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.
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?