Bless and Release

Posted in Coming Soon, Led and Transformed by the Spirit by John McNeill | June 27th, 2017

Genesis 21:8-21

Here’s a contemporary expression I love to hear: No worries.

Here’s a contemporary expression that I don’t like to hear so much: Awkward!

“Awkward” has emerged as an expression that to my mind perfectly describes situations in which some social or relational complication with a high potential for embarrassment or offense is emerging. It is often used in situations as a way of humorously understating the discomfort that is unfolding.

In our reading this morning we discover Abraham in an awkward situation.

As I said last week, Abraham and Sarah came from a place far to the east, from Padan Aram in current day Iraq or Eastern Syria to live in the area that is now Israel and Palestine.

For many years they waited for God to fulfill a promise. Abraham and Sarah had been promised that from them would spring a great nation of many people. As many descendants forming a nation of more people than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand in the dessert. Yet decades have gone by. Year after year the promise has not been fulfilled.

And at a certain point, they decided to stop waiting and take action. You can read the details of it in the 16th chapter of Genesis. But the upshot is that Sarah suggests that Abraham have a child with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. The idea was that Ishmael would become the descendant who would carry on the promise and become the nation that was promised.

So Ishmael arrives as an addition to the household. But as we read last week, Sarah is still promised a child. And that child arrives miraculously after many years of waiting as Sarah and Abraham are very old. This child’s name is Isaac, which means in Hebrew: he laughs.

One might imagine that the story would then run smoothly. We have two half-brothers, Ishmael and Isaac. But instead, as we read this morning, it becomes awkward, to say the least. At the feast celebrating Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees Ishmael laughing and she becomes upset. [Some translations have Isaac and Ishmael playing.]  But in any case, Sarah becomes jealous of Ishmael on behalf of her own son, and demands that Abraham tell Hagar to leave with her son.

Abraham is upset by this and doesn’t want to do it, but another message from God tells him to go ahead and do what Sarah demands. He is also assured that Ishmael will himself be the founder of a great nation. Abraham sends them off with basic provisions of bread and water.

But when Hagar and Ishmael leave they do not know this. Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert and with their provisions gone, Hagar sits the boy under a tree and goes far enough away that she will not have to watch him die. She weeps in her grief. Their situation is not awkward. It is desperate.

Note that the Biblical writer take the point of view of Hagar. She is the one we feel sorry for. She is the one that evokes our empathy and compassion. Abraham and Sarah, whom we might have thought of as the heroes of the story do not come across as heroic at all. Quite the contrary. And then, in the midst of this, Hagar, too, hears a message from an angel.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says of Hagar and Ishmael in his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,

We weep with them, feeling their outcast state. As does God. For it is God who hears their tears, comforts them, saves them from death and gives them his blessing. Ishmael means ‘he whom God has heard’.

God has heard the cries of Ishmael. A well appears and they are saved. We are told that God remained with Ishmael, who became a great archer and he married a woman from Egypt.

In Islam, Ishmael is recognized as an important prophet and patriarch. Muslims agree that Ishmael was the firstborn of Abraham, born to him from his second wife Hagar and Ishmael is recognized by Muslims as the ancestor of several prominent Arab tribes as well as

being the forefather of Muhammad. Muslims take it that Muhammad was the descendant of Ishmael that would establish the great nation that was promised.

Ishmael finds his blessing. In the story before us this morning we see that the rivalry of Jews and Arabs, the rivalry of Jews and Muslims is not a rivalry of blessed and not blessed. Both sons are blessed by divine goodness and compassion.

As Rabbi Sacks understands the story, it is, in fact, because of Ishmael’s skill in archery that he will be able to survive and thrive. Those who remain central in the Bible’s story of divine promise and lineage are those who cannot make it without divine help. Sacks writes:

God chooses those who cannot do naturally what others take for granted. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all promised the land of Canaan/Israel, own none of it and have to beg or pay to bury their dead, pitch their tent or draw water from wells they themselves have dug. … Israel is the people whose achievements are transparently God-given. What for others is natural, for Israel is the result of divine intervention. Israel must be weak if it is to be strong, for its strength must come from heaven so that it can never say, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have achieved this wealth for me’ (Deut. 8:17). It is Ishmael’s natural strength that disqualifies him.

As this story unfolds, Isaac and Ishmael are seen as rivals and it seemed that one must be cursed if the other is to be blessed. In some ways they are, of course, rivals, and the history of their descendants have had perhaps more than their share of conflicts As far as the biblical story goes, one is released from the main strand of the story, but even as released, still blessed and flourishes.

This is the legacy of Abraham. Rabbi Sacks writes:

Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbors, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God – ‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of the Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world.

Abraham had to release Ishmael. He didn’t want to do it. It grieved him to do it. But in the release both Ishmael and Isaac come into their blessing.

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