Read the text here: Genesis 21:1-21
Sarah & Hagar – Exile & Hope
You will be a great nation… Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars… This promise from God to Abraham and Sarah must have seemed rather outrageous to this aging couple. Well past childbearing years, how in the world could this promise be fulfilled? So, never one to just sit on the sidelines and wait, Abraham and Sarah take things into their own hands. Sarah gives Abraham her slave Hagar and from them is born a son – Ishmael. There! Problem solved!
Well… not exactly. The Lord visits Abraham and Sarah in the form of 3 visitors and tells them that Sarah will have a child and that Ishmael is afterall not the child of promise. Sarah, for her part finds the whole thing ridiculous and she laughs – and the Hebrew word here does not indicate a kind of joyous laughter, but rather Sarah laughs a cynical, mocking laughter. But (as Falstaff says in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”) “He who laughs last, laughs best.” God has the last laugh, and it is a joyous laughter as Isaac (which means child of laughter) is born, is circumcised, is weaned and begins to grow.
But it is not all laughter, for there is a problem – Ishmael. The slave girl Hagar and her son by Abraham are still around and their presence inflames Sarah’s jealousy. Finally she can stand it no longer and tells Abraham to send them away (remember we are on the edge of the desert here). Abraham doesn’t like the idea but is eventually convinced that it is best to do as Sarah desires and that God approves – so he gives them a little water and sends them into the desert! To die!
But does God really approve of this? How can the God of Jesus – the God of love and grace approve of what Abraham and Sarah do here? A couple thoughts on this: First, the overall story of the book of Genesis is a story of how God wants to be involved in a relationship with the creation and the humans whom God has created. God is the main character of the book of Genesis and is also the most tragic character in the book of Genesis. For no matter what God does human selfishness is always messing things up. And Abraham and Sarah are the first in a long line of biblical characters whose selfishness continues to get in the way and make a mess of things.
2nd – Luther famously commented that one should always read the bible through the eyes of the Gospel – through grace-colored glasses. When confronted with a passage that contradicts the God of grace, you go with the God who we have come to know through Jesus. Genesis 21:12 is an instance. Did God approve of the cruel attempted murder of Hagar and Ishmael? This is out of character with the God who we experience in the Gospel, so, for me, the answer is a resounding no – this is not what God wanted or intended! It is not God’s will that Hagar and Ishmael be sent to die in the desert. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that what I see in this story is a rather arrogant Abraham and Sarah who have come to think of themselves as having this unique and exclusive relationship with God, and from that they begin to assume that they can speak for God. So, when they decide (like when they decided to take Hagar in the first place) that this mother and child should be destroyed they are assuming that they are speaking for God. What I think is what God thinks! This, of course, is a major problem with otherwise sincere and pious religious persons of all times. We see it all the time in our own society. My opinions, my prejudices, my actions, my pronouncements they are God’s, because I have a special relationship with God and know what God really thinks – that is God thinks like me! Well, no! There is great danger in this as it leads to horrible consequences. And when we do take a stand on something that we believe is a faithful stance we need to do this with great humility.
And this then leads us to point number #3 – God’s own reaction to the decision and actions of Abraham and Sarah: God visits Hagar and Ishmael. God saves them. And not only that – the most amazing thing is this: God extends the covenant to them! God widens the tent. Move over Abraham and Sarah, this foreign woman and her son, this nothing, this slave, this untouchable is also loved and has been brought into the covenant to share in God’s promises. We see the same thing in Jesus. Jesus is always reaching out to “those” people that good religious people don’t want anything to do with. God is always inviting everyone to the party that we thought would be an exclusive affair: Hagar, Ishmael, Zacheaus, Mary Magdalene – tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees; those who are hungry are fed, those who are thirsty are given drink, those who are sick are healed, those with demons are exorcized – those who need to be loved are loved! This is the gift of the promise and it is extended to all.
In this then is hope. In this story from Genesis we see that even in the midst of barrenness, arrogance, unfaithfulness, rejection, loneliness, hunger, thirst and violence – through it all hope never dies. And what is hope? We in our 21st century society tend to confuse hope and optimism. But hope is not optimism. For, “while optimism involves the expectation that things are eventually going to get better, hope asserts that no matter what may come, no matter how bad things may get, yet God’s word and promise will prevail.”(1) This story is a story of hope in the midst of horrible adversity. And we continue to hold on to this hope that we base on Jesus, crucified and risen again. For no matter how dark things seem and how dark things get, God, through Christ will prevail! God, through Christ, will be present with us every step of the way!(1) Quote taken from “Preaching at the Crossroads” by David Lose; © 2013 Augsburg-Fortress Press.