Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Genesis 25:12-28:22



The story continues.  The promises made to Abraham and Sarah now find life in later generations.  Our reading for this week stretches through a few of those generations and takes on a new dimension in Jacob, the uncharacteristic patriarch.  Rather than go through his story line by line, or even chapter by chapter, let’s look in at a few of the important parts of this piece of God’s story.

Repetition
Did any of this story sound familiar?  A barren wife, a miraculous birth, two antagonistic brothers, a wife passed off as a sister, a foreigner becomes wealthy, and even the return of Abimelech all start to sound like a retread of what we’ve read before.  It’s difficult to know what to make of it.  Some have tried to explain these revisits as evidence of stories told repeatedly by different sources, leading to pieces making their way in to stories where they didn’t originally belong. 

Others have considered that maybe these are simply battles that generation after generation fights.  Barrenness leads the chosen people to trust in God’s miraculous promises.  Warring families reveals the brokenness still present in God’s good creation.  A husband unwilling to stand next to his wife shows that even trusting people who have heard of God’s faithfulness can still try to talk their way out of something.  The struggles we face as God’s people in the world remain the same.  From generation to generation, we show that we cannot save ourselves, and that God’s promises always come to us fresh.

Dysfunctional Family
Whenever I hear people talk about a Biblical model for marriage or God’s plan for family life, I get the giggles.  While I understand what they’re trying to say, I cannot but think of the model we have in Genesis.  Men with multiple wives – sisters, servants, and outsiders alike.  Brothers pitted against each other by scheming parents.  Inheritances stolen or unevenly shared.  Even families torn apart by murderous vengeance.  This is what a real, Biblical, honest family looks like.

Genesis does not apologize for this mess.  It doesn’t explain it, excuse it, or exclude it.  It keeps it in the front of the story and simply presents it as part of the story of God’s action in the world.  Even as Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and runs from his brother’s anger (and can you blame either of them?) the story considers it simply the truth of human life.  For that matter, it’s simply part of the work God must do even in the chosen family.  Being the heir of the promise does not prevent one from being a total mess.

But there’s some comfort in that, right?  God doesn’t wait until we get our family lives in order to use us.  God doesn’t pick the neat, pretty, easy family to bear the promise.  God doesn’t give up on people when stuff gets nasty.  God’s promises are real and true even when God’s people are a real, true mess.  At the very least, feel some peace knowing that your family finds its place among all those families before it that really must have been awkward at holiday gatherings.

Blessing
God promises a blessing to Isaac in exchange for his faithfulness (26:3).  That blessing finds evidence in Isaac’s wealth and prosperity (26:12-13) as well as water (26:24-25).  God promises that the world will be blessed through Jacob and his offspring (28:14).  But Isaac also has the power of blessing.  That power is so vast and specific that it causes Rebekah and Jacob to conspire against Esau, and ultimately, to create a lethal animosity between the two brothers (chapter 27).  He even calls down God’s blessing on Jacob once the blessing has been made (28:1, 3).

So what is a blessing?  Does it come only from God?  Can any human bless another human?  What kind of favor or privilege does a blessing bestow?

Scripture, and this passage in particular, appear to tell us two important things about blessing.  First of all, blessing comes from God.  Blessing is God’s choice of a specific people or action for the sake not only of that chosen person or people, but for the sake of the entire world.  God’s particular choice means a universal good.  However, humans also bless.  A blessing from a person also gives power and meaning, as we see from Isaac.  Isaac doesn’t have the power to bless because he’s received it special from God, or if he has, the text certainly doesn’t tell us that.  The text indicates that this blessing is simply a particular promise that Isaac has reserved for his chosen son.  It just so happens that he gave it to the wrong one, and having given it, he cannot take it back.  But set that aside.  Consider that you have the power of blessing.  You are also able to give a specific, powerful promise and prayer to one you love.  This holy prayer marks the person you bless and invokes God’s action. 

The question isn’t whether humans can bless other humans in faith and love.  The question is why we don’t use this holy power more.

