bethlehem), or even a young girl from the backwaters of Galilee (Mary) with which God could work (see Underdogs and Earthen Vessels).
And yet, there is recognition here of the legal cultural claim that Ishmael might have as the oldest son, just as the claims of Esau would be given some validity in spite of God choosing to work with Jacob (Gen 27:39-40, 36:8-9). While both Ishmael and Esau were the oldest sons, both were passed over in favor of the younger brother. And yet both also become the ancestors of a people that would later compete with the Israelites in the land. It is also interesting to note that in all cases where the younger son was favored over the older brother, it created hostility that worked out in unforeseen ways, for example, Joseph.
Evidently Abraham was not aware of God's earlier word to Hagar, because in these verses God patiently explained to Abraham how he would deal with Hagar and the second son (vv. 12-13), repeating in much more positive dimensions the earlier promise made to her (16:11-13). Abraham had been told something similar about Ishmael when God had reaffirmed the promise in the following chapter (17:20). But God explains it again to Abraham here as if he had not heard it before. In any case, after hearing of God's promise to Hagar, Abraham tried to alleviate the burden of her ostracism by providing her with provisions. That stands in stark contrast to Sarah's attitude of oppression, especially since it was her decision to send Hagar and her child away from the camp alone into the desert (vv. 10, 12).
We should take care here not to read into this text any dimensions of patriarchy by which we make too much of Sarah's failure as a woman in contrast to Abraham's slightly better response. In fact, the narrative suggests exactly the opposite. There is built into the earlier part of the chapter a subtle subversion of patriarchal structures of power and control as the narrative pushed Abraham into the background and brought Sarah to the foreground (see commentary on Gen 21:1-7). That served to highlight the cooperative role of both in this work of God.
And yet since it was Sarah who had been barren (according to cultural conventions) the narrative of the birth was told from Sarah's perspective. It was to Sarah's barrenness that God responded to bring newness. It is that emphasis on Sarah's deliverance from barrenness as a gift, and her role in the promise that provides the background here. Even more than Abraham, Sarah should have understood the nature of the gift. Or, as a later writer would express, to whom much is given much is required (Lk 12:48; cf. Amos 3:2). It was precisely because of Sarah's role in the promise that her actions of oppression toward Hagar stand in such disappointing contrast.
There is irony that this child of promise, already commissioned through Abraham to be the channel of blessing to the world, would be the source of oppression of others. It echoes Abraham's earlier failure to bring blessing, instead bringing curse on others by his inability to live out the promise (12:10-20). Sarah, who had herself suffered the humiliation and disgrace of being childless and yet had been delivered from that oppression by God, had also failed to understand the nature of God's new action in the world. She responded to that work by trying to possess and control it. Sarah's world could only include this one child, her child and had no room for any others.
The tendency to become controlling and exclusive of what God has granted as a free gift of his grace is a scathing commentary on human self-centeredness (cf. Matt 18:23-34). That aspect of this narrative suggests an ongoing problem in the later community of Israel that was recounting this story. This temptation to arrogant exclusivism shows up in many levels of biblical tradition as a continuing problem in understanding what it means to be the chosen people of God and the bearer of the promise (e.g., Jonah).
There is an even further note of irony that serves to highlight this very point in the story. Hagar was an Egyptian. The irony of the Hebrew ancestors oppressing Egyptians would not be lost on the later community hearing this story. Their core testimony to God was that he had heard the cries of Hebrew slaves from their oppression at the hands of Egyptians and had acted in history to bring deliverance. The very name "Egypt" had become synonymous with oppression, just as the name Israelite had become synonymous with "chosen people." And yet in this story those metaphors are reversed. It was the Egyptian who would cry out from oppression at the hand of the ancestor of the Israelites. How God responded to that cry will move to the heart of the message here.
Hagar and Deliverance (21:14, 15-21)
Verse 14 acts as a transitional verse between the two sections of this reading. While Sarah and her oppression of Hagar dominate the first section, this verse makes the shift to God's provision for Hagar that is the subject of the second section. It is noteworthy that Abraham was the initial agent of Hagar's deliverance from Sarah (v. 14). He did not do nearly enough, as subsequent events demonstrate (v. 15). But this is the third time in the narrative that Abraham has showed some hint of living out the third part of his promise of being a blessing to others (Gen 18, Gen 19). While we might see his actions as a natural outgrowth of paternal feelings for his son Ishmael, we can also remember the almost total indifference with which he treated Hagar earlier (16:6). While not yet complete, Abraham's faith journey has begun to change his view of the world.
