Abraham 3- Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert- I See You
Genesis 21:8-21 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. ***************************************************** A little bit of background on today's story: God made a covenant with Abram to be the 'father of many nations' - but after enough time passes, his wife, Sari takes matters into her own hands and comes up with an idea. Hagar, her Egyptian slave, could bear a child for her (and/with Abe). She says to her old and wrinkled husband: "Go for it Abe- The child will be mine- and the promise of God can get started." Abe goes for it- Hagar gets pregnant right away. WOW!
In ancient culture, status for women came through marriage, but higher status came through childbearing. So while Hagar started out with lower status than her mistress, the roles between she and Sari flipped when Hagar got pregnant.
What happens on the day that you realize that you can do something the boss can’t? Or when someone who works for you suddenly surpasses your ability or status? Exactly, instant conflict- role reversal! Hagar starts looking down on Sarah, and Sarah in turn becomes abusive to Hagar, so Hagar runs away. God finds Hagar, and tells her to go back home, and basically... suck it up- God promises that Hagar’s offspring will also be so numerous that no one can count them, and that she should call her son Ishmael, which means- God hears.
And after seeing that Hagar is so excited to hear about her son’s future, God continues… “He’ll be a wild ass of a man, fighting everyone, and everyone fighting him; he won’t even get along with his family.” (Gee, thanks God)… but Hagar hangs on to what God has told her about the big family and the nation to be born through her son, and she begins to call God- “the one who sees”
I love that name for God! It reminds me of this wonderful moment in the James Cameron movie, Avatar- When the natives on the planet greet one another they say, “I see you.” Not like, 'I see you,' like, 'I'm looking at you...' rather, 'I see inside you.' I see you, meaning, a bringing of a readiness to be fully present with the other. I see you, meaning, 'I understand you, I am with you...' How different would the world be if we “saw” each other on the inside, with the heart- instead of just on the surface...
But back to the story...
Hagar goes back home, and gives birth to Ishmael- Abe is delighted to have a son; and as Ishmael gets older he and his old dad have a true father-son relationship. Abe teaches Ishmael how to hunt, and answers all of his questions about the stars, and teaches him about God- and the two of them play checkers on Saturday afternoons, and go camping, and watch sports, and all is right with the world.
But after a while, God takes Abe aside and says, "Abe, It’s great that you have your son Ishmael-and I’m always going to take care of him, and he is going to be great; but you are still going to have a child with Sarah. I made that promise, that covenant with you, and I am not going to break my promise. Abe, it’s through the child Isaac, not Ishmael, that I will keep that promise." And God changes Abe’s name from Abram to Abraham, and then has Abraham, as a sign of the promise between them, circumcise himself and Ishmael and all the members of his household.
So when Ishmael is 13, and Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90- Sarah has a baby- and they realize why God calls him Isaac- because the name Isaac name means laughter- and if you don’t think a 90 year old lady giving birth to a baby is funny… come on…
So, that brings us to today: Isaac is now old enough to be weaned, and Abraham throws a party! Anybody who is anybody is there; he even invites his relatives from the old ranch, and he parades toddler Isaac around like the proud 102 year old papa he is.
And even though this should have been a great time for everyone, for Sarah- not so much- because she knows that even though Isaac may be, “the promised one,” and God may have great plans for him, she still isn’t sold. The birthright laws of ancient times declared that regardless of the parent's wishes the eldest son inherits everything... in fact he becomes even the spiritual leader of the family.
So as Sarah is mulling all of this over in her mind, she happens to go out back and sees Ishmael teasing Isaac, as older brothers do- holding a ball just out of his reach, saying, "come on, take it… take it," and pulling it away at the last moment. She steps in like the mama bear she is, scoops up little Isaac, and as she carries her toddler away from the obnoxious 14 year old, all she’s thinking is- "There is no way that THAT kid is going to be in charge of MY son in any way, shape or form!"
And she marches straight into the den- stands in front of TV, shifts Isaac to her hip and points a finger right at Abraham and says, “You need to get that woman and her wild ass of a son out of our house! NOW!" And she spins on her heels and storms out of the room.
Abe sinks deeper into his BARCO lounger and begins to think of ways around the problem... maybe let Sarah cool off for a while and then take her out to dinner? Maybe a cruise? He doesn’t get very far into it when that now familiar voice of God intervenes. “Let them go, Abraham- they will be OK- I’ll take care of them. I know it seems harsh- but things have to happen this way- the birthright has to go to Isaac.”