Abraham/Isaac/Jacob
We can’t get away from it: Jacob isn’t the patriarch we want, but the patriarch we deserve.  We began with Abraham, faithful man of obedience and awe. We moved to Isaac, from whom we hear little, whose brief narrative includes a miraculously chosen wife and a prosperous abundance of blessings.  And then there’s Jacob.

Jacob baits his brother out of his birthright.  Jacob shamelessly colludes with his mother against his dying father.  Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, that last thing that Esau might be able to claim.  Jacob runs away from his brother instead of facing up to his deception and trying to mend the family’s brokenness.  In short, Jacob isn’t exactly an upstanding figure.  And yet, Jacob is God’s own chosen one.

What should we make of this?  How should we understand a model of faith who is no model at all?  We get to hear more of Jacob as the story continues, so perhaps you’ll find more of redeeming value in him.  For now, let’s rest in knowing that God can use anyone, at any time, under any circumstances.  God commits even to liars and rogues.  In fact, as we hear in 28:10-22, God’s continuing faithfulness even to those who don’t deserve it can turn rogues into preachers.  Finally, miraculously, Jacob learns to profess faith in the one God and shows signs that even a trickster such as himself can be used for the good of the world.

The Lowly Are Lifted
This theme introduced in Genesis becomes a theme throughout scripture.  God has a habit of taking those who deserve nothing and giving them everything.  This is the entire point of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55): God does not give as the world gives.  In fact, God looks at what the world gives and subverts it, ensuring that those who should get most get least and those who should be worthless are worth most.

The primary subversion in Genesis to this point is the law of primogeniture.  Maybe you’ve heard that if you follow the British royal family; in that case, it speaks to the way that an heir can ascend to the throne.  More generally, the word refers to how children inherit from their parents.  For about as long as history can recall, that law states that a first-born son of the father receives all.  However, both for Ishmael and Isaac and Esau and Jacob, the promise came not to the first-born but to the younger son.  God willingly denies what the world expects for the sake of God’s own will.

This denial reminds us that God does not give as the world gives (John 14:27).  What we might expect or demand will not necessarily be how God acts.  Don’t expect God to give you what you’re owed.  God turns that on its head, and has since the beginning of God’s own story.

The Outsider Is Beloved
For any who feel like they don’t quite belong or fit in, who aren’t even sure that God is for them, take heart: God shows love and favor even to those who aren’t part of God’s promise.  Both Ishmael and now Esau find unexpected love and faithfulness from God in this story.  Both received promises from God, both remain in the narrative, both find their own way in the world.  God does not reject or deny those who aren’t part of God’s specific promise.  Just as God watches and cares for the outsider, so too does God call us to those who are not part of our explicit community.

Genesis 20:1-25:11



“Resurrection concerns the keeping of a promise when there is no ground for it.  Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of the resurrection against every deathly circumstance.  Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even in this scenario of death.  That is the faith of Abraham.  That is the faith of the listening community.” – Bruggeman, Genesis, 193

 First, and most importantly: hey, I’m really sorry this is such a long reading for this week.  I mean, there is just such a lot going on in this text.  Abraham pawns off his wife as his sister again, and gets in trouble for it again.  The promised Isaac is finally born.  Hagar finds herself alone and abandoned in the wilderness again.  Abraham finds another powerful person willing to concede land and belongings to him.  God challenges Abraham to sacrifice the promised son.  Sarah dies.  Isaac finally finds a wife acceptable to his father even while they’re in another land.  And finally, peacefully, even Abraham himself dies. 

Yes, that is a lot.  But let’s gloss over the stuff that isn’t so consequential, keep you update on the stuff that is, and at the end, dive deep into a couple of points most meaningful to faith.

Abraham, Sarah, & Abimelech (Genesis 20)
Remember back in chapter 12 when Abraham (then Abram) tried to pass his beautiful wife Sarah (then Sarai) off as “just” his sister to the Pharaoh?  Apparently, he did not learn from that experience, because he went on and did it again.  Let’s highlight a few things to consider from this text without dwelling on it:
·         Some scholars suspect that this is merely a retelling of the story from chapter 12.
·         Let’s assume that these are two separate events.  It’s important to note that even a man of deep faith and intense connection to God can make some pretty stupid and faithless decisions.  We don’t have to explain away why he did it to realize that he made the same mistake twice.
·         And this time, his actions had consequences for other people (20:18).  Sometimes when we make choices without our faith we get a bad result.  Sometimes we hurt more than only ourselves.

