Our readings this morning touch on the story of Ishmael, one of my favorite characters in Hebrew Scripture.
Because we’ll be digging deeply into this story, I thought it would help to provide an overview …
Here we see the three revelations of God’s Covenant to Abraham in the book of Genesis. All three declare that he shall have an heir, and that his descendants will be an uncounted multitude. They all say his descendants will inherit the Promised Land. But, with each revelation, more detail is added; and the duties of each of the Covenant’s participants (meaning God, and Abraham’s family, and us) are more completely spelled out.
We won’t talk much about the first revelation, other than to note that it was ten years before the second one.
You see here that Abram and Sarai’s names are changed to Abraham and Sarah as part of the third revelation. The names of everyone in this story are a metaphor, reflecting the nature of their relationship with us, with each other, and with God. So, name changes are very important – reflecting a change in the person’s relationships and position in the story.
To remain consistent with the narrative, you’ll see me using the old or new version of a person’s name based on where we are in the story.
We’ll be focusing on what happens between the second and third revelations, as shown here: the time of Ishmael’s birth and early life.
When God speaks for the third time, Abraham laughs and thinks to himself “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” and then says to God “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
Clearly, Abraham is concerned for Ishmael, and is remembering the second revelation of 13 years earlier, when he said to the Lord “’You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ And the Lord replied, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’
To fulfill the second revelation’s promise of an heir, and at Sarai’s insistence (since she was barren) Abram fathers a child through Hagar, Sarai’s slave. Sarai then feels that the newly pregnant Hagar is looking upon her with contempt and abuses her. Hagar then flees into the desert. There, an angel appears to her saying “return to your mistress and submit to her.” And tells Hagar she will have a son, repeating what seems to be part of the promise, saying “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”
When Hagar’s child is born, Abram names him Ishmael – as was commanded by the angel – a name which literally means “God Hearkens” or, to use more modern language, “God hears (and responds)” – a clear indication that Abram believes the child is the promised heir.
13 years go by, and now we’re in the time of the third revelation from this morning’s reading: God says the same things as before, adds a requirement for circumcision as a sign of the covenant; renames Abram to “Abraham”; then says “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and … I will give you a son by her … she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Abraham laughs (whether from joy or incredulity, we’re not sure – maybe both) and wonders at this, given his and Sarah’s advanced years. He then realizes that Ishmael, his only child, now 13 years old, is not the promised heir. What’s going to happen to him? So Abraham says “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” – pleading for his only son’s position, and maybe even his life.
After affirming that Sarah will indeed bear him a son to be named Isaac, God says “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous…. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”
Afterwards, and as God commanded be done in observance of this new covenant, Abraham takes Ishmael and all the men in his household, whether free or slave, and circumcises them, including himself.
Now this is troubling. Ishmael, whom we thought to be the promised heir from the second revelation, was apparently confirmed as such by the angel who spoke to Hagar. And, Abraham names the child “Ishmael”, just as the angel commanded. He had to be the heir. But now, he is no longer the child promised as part of the covenant. It looks like he’s been rejected, and yet he is circumcised, meaning that he is part of the covenant.
Let’s pause for a moment to look at names, using this chart. As I’d said, each name in this story is a metaphor, rich with meaning. You see here how the roles of Abram and Sarai expand from being the progenitors of one nation to being so for many nations, a point Paul picks up on in our reading from Romans.
Also, Hagar’s name seems to be derived from an ancient Semitic word that meant “the stranger” or “to flee.” The angel confronts her after she flees; and Hagar responds by giving God a name, saying “You are El-Roi” – meaning “the God who sees me.”
Up until this moment, we’d seen Hagar only through her owner’s needs and purposes. Her very name labeled her as an outsider: we didn’t see the person. When things are at their worst, God came to her, told her to return, and adds “I have given heed to your affliction.” God sees her for who she really is, and ministers to her: an abused slave. She is told she will have many offspring, and that Ishmael has a future. And; in accordance with the second revelation, nothing is said that conflicts with our assumption that Ishmael is Abram’s heir to the Promised Land.
So, we have Hagar, whom God sees; and Ishmael, the blessing of the God who hears: a God who hears us and sees us, right where we are, even when lost in our own empty deserts.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote “We do not head straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall.” Lent, she reminds us, is a time for reflection on (and perhaps even wrestling with?) our relationship with God, asking ourselves “Upon what does our relationship with God depend?” God declared the Covenant we have together, and honors it; but does that mean we fully comprehend its nature?
