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 bowshot; 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. Genesis 21:8-21
One thing I appreciate about the Hebrew Bible is that it isn’t afraid to portray its characters as flawed human beings. If I were making up origin stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs of a religion, I certainly would think about leaving out certain details about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, or Jacob and his “sister wives”. Sarah and Abraham certainly don’t come across looking very good in this passage.
First, a little background: At God’s direction, Abraham leaves his homeland and migrates to “a land I (God) will show you.” God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as stars in the sky, yet years go by, Abraham and Sarah aren’t getting any younger, and they still have no children. Sarah gets the bright idea of using her personal servant as a surrogate. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” If this sounds a lot like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, you’re exactly right. The Biblical stories are where Margaret Atwood got many of her ideas, including the term “handmaid”. As Sarah’s property, Hagar doesn’t have much choice in the matter, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Ishmael. Thirteen years later God’s messenger shows up again and tells the aging couple they will have a child together. Sarah laughs at the very idea, but within a year Isaac arrives on the scene. With a child of her own, Sarah has no more use for her human property, and wants them gone. So off into the desert they are sent – disposable people who have lost their value to their owners.
Sarah really comes across as a villain in this story, and Abraham comes across as weak. Earlier in the story, before Isaac actually arrives on the scene, Abraham seems to stand up for Ishmael a little: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” But the most he seems to be able to do when Sarah’s push becomes a shove into the desert, is to provide Hagar a skin of water and a loaf of bread. If you do a Google image search on “wilderness of Beersheba”, you will see that is not a hospitable-looking place. Hagar is helpless to save herself or her son.
But the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael were not throwaway people to God. “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” And God fulfills his promise. He saves Hagar and Ishmael from a horrible death by dehydration, he continued to be a presence in their lives (“God was with the boy as he grew up”), and Ishmael does become the ancestor of millions, just like his half-brother Isaac.
Unfortunately the descendants of Sarah and the descendants of Hagar, both children of Abraham and beloved by God, have been at odds for much of history. The butterfly effect continues to ripple through time and space. How different might our world be today if Sarah and Abraham made a more compassionate choice! We can’t go back in time and warn them, but we can learn from their mistakes and hopefully make better choices today. Who knows what difference our choices might make a thousand years from now?
Sarah was given a great gift by God, a child of her own when she thought that could never be. Yet she responded to that great blessing in the wrong way. She thought it meant that she, and her son Isaac, were special in a way that made them superior to Hagar and her son Ishmael. God did choose Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of the nation of Israel, but his purpose in making that choice wasn’t because Abraham and Sarah were better than anyone else. They were chosen in order that “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” God’s blessings are not meant to be hoarded, but shared, and there are certainly not meant to be used as an excuse to ostracize or oppress other people.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Hagar to be in such a helpless position. She was unable to tell Abraham “no” when it came to having sex. She was unable to stop Sarah’s abuse and mistreatment, even by running away. And she thought she would be unable to prevent Ishmael from dying under the hot desert sun. There are still Hagars today- women caught in abusive marriages, women who are harassed and mistreated in jobs they can’t quit, women who fear their children could die because they do not have access to healthcare.
I also can’t imagine how Abraham could send his teenage son away. Sarah must have considered him her son too, at least for his first thirteen years. How could they do that? The scary thing is I think they thought they were doing the right thing. God had promised that his covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled through Isaac, so perhaps they needed to do something to protect Isaac and ensure that future. There is still that kind of thinking going on today. I especially think of cases where parents have kicked their gay teenage children out of their homes, mistakenly thinking that action is something God would want.
There are no nobodies in the mind of God, no disposable or dispensable people. We may think that some people are more important or deserving than others, but we are wrong about that. One of my favorite Doctor Who quotes is “In nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important”. I think that’s how God thinks, too.
Everyone you meet was created in the image of God and is beloved by God. I believe that if we practice seeing others with God’s eyes, things will get better for us all.