And, I’m not sure how he does it, because it’s a scene I can’t imagine playing out in my own life- but somehow, the next morning, Abraham gets up early, takes a water bag and a piece of bread, gives it to Hagar and tells her to take her son and go. He tries to say good bye to Ishmael, but the boy doesn’t even look up to meet his eyes… instead he runs from his dad into the wilderness. As for Hagar... I imagine she glared at Abraham and maintains his gaze a while as she walked into the wilderness as long as she could.
The desert is so hot- and with a teenage boy along it doesn’t take long for the mother and son to run out of water. As the days go by they grow weak, and Hagar watches the energy drain from Ishmael; his skin is parched and burned from the sun, his walking becomes slow and staggered, until he finally just collapses face down in the sand. Hagar stoops down and turns him over, but he is disoriented, and his breathing is shallow... "Oh My God… Don’t do this! Don’t take my son… please.. He’s all I have... Please…" And Hagar drags the boy over to a bush, she kneels down beside him, and brushes the sand from his face… but when the boy doesn’t respond, it all becomes too much for her, and she stands upright, puts her fist to the sky and screams, “WHYYYY!!!”
Why would God let this happen? Why, after the first time she ran away, would God tell her to go back to Sarah if this is how it was going to end up? Why would God bring her out here just to watch her son die?
"Why?"….She has no other words… and she falls to the ground in a heap and just cries… I’m not sure how long she was there like that- in that state of confusion and grief and dread- with her arms wrapped so tightly around her knees, rocking back and forth… it was so quiet… she hadn’t heard a sound from Ishmael in so long, but she was afraid to look, and so she rocks…
But then, a word from God breaks the silence…
"I see you…"
Hagar looks up, eyes swollen and cloudy… and letting the tears come she responds…
“I see you… "
and God brings Hagar over to Ishmael and helps her lift his frail shoulders in her arms… and God looks deep into her eyes and says, “Don’t be afraid, Hagar… Hold on... tight!”
And Hagar let's God gently touch her eyes, and then follows the path of God’s finger as it points there...there... not 50 yards away, is a well... A spring! A fountain of life giving water that Hagar had not seen- until she let God open her eyes.
There is a beautiful quote from the children’s book, the little prince. "What makes the desert beautiful… is that somewhere it hides a well..." "But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart". Hagar allowed God to touch her eyes, and she was able to look with her heart…
And they lived… and Ishmael, just as God had promised, became a great nation...
I read this story and every time I do, I have more questions. How can I not be angry at Abraham for listening to Sarah? How can I not be angry at God for letting Abraham push Hagar and his firstborn son out of his life? How God could allow what I perceive to be injustice, and selfishness, and manipulation on Sarah’s part to have such an impact on the innocent?
But sadly, I never get the answer to those questions… because the text doesn’t give us anything to satisfy.
But here’s what I do take away from this story: When things happen in our lives, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves seem incomprehensible, and we find ourselves standing with our little dust fists to the wide open sky screaming, “WHY???;” whether it’s at injustice, or unfairness, or out of grief, or helplessness…
Through the story of Ishmael, we know that no matter how we are treated by others, no matter how uncertain our future may look, no matter how hopeless things may seem- God hears…
And that when we are in that situation; when things have gotten so dry and parched and close to death that you feel like you can’t bear to watch, and you just want to walk away because watching something you love that much suffer, or possibly die is just too painful--- God speaks... and tells us to hold on… and hold on tightly. We are to lift up those things that we think are beyond hope to the one who IS hope… and to be still enough to let hope touch our eyes…gently… and to follow the finger of God to life giving water that we weren’t able to see before.
And truly, this is more difficult than its sounds. Because when we are in a desperate situation, or a helpless situation, most of the time we close our ears and eyes and hearts to anything that could take our focus off of what's dying in front of us. We wrap ourselves in the grief; and grief is a very personal thing. And although we may be desperate for relief... we can't let it go. Taking our attention away from the dying, even for a second, is unthinkable. Yet it's what we're told to do over and over in scripture; focus on what God is showing you and take the relief God offers.
That's the challenge isn't it? Because part of being in the desert is feeling deserted. If God loved me, than why? If God were here with me, surely this wouldn't be happening... If God knew me, God would know I can't take this much pain.. If God loved me, God wouldn't let me suffer... How can I believe in living water when I'm dry as dust? How can I believe in resurrection when I only see death around me?
I don't have easy answers... I suffer just like you. But I do believe this one truth... that the God who hears is also the God who sees... God is not just watching from a distance... The God of resurrection sees us from the inside... understands us... is fully present with us... Every day, God points us to a well in the desert. We can see it… if we look with our heart.