Sermon delivered at several Unitarian Universalist churches in Texas
The story of Hagar and Ishmael ( passages in Genesis 16 – 25) is one of the most poignant in the Bible. Who can remain unmoved by her plight? Here we have a vulnerable young woman – a foreigner and a slave, with a child, who is cast out to her certain doom in the desert by the only people she knows! She is certain that she will die, by the unforgiving climate, or the animals it harbors, or subject to the depredations of the people who traverse it.
Once she runs out of food, and runs out of water, and runs out of hope, she lays her son under the meager shade of some desert shrub. She doesn't pray to be saved. She doesn't even pray for her son to be rescued – because she has absolutely no expectation of that. Rather, she prays to die, and asks to not have to watch her only child die first.
Some of you, I know, have had to endure this tragedy of outliving your child – every parent's worst fear. Surely you could give us a sermon or two on the despair of profound grief, followed by the slow, incremental path of resilience.
Even for those of us who have not suffered this sorrow, Hagar's circumstances speak to us, too. Who among us has not felt alone, afraid, and vulnerable, either as a foreigner or feeling like one in some aspect of our lives? Who has not reeled from that horrible kick in the gut when you were rejected – ejected – by someone you relied on? Perhaps a family member or friend, a boss, or trusted teacher or religious leader? Hagar's story can resonates there, too.
In this narrative, as in so many other great myths, she is rescued, and by an angel.
This section is interesting from a literary perspective because it is the first time in the Bible that an angel speaks to a woman. And what a woman – a foreign slave who did not expect the angel and did not know the god he represented. In fact, she is so startled that she names the deity, “the god who sees me.” I love this. Surely anyone who prays to a personal god for help, uses essentially the same name: “Oh God who sees me, please hear my prayer.”
This passage reminds us that there are times when we are indeed rescued by an angel we did not recognize – did not even know existed. Even more important, perhaps, is that each of us has been , can be, and will be that angel for someone else – sometimes through acts of kindness we do not even realize are so important, like pointing out a fountain, or seeing someone who is in despair. We can be the angels that transform the lives around us.
Some of you may have noticed that in the first angel visit, he uses language to announce her pregnancy and to assign him the name, Ishmael, which, is very similar to the language used in the Gospel of Matthew for the angel's annunciation to Mary. Many scholars believe that this was a purposeful, literary reference by the author of Matthew to pointedly evoke powerful Old Testament passages like this, among about 23 others, to connect the dots between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus.
Once the angel appears, the story gallops to a conclusion. Hagar and Ishmael are revived by the fountain he creates, and the boy grows up to become an archer, have 12 sons, and returns to bury his dad. Boom. The end.
If I were telling as a bedtime story to my sons, they would sit up and complain, “Wait a minute! That can't be the end! Did you skip a few chapters? Where did they go? Why did he return to bury the man that tried to kill him? And surely Ishmael must be more important than this given that his name means “God Hears!” (clearly explained in most Jewish Biblical translations) Well, the children would be right. The Bible has a number of stories with huge gaps and abrupt endings. My personal favorite mystery is whatever happened to Moses's two children? Wouldn't you think that in a book filled with thousands of “begats” that that this son of Abraham would turn out to be more important? Well, he is. But not in the Bible.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all regarded as “People of the Book” because they share a reverence for many leaders in the Bible. The Muslims have an expanded and different version of this story that involves these same five characters. In it, Abraham has two wives, each of whom has a son, who, in turn, has twelve sons. Through them, Sarah becomes the matriarch of the Jewish tribes and Hagar becomes the matriarch of the Arab tribes. Abraham does not cast them out in the desert to die. Rather, he leads them across the desert to establish their own home – in Mecca. On the way, God tests Abraham's faith several times, and you know two of the incidents already. In one, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son – who is Ishmael, of course, since he is 14 years older than Isaac. But an angel stays his hand. Then, another time, God tells Abraham to leave his wife and son in the desert. Hagar runs back and forth between two mountains – seven times – before an angel kicks the ground and creates a fountain.
Abraham does not abandon Hagar and Ishmael in Mecca, either. When Ishmael grows up, the two of them rebuild the Kaa'ba- the holiest site in Islam, in honor of their God. Abraham even chooses one of Ishmael's wives, to fulfill his own destiny as a Patriarch.
Muslims recreate many of these stories during the Hajj- their pilgrimage to Mecca. They butcher lambs to represent God's saving Ishmael from sacrifice. They trek back and forth between two hills and then sip from an ancient fountain in honor of an angel saving Hagar and Ishmael. They circle the Ka'baa and worship there, as did Abraham and Ishmael. Ishmael is revered as the father of twelve Arab tribes, through whom their descendents trace their lineage back to Abraham, regarded as the first monotheist.
I have touched on the emotional resonance of this story and its literary and religious history. In a final, brief point, let me point to its value in light of continuing conflicts in the Middle East. Most scholars believe that the oldest stories in the Hebrew Bible, including this one, were put into written form about 720 BCE. They also agree that these tales circulated as oral tales before that, some for centuries, just as did the Iliad and Odyssey, which evolved from oral to written form in Greece, about the same time. If so, this story, which blames regional conflict on Ishmael's pugnacious personality, was written 1100 years before Mohammed was born, and circulated for decades or centuries before that. This means that the Book of Genesis describes this conflict (among many others) NOT between Muslims and Jews- because the Muslims did not exist - but between Jews and Arab tribes dating back about 3000 years! That is one hundred generations.
Take that into consideration next time you hear of yet another brokered peace negotiation in the region.
As you can tell, I find this story fascinating. I know that lots of people, including some Unitarian Universalists, dismiss the Bible with a derisive, “it is not true.” Perhaps they feel the same way about Shakespeare and Greek mythology. That's a shame. Stories like this one speak evocatively about the human condition, offer literary and theological insights into the development of a religion that has shaped much of the world, and offers intriguing commentary on ancient enmity that we continue to witness today. I highly commend this book to your attention.
And if you are grieving or despondent, reread Hagar's tale. May you find comfort there.
Note: For centuries, millions of people have regarded the Bible as a source of profound religious wisdom, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who reads Hebrew who interprets these stories literally. That is because most of the names in the oldest stories are as clearly symbolic of the characters' roles in those stories as are names in fairy tales, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. For example, Adam derives from the word that means dirt or clay, because he is molded from that material in the second of two creation stories (Genesis 2 and 3). In this tale, Isaac means laughter, Ishmael means God hears, Hagar means flight (as in to flee). Abram means revered father, changed to Abraham, meaning Patriarch (or father of multitudes) and Sarai means argumentative, changed to Sarah, meaning princess when she becomes pregnant with Isaac.
For other insights indicated by the names, look up Biblical etymology on the Internet or simply the etymology of boys' and girls' names.