In today's reflection, we are diving into a sad account of what happened between Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and God. In our earlier posts, we had talked about how Abraham's decision to go to Egypt to enrich himself (amongst which he had acquired servants) also would later lead to some conflicts in his life. Today's post has a lot of flashbacks and is slightly longer than most of our posts in the past. We can see a theme where food (it's abundance and scarcity) helped us understand the varying attitudes of the different characters in the story. As we read through, keep in mind who gave food/drink (provider) and who received it (receiver). As we see the dynamics, I hope we can take away some important truths about God.
Genesis 21:8-15 Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
It is quite sad that in this week's reading, it all started with a great feast. In the midst of all the celebration of what was supposedly a happy event, amongst festive food and gathering, the atmosphere of blessing had turned sour.
Ishmael wasn't happy and began to mock the entire event - as his entire identity was also mocked by the birth of Isaac. Sarah, whose idea it was to let Abraham bear a son with her maiden Hagar in the first place, responds harshly. "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Things sure escalated quickly, or perhaps, there was a building tension already before this event.
To better understand the context, we must rewind time to when this drama had unfolded. We rewind to 13 years before this incident.
Flashback: Bad Decisions
Genesis 16:1-6 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
This is terrible. Sarah who first blames the LORD from keeping her from having children, tells Abram to fulfill the promise in her own way: through her servant Hagar. Sarai sees the consequences of her actions, and instead of owning up, blames Abraham for her suffering, even invoking the LORD to judge between them that it wasn't her. Abraham foolishly gives permission for Sarah to mistreat Hagar, to the point of pregnant Hagar running away from them.
God Hears and Sees Hagar
But God didn't allow for Hagar to be left alone.
Genesis 16:7-13 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
God was looking for Hagar and asks Hagar to reflect where she had come from and where she was going. Hagar answers both questions with one sentence: I'm running away from Sarai. That's where I come from, and anywhere that's away from her is where I'm going. And yet God asks Hagar to return and submit to Sarai, sealing it with a promise. She gave Hagar the instruction to name the son Ishmael, which means "God listens", as God had head of Hagar's misery. Ishmael will fight with his brothers, but God will also increase his descendants. And it is here that Hagar has her God-encounter moment: She calls God El-Roi "the God who sees Me." Abraham and Sarah couldn't see Hagar as a valuable person and only saw her as a problem because of their bad decisions. It is with this confidence that God sees her that she finds the strength to reverse her trip back to Abraham and Sarah and to submit to her employer. We, like Hagar, can have bosses or people who are in authority above us who make bad calls and mistreat us, even abuse us. At times, we do run away, because there is a loneliness that we feel when no one comes to stand up for us. We feel dehumanized by what we receive, and it is here that we need to turn to God - God hears us and sees us. Where even righteous men like Abraham may fail, God doesn't, and that's why people like Hagar have hope today.
In the chapter that follows, God gives the covenant with Abraham (this is where Abram gets a new name: Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah). Abraham receives the instruction that Sarah will bear him a son, of which Abraham also pleads for Ishmael:
Genesis 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
And what was God's response?
Genesis 17:19-21 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.
So to recap: all the main characters in the story know about God's promise for Ishmael and for Isaac. Abraham pleads for Ishmael and sees him also as a son. Sarah made a bad decision at the start, and responds harshly to the consequences. Hagar feels trapped as both Abraham and Sarah have made the relationship and the household toxic for her and her son, but continues to rest on God's promise to submit and return to the place, knowing God sees her and hears her son's cry.
We end our flashback and return to the present drama in Genesis 21.
Everyone was Giving Up
Sarah couldn't take it any more and demands eviction on Hagar and Ishmael. She couldn't endure the shame and the consequences of her lack of faith. One can imagine what Sarah's thoughts must have been like: "Get rid of my poor decisions' consequences. I can't bear with the consequences any more. If there is some divine permission for me to just get out and live my life outside of the stains and scars I have myself inflicted, I would. I want God's promises, but I don't ask for strength to help heal and repair the damage I've caused to others. " Sometimes we are also like Sarah, and we can even use God's promises to justify our harshness towards others. And in this story, we see almost every character giving up because they were faced with a difficult way forward. Abraham was giving up and in distress, thinking that there was no way he could contain this conflict within his household. Abraham tried to deal with the problem in his own human capacity: some food and some water he sent Hagar and Ishmael without a destination out into the desert. Sarah gave up on Ishmael and Hagar, because she cannot endure the shame and the consequences of her lack of faith. Abraham struggled at first, but also in the end gave up in distress, doing his best to look after Hagar and Ishmael by giving them some food and water, but sent them directionless into the desert.
How hard it must have been for Hagar and Ishmael. It must have felt powerless and hopeless for them to be on the receiving end of Abraham and Sarah's decisions. And in the desert, the water Abraham gave Hagar finally ran out. And it was Hagar's turn to give up.
