Signpost for Sunday 22 June 2014: Gen 21:8-21; Rom 6:1b-11: Matt 10:24 -39
The lectionary gives far too many choices this week, so I can’t be sure I’ll mention any reading you’re likely to hear in a church if you are there this Sunday. Never mind, I’ve gone for a Genesis reading and am hoping for the best. I’m always fascinated by Abram’s story and this little episode is a classic mess in a mess of a tale.
It all begins when YHWH tells a 75 year-old chap to up sticks from his home in Haran and go somewhere else (Gen12: 1-4). No GPS in those days so off Abram goes on the promise that at his ripe old age he’ll father a nation. It turns out he’s married to a very good-looking woman that the king of Egypt fancies at first sight. A rather dodgy Abram pretends she is only his sister so that Pharaoh can have his way, rather than killing Abram to get his way (Gen 12: 14-15). He’s found out of course, but does Abram learn? No. Same situation occurs in Gerar over 25 years later (Gen 20:2-7).
We know it’s so long after because Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah when Abram was 99 (Gen 17:1). We’re also told now that Sarah is about 10 years younger than Abraham (Gen 17:17). That means Sarai was an irresistibly attractive 65 year-old woman, and she’s just as gorgeous at 90, wow. (And all that occurred thousands of years before Jane Fonda at 75, appeared on our TV screens, draped seductively in little more than a man’s shirt and, speaking on behalf of the mighty L’Oreal, told us women are worth it.)
Now here’s the bombshell – Sarah is actually Abraham’s half sister (Gen 20:12). Crazy old Abraham claims that he’s only told half a porky (Cockney rhyming slang “pork pie – lie”, by the way). Well. That’s OK then, Abraham.
You have to ask yourself what kind of bloke Abram/Abraham really was. In between these two episodes, he’s taken up with Hagar and fathered Ishmael. His excuse being that his wife told him to (Gen 16:2). By this time, of course, Sarai is about 75 and Hagar is the much younger woman. Old Abram doesn’t hesitate. And you could be forgiven for unkindly thinking he might have wanted to get rid of Sarah when Abimelech takes a shine to her.
But you have to ask yourself about Sarai/Sarah, too, I think. OK, she unselfishly suggests Hagar as a surrogate mother, but then gets ragingly jealous as soon as Ishmael is born. Well that’s only human I suppose. But when she becomes the world’s oldest pregnant woman and gives birth at the age of 91, do we find her empathetically saying, “Wow, Hagar, faithful servant and good wife, isn’t this motherhood thing amazing?” Of course not. It’s, “Get that slut and her illegitimate son out of my house, Abraham, now!” (Gen 21:10.) Sarah might be good-looking, but she’s bloody hard work. Can you believe that she ever allowed her weak-willed husband to give her away to another man, twice? This really is a soap opera. Or maybe it’s just that it takes another few thousand years before serious writers discover that character is as important as plot in literature.
One more thing to clear up: we read Gen 21:9 and might easily assume that Isaac and Ishmael are baby and toddler playing together. But actually Ishmael must be 15 or 16 years old by then. So it’s a teenager that YHWH hears weeping (Gen 21:16), not a small child.
I’m not sure what we should make of all this except that if God chose a suspect old codger like Abraham to work with, there really is hope for us all, surely.
And I particularly like Frederick Beuchner’s point about the character of God himself. He says, “The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”