Genesis 21 – The Child of Promise
Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast March 19, 2006
Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar
Introduction: Good morning, and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Before I begin the lesson, I want to express sorrow over the death of Norman Byerly. Rev. Byerly was the only pastor I really knew growing up at Hope Moravian Church. He was a good man who took an interest in me. I think one of the reasons I am in the ministry is because Rev. Byerly allowed me to help him do the readings for Holy Week and other things in the church when I was a teen-ager.
Comenius Scholar: I hope you will forgive an advertisement this morning. This Bible class is being brought to you as part of the Comenius Scholar program. I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the Comenius Scholar position that we’ve started as a cooperative venture between Home Church and Wake Forest Divinity School. In case you haven’t heard, I’m the Comenius Scholar. My official titles are a lot longer than that though. Officially I am the John Comenius Visiting Professor of Moravian Studies and Director of Public Theology Programs for Wake Forest Divinity School and the Theologian in Residence at Home Moravian Church.
Isaac: This week we are turning our attention to the long-anticipated birth of Isaac. It may have seemed at times like we have been waiting for the full-term for the birth of Isaac. Actually, the promise was given to Sarah just a few chapters earlier, but we have known since chapter 12 that Abraham would need to have a son in order for God to fulfill his promise.
There are problems with the chronology, however. If you recall, it was in chapter 18 that the Lord said that Sarah would have a son within the year. Last week, we examined the strange affair with King Abimelech and now we have the birth of Isaac. As the stories stand now, that would mean that Sarah was either pregnant when Abimelech took her as a concubine or got pregnant as soon as she was restored to Abraham. We can understand now why the writer emphasized that Abimelech had not touched Sarah. Otherwise, we might think that Isaac was not really Abraham’s child. Of course, it might just be that the biblical story collapses time the way most books and movies do. It is not a important point, but it is worth noting that these are stories, not biographies.
I’ll read from chapter 21 of Genesis. In this chapter we not only read of the birth of Isaac, we also find that the tension between Sarah and Hagar reaches a crisis point. The chapter begins with laughter and moves to tears.
Read Genesis 21:1-7
Laughter: We’ve come to what should be the climax of the Abraham story. After years of waiting, wandering, and wavering, Abraham and Sarah have a child. The LORD kept his promises even though Sarah was barren and Abraham had reached the nice round age of 100. It is an ecstatic moment filled with laughter, not the derisive laughter that most comedians conjure up by insulting and abusing people. This is the laughter of joy, relief, and delight in the implausibility of life and faith. Two people who were considered as good as dead were now parents. Not only did they experience that special joy we feel when we see a new life entering this old and troubled world of ours; they had the added of joy of bringing life out of death, comfort out of sorrow, hope out of despair. They named the child Isaac, meaning ‘he laughs.’
This is such a wonderful name. Earlier we read that they were commanded to name the boy Isaac because Sarah had laughed in doubt and derision. In that earlier story, the naming of the baby was connected to a criticism of Sarah, but it often happens in Scripture and in life that a name foretold is given freely later. The child of promise was also intended to be the child of happiness and life. He laughs!
And we laugh with him and his parents. We share in this divine capacity to express our joy in newness of life. One of my criticisms of Christian churches in general is that we don’t value laughter. This doesn’t mean that we don’t laugh in church or tell religious jokes. I get several each week by email. Recently someone wrote that atheism is a “non-prophet organization.” That’s prophet with a ph. And there are bloopers such as when I put a sign on the chapel door that said “Wedding is Progress” instead of Wedding in Progress. But for the most part, we view the spiritual life as a dour, drab, and depressing way of life. This is especially true during the season of Lent. We hear a lot about penitence, but not a lot about the joy of forgiveness and of rebirth. We hear a lot about obligations and our failure to meet them, but not much about the ecstasy of being touched by God.
Issac means laughter. Isaac was the child of promise who came when all natural help was gone. Walter Bruggemann writes, “By his powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping. Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift – underived, unwarranted.” This is what true laughter is all about – not cruelty, but joy in receiving and giving a gift. Sarah laughs and all laugh with her.
Yes, we know that there is misery yet to come. Yes, we know what happens in a later chapter. Yes, we know that our children are going to face illnesses, heart-aches, problems in school, and misery. Yes, we know that we bring children into this world only to die one day. We can’t ignore all that, but we can laugh with joy when they are born. Babies laugh before they can talk. We can dance when we hear the divine music that moves the planets and calls the trees to stretch to the sun. We can embrace the absurdities and foolishness of this delightfully strange world that we have created and love those people that God has given us to love. We can face tragedy and even the cold darkness of death and laugh because we know that we love is stronger than death; the promise is stronger than every obstacle; and victory is assured. Dante titled his great poem the Divine Comedy because he new that heaven is filled with music, with joy, and with the laughter of the saints who delight in life eternal.
Hagar: Unfortunately, the laughter in ch. 21 does not last. There are unresolved issues in the Abraham household. Sarah has a son, but Abraham has two sons. The crisis came at a family dinner, as so often happens even today. Abraham threw a feast to celebrate the fact that Isaac had been weaned. This is one of those significant transitions in life that we no longer observe with a rite of passage, but they did in Abraham’s day. Weaning meant that the child was no longer an infant dependent on his mother. Isaac was now a boy with new independence. He could play with other children, including his brother Ishmael. They will be separated at an early age, and their descendents are still divided, but brothers they remained.