Hagar lays Ishmael under one of the bushes. She distances herself, as she cannot bear to see her son die. And she begins to cry.
Ishmael, himself weak and thirsty, also begins to cry as he felt now all the more abandoned.
But God has not given up.
Compassionate God Shows Up
Genesis 21:17-20 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
God hears and reaches out to Hagar. God's instruction: Do not be afraid, lift the boy up and take him by the hand. In the desert of your life, when your water has run out, don't be afraid, don't give up.
God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water. In the Islamic tradition, this well that was miraculously provided by God is known as the well Zam-Zam. In Singapore, you may find this a common name for some of the beverage stores as they remember God's compassion to Hagar and Ishmael.
God didn't just resolve the temporal water issue, but remained with Ishmael throughout his life. Where Abraham and Sarah failed, God continued to watch over Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar, as a single mother, pressed on with God's strength, and it is interesting to see that the Bible records that the mother was also involved in getting Ishmael a wife from Egypt. God's grace helped see this family through.
Much later on, God speaks to the Israelites through Moses as the law is given:
Exodus 22:22-27 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
Hagar and Ishmael's story wasn't just left in history as a painful reminder of how hurtful and broken we are. God reminds the Israelites and even us today that it matters to Him how we treat the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Hagar and Ishmael's story is also an invitation for us to be a part of change with God in redeeming humanity from our ills. As we conclude today's drama, let us take time to reflect upon the characters and their responses again. Do we identify with Abraham? Do we also have opportunities where we can stand for what is right, and yet feel powerless to face the consequences of the right path? How do we respond to past sin and its consequences to our life and family today? Do we turn to God for help?
Do we identify with Sarah? Do we find ourselves blaming others for things we ourselves have decided and acted on? Have we neglected our responsibilities to love others as much as we love ourselves? Do we mistreat others? Have we used God's Name in vain, seeking to justify ourselves when we also are deep in sin?
Do we identify with Hagar? Do we feel hopeless also because of the moral failures of those whom God has put above us? Do we find it hard to submit to them? Has God asked us to return to them, knowing that God is our security (God who sees and hears us)? Has our supply of water run dry? Is the task ahead too difficult for us? Have we cried out to God?
Do we identify with Ishmael? Do we feel abandoned and a stranger in our own community or family? Do we suffer from the decisions of others? Do we feel the unfairness that our lives seem to be full of? Have we also mourned over our reality before God?
My dear friends, no matter who we identify with, may I urge all of us today to also focus on the compassion of God. How can we respond better in our own decisions and struggle that can uphold the dignity of others? How can we repent from our own wrong, and live responsibly? How can we reach out to the Hagars and Ishmaels among us who are in deep need of food, water, and shelter? How can we be God's hands to point them to the well of Living Water today?
As it is the Christmas season, I pray that God may stir our hearts and reflect on ourselves, and our families. May we never empower each other to do harm to others, especially those whom God has put in our charge and report to us. We cannot confront the brokenness around us just by side-stepping and keeping it out of sight and out of mind. We cannot just wish away the destructiveness of sin around us. This Christmas, may we also reverse the cycles of injustice and oppression with mercy and love, for surely God has shown us the way in Jesus Christ. God hears us, God sees us, and in Christ God came down for us, and died for us. In Christ, God has made a way for us to be made whole. May we who reflect His glory also reflect His compassion for the many who are crying out in need today. May I invite you to pray with me this prayer sincerely: Dear God, thank you for being a God who sees us, and a God who hears us. Where we have failed to love others as we love ourselves, we humbly repent and ask for your forgiveness. We can't live like this anymore where our choices have wronged our neighbors, and have so wronged you. Empower us in Christ to live better lives that show others Your compassion, and in so doing, father the orphan, bring justice to the oppressed and the widows, liberate the poor, and in this way repair the brokenness in our world today. In Jesus, Name we pray, Amen. Hungry Chaplain.
Meal Prayer for the Week
We are happy
Because you have accepted us, dear Lord.
Sometimes we do not know what to do
With all our happiness.
We swim in your grace
Like a whale in the ocean.
The saying goes:
“An ocean never dries up,”
But we know your grace also never fails.
This food you have given us
Is one more proof.
Your grace is our happiness.
From Table Prayers—a prayer from Africa
Taken from Rachel Marie Stone and Norman Wirzba, Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2012).
Christmas Food Showcase 2021
Calling out to all Hungry Chaplain readers! As it is Christmas this week, I'd love for all of us to share some of the Christmas Food or Christmas Food Traditions you have! They can be pictures, recipes, family memories, but share them here or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or share them in the comment section below! Here's an example:
Bibingka - Filipino Rice Cakes with Cheese that is often served in the Christmas Season!
Merry Christmas to all of our Hungry Chaplain Readers! May God bless you in this yuletide season!