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Genesis: Ishmael and Hagar

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

In order to understand the Abraham story, indeed in order to understand the whole of the book of Genesis, it's important to comprehend the terrible anxiety that people had of being childless in a world where nobody had a pension or healthcare coverage. Children are important in any society at any time in history but they were hugely important in this society because they provided a kind of insurance policy for old age. The preoccupation with progeny is a persistent theme in Genesis, but nowhere is it more marked than in the story of Abraham and his elderly infertile wife Sarai.

In Chapter 15 Abram had a vision of the Lord and he used the Lord's appearance to point out to Him that, despite the promise given, he was still childless. Well, when Chapter 16 begins many years have passed and Sarai is still childless, so she suggests to Abram that he should impregnate her slave girl Hagar. This would not have been uncommon in a society where infertility was extremely high, partly due to disease, partly due to poor diet, partly due to overwork and exhaustion. Abram obliges. The text doesn't mince words. It reads "Abram went into Hagar." Genesis is very direct when it comes to sexual intercourse. Hagar conceives, whereupon she becomes uppity and looks down on her mistress. This understandably irritates Sarai, who complains to her husband. She even holds him responsible. "My wrong be upon you," she says, meaning the fact that I couldn't produce an heir is no longer relevant. In antiquity it was always the woman's fault if a couple couldn't have children, and a woman who couldn't conceive was despised, as Sarai now is by Hagar. Abram, instead of pointing out that it was Sarai who made the suggestion that he should impregnate Hagar in the first place, ducks out and tells his wife to do whatever she wants with the slave girl.

Sarai made Hagar's life miserable. I presume this means she beats her. Hagar runs off into the wilderness and is resting by a spring when the angel of the Lord instructs her to return to Sarai and undergo more affliction at her hands. A tough assignment. By way of compensation, the angel tells her that she's going to give birth to a son who will be a wild ass and she'll have numerous progeny and she should call him Ishmael "because the Lord has seen your affliction". "Call me Ishmael" is, of course, the opening sentence of Melville's great novel Moby Dick. So Hagar returns and Abram becomes a father at 86. Ishmael becomes the patriarch of the nomadic Ishmaelites, the Bedouins, who occupied the southern desert of Judea.

Ishmael, however, is not the son whom the Lord has promised to Abram. He will have to wait another 13 years until he is 99 when the Lord appears to him again in Chapter 17 and states, "I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be perfect." "Perfect" is the King James translation. Then He declares, as if for the first time, "I will make my covenant between you and me." In actual fact the covenant story that now follows is a doublet. This is the P version. In it God states that the land of Canaan will be "an everlasting possession." This is new. So is His requirement that Abraham, as his name now becomes, is to circumcise all the males in his house – a rite that must be performed by his descendants throughout all generations. Sarai's name is also changed to Sarah. The name change indicates a new stage in their lives and a new identity. Hearing all this, Abraham falls on his face and laughs and says to himself, "can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old and to my wife who is 90 years old? Can't Ishmael be the one who carries on the family line?" God tells him that Ishmael will become the patriarch of a great nation, but His covenant is to be with a son he must call Isaac. Abraham does what God tells him to do, and circumcises himself and Ishmael and all his male slaves.

In Chapter 18 three strangers appear at his tent. Abraham urges them to wash their feet and rest. Then he kills a calf for them to eat. We're not told that Abraham recognises that the strangers are divine, but his effusive hospitality seems to indicate that this is the case. They tell him that Sarah going to have a son, despite the fact, explicitly referenced here, that she's no longer menstruating. Sarah overhears this and laughs. "Now that I'm all shriveled up and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" she asks herself. The Lord in turn overhears Sarah – he evidently sees into her mind – and says to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh? Is there anything the Lord can't do?" Sarah, who's now afraid, denies laughing but God says, "Yes, you did laugh."

Genesis invests this narrative with considerable psychological insight. Abraham and Sarah are real people. They're a childless couple struggling to find a solution. Despite God's promise, as time passes, they understandably become impatient, even desperate, and Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands by recommending that Abraham should impregnate her slave. In other words, they, primarily Sarah, lose faith. The fact that they both laugh at the prospect of being able to produce a child at their advanced ages is further evidence of the weakness of their faith. The takeaway is obviously, "Is there anything the Lord can't do?" In other words, no matter how tough things get, no matter how impossible it seems that things will get better, never lose faith.

In the next lesson we're going to discuss what happens after the three strangers depart: God's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

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Written by

Robert Garland