There is another chronological problem in this chapter that is probably caused by the fact that the author of Genesis was working with multiple sources and stories. According to an earlier chapter, Ishmael must have been at least 14 to 16 years old in this story, but in v. 15 it sounds like he is still small enough to be carried by his mother. It’s not really central to the story, but it is worth noting that there are some difficulties in the story here. We get the same kind of time distortions in Star Wars, so it’s probably okay. This is a reminder that this is a story that passed down through the ages, not a biography.
Playing or Mocking? Translators disagree over how to translate verse 9 because the Hebrew is ambiguous. Was Ishmael playing with Isaac or mocking him? We have this same ambiguity today, don’t we? “Playing with” someone may mean participating in a mutually enjoyable game or contest, but it can also mean to toy with someone or cruelly tease them. It would not be at all surprising if the adolescent Ishmael was indeed teasing and playing with the toddler Isaac. Isaac was now independent enough to play with the other boys in the camp and move away from his mother’s protection. It would not be surprising, though, if Ishmael was jealous of the feast that his father was throwing for the son of his favorite wife. The feast made public the fact that Isaac was preferred to Ishmael. So maybe Ishmael’s playing had a harsh aspect to it. It is quite likely that this incident had all of the complexity we see in relationships between older and younger siblings, between half-siblings, and just between people.
Green-eyed Sarah: And we can imagine what it was like for Sarah. One thing I’ve noticed through the years is that people who have children later in life, either through birth or adoption, tend to be more cautious and protective than younger parents. I call it the ‘precious child’ syndrome. My child should never cry, never be denied, never be teased, and never fail. I can picture Sarah quickly going from the laughing joyful mother of the opening of the chapter to an overprotective mother. Isaac has just been weaned and is now free to run around, eat his own food, and even fall down, but he is still the little prince, the precious child of promise. It would have been hard for Sarah to witness the normal rough and tumble playing and teasing of boys. The sound of Ishmael’s laughter was not joyful to her ears.
Add to that the old conflict with Hagar, the Egyptian slave. Sarah now had a son, so she does not need to compete with Hagar for status or attention, but it appears that the bitterness and jealousy remained. So, on the day of the feast, Sarah decided to press her advantage and have her rival and her son’s rival removed. Only one child would inherit Abraham’s wealth and status. Sarah resolved that Hagar and Ishmael must disappear. She demanded that Abraham send them away for good.
Exclusion: This story is very similar to one we looked at a few weeks ago, and I will try not to repeat myself too much this morning. Keep in mind that Hagar and Ishmael are very important in Islam, and there is a version of this story remembered by Muslims. In fact, when Muslims make the Hajj to Mecca, they visit the sacred well of Zamzam. The ritual is that you run back and forth 7 times between two mountains and then drink the water in the well. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well that God provided for Hagar.
There are two accounts of Hagar lost in the desert in Genesis. In the first story in chap. 16, Hagar ran away because Sarah was abusing her. This second story is more chilling because Sarah sends Hagar away. She is exiled from society, not for any crime, simply for having borne a son for Abraham. It is hard to have sympathy for Sarah in this story, try as we might. By sending Hagar and her child out of the camp, she was sending her to her death. She was disappearing them just the way dictators today disappear people. We have this awful tendency to solve personal problems by getting rid of the persons. As Stalin said, no person, no problem. Commentators have tried to mitigate Sarah’s action by claiming that it was necessary to advance God’s purpose since the covenant went through Isaac, but I don’t buy that. I think Sarah was just jealous and mean.
Sacrifice And Abraham did what she asked! Abraham, the righteous man of God whose prayers saved his nephew; Abraham, the chosen one, did what no man should ever do. He agreed to injustice. Without a word of comfort or remorse, he sent his wife and his son out into the desert to die. He turned his back on them and left them to their fate. Did Abraham shed tears as he watched his son disappear over the horizon or was he too proud of his new son to care?
We don’t know why Abraham sacrificed his oldest son at the request of his wife. The text says that God reassured him that it was okay to do as Sarah demanded. He promised him that Ishmael would grow up to be the father of a mighty nation. For the author of Genesis, Abraham’s decision to exile Hagar and Ishmael was an act of obedience and faith, but we may be suspicious of such an easy reading of this ancient story. It is one thing to trust in God and risk your own life. It is something altogether different to risk someone else’s life for your faith. It turned out well and God’s words to Abraham were true, but the fact remains that Abraham sacrificed his son.
Abraham never saw Hagar or Ishmael again. He never knew that Hagar found a wife for Ishmael. I wonder if Sarah had the decency to be ashamed. I’ve noticed that feminist scholars don’t like to acknowledge that this story is a story of violence against a woman by a woman.
Read (if time) 21:15-21
God heard: Ishmael’s father abandoned him as many sons have been abandoned. Hagar was discarded as many women have been discarded by men through the years. She knew that both she and the boy were going to die of thirst, but she could not bear to her only child crying as he died. Too many mothers have heard their children die of thirst, of hunger, of preventable disease, of neglect, of war, and of poverty. Hagar could no longer listen to the cries of Ishmael, but God heard. God heard Ishmael just as he would later hear the cries of the Israelites in slavery. And God spoke again to Hagar, telling her not to be afraid. And God opened Hagar’s eyes so that she saw water in the desert.
This is the true nature of miracles. No doubt the well had been there all along, but Hagar could not see it in her rising panic. She had passed by it seven times, according to Muslim tradition, but God spoke to her and comforted her. God opened her eyes to see the solution that had always been there. She found the water. This time it was Hagar who found life when death was expected. I hope Hagar laughed!