But finally it was God who acted to save Hagar and the child. And that is unmistakably the focus here. The Israelites would later celebrate God as the one who had heard their cries when under hard service to Pharaoh. They would conclude from God's actions of deliverance that it is the character of God to hear the cries of the weak and oppressed and to act in history to bring deliverance and redemption. And so God was acting in character in his deliverance of Hagar. Except, as noted, this is an ironic reversal of the later testimony to the Exodus since the roles of oppressor and oppressed were reversed. There is more than one strand of Israel's witness to God, especially in the prophetic traditions, that challenged the idea that God only acted to deliver Israel or that his actions toward Israel were only for deliverance (for example, Amos 3:2, 5:18-24, 9:7-8, Isa 5, etc.).
The larger issue raised here is that God is still the God of the weak and oppressed, even if it is an Egyptian being oppressed by Israelites. At this point in the narrative, there is no direct judgment that falls on Israel because of Hagar's oppression by Sarah, only the provision and salvation brought to Hagar by God. But there may be a subtler strand of this to emerge later in the narrative.
The narrative turns poignant here, perhaps in a deliberate move to contrast the care that Hagar had for her child with the harsh treatment by Sarah. With provisions gone, Hagar could not bear to watch her child die, so she left him and moved a short distance away. This was not abandonment of the child, but intends to express a mother's grief at the impending death of her son that she has power to prevent. While the narrative says, "Do not let me look upon the death of the child," the fact that Hagar sat down opposite him "about the distance of a bowshot" (v. 16) suggests that she could still see him, but was too far away to hear him cry.
We are never told in the narrative if Hagar was a religious person, if she worshipped the God of Abraham, or if she trusted and believed God. We are only told that she was an Egyptian. And we are not told in this story that she prayed to God, or that she even addressed her grief to God. She only lifted up her voice as she sat opposite her son and wept because he would die, and because she was powerless to stop it (v. 16). It was the grief of a person oppressed and abandoned with nothing left to do but grieve over what had been lost and what would never be.
And yet, in a delightfully understated way, the story simply tells us that "God heard the voice of the boy" (v. 17). There are two dimensions of this simple statement that have significance for this story. First, there is a word play on the name "Ishmael" in this statement that connects this account to the earlier narrative in chapter 16. In that story, Hagar had fled from the harsh treatment by Sarah before she ever gave birth to the child. And yet God had met her by a spring and gave her the name of the child, Ishmael, which means "God hears," because he had heard her affliction (16:11). The very name of her son affirmed that God hears the cries of oppression. In this case, it was Hagar who cried out and God heard her and responded.
There is a further play on the name of Ishmael in the following chapter that arose from a cry of Abraham. After the birth of Ishmael, God again came to Abraham to renew the promise and revealed for the first time that Abraham's future would directly involve Sarah, and that the child of promise would not be Ishmael (17:15-22). Abraham had fallen on his face laughing at the impossibility of that promise, and then again turned his thoughts toward Ishmael as if to grasp what he could comprehend: "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!" (17:20). God's response is a play on Ishmael's name as he told Abraham, "As for Ishmael [God hears], I have heard you . . .." God's promise was then that Ishmael would also be the ancestor of a people even though he was not to be the child of promise. In both of these word plays there is clearly the idea that God was somehow concerned with this child and would look out for him even though he was not the heir of the promise. In this case it was Abraham who cried out and God heard him and responded.
Finally, in this reading, even though it was Hagar who was crying out, the text tells us that God heard the voice of the boy (v. 17). There is some sense here that Ishmael would survive in the world, not only because others have cried out for him, but because he cried out for himself. His name is the testimony that God would hear such cries, that God had already made a commitment to this child. The implications this raises for how we see God's care for people in the world that live outside of the promise are significant.
The second dimension of this statement that "God heard the voice of the boy" (v. 17) recalls the exodus narrative and the subtle irony woven throughout the story of the reversed roles of the Israelite Patriarch and the Egyptian woman and a firstborn son. All of these elements will later play out in quite different ways in the exodus narrative as the firstborn of Egypt suffer the judgment of God. Yet here, because it is the Egyptian oppressed by the Israelite and because God heard their cries, God delivers the firstborn son. The same word is used here that is used in the exodus narrative to describe God hearing the cries of the oppressed (Exod 3:7): "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry . . .." Here as in the exodus narrative what follows God hearing such a cry is God's deliverance of the oppressed.
