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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Isaac and Ishmael


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I wonder how old you were when you first heard the story of Isaac and Ishmael. I can't have been more than 6 or 7 when it was part of my primary school Scripture curriculum. Of course, as a child you only notice the superficial parts of the story, and I don't think I've ever looked at it in any great depth before. But it's an important story, because it echoes down to this day.

So, then, Ishmael. The older child. The one Abraham conceived on his slave girl, Hagar, because he didn't see how else he was going to have a child – Sarah, he thought, was long past child-bearing. Hagar and Sarah didn't really get on – Sarah had been very jealous of Hagar when Hagar was carrying Ishmael, and Hagar, one gathers, hadn't exactly helped by showing she rather despised Sarah. Hagar had had to run away from Sarah when she was pregnant, but the Lord had come to her and told her to go back, and that he would make a huge nation from Ishmael.

And the years went by, and they all had loads of adventures which you can read about in Genesis, including fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. And now Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – some translations say he was playing, others that he was teasing or tormenting or mocking him, and we have no way of knowing what he actually was doing. He may even have been doing both – started off by playing, but unable to read Isaac's body language to know when he'd had enough, and ended up with Isaac crying, and Ishmael laughing at him, the way young people do with very small children.

And Sarah is absolutely furious. This had been a special party, to celebrate Isaac's weaning – he would have been somewhere between 2 and 4, I think, rather like Samuel was when he was taken to the Temple. Anyway, this special party, and now Ishmael has upset the boy and made him cry. Is it always going to be like this? And what if Ishmael really meant to harm Isaac?

You can understand Sarah's anger and concern, of course. She is well old to have a small child to look after, and this older half-brother is always going to be perceived as a menace. So for the second time she demands that Abraham send her away, and, heavy-hearted, he does so.

God tells him not to be too upset – his promise is to go through Isaac, but Ishmael is also Abraham's son, and so he, too, will father a vast nation. Ishmael is about 16 at the time. We know, because we are told he was 13 when they were all circumcised, and that was about a year before Isaac was born, so if Isaac is around three, Ishmael has to be 16. But the story makes him sound as though he was younger, and still very dependent on his mother.

Anyway, Abraham loads up a backpack for Hagar, and sends them both off. And they appear to have no idea what to do next, so wander rather aimlessly around until the water runs out. And then when Hagar is despairing, Ishmael resting under the one and only bush, God intervenes, and miraculously provides a well, or a spring, so they are saved.

According to some Muslim traditions, Paran, where they settled, is identified as Mecca, which is one of the reasons why it is a holy place for Muslims today. Because, of course, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations.

I am not going to go into details about which tribes he fathered and which he didn't – the sources are unclear and nobody seems to really know. However, tradition has it that he had twelve sons, all of whom became tribes, and their descendants are, of course, the modern-day Arab nations.

Actually, you know, that's really depressing! Because if there has not been peace between them ever since, how many millennia is that, and what hope is there for peace today? People don't change! The tribes of Ishmael and the tribes of Isaac have never been able to live in peace. Just pick up your newspaper or go online and look at the BBC headlines. A lot of what is happening in present-day Israel doesn't get reported by the BBC, but I have a friend who keeps an eye on things and she often posts news stories on her Facebook page that don't make happy reading. The tribes of Ishmael are still outcast in today's Israel.

And elsewhere, as the news bulletins make horribly, painfully clear, they are divided among themselves. The awful situation in Syria, which is leaking out into its neighbours. It's too ghastly – there simply isn't an easy solution to be found. At least we can pray for the situation there – I hope you do pray for Syria, because the more of us who pray for her, the better. It's an impossible situation – but then, we believe that nothing is impossible with God!

So it's all very depressing, and it's a depressing story for a summer morning, isn't it? I wonder what, if anything, we can learn from it.

One of the things I do like about the story is that it shows the people concerned to be real human beings, with human faults and failings. Many ancient myths and stories depict the people involved as in some way super-human, all too perfect, or with amazing super-powers that they can call on in time of need. Genesis doesn't. The people here are human, they have human problems and human failings.

We can empathise with Sarah, I think. At least, I can. We can't, and shouldn't, excuse her behaviour – she was wrong to cast them out like that, and I expect she knew it. But we can understand why she felt the way she did, and why she reacted the way she did. She obviously had a huge problem with jealousy, and if Hagar was youngish and pretty and, above all, fertile, while she, Sarah, wasn't.... well.... And then with Ishmael playing with, or teasing, or mocking – according to your translation – the 3-year-old, who may have been over-tired after the party.... you can see where she was coming from. And she wasn't having “that bastard” inherit any of Abraham's wealth, thank you very much.

And Abraham, too. He has proved himself far from perfect – read some of the stories about him in Genesis when you have a moment. He twice introduces Sarah as his sister – she was, in fact, his half-sister – instead of clarifying that she was his wife, and nearly led important people into sin. And he didn't believe God that Sarah could have a child, which is how come Ishmael was conceived in the first place. But at least here he shows himself unwilling to let the family go. And he gives Hagar a backpack of food and water, and relies on God's promise to look after them.

And God does look after them, we are told. They were thrown out for no fault of their own, they were facing almost certain death in the wilderness, and then God was there, in the middle of the mess, providing water for them and ensuring their survival.

And because God intervened, Ishmael went on to become the father of many nations, just like his brother. Yet Ishmael wasn't the child God had originally planned for Abraham and Sarah, and his sons were not to be “the chosen people”, although I daresay our Muslim friends would disagree with us on that one! But God still looks after him. God is there, in the middle of the desert. God is there, in the middle of the injustice and unfairness that caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast out. God is there in the thirst and the heat and the despair.

And that is true for us, just as it was true for Ishmael. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but God still cared for him. The people of Syria, many of them, are not children of the Covenant – although there is a very strong Christian tradition there, too. But God still cares for them. We ask where God is in the middle of the Syrian disaster. We ask where God is in the middle of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. We ask where God is in the middle of our own personal tragedies.

And the answer is the same as it always was. God is there, redeeming us, in the middle of unfairness and injustice and tragedy.

Perhaps you are suffering that way today – in a desert place where it feels as though God has abandoned you, and certainly everybody else has, and that you are going to die of thirst any minute. I don't mean literally, obviously, but there are times when it does feel like that, doesn't it? And yet God is always there. Sometimes God does intervene to improve matters. Other times, perhaps more often, things don't actually improve, but God gifts us with the skills and grace we need to cope with them. Hagar and Ishmael went on living in the desert, but they learnt how to do this on their own.

God never abandons us. When we call on him, he is there. Sometimes it doesn't feel like that – sometimes we really do feel abandoned, and that our calls are just echoing back from an empty sky. But that is only what it feels like, not what has happened. I don't know why it sometimes seems to take God forever to answer our calls – I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons we'll learn about in Heaven – but I do know he does answer. Sometimes “Be patient, be strong!” is the only answer – but the strength and the patience grows.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a happy story. But it does have one happy and shining outcome – God was there with them in the desert. And God is with us in our personal deserts, and in the global crises and tragedies of today. God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

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