Isaac Is Born (21:1-7)
We’ve spent the greater part of the book of Genesis focusing on this child of promise, and he’s finally here!  And we spend merely seven perfunctory verses talking about it.  No fanfare, no glory, just the truth: “the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.”  Sarah’s laughter and joy are real.  What she has done through God should not have been able to happen, and yet the text treats it as a simple, expected event.  This was always what was going to happen.

The End of Hagar & Ishmael (21:8-21)
A couple quick things about weaning in this time: first, it probably wouldn’t have been until the child was two or three years old; second, it was worthy of a feast because it recognizes that the child has survived the earliest, most lethal years of a young child’s life.  So Isaac is coming up on preschool age, while Ishmael is about a teenager.  (Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born, Isaac was born 14 years later, and the weaning would be around two years after that.)  What exactly Ishmael and Isaac were doing (or what Ishmael was doing to Isaac) is up for a lot of debate.  The second half of v 9 is messy in the Hebrew; in fact, the phrase “with her son Isaac” isn’t even in the original Hebrew.  The verb here translated as “playing” can have more ominous translations as well.  Regardless of what actually happened, it was shocking or hurtful enough for Sarah to demand the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

Please note that the text makes no condemnation of anyone in this segment.  Ishmael isn’t bad for whatever he did to or with Isaac, Sarah isn’t bad for her intense response, Abraham isn’t bad for being completely passive in the dispute, and even God kind of shrugs and says that it will all work out.  And honestly?  It does.  While Ishmael isn’t the chosen son, he’s certainly beloved by Abraham and most importantly by God.  God hears Ishmael, God speaks to Hagar, and God provides.  God’s promise that Ishmael will be the father of his own people comes true.

Abraham & Abimelech pt 2 (21:22-34)
Another chance for the text to tell us about Abraham’s renown, esteem, and place among the nations.  Seriously, don’t worry about it.  Although it might be worth note that Abraham’s living intentionally as an alien, an immigrant, an outsider.  This is part of Israel’s continuing history: they are strangers in a strange land.

The Testing Of Abraham (22:1-19)
Don’t call it the sacrifice of Isaac.  Isaac doesn’t get sacrificed.  The important part of this story is Abraham’s testing.  Here’s the thing I really, really want you to hear: this is an actual test, the results of which no one – not even God – knows the result.  You may have heard “God knew Abraham would be faithful; it was Abraham who needed to know.”  Nope.  22:12 makes it very clear when the angel says, “…now I know that you fear God”.  It was a legitimate question.  God didn’t know how Abraham would respond.

But we can also ask ourselves: what was God really trying to accomplish?  If God had truly let Abraham follow through, the very promise on which God had staked all repute would mean nothing.  If Abraham had refused, Abraham would simply be protecting the promise God made and keeping himself distant from the despicable practice of child sacrifice (one observed in his place and time, and one that God’s people fastidiously prohibited).  What’s the upside of this whole crazy thing?

Again, we must simply take the text for what it is.  God wanted to know if Abraham would trust God even in this greatest thing.  Abraham did.  Even Isaac himself trusts Abraham and God through him (22:7-8) and does not seem to fight the necessity of the action.  The text doesn’t pretend that Abraham’s faith grew from this event, like he became more faithful because of it.  It only says that God tested, that Abraham was faithful, and now God knows for sure.

It’s worth noting that this text is really pretty terrible.  Like, really terrible.  It is not going too far to read this as a divine demand for child abuse.  With far too many children dying at the hands of their parents in our own country, much less those children who die at the whim of dictators and madmen around the world, a story like this should be just as shocking and troubling as it is.  People of faith do this text no service by ignoring it, pretending it is not horrifying, or explaining it away.  Sit with the discomfort.  Hear the text for what it is.  Accept those whose experiences make this text incomprehensible.  Keep reading anyway.

