Fr Ian Morrison
Mar 12, 2018

The 'Other' - chapter 4

1 comment

 

Genesis 12.1-12

 

What we often forget is that Abraham had not one but two sons, and that he was called on to sacrifice both of them. This week’s story, found in Genesis 21.1–21, is the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his other son, Ishmael.

 

Culturally there was an expectation that the firstborn would inherit, and this cultural expectation would later be reflected in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21.15–17). On the other hand, this firstborn is half Egyptian and God has already said that he will establish his covenant with the younger son, Isaac, and not with Ishmael (Genesis 17.21).

 

This week Abraham’s journey leads us to think about the ‘other’, and about how our own stories can impact the fortunes of others.

 

Such ‘others’ tend to invoke fear and mistrust in members of majorities, either because they appear to threaten the well-being of the wealthy majority, or simply because difference is unnerving. This level of fear and mistrust only serves to exacerbate problems of financial inequality and restricted access to education, health services, housing and employment.

In most Western countries today Muslim populations find themselves a particular target of fear and mistrust as they are connected in the minds of non-Muslims with Islamist terrorism and violence. They have become the archetypal ‘other’, whether found ‘in our midst’ or seeking to enter from outside.

 

Today Ishmael is seen as the ‘father’ of the Arab nations and Muslims look to Abraham as their father through Ishmael. Genesis 21, in a sense, represents the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam on the other. That makes it, for us, a story with current implications.

 

Prayers in church are often phrased like this: “we pray for those who are ….”. One of the effects of prayers of this kind, which is that we become the people who pray, while they are cast as the people who suffer. When we pray in this way we are able to exist in a kind of benevolent bubble in which we hold ourselves at arm’s length from other people who have been unfortunate enough to experience hardship. (?)

 

The ‘other’ in Genesis 21. Prior to the arrival of Isaac it seems that Sarah and Abraham had learned to live with the idea of their half-Egyptian son, despite the initial tension with Hagar.

Remember that names are significant in Genesis. ‘Isaac’ is no different. It is built on the Hebrew verb ‘to laugh’, which recalls the laughter of Isaac’s parents.

 

Once there are two children everything becomes complicated again. The old rivalries between Sarah and Hagar re-surface as the issue of which of the two boys will become Abraham’s heir begins to bite. Now Ishmael’s half-Egyptian parentage becomes significant and his place in the family becomes precarious.

 

This issue of ‘choosing’ between different characters recurs throughout Genesis. In order for one character to be chosen, another must be ‘unchosen’. This can sometimes be difficult for us, with our ‘egalitarian’ outlooks, to understand - to those with agricultural backgrounds – a family farm can only go to one child, because it would be simply impractical to divide it, especially over many generations – a family farm can only go to one child, because it would be simply impractical to divide it.

 

The early Israelites told stories in order to understand and build their own identity. No doubt both of these phenomena – having children and then treating them both equally – were part of the ordinary lives of early Israelites, but they also have a lot to do with issues of identity. There were particular reasons why they became especially strong themes in early Israelite stories.

 

Let’s think about the motif of the barren woman for a moment. It must have been tempting to think that the god of a fertility religion would have greater power to promote childbirth than Israel’s God. By telling stories about infertile women who became mothers, the Israelites were able to explore these temptations and to assert the power of their God. If the theme of the barren woman is really all about the Israelites choosing God, then the theme of the chosen son is really all about God choosing Israel.

 

Telling stories about God choosing between characters and regularly choosing the smaller or younger character, often for no obvious reason, helped Israel to understand God’s choice of them and his non-choice of others. Central to the Israelites’ sense of identity was their conviction that God had chosen them to be his special nation. The Genesis stories are foundation stories that help to explain that choice.

 

The sacrifice of Ishmael.

 

Sarah demands that Abraham cast out both Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham’s reaction is significant. Genesis 21.11 says that Sarah’s demand was ‘very distressing to Abraham on account of his son’. This is perhaps the strongest statement of Abraham’s emotions that we see anywhere in Genesis. all. Sarah appears to have transferred her affections from Ishmael to Isaac. It is by no means clear that Abraham has done the same.

