Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac
Genesis 21:8-21, Galatians 4: 21-31
Several years ago I saw an experimental play put on by drama students at the University of Toronto. The play was in many ways quite ordinary. It was a murder mystery set in a British country house and involved characters you would expect to find in any Agatha Christie story. What was experimental about this play was that it was performed over three nights and each night the stage was set for a different room. On the first night we saw the action in the parlour and from what the characters said about what was happening in the dining room next to it, or in the kitchen at the back of the house we got a sense of what was going on, what was seen and what was not seen. The next night the stage was set for the kitchen and we heard and saw directly instead of second hand. Similarly on the third night we had a view of the dining room and saw the actions and characters that had only been made known to us by description on the first two nights.
I can still remember a scene where on the first night we heard a gun go off in the dining room and all the people ran out of the parlour. The third night we saw all those people come running into the dining room to discover the victim sprawled on the floor and the suspect standing there with a smoking gun.
This experience came to mind for me as I pondered our text for today, this story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out into the desert where they were saved from dying of thirst by divine intervention. The reason I thought of the play, which looked at events from the differing perspectives of three different rooms, is that this is a passage that is viewed very differently from the perspective of three different religious traditions. Jews, Christians and Moslems all have a different take on this passage.
At the heart of this story is the question of who’s in and who’s out. How does any social group decide who’s part of ‘us’ and who belongs to ‘the other’. This is a story that draws a line between the people descended from Abraham through Isaac, Sarah’s son, and the people descended from Abraham through Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Sarah’s slave.
Most of us are, I imagine, familiar with the story of Sarah and Abraham and how they produced a son they called Isaac, when Abraham was, we are told, 100 years old. Long before Isaac’s birth, when Sarah and Abraham had given up on producing a child, Sarah suggested to Abraham that he have sex with Hagar, who is described as her maidservant or slave. This was not an unusual way to deal with infertility in ancient times. Hagar was an example of a kind of surrogate mother, although she clearly had no say in the matter. Margaret Atwood very likely had this story in mind when she wrote the novel “A Handmaid’s Tale” that has been made into a chilling commentary on contemporary America in a recent television production that provides yet another perspective on this ancient tale.
When Isaac arrives on the scene Sarah is concerned that Ishmael, the son Hagar has borne to Abraham, may be a rival to her son. She wants to make sure that God’s promise to Abraham that he will be father to a great nation is fulfilled through her son, not that of her slave. So this story of the sending out of Hagar and Ishmael from the community makes the claim that those who are descended from Isaac are the true chosen ones. Since this is the Hebrew scripture it is hardly surprising that Jews claim descent from Abraham through Isaac, the legitimate son.
But the story also tells us that Ishmael will go on to found a great nation, a nation that can claim, equally with Jews, to have originated with Abraham, the patriarch of monotheism, which is the belief that there is one God not many.
So we have the Jewish belief that they are descended from Abraham through Isaac and the Islamic belief that they are descended from Abraham through Ishmael. The Christian position is a little more difficult to unravel, because it comes to us from the apostle Paul who tells us in his letter to the Galatians that this story of the rivalry between Hagar and Sarah is actually an allegory. It is not, Paul says, a historic record of births and inheritance, but a story that tells us something about what it means to follow Christ. Christians, not Jews, are the true children of the covenant that God made with Sarah Paul says. The Jews, at least those who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, are actually children of the covenant that God made with Hagar, or at least that’s how I read the discussion of this story in Galatians 4.
Despite the fact that Paul’s argument here is bewilderingly convoluted, Christianity maintained for centuries that the Church had superseded the synagogue. It was not until the twentieth century that the Church, or at least the mainline Protestants and the Catholics, finally repented of this anti-Semitic doctrine and gave up the notion that we have displaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.
What I want to focus on today is the role that the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Hajar and Ismail, plays in the Islamic faith. If all three religions originate with the same story and claim Abraham as the founder of their monotheistic tradition, surely that says something about the depth of the connection among them.
Islam as we know it today originated with the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed over the course of several decades in the early seventh century. Much like the message that Jesus brought to ancient Palestine, the Qur’an is a call to remember our faith in the one God and to be true to God’s original call to treat each other with compassion. Islam also emphasizes the need for gratitude to God. The term often translated as ‘unbeliever’ in the Qur’an contains the strong implication that what is condemned is not so much a lack of belief as a lack of gratitude for the gifts that God has given us, the gift of life itself foremost among them.