Nahor (22:20-24)
Basically, Abraham’s brother has had kids.  Abraham now knows there are relatives for his son to marry.  That’s about it.

Sarah Dies And Is Buried (ch 23)
Basically, this is an extended negotiation for land on which Abraham will bury his beloved wife.  The back-and-forth might represent a typically polite form of exchange for the culture.  Don’t worry about it too much.  Hear that Sarah has died and Abraham grieves her.

Isaac and Rebekah (ch 24)
Okay, did you notice that this is a 67 verse chapter?  Yes, you probably did.  Anyway, the most important thing: Abraham has insisted that his son stay within the family when he chooses a wife.  Apparently, this was a common practice (as we’ve seen with Abraham and Sarah themselves).  Again, the text focuses in on the providence of God in helping the chosen family continue on their way to becoming a great nation.

Abraham Dies (25:1-11)
Okay, so Abraham gets re-married, which is no big deal.  He loves his wife and the children he has from her.  All his children receive gifts from Abraham, but Isaac receives the full weight of Abraham’s inheritance.  And when he dies, he finds his place next to his wife Sarah.

But see this, and note it well: “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave” (25:9).  These two half-brothers, for all the contentiousness between their mothers and possible between themselves, come together for their father’s death.  They join in grief.  The text makes no note of any fighting, posturing, or conflict.  They simply do what must be done to honor their father, and they do it together.  Perhaps, if even these two can find peace, so too can their own children.

A Closing Reflection
Whenever you’re reading scripture, there are many things to watch.  One thing that sometimes slips past is who gets to talk and who gets named.  These simple details can signal for us what kind of importance or weight we should give the character or interaction.  Sometimes, the lack of naming or a voice can leave a noteworthy void in a story.

So, for instance, when Isaac talks to his father in 22:7-8 about the sacrifice that is to come, we could infer that Isaac is a full participant in the process.  He too chooses to obey God and trust that God provides.  Meanwhile, when Abraham’s other son faces his own possible death (21:16), Ishmael’s only voice is weeping.  Still, God hears Ishmael’s voice, and speaks directly to Hagar – who not only receives a voice, but is actually addressed by God by her name.  Both children are valued by the text, even by God, even though their purposes are different.

It strikes me how these two stories of the risk of Ishmael and Isaac’s lives are handled so calmly by the text.  One young man will die of thirst and exposure, a terrible way to die, while his own mother watches.  Another child will die at the hand of his own father, a willing participant in his own horrifying sacrifice.  And yet the text doesn’t flinch.  Ultimately, both texts rest on the truth: God will provide.  It is a theologically frightening and difficult place to be when we must consider a God who will willingly risk lives – or let them be risked – simply to learn more about our faith.  But here we are.  We would do well to take these truths with seriousness and caution.  Our God is faithful.  Our God provides.  Our God is also dangerous.

Genesis 18:16-19:38



If I had one wish for you reading scripture, it would be that you could encounter God’s word with an open heart and fresh eyes.  We believe that the word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and that through it, the Spirit does new things to us and through us.  I don’t mean to say that I want you to set aside everything you know about scripture or any experience you’ve had in your life; those things can serve you vitally in your continuing development and growth in faith.  We just come to the Bible thinking we already know what it says.  We leave no room for God to say a new thing, or better yet, to discover we’ve been wrong all along.

Do whatever it is you need to do to approach this text with those new eyes.  Take a walk in the unseasonable warmth, give yourself five minutes to breathe deeply, or have a quiet cup of tea.  I mean it.  For some of you, this text won’t be any more challenging than any other – if that is you, praise God and read on.

For some of you, this text might be a matter of life and death.  You will hear a reference to “Sodom” and all you’ll be able to hear is “sodomy” and your mind will go straight to those who are not straight.  Maybe that’s even you.  Your brain will flood with sinful vs righteous in the realm of sexual orientation, and you’ll fight to find your place on that spectrum.  Or perhaps you’ll simply flounder in the story where God punishes those who are sinful with natural disaster, and you’ll wonder if those wildfires or earthquakes or hurricanes really are God’s judgmental wrath.  Can any disaster, whether personal or regional, be traced back to God’s punitive anger?