 

God sides with Sarah in her support of Isaac at Ishmael’s expense. I wonder how you respond to this story. Do you catch yourself thinking, ‘It’s only Ishmael. It’s OK’?

God does not appear here as the supporter of the marginalized and oppressed, as we might expect.

 

You might remember that Ishmael’s name means ‘God hears’; God does hear Ishmael’s voice, and the angel of God speaks with Hagar.

 

Having supported Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment, God comes and finds them in the wilderness, providing water that saves them from death. Clearly the well-being of Hagar and her son is important to God. Being ‘unchosen’ does not mean, for God, that Ishmael and his mother are not worthy of God’s attention. God speaks to Hagar for a second time (remember their previous conversation conversation in the wilderness after Hagar ran away from Sarah in Genesis 16). This in itself is extraordinary – God never speaks to Sarah, for example.

What, then, does being chosen mean? And what does it mean to be ‘unchosen’? Israel’s own sense of herself having been ‘chosen’ (often referred to as the ‘doctrine of election’) is one of the aspects of Judaism that we Christians find most difficult, because of an accompanying sense that we are being excluded from God’s special favour. Clearly, in Genesis 21, being ‘unchosen’ does notmean living outside of God’s care and compassion.

Some argue that ‘chosenness’ is not so much about being singled out for privilege as being singled out for a special vocation.

 

The ‘other’ in our context

 

When we tell our own stories, who do we cast, whether wittingly or unwittingly, as ‘other’?

Just as the ancient Israelites told stories to understand their relationship with God, and through that relationship build their own identity, so do we (individuals, families, institutions and nations) tell stories to help us to build our identities.

 

Just as Israel was focused on building and maintaining its identity through the post-exilic period, so twentieth- and twenty-first-century Jews have been engaged in identity-building, especially in the aftermath of the horrendous events of the Holocaust. One of their goals has been to establish an independent Jewish state. That goal has been achieved in the creation of the modern-day State of Israel, but it has arguably been achieved at the expense of Arab Palestinians, who have been repatriated into continually shrinking areas of Palestine and whose access into Israeli-controlled lands has been severely curtailed. It is highly ironic that the kind of high-handed treatment to which the ancestors of the Arab peoples were subject at the hand of Sarah is again today a feature of Jewish–Arab relations.

 

Despite our divisions we are in fact members of a single family and the tensions and division that we experience today are in fact nothing new.

 

Families always have tensions of one kind or another. The biblical families are no different. Arguments and disagreements, hurts and jealousies lead to the ‘othering’ of certain family members from time to time.

 

We’ve seen that the building of identity can lead to casting people, sometimes quite unintentionally, in the role of ‘other’. Sometimes that might go so far as to lead to ‘sacrifice’ of the ‘other’, all in the name of the building up of ourselves.

 

We are following Abraham’s journey story as a way of reflecting on our own stories and journeys. It is important that we take time along the way to take notice of the ways in which the building of our own identities can have the capacity to marginalize others. If we are able to read stories, including our own, from the perspective of characters other than ourselves, we are better equipped to tell healthy stories that don’t set out to build our own identity on top of, or at the expense of, our sisters and brothers. The other important thing to take away from this week’s story, I think, is some reflection about the character of God.

 

The portrayal of God in Genesis 21 is not easy to understand. It will be important to carry some of the questions about God that have begun to develop this week into our reading of next week’s story, Genesis 22. But it is equally important to notice the reassuring elements of the portrayal of God in Genesis 21. Just because Ishmael was not ‘chosen’ but was sent away by his ‘chosen’ family, that did not mean that God had abandoned him. Instead, God singled Ishmael out for special blessing and promises, and God kept those promises so that Ishmael’s family grew to be large and strong.

 

Questions:

1. How should we feel about a God who repeatedly instructs Abraham to allow his wife to mistreat her slave, and not just any slave but one who has borne her a child?

 

2. Do you come away from Genesis 21 with difficult questions about God? What are they? Do you have answers?

 

3. Are you aware, in your own context, of ways in which the telling of your national story excludes certain groups of peoples?