We see this in the story: The relationship they have with God is not what Abram, or Sarai, or Hagar, or Ishmael, thought it was.
So, is Ishmael the child of the prophesy? Apparently not, but he is included in God’s Covenant, as evidenced by his circumcision alongside his father. Ishmael was not rejected by God, and certainly he was a dutiful son to the end of his father’s life. When their father died, Ishmael and Isaac jointly buried Abraham alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah in what is now Hebron [In Genesis 25].
Yes, God has made a Covenant with us that has great and wonderful promises. But no, we can’t always assume we know what all of those promises really mean. Just because they seem to come up short does NOT mean they have failed, nor does it mean that God is no longer walking with us. Instead, it shows that we have more work to do to understand the nature of God’s promises to us, and how they are to guide us in our journey to the Promised Land.
Yes, God hears us; and yes, God sees us.
And so, this is part of purpose for Lent: to help us in our journey towards God, to help us better discern where we stand in relationship to the Covenant we have with God, and to better understand what we must do in order to fulfill our part of the Covenant: no covenant is one-sided. In all covenants, each side has responsibilities and obligations towards the other. A covenant is built upon mutuality and care for the other. It is not a tool for oppression or domination. And, we also see that just as Isaac was later, Ishmael was always under the watchful eye of God. God’s angel came to his mother in the desert, as we already saw, and does so again when Hagar is later banished (at Sarah’s insistence).
In that part of the story, in Genesis 21, a great feast is held by Abraham to celebrate Isaac’s weaning. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – and demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael because Sarah will not tolerate him inheriting anything alongside Isaac.
This distresses Abraham, but God tells him to do as Sarah asks, affirming the promises that Isaac will be his heir, and that Ishmael shall also become a great nation. So, he banishes them and they wander into the desert. The water is soon gone. Dying from thirst, Hagar casts Ishmael under a bush and sits down a short distance away, saying “do not let me see the death of my child” and weeps. (Apparently, Ishmael weeps too – but we do not “hear” this in the narrative.)
Remember Ishmael’s name! – God calls to Hagar through an angel once again, and says “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” In other words, the boy named “God hears (and responds)” finally lifts his voice – and God hears, and responds.
God repeats to Hagar that Ishmael shall become a great nation, and then the text says God “opens her eyes.” The woman who gave God the name El Roi, “The God Who Sees Me” now sees for herself, and sees a well nearby. They’re saved!
Even though he was not the heir God promised Abram, Ishmael is still an heir to God’s plan; and still included in God’s Covenant: a man whom God heard, a man whom God loved, and a son whom Abraham loved. He was never rejected by Abraham, even though the dysfunction within that family made it impossible for Ishmael and Hagar to remain in his tent.
Ishmael was “heard by God” – just as God “saw” his mother, Hagar. God never rejected them nor ignored them. No one else in the story hears Ishmael, not even Hagar – and not us, either – for that matter, only God. And, the only person in the entire story who is said to have seen Hagar is God. Seeing and hearing them is in God’s portion of the Covenant; and being heard, and seeing God’s plan for themselves, is also part of the Covenant. Hagar and Ishmael and their descendants are just as loved, and just as worthy of God’s love, as Isaac and his descendants. All are part of God’s Covenant, just as we are, because of them.
God’s promises are everlasting. God is with us, always, calling us to be God’s people. The door is always open for us to do so; and we will always be welcomed with open arms. And yet, we hear about the tragic conflicts between and among the descendants of Abraham, and so we know that we have a long, long way to go towards achieving the dream of God.
It is God who is at work in this story. It is God’s plan that is in motion: shaping a family – our family – in spite of themselves, and committing to be at the heart of their story, to travel with them wherever they wander and to dwell with them forever. Paul knew this when he used their story to illustrate the nature of God’s relationship with us, in our reading from Romans. Abraham’s covenant isn’t just for the sake of Israel, and it will fulfill its purpose of restoring all of us to fellowship with our Creator.
The well-known theologian Walter Brueggemann says of this story that “Those barren at the beginning are fruitful at the end. Those abandoned have become cared for. Those displaced have become royal. Those alone have come to covenant“. To which I’ll add: God hears all of us, God sees all of us. We are all a part of God’s Covenant with Abraham. None of us shall ever be rejected.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, March 1, 2015 (Second Sunday of Lent).
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-27 (NRSV, “The Sign of the Covenant”)
Romans 4:13-25 (“The Voice” Bible, “God’s Promise Realized”)
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)