If your blood pressure just went up, or tears just sprang to your eyes, or you’ve found yourself leaning forward in your chair to hear what I’m going to say, this is your cue to take that walk.  Seriously.  Come back when you’re ready to hear this in a new way, in a way that leaves space for the God who creates all things to create a word of promise and hope even in the midst of a story of human depravity and divine retribution. 

Ready?

I propose to you that this passage, about Abraham, Lot, and the people of the Plain, has less to do with specific sexual sin or God’s role as arbiter of destruction.  Consider instead that this story faces a few important tensions, both within the story of Abraham and the story of our faith lives.  Instead of trying to take a moralistic stance (in particular, on what we must not do and what God will do to us if we do) hear it as a story that tells the truth about the difficulty of balancing a life of faith with a life lived in a broken world.

Our passage starts with the men leaving Abraham and going to Sodom.  It is worth noting that these heavenly messengers are the same that appear to Sarah and Abraham in the passage before and will be in Lot’s house in our next chapter.  This leaves God and Abraham together.  Your Bible might have a footnote at the end of 18:22 stating that the passage saying that “Abraham remained standing before the Lord” has been written by other ancient traditions as “the Lord remained standing before Abraham”.  This is an important note, actually (even though I’ll usually tell you not to worry too much about footnotes).  The earlier writing is usually the most true; however, here later generations decided to change it.  Why?  Because if God appears before Abraham, Abraham has the authority.  We’re unwilling to let that be the case.  Clearly, it must be a mistake.

But why?  God obviously wishes to present the situation to Abraham.  God values Abraham’s insight, as God has made Abraham and his children to be the ones through whom righteousness will be known.  Abraham’s word means something to God.  What does this say to us about prayer?  Our petitions, our insight, and our relationships matter to God.  What we say to God creates a different reality in this world.  In this case, Abraham’s pleas on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah change God’s mind.  In particular, Abraham pleads on behalf of those who are likewise righteous.  Could God destroy the righteous alongside the wicked?  In this, Abraham begs ultimately for forgiveness, or at least a willingness to overlook, for those who are evil.  Abraham chooses mercy over vengeance, and God obliges.

This sets the scene for chapter 19.  Here, the same messengers who appear to Abraham make their way to Lot in Sodom.  Here, we also return to Lot’s story which we left in chapter 13.  Here, we get to some of the flashpoints of the story.

It’s important to note how the rest of the Bible handles the sin of Sodom.  Almost exclusively, it names the sin as a lack of hospitality, an abundance of luxury, and ignorance of the poor and needy. (Do a word search for “Sodom” and check them out for yourself; there are many texts, believe it or not.)  Only Jude 1:7 makes any reference to any kind of sexual sin – but let’s be honest, that’s obviously the case here.  Gang rape is a sexual sin, and that’s exactly what the men of the city demand.  But for that matter, Lot is not exempt from this same sin.  He offers up his daughters, themselves virgins and punishable by death for extramarital sexual encounters, as a worthy substitute to his houseguests.  This is likewise a sexual sin, and we must name it as such.  But this disrespect of God’s created goodness in human bodies is just one of the many sins of this place.  Jesus himself names Sodom and Gomorrah as sinful places, but when he does, he names them as places that would not welcome messengers of God just as in this story.

Ultimately, when the messengers bring about the destruction of the cities, we hear both echoes and promises.  We hear echoes of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, the result of a new reality and a new relationship with God.  We here echoes of Noah and the flood, where the promise can only continue for a few and not for all.  But we also hear promises.  We hear God’s faithfulness to Abraham lived out in his protection of Lot, both from the promised attack of the people of Sodom and from God’s own destruction.  We hear other promises, too, ones that provide less comfort.   Someday, God’s chosen people will face their own destruction and expulsion when they go into exile.  Sooner still, God’s chosen people will be imprison and enslaved by Egypt, far from their promised home.  The story of the destruction of the Plain promises that sometimes even the righteous face wrath.  We would do well to heed this warning.