The Qur’an has a particular emphasis on the need to recognize that God is one because in the city of Mecca where Mohammed spent much of his life, people worshipped a whole range of deities. The situation was similar to that faced by the Jews of Jesus’ day who were ruled by the polytheistic Romans. Refusing to worship the emperor or other Roman gods was as important to the Jews and early Christians as was the affirmation for Moslems that there is but one God and Mohammed is his messenger.
The Qur’an assumes that its readers are familiar with the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Moslems view the Qur’an as God’s final word of revelation to humankind. In their understanding the earlier revelation, the Bible, had developed some errors over the course of the centuries as it was handed down from one generation to the next. Human hands had made changes, deliberately or otherwise. The Qur’an corrected these and, so Moslems believe, made God’s message perfectly clear.
One of the things that the Qur’an corrected was the story of Ishmael and Isaac. For one thing, the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son is for Moslems a story about God demanding that Ishmael be sacrificed. This is significant in that when God intervenes to stop Abraham from cutting his son’s throat that is a sign that God has chosen that son to live and carry on the nation building that Abraham had started. It is a story that legitimates the son as the heir of his father and the chosen one of God.
The Qur’an also presents a very different understanding of the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Whereas the biblical story attributes Abraham’s decision to send them out to a jealous Sarah, the Qur’an presents this as another test of Abraham’s faithfulness. It is, in effect, a second occasion when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son and God again intervenes at the last moment to save him, in this case by producing water in the desert. Ishmael, the Qur’an tells us, is twice saved from death at his father’s hand. God chooses him twice.
When Abraham recognizes that God has chosen Ishmael to be the founder of a great nation he and his son build on that very spot where the boy almost died of thirst the first building ever dedicated to the worship of the one true God. In the understanding of Moslems that building is the Kaaba, which is the holiest site in Islam, the place in the centre of Mecca where every Moslem who can afford to do so is expected to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Part of the ritual of the Haj, as the pilgrimage to Mecca is called, is to run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, as Hagar did to find water to save her son’s life. Every Moslem who makes the Haj thus enacts this story in a way that they may share in Hagar’s anxiety for her dying son, her prayer for God’s saving intervention and experience with her the joy and gratitude that comes when water appears in the desert.
Every year, two million or more devout Moslems make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Though I had heard of the Haj, I did not know until I was doing my research for this sermon that it is a commemoration of the Biblical story we read today. While I have often heard Moslems, Christians and Jews referred to as the three Abrahamic religions and while I was aware that they share belief in one God, I was not aware of the complexity of the way in which these stories are woven together in the different faith understandings.
As Christians we clearly have the least claim on Abraham as our patriarch. For us it comes only through our commitment to Jesus who was a Jew and thus linked by blood back to the beginning. Moslems have a claim equal to the Jews. Whether we take the Bible or the Qur’an as authoritative, both assert that Ishmael was chosen by God to found a great nation.
Paul’s effort to contort the story into something that displaces the Jews and bumps us Christians into the lineup one stage closer to God is, in my view, an illustration of what is dangerous in all three interpretations of the story. These are stories, after all, about which people are legitimately God’s chosen people. The fact that we all claim our lineage back to Abraham, who was the first human who asserted that there is but one God mother and father of us all, that is what we need to focus on. We humans all come from the same root. But the root is not the man Abraham; it is the one God who was revealed to that man. We humans want to draw lines between them and us. So we change the details to say my son of Abraham was greater than your son of Abraham. However we are related to Abraham, and even if we are not, it is our common heritage as monotheists, believers in the one God, creator of heaven and earth, that is what makes us one; Jew, Christian and Moslem.
Our faith, Moslem, Christian and Jew, is not faith in Abraham or Isaac or Ishmael, it is not faith in Sarah or Hagar; it is the faith that Jews express in their central prayer from the book of Deuteronomy: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad – Hear O Israel Yahweh is our God, Our God is one; it is the faith that Moslems express in the these words from the Qur’an: There is no God but God and Muhammed is God’s messenger; it is the faith that we Christians who are part of the United Church of Canada express in these words from our Song of Faith: God is one and triune: Father son and Holy Spirit. And while our doctrine of the Trinity perplexes our siblings in the Abrahamic tradition, Christians have always been clear that there is only one God, mother and father of us all.
Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.