The Sin of Abraham – Lectionary 06/21/2020

Genesis 21:8-21

[Isaac] 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.

Sermon Text

Heroes are seldom perfect. In the history of humanity there has been a single person who never did anything wrong, only one person who was truly blameless, and when we met them our first inclination was to kill them. Yes, Jesus shows us that we are shocked whenever we meet people that do not do wrong, that our immediate reaction is to reject them, perhaps because the mirror that they offer up to us reveals too perfectly how flawed our own actions really are. Jesus, the only hero we can hold up in everything they did, is as much a positive example of what we must do as a negative test to show how seldom we do it.

With the exception of Christ, the heroes we have throughout scripture do not give us examples only of what is good, but frequently provide negative examples of what we must not do. Even those key figures alluded to time and time again have faults that are often presented in parallel to their righteousness – Moses the murderer, David the kidnapper, Solomon the slavemaster, Peter the bigot, and on and on and on. The negative examples are usually presented in one of two ways.

The first presentation of a wrongdoing by Biblical figures is to show them overcoming the evil within them that led to their wrongdoing. Peter, having rejected gentiles, learns to accept them into the church. Judah, having committed adultery, legitimizes the relationship and claims the resulting children as his own. In these examples the lesson is clear – who we are does not necessarily indicate who we will be, and who we will be is determined by what decisions we make in response to our wrongdoing now.

The second presentation of wrongdoing is more nuanced. It tells us what our leading figure has done and then leaves us to decide what we think about it. As discussed in our footnotes {} we are sometimes simply told of an event and we the audience are left to decide whether the actors were acting in good faith or not. Especially in the Torah and sometimes in the historical books, the audience is left to decide more often than the story decides for us. To put this in terms of filmmaking, the Biblical authors understood what it meant to show rather than tell.

Perhaps one of the strongest examples of this storytelling technique is found in the story of Jacob. Jacob, wandering through the Levant is told to return to Bethel and to build an altar there. Jacob, before setting out, gathers all the idols in his camp and buries them under an oak tree of note (THE tree at Shechem.) While the reader will quickly see that Jacob was right to follow God’s leading to Bethel and to remove the idols in the camp, the particulars of the situation allow us as readers to question the situation all the same. Why were there suddenly a collection of idols in the camp of Israel? Why did they bury the idols in a place of note instead of destroy them? Was it so they could come back and get them later? No answer is given, but we the audience are asked to interpret and think deeply the implications of Jacob’s actions.

This kind of speculation is not an idle thing, but is an active engagement with the Biblical narrative. The Bible was written down in a time when ink and parchments were scarce, so every word that is written down must have been considered significant. The moments where something happens and the narrator does not attempt to explain them are moments where we must take up the brunt of the interpretive task, and we must balance our interpretation between honesty and cynicism, between grace and excuse making. We read in the scripture people who are just as flawed, and oftentimes just as good, as we are. That means we must look to them, not with rose colored glasses, but with as objective of a lens as possible. This allows us to engage the lessons of scripture not only in the obvious moments, but in the incidental interactions between persons.

Our scripture for today gives us a situation that is likewise presented without comment as to whether or not the right thing was done, or perhaps we should say, “the ideal thing was done.” It is a text that has been misused throughout history to justify the separation of certain classes and races of people, it has been used to justify violence towards Jews, Muslims, and the enslaved. It has often been robbed of the potential for the Spirit of Life to empower us through its lesson, and given over to interpretations that only fuel our own desire to demarcate as different and then punish those who are unlike us.

The text captures Isaac, the child promised to Abraham and Sarah, being weaned and a celebration being held accordingly. The community would celebrate now because, in a world where infants had a 50:50 chance of survival at best, and a 20:80 chance at worst, a child surviving to be weaned was a miracle.[1] It also established that a viable heir had likely been produced for Abraham. The reality that Sarah had a son who would inherit gave her peace, but there was one complication. When she looked out of her tent and saw her son playing with Ishmael, her husband’s first child through their slave, she realized that – even with her status as a wife as opposed to Hagar’s status as a concubine, there were two sons who were to inherit, and Ishmael stood to receive the lion’s share of the inheritance.