The message form God to Hagar is yet another affirmation of a role for Ishmael in the world, an indication that they would survive their ordeal. The formulaic greeting "fear not" (v. 17), whatever its origin might have been in Israel's history, clearly serves here as in other places to call Hagar to trust this God who hears the cries of pain and oppression (cf. 15:1, 26:24, 35:17, Ex 20:20, Josh 10:25, Matt 1:20, Luke 1:13, 30, etc.). The gentleness with which the instructions were given to Hagar underscores this dimension of trust to which Hagar was called.
In Hagar's earlier flight from Sarah, she had met God in the wilderness (16:7-14). In that encounter there had been a dimension both of hearing (in the play on the name of the child) and seeing in which she named the deity she encountered El-Roi, "the God who sees." The well at which that encounter took place came to be known as Beer-lahai-roi, "the well of the living one who sees me."
In this passage there is likewise, in addition to the play on the name of Ishmael in the element of hearing, a dimension of seeing. Only this time it is not God who sees, but it is God who helps Hagar see the well of water that would be the means of her survival (v. 19). Clearly the intent of introducing this rhetorical element into the narrative is to emphasize the provision of God for mother and child as part of the outworking of God's commitment to the children of Abraham.
It is interesting that in the very next chapter as Abraham was called to give the child of promise back to God, at a crucial point in the narrative, Abraham was also called to lift up his eyes and see the provision of God for the survival of the other son of Abraham (22:13). And Abraham also named the place with a play on the word "see": Yahweh yireh, "God will see" or "God will be seen."
Together these rhetorical uses of the two terms for hearing and seeing in this story as well as in the larger narrative serve to emphasize the dimension of trust to which God was calling both Abraham and Hagar. God is the God who hears and sees the circumstances of our lives, and in that hearing and seeing emerges a basis of trust that he will work in the world in ways that we cannot see, that he will see what we cannot see (cf. 22:13), and yet he will enable us to see (21:19).
This dimension of trust is set against the background of the spiteful jealousy and oppression of Sarah, as well as the long troubled journey of Abraham's own disbelief that would not be finally tested until chapter 22. Here, with God's deliverance of Hagar, that call to trust was grounded in the very character of God as one who hears and sees. That dimension of trust is especially important in light of the exodus traditions that also anchor that pivotal event in those very terms (Ex 3:7-9): "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry . . . The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them." It is a powerful affirmation that oppressors cannot escape God because he is the God who sees.
The reading concludes with the rather mundane observation about Ishmael growing up, settling down, and taking a wife (vv. 20-21). Yet that simple comment serves to tell us that Ishmael had a future, that he would be able to live out his own promise. Traditionally, Ishmael is considered the ancestor of the Arab tribes of the southern area of Palestine (cf. 25:13-16). Today, Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, the desert dweller. While it is not part of the biblical story here except in very vague and veiled references (e.g., 16:12; cf. 37:25f ), the hostility between later Israel and these desert tribes serves as a commentary on the consequences of the oppression of Sarah here, and of Abraham's unwillingness to wait for the promise.
While the form of the sermon from this text can certainly be varied, the nature of the passage does not really allow for a great deal of breadth in the Preaching Paths. In some ways, this text is already a polemical text, a subtly subversive analysis of Israel's own history as a warning against arrogance and the human tendency to want to control others. It is a commentary about the human tendency to accept a gift from God and then to act as if it were our own to defend and protect at all costs, even at the cost of other people. Abraham would have to learn that lesson for himself in the following chapter (next week's reading). But this text grapples with the issue in much broader terms.
Still, within this issue there are two possibilities in dealing with the two major focal points of the text, although they should always be kept in relation to each other. From the first half of the reading that presents Sarah as the oppressor of the weaker Hagar, we may validly raise the same caution that this text raises. It is but a short step from celebrating God's miraculous provision for us amid the impossibilities of our lives to using that miracle as the means to claim special status against others, and finally to turn it into oppression.
There is just enough truth in the claim of being "special" that it can blind us to the perversion that we so easily introduce into that claim. Certainly there was some sense of chosenness in the miracle of Isaac's birth. But what is quickly overshadowed in the celebration is the dimension of responsibility that such a miracle entails. The gift of God was never really for Sarah herself even though God worked the miracle in her. The gift was really for the larger world, the world that would be blessed through the community that would emerge through this child, just as God had promised Abraham. To begin claiming special status for oneself based on the gift of God is radically to misunderstand the nature of the gift.
