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.