Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 21:8-21)

I recently read a fascinating post by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg which offers a different slant on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, paticularly how this relates to what happens with Isaac and Abraham later.

Basically, through a complicated series of domestic events, Sarah’s slave Hagar has given Abraham a son, Ishmael. Later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whereupon Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael sent away so that Isaac won’t have to share the family intelligence. This is where things get messy, because when Sarah insists that Ishmael goes away, God agrees – because he’s going to make Ishmael into a nation just like Isaac.

Which, given that Abraham is told about this destiny, it seems suspicious that he gives Hagar and Ishmael a limited amount of food as they disappear off into the desert. Could have dropped them off at the next available city but no, they run out of food as they head deeper and it looks like they’re about to starve to death under a bush until God intervenes to save them.

Ruttenberg’s treatment of what happens next is what made the article so interesting to me. Because I’d never appreciated how close this story is to the passage in which Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. And while the idea that this is a test of Abraham’s faith is the traditional interpretation, maybe the form that this test takes is linked to the fact that he’s just ‘sacrificed’ his other son… Only with Isaac he’s going to have to look him in the eye while he does it.

God intervenes again and Isaac goes on to be the forefather of another great people. But given the treatment of Hagar, the article’s suggestion that the binding of Isaac doubles up as a punishment is compelling, a confrontation with the sins of the past. I wonder if Abraham thought about whether Ishmael had survived while he prepared to sacrifice Isaac?

Hagar is a victim of the power structures within the story, an inconvenience who is expected to disappear once her usefulness is at an end. But by linking Ishmael’s fate with Isaac’s we see how the consequences of Abraham and Sarah’s actions influence and inform events. It reminds us that the ‘fringes’ of our narratives are full of people falling beneath the wheels; the margins are full of people who’ve been abandoned in the wilderness. And yet God meets them there; a great people can emerge from the fringes as well as the centre.

But only if recognise people’s humanity; only if we stop the sacrifices.

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