The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Pentecost III: Proper 7A RCL…how this mess got started…
© 2017 Frank B Crumbaugh III
If you’ve ever wondered how the current political nightmare began, that beginning is recorded in today’s Old Testament lesson.
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 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." So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bow-shot, for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Abraham and Sarah are childless and need a male hair. Sarah could not conceive children, so they enlist Sarah’s maid, Hagar, to help them. Hagar and Abraham conceive a male child, whom they name יִשְׁמָעֵאל Ishmael, meaning “God has listened.” The inheritance problem is solved and life is good now that Ishmael has arrived to become the long-desired heir.
We know the story, though…often told…that once a foster child arrives and everyone’s more relaxed, Mother becomes pregnant. Whatever the biological particulars of her or any other case, Sarah is such a person. Even though she is old, she bears a son, and he’s named יִצְחָק Isaac, meaning “child of laughter.” So Abraham and Sarah now have two sons- ‘a heir and a spare’ as the English say- their eldest son Ishmael and their younger son Isaac.
Sarah is the long-tenured wife, and Hagar’s pregnancy was an alternative only because it appeared that Sarah would have no children. First-born Ishmael, the child of a servant, was fine as long as he was the only child. Once Isaac is born, however, Sarah is jealous of her standing and anxious to assert the inheritance rights of her biological son Isaac. She insists that Isaac be the sole heir in place of his older brother Ishmael. Sarah tells Abraham to discard Ishmael and his birth mother, the serving woman Hagar. Though grieved by this demand, Genesis tells us that God assured Abraham that his first-born, the son for whom he prayed, would be remembered.
At this point in the story, the Hebrew scripture tells us that Hagar and Ishmael go away into the desert near Beer-sheba. Once Hagar locates a wife for him (indicating that he survived long enough to be of marrying age), Hagar and Ishmael conveniently drop out of the canonical Hebrew narrative. That makes sense, since the Hebrew narrative- our story- needs Isaac’s legitimacy to be established over Ishmael’s.
Qur’an and the Muslim tradition provide more and different details, telling us that Abraham leads Hagar and Ishmael away to a sacred ruin far in the desert called….wait for it….wait….Mecca. The leave-taking is a hard moment for all concerned. There Hagar will become a water-merchant and Ishmael will help in the re-construction of Ka’aba, and it is through his upbringing in Arabia that Ishmael becomes an ancestor of Muhammad. Qur’an does not dwell on the circumstances of Ishmael’s birth because no one- neither Jew nor Muslim- disputes that Ishmael is Abraham’s first born. The Hebrew narrative works harder (because it needs to) to disestablish Ishmael and establish Isaac’s legitimacy; the Muslim text maintains Ishmael’s legitimacy both as a son of Abraham and as the ancestor of Muhammad.
What a mess. And God know we have an array of options as we begin to comment upon the violent politics attached to this impasse in our own day; we can lay it off to Sarah’s jealousy. Or we can play the seniority card, noting that Isaac’s story and the faith it represents was over 1500 years old when Jesus appears in the narrative that becomes the Christian bible, and near 2000 years old when Islam coalesces in the 7th Century and writes down Qur’an. Or we can claim that Islam is the adolescent third child, following its older siblings Christianity and Judaism. However crisp and accurate we make think our analysis and blame laying to be, it does absolutely nothing to address the centuries-long ambivalent distrust and breath-taking violence among Abraham’s descendants.
Finding no will or strength among ourselves to do anything more substantial over the centuries, we have defaulted over and over again to the immediately gratifying choices of pogrom, inquisition, crusade and jihad. And of course the longer we do that the more embedded it becomes as our respective traditions…like Hatfields and McCoys, we do this “jus’ ‘cause after while it’s what we do.” For our hardness of heart, dear friends…for our hardness of heart….
The greatest miracle of all is that the God with whom Abraham made covenant has not despaired to the point of abandoning us.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, Pentecost III, Proper 7A RCL
 Genesis 21:8-21 NRSV
 Hadith 4
 …as he turned away from Hagar and started to walk away she called out to him and asked “Why are you leaving us here?” to which Abraham didn’t reply the first two times she asked. She then changed her question and asked “Did God command you to do this?” to which Abraham stopped, turned around, looked back and replied “Yes.” and she responded “Then God will provide for us.” -traditional Islamic story