 

4. Are the Abraham stories more about exclusion (some are chosen, some are ‘unchosen’) or inclusion (we are all one family)?

 

5. Who are the ‘others’ in your society, or in your church? What causes the ‘othering’ and how is it expressed?

 

 

 

Fr Ian Morrison
Mar 12, 2018

Elsbeth writes:

 

1.

Both Sarah and Hagar are faced with challenging situations, both have become pregnant to Abraham and both have borne a son. Ishmael, Hagar's son is first born, and it is not for some years that Isaac, Sarah's son is born. And Sarah is very old, whereas Hagar seems to be in her prime childbearing years. When I first read this passage my thoughts were of a God who manipulated vulnerable people, Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. Then on re-reading and reflecting, my first thoughts came from a human mind, and not from God's, so of course there could be misinterpretations on my account.

 

I would have thought that Sarah was the most vulnerable in this situation, although taking into account that Hagar is Egyptian, that makes her just as vulnerable but is a slightly different way. Abraham could well have been torn between the two women had it not been that he was obeying what God had told him. In some ways I empathise with Abraham more than the two women, because he was in a sense leaving himself open to criticism by behaving the way he did.

 

It must have been so terribly difficult for Abraham to hear God telling him to take notice of what Sarah was telling him, that Ishmael was perhaps not being fair to Isaac, and separate himself from Hagar and Ishmael, while continuing to support Sarah and Isaac.

While Sarah was vulnerable because she was so old, Hagar became more vulnerable because she was given some food and water and told to go away from where she had known, the safety of the camp with Abraham.

 

It seems to me that in this passage God is behaving badly by casting off Hagar and Ishmael, and it still rankles with me that these people are a pawns in God's plan. Which is indeed what they were. But on reflection again, there was a sense of purpose to the separation, and one that had long term effects.

So I'm left with thinking that Abraham, Sarah and Isaac got off scot free, but then I know that Abraham was indeed tested even more in the next chapter. God didn't let Hagar and Ishmael die, and provided them with food and water and a place to go at the critical time. Indeed for them Angels were watching over them.

 

God appears to be a no holds barred, manipulating and somewhat vengeful God, but as the story of Abraham unfolds, that isn't the case.

 

3.

Building identity in my family and wider family takes on a new perspective through this biblical study. My Grandmother was matriarch, and we knew much about her and her side of the family. My mother was the youngest of 5 children, and probably the apple of her father's eye. Only one family group lived outside of Western Australia, and I've heard that after my grandmother died, that family wanted to return to Perth but were not able to do so.

 

My uncles and aunts produced various children, and there was to a degree, competition between the families, even though it seemed to be underlying. Certainly in my own family, we were expected to simply do our best, whereas in my cousin's family they were expected to do or be the best. Competition between children in that family created situations that had long term effects.

 

My father was an only child, his mother died before he married my mother, and his father died after my siblings and I were born. Living in Wales, with limited resources there was no meeting up with any of my father's family, and it wasn't until Bronwen and I went to UK in 1998 that we were able to meet some of my father's cousins and they us. I also found that the old interpretation that my father had passed on was not correct, and it was biased to the extent that shut us off from ever getting to know any of his family.

So in this case, the hidden members of my father's family were made into 'other', and may have always been seen in this way had it not been that Bronwen and I had not met up with some of them and been able to see them afresh.

 

One of my Perth cousins became 'other' when he could not maintain the unrealistic expectations placed on him by his parents.

 

An uncle and aunt in Perth were unable to have children and in some ways became 'other' to the rest of the family. Covertly expressed of course.