As to the end of this story, with Lot and his daughters, it only reminds us that desperate people will do desperate things.  I’m personally left to wonder rather bitterly that Lot’s daughters only worked within that which they knew.  If Lot was willing to cast them out to a rabid crowd, I can’t imagine he had the best relationship with them.  How could they be expected to treat their own father appropriately?  Note, however, that the text does not condemn them for this action.  It simply notes that another group of people came from this line of genetics.  Looking far, far ahead, we later learn that the Biblical heroine Ruth was a Moabite, herself a product of this shame, and she is a matriarch to both David and Jesus.  Even in humanity’s brokenness, God creates life.

Ultimately, I’m not sure I can convince you of this story doing things other than you’ve heard people doing with it.  It is both the joy and danger of scripture: when we filter it through the lens of our life and bias, it shows us different things, or rather, it often shows us what we want to see.  I can only assure you that if you came to this text looking for a specific condemnation, you don’t find it here.  Not that this text is without condemnation, but it’s also not without hope.  Abraham’s ability to petition God, God’s willingness to hear Abraham, Lot’s salvation even in his disobedience, and the promise of life coming even from death reminds us that God works through all things in creation to make good for God’s beloved people.  And you, child of God, are God’s own beloved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Genesis 15:1-18:15



I love characters.  I love stories.  I love hearing how real people do real things.  I love learning about God’s action in the lives of other people.  I love when stories make me reflect on God’s action in my own life.  For these reasons and many more, I love the book of Genesis.  I especially love the story of Abraham’s family.  (Don’t you love how I worked love in to a reflection to be shared on Valentine’s Day?)  Because the characters are especially rich in this portion of the story, let’s break this week’s reading into characters rather than chapters.  In particular, let’s focus in on how each figure reveals something about God’s nature to us.

Quick note: I’ve chosen to call Abraham and Sarah by their new names, as it is in this passage where God renames them from their previous Abram and Sarai.

Abraham: Doubt And Waiting In Faith
Do not be fooled: I’m starting with Abraham, but this is not merely Abraham’s story.  Because of the time from which it originates, his name dominates the narrative.  However, as we begin to see in these chapters, Abraham forms the axle from which many spokes emerge.  We do not diminish the other valuable characters by starting with Abraham.  We do, however, need him to center us.

We have to notice something in particular about Abraham: he waits.  A lot.  A great deal of Abraham’s faith life revolves around God’s promises as-yet unfulfilled.  In chapter 15, God reiterates a promise made three chapters before.  Then God repeats it in chapter 17 – thirteen years later.  Then again mid-way through chapter 18.  Abraham keeps getting older.  Sarah keeps getting older.  There are family fights and big moves and all sorts of changes to Abraham’s life.  And still, he waits.  God’s promises remain unfulfilled.  I’m sorry to spoil the end of the story, but ultimately, God’s promises to Abraham are ones Abraham never sees fulfilled in his lifetime.  Never does Abraham see the land God promises him; never does Abraham experience being the father of more children than there are stars in the sky.  He waits.  He spends his life waiting.

We know how this feels.  We know how hard it can be to continue to wait.  So can we really blame Abraham for protesting to God about how the son of one of his servants will probably inherit all his stuff?  Can we blame him for doing things like taking Hagar as a wife to try to jump start the promise?  Can we blame him for insisting to God that Ishmael should be the rightful recipient of God’s covenantal relationship?  There is, it seems, room for a little bit of doubt in our faith.  God never reprimands Abraham for this back-and-forth.  God never gives up on Abraham when he gets it wrong.  God’s promises are sure, even if God’s timetable is not optimal.  Abraham’s faithfulness is in his persistence, even when it is in spite of himself.

Oh, and that weird thing in chapter 15 where Abraham splits animals in half and God goes walking among the carcasses as fire embodied?  Yeah, don’t worry about it.  Truthfully, we can’t know any more what kind of covenantal ritual happened here, as it has been lost to history.  All we need to know is that this was something with which Abraham was familiar and sealed the promise between God and Abraham.