As such, Sarah demanded Hagar and her son be cast out of the camp, left to rot somewhere along the path. By disowning his child, Isaac would become the primary inheritor. Sarah, for love of her child or perhaps out of jealousy for Hagar, resolved to remove them by any means necessary. Abraham was troubled by this command, but we are told God intervenes and tells Abraham to go ahead and follow through. Thus, Hagar is sent away with a loaf of bread and a small canteen, left in the wilderness to live or die on her own.

We see the rest of the story, how God takes care of Ishmael as he promised, and we usually leave the story at that. Abraham, having listened to God, is considered to have done what is right, and we count this as another moment where Abraham acted out in faith. Yet, it seems that this reading does not dig deep enough into the relationship between Abraham and his first born. A relationship that was already deeply troubled from the beginning.

Abraham was someone who up this point has been portrayed as both a paragon of faith and a deeply flawed human being. When he was in Egypt and among the Amalekites he sold Sarah as a concubine to the rulers of both lands to not only make some money but also to make sure he was safe at her expense. When he entered into the Promised Land he fled at the first sign of danger despite the admonition from God that he would be safe and taken care of when he arrived.  Abraham’s flaws were clear to anyone who knew him, he was not a perfect person.

Yet, Abraham was known for his devotion to God. He was hospitable to all people who came to him, not only feeding his visitors but feasting with them. He worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of his relative Lot. Still more, when God said he was ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities famous for their greed and violence toward visitors, Abraham was willing to extend mercy to them and ask God to relent of God’s anger. Abraham was faithful and willing to go out on a limb to do what was right, even if it meant arguing with God about what came next. Abraham’s faith was evident to anyone who knew him, he was a faithful person.

Yet, it is the former characteristics of Abraham that won out in regard to his son Ishmael. Before Ishmael was born, Sarah turned against his mother. She refused to see the enslaved woman as anything like her equal, and so she demanded Abraham return her to her designation as property within their household. Hagar fled and was eventually returned to the camp. Yet, Abraham did not intercede for her, he let her be reduced to the status of a slave again and let his wife abuse her for her perceived sins.

In our text today, Abraham again does not intercede for his child. Though he is initially conflicted, he gives in the second a solution is given that allows him to continue life more or less as normal. His child is cast out of the camp, he gives them barely enough to survive a day, and then he considers everything is taken care of. We can think of James when he says it is not enough to say, “God bless you and feed you,” but that we must also give those in need what they need. Still, Abraham sends them into the world, God promising they will be taken care of, but he does nothing to show his support of them.

Abraham is, in many ways, a dualism. He is the paragon of faith we must all aspire to, but also a lesson on what not to do. He trusts God, but not always. He is merciful and loving, but not to everyone, and oftentimes not toward his family. He is the origin of our present Covenant with God, and as a member of it he strove toward righteousness, but he also tried to jump ship several times.

Abraham gives us an important lesson about not only scripture, but our life. When we look at those who have influenced us, those family members or mentors or notable figures who went before us – we receive not only positive but negative examples of how to live into our Christian faith. Our choice in reading stories is whether we will cover up the negative examples in platitudes, “Those were different times,” or if we will engage them and say, “They did wrong and we must learn from it.” Whether we will love the figures of the past because of or in spite of their failings. The Spirit of God enlivens us to learn, to forgive, and to love.

I end our discussion with one final ambiguity of our story. After all that happened between Ishmael and Abraham, after Isaac was bound (as we will discuss next week,) after Abraham had lived his life in full, Abraham died. At his tomb, a community of mourners gathered. His children, his surviving wife, all his household. Ishmael too came to the tomb. We are not told why though. Did he stand at a distance, a specter reminding the community of Abraham’s misdeeds? Or did he stand among the crowd, weeping with the community and mourning the father he never got to know and holding close his brother he only now can begin to love? The text does not tell us, but we as interpreters must decide. Why do you think Ishmael came home? May the Spirit of God bless us in the decision we make. – Amen.

[1]Carol Meyers. “Eve out of Eden” in Rediscovering Eve. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2013)  98-99

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