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    Mar 6, 2018

    Genesis 18.1-15 How does God ‘show up’ in your life? Our story for week three of Lent is one in which God ‘shows up’ for Abraham. Actually, it is a feature of the Abraham stories that he meets and speaks with God relatively often. When Abraham meets with God they often speak easily, and relatively intimately, as friends. With Abraham there is little of the sense of being in danger that God’s presence seems to present to others. The reader knows that it is God who has come to visit, but Abraham can see only men. These different levels of understanding, what Abraham knows and what the reader knows, are maintained throughout the story, so that even for us as readers it can become a little confusing. Abraham is left to discover the identity of his visitors himself. This is important, because it means that at least at the beginning Abraham does not know who the visitors are – he only knows that strangers have arrived at his door. The mystery does get cleared up by the end of the story, so that by the time Abraham is standing opposite God and bargaining with him to save the people of Sodom (Genesis 18.22–33), both the reader and Abraham know that it is God that Abraham is talking with. Stories about offering hospitality to gods or semi-gods were prevalent in the cultures of the nations surrounding ancient Israel. One of the things this story shows us is that the line between meeting God and meeting others can be rather fine. Christians have often understood the ambiguity about the number of Abraham’s visitors (one or three?) and their nature (divine or human?) as indicating that Abraham’s visitors were actually the persons of the Holy Trinity. We honour the text when we read it on its own terms and try to free our perceptions of what we know came later. 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    Mar 5, 2018

    Genesis 15. Is God really travelling this journey with you, and will God be there at the end? You might begin to wonder whether God’s promises can be relied on and whether this journey really has a point. At the beginning of the chapter Abraham has a problem that is causing him to doubt God’s promises. How could God give him many descendants, and give the land to them, if he doesn’t have even one? The kind of flagging energy, or niggling doubts, to which we can be prone in week two of Lent can, of course, arise at many other times also. In particular, they can occur at times when it seems to us that God hasn’t taken care of the prerequisites (page 20) . Abraham, who had been promised a future by God but who lacked the resources to live it, and whose confidence, in himself and in God, had taken a hit. 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What are we to make of this antiquated and frankly unsavoury ritual? And what are we to make of the complaining, uncertain Abraham? There is a great deal going on under the surface of Genesis 15 that is mostly unintelligible to us but that would have conveyed important information and messages to its first audiences. Familiarity with the necessary background context can be vital for making sense of text. The action of passing through the parts of the calf is part of a curse that befalls the covenant partners who break the covenant. The smoking fire-pot and flaming torch that pass between the pieces in Genesis 15.17 are symbols of God. It is God who is depicted as passing through the parts of the animals, and God who takes upon himself the curse of non-fulfilment of the covenant (29) . This is a unilateral covenant. Here the promises and responsibilities are all on God’s side. It is Abraham who drives away the wild birds with his breath (‘ruach’) - the roles are completely reversed – God takes on the role of vulnerable covenant partner while Abraham assumes the role of protector. God takes every step possible to reassure Abraham that God is trustworthy and that the promises are reliable. Judah’s disillusionment in light of the failure of the Davidic monarchy, and God’s broken promise that there would always be a descendant of David on David’s throne is not forgotten. Something not obvious to a twenty-first-century reader of Genesis 15 is that the chapter is full of royal language that alludes to David and the Davidic promise (30) . ‘Walking’ before God is what is required of kings. God promises David that when he dies God will raise up offspring after him, who will come forth from David’s body (i.e. your very own issue) and to whom the kingdom will be given. 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The driving force of the story is not Abraham’s belief but, rather surprisingly, his fears and vulnerabilities. Our fears and vulnerabilities are also driving forces in our lives. If we are able to understand that Abraham is like us in this regard, and that God remained faithful to him not because of his great faith, but despite his rather ordinary limitations, then Genesis becomes for us a wonderful story of God’s faithfulness and reliability. What is extraordinary here is not Abraham’s great faith, but the lengths God goes to in order to make his love known to his chosen one (33) . This story reminds us that our relationship with God is not wholly dependent on us. God is faithful to all his people, no matter if they lose sight of that for a while. The crucial elements of the story are God’s promises to Abraham and his response of love to Abraham’s fears and vulnerabilities. Like Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, God chooses us simply because we are his creatures, and not because of our attributes. This is something we all need to remember, because there are times when God just seems to be absent. Sometimes, however, quite unexpectedly, God shows up. Questions 1. What Lenten discipline have you set yourself? How is it going? Have you been experiencing ‘week two’ syndrome? If so, has it led you to lose faith in God? 2. Can you remember a time when you thought that God had forgotten you, and when neither your own efforts nor prayer seemed to help? What happened? 3. Which Abraham is more a helpful journey companion for you –the Abraham who is a champion of faith, or the one who is a mixed bag of strength, doubt and vulnerability? 4. Have you set up any rules for your group –such as rules about confidentiality (not speaking of the details of group conversations with outsiders, for example)? What would the group do if a group member broke these rules? Would that member be asked to leave the group or experience some other punishment? If not, how is the integrity of the group to be maintained, and its rules upheld? 5. How does Question 1 relate to Genesis 15 and the covenant agreement between God and Abraham?
  • Ian Morrison
    Feb 26, 2018