Sarah: Faithfulness And Action
You’re going to want to see Sarah as a bit of a busybody, a hard-to-please know-it-all, or a sneering snob.  After all, here’s a woman who willingly gives her servant over to her husband, who kicks a pregnant woman out into the wilderness, who snorts with derision when messengers of God come to her very door.  I graciously suggest to you that you may hear Sarah in another way.

Consider first that Sarah’s practice of giving her slave to Abraham to bear children was an accepted, legal practice at the time.  Because the most important duty of a woman was to bear offspring, a barren woman could have her slave bear children on her behalf.  In fact, Sarah takes an additional step of permission and protection to Hagar by actually making Hagar a second wife and not just a surrogate.  The text in no way condemns her for this.  She’s not trying to out-fox God or be the primary actor in God’s story.  She earnestly believes that she’s doing what she’s supposed to do when she considers the practices of her own time.

Secondly, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar shouldn’t necessarily be a way for us to read into Sarah’s character.  We can see the injustice of Sarah’s decision to abuse a pregnant woman to the point of her escape, but the text doesn’t.  It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a reflection of its time.  If anything, the text points more to Abraham or Hagar as being in the wrong.  Abraham abdicates his role as both slave-owner and husband to Hagar, and Hagar disobeys her mistress.  Yes, it’s awful.  Yes, it appears to approve of slavery.  Yes, it’s our scripture’s witness.  We cannot necessarily say something about Sarah because of the way she navigates the convention of her time.

Finally, her disbelief in 18:12 is pretty well-founded.  She’s 90 years old, after all.  I can’t imagine her even wanting to have a child at this age.  Could it be that her fear (18:15) is not in being busted, but in trying to envision carrying and birthing a child?  After all, she has been on the same journey of waiting as Abraham has, coupled with the guilt of being the one who can’t carry out her part of the bargain on producing an heir.  And still, the promise comes to her.  God doesn’t take back the message.  Sarah will still have a child.  No matter why she laughed, how hard or how long, God’s promise comes to her, too.

Hagar: The Insider Is The Outsider
Here’s the most marvelous thing about God’s promises: they aren’t only for the intended recipients.  God blesses all people through God’s chosen people.  (Remember where you heard that?)  This promise comes true in Hagar.  Hagar exemplifies the outsider.  She’s Egyptian, a slave, a woman.  She’s nothing.  And yet she receives remarkable gifts: a child of her own, a promise of her own, and most remarkably, she becomes the first person in scripture, male or female, to name God.  In fact, before this point in the story God has not even addressed Abraham or Sarah directly by name.  And yet, God calls Hagar by her name.

We discover something most remarkable about God through Hagar: God commits not only to those who are chosen, but those who are not.  Hagar receives a promise all her own, one of freedom and renown.  Lest you think that 16:12 insults Ishmael by calling him “a wild ass of a man”, check out Job 39:5-8 where God celebrates the wild ass.  God promises a slave that her offspring will be the embodiment of freedom.  Life will be contentious, but it is already.  For a pregnant woman, abused and alone, this promise means hope.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael will get even more complicated once Isaac, the promised son, arrives.  After all, even Abraham himself seems to think that Ishmael still is his most likely shot at the fulfilled promise.  Hagar and her line remain on the outside.  But outside does not mean rejected.  It’s a different story, a different lineage, God at work in another way.


These characters and stories hold weight on their own, but find even more depth when we hold them against God’s action in our lives.  We begin to see that even as God does something new, God can be known through God’s repeated actions.  We hear of a God who is faithful even to the dubious, who works with us even when we work against God, who chooses to be even with those who have not been chosen.  This is all very, very good news.

A note about next week: this brief chapter and a half that you’ll read contains verses that you’ll want to read having already decided what it’s all about.  My challenge to you: don’t do that.  Read it in the context of Abraham’s story.  Hear it as yet another way to hear God’s work against the brokenness of the world.  Remind yourself of what we already know about God.  Don’t assume you already know of which it speaks.  Let’s dig into it more together next week.