It seems a sad but valid commentary on human nature that this tendency is as pervasive as it is among God's people. All through the biblical traditions this tendency to collapse the miraculous gifts of God into personal privilege crops up. It can be tracked later in Israel's kings, even in the paradigm of the righteous king David. The abuse of power that resulted in the sordid affair with Bathsheba resulting in the murder of Uriah exemplifies the attitude that God's choosing, God's gift, can be turned to personal privilege. It emerges in several of the prophets as they desperately try to help the people understand that chosenness does not mean that they can then claim privilege apart from responsibility.
Amos, for example, challenged the people for thinking that they were so privileged that God would always automatically treat them as the oppressed for whom he would bring vindication into the world. And yet the people, while claiming special status, were oppressing the powerless and the weak rather than being the blessing they had been called to be in being righteous and practicing justice. Amos, as well as Isaiah and Jeremiah clearly condemn such arrogance and misunderstanding of what it means to be God's people, and warn of the consequences of doing so.
On through the New Testament with Jesus and into the early church, the same problem continued to emerge. And we probably do not have to look very far to find the same attitudes demonstrated today. Sometimes it masquerades as "defending the faith" as those to whom the wonderful gift of salvation has been granted then try to protect that free gift by excluding all but those who agree with them in some narrow doctrinal matter. The circles that we draw to protect what we think is ours often, like Sarah's small circle, exclude the very ones whom God has committed himself to defend. And so we end up actually defending against God and what he would like to accomplish in the world. Like Gamaliel observed as he sat on the Sanhedrin at the trial of the apostles, caution is required in drawing such circles of defense lest we find that we are fighting against God himself (Acts 5:39).
Sometimes it emerges in a general attitude of self-righteousness that does not allow us to live out the gift of God in our lives. We become preoccupied with the unrighteousness of others in comparison with ourselves. And so it becomes easy to spend most of our time thanking God that we are not like other men rather and congratulating ourselves that we have not slipped into such sin rather than spending our time seeking ways to give cups of cold water in Jesus' name. Sometimes it simply comes out in a negative and carping attitude toward most everyone else who is not like us. So we take great delight in scouring the newspapers and television about the latest stupidities and sins of others and present them as proof of how special we really are with our own gift. And sometimes it actually comes out in outright oppression of others as we justify our own behavior toward them on the grounds that they do not have the same gift that we have. Therefore they do not deserve the consideration that we expect for ourselves as possessors of the gift.
To all of these attitudes, in any form in which they emerge, this text speaks a word of condemnation. The recipients of the gift are not called to privilege but to responsibility. As the laws codes would later try to express, for example in the laws regulating slavery, those who have received the gift should be all the more sensitive to those who have not. From those who have been given more, more will be expected.
From the second half of the reading we may legitimately raise the issue of God as the God who acts for deliverance in the world in ways that go beyond what we might expect him to do. We would expect God to protect Isaac. But Ishmael? We can identify so closely with the chosen family, that we have a hard time even understanding why God would make this kind of commitment to one who stands outside the promise. And yet, this is a fundamental confession about the nature of God in the world, and our own ease in identifying with Sarah suggests that we will have trouble understanding God here.
God is consistently portrayed in the biblical traditions as the God of all peoples, but it is often in order to hold all other peoples accountable for how they have treated Israel and each other. Yet this text proclaims that just as surely as God delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh, God is at work with others in the world who have experienced oppression even at the hands of God's chosen ones.
In this text that confession is not worked into a systematic theology about the atonement and how people can be individually "saved" in evangelical Christian terms. But we should not too easily dismiss this confession that God is at work even with those whom we as the recipients of the gift would most likely exclude from our own circle of chosenness. At the very least, it calls us to acknowledge God's work in our world among people in ways that do not always fit nicely within our categories and expectations.
And it is also a confession that God is at work in the world to accomplish deliverance and liberation from oppression even when the chosen community of God's own people fail to carry out their commission of being a blessing in the world. God's power to bring newness and a future are open to those who we would tend to exclude from the possibility of receiving it. While we may count ourselves as chosen, God's work in the world may extend far beyond what fits neatly within our range of vision.
This text confesses that God's power to bring newness and God's power to liberate from oppression are not limited by our own failure to live up to our calling. Nor is God deaf and blind to the oppression that transpires in our world, even if committed by his own people.
While it is not present in this text since it presents the positive dimension of God's liberating nature, there are serious overtones here of accountability. Juxtaposed with the first half of the reading in which God's people are the oppressors, God's actions in the world for liberation and freedom raises ominous implications for those who do the oppressing. That will be the precise point of the later prophets as they again address this issue within the history of Israel.
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