    Genesis 12.1-18 There are many points at which the Abraham’s story resonate strongly with the New Testament and might resemble, resonate with or challenge your own story. [1]Would you recognise a call from God? “It is extremely important that I get as much clarity as I can about my own desires, fears or unacknowledged agendas, in order to work out whether the ‘urge’ I feel is simple self-seeking” (page 5). A call may not be a ‘bolt from the blue’ but a discernment in the context of a confused mess of our own plans and those of God for us. Some of the urge or push towards a new direction is from God, but some of it also belongs to us. We may find that we are already somewhere along the way to the place where God is calling us, or perhaps we have started to run in the opposite direction – like Jonah. It doesn’t matter too much if it later proves to be the wrong direction. The momentum that you build will enable you to catch the next gust and recalibrate (9) . The process of discernment and response to God’s call is not an easy one. “God speaks to us through the circumstances of our lives and through our own cares and passions. We see God’s will in actions, events and coincidences that could be explained just as effectively in perfectly ordinary everyday terms. It takes some careful attention, and a dash of confidence in ourselves and in God, to see it” (8) . You are likely to see the gifts you have received along the way of each of your ‘diversions’ and how these gifts are now woven into the fabric of your emotional vocation (9). We first hear about Abraham and his family at the end of Genesis chapter 11. It is Abraham’s father, Terah, who has taken the family from ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ to Haram, where they settle. It is after Terah’s death that Abraham receives God’s call. Canaan becomes the destination that God has chosen for Abraham and Abraham becomes the person chosen by God for Canaan. We don’t know anything about Abraham that could explain why God chose him. The first thing we notice is his obedience – a faithful response to a God whom he has only just met (10) . Nothing is said about how the presence of the Canaanites and God’s gift of the land are likely to impact on one another. The stories about Abraham in Genesis paint a very different picture of the relationship between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’ (generally much more peaceful) than that found elsewhere in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Abraham travels as far as Egypt, whose relatively efficient bureaucratic planning for times of drought, plentiful water supplies and verdant soils, was often a fallback option for those unable to feed themselves adequately in Canaan (11) . Abraham becomes worried that as Sarah is still a beautiful woman, his life might be in danger, so he asks her to refer to him as her brother. Note that he doesn’t seem to be concerned that this tactic might place Sarah in danger instead of himself (12) . [2] What are we to make of Abraham and why might God have chosen him to be the father of his chosen nation Israel? (12) Today members of all three ‘faiths of the book’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, look to Abraham as a common ancestor - through Isaac for the Jews and Christians and though Ishmael for Muslims (13) . Most Genesis scholars believe that our text for this week (Genesis 11 & 12) was edited during the period of the Persian occupation of Judah (from the late 6thto the late 4thcentury BC) so as to depict Abraham as having travelled from Babylon (Ur) just as the exiles had (14) . The returners, who wanted to claim Abraham as their ancestor, added the tradition that Abraham had originally come from Babylon to Canaan just as they had (15) . [3] What expectations do you bring with you to lent and easter? How have your previous experiences helped to shape these expectations? [4] What ‘new’ things did you learn about Abraham in this chapter? What questions di they raise for you? [5] In the past, how have you gone about discerning God’s acll and God’s will for you? Do you have stories or tips to share?