So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.
This hard to hear story, which one commentator suggested we might call “Ishmael’s Sacrifice,” often gets short shrift given that it falls between the miraculous pregnancy/birth of aged Abraham and silly Sarah’s nation-founding-son, Isaac and the horrifying-but-oft-told-test-of-faith-in-that same son’s-near-sacrifice. The Hagar/Ishmael story is hard to hear because it is inconsistent with our understanding of an all welcoming, everybody-is-equal, unconditionally loving God. Here is Sarah, the very mother of God’s chosen people acting like a whiney school girl—jealous, judge-y, cranky—and afraid that someone else’s good stuff will somehow spoil it for her and her child. Sheesh. Not very attractive for a person of faith, huh? It makes you wonder what was up with Abraham that he couldn’t call her on her self-centered smallness. Maybe her post-partum depression was overwhelming both of them… and seriously, why wouldn’t God expect more of her? But that is reflection for another day.
What is pretty powerful about this, Hagar and Ishmael’s story (and of course, what is usually powerful about every one of our faith stories) is the way God reacts. Hagar is literally visited (for the second time in her life) by God (or an angel of God—the difference is kind of murky) who says what angels always say, “Do not be afraid.”
In the Hebrew version of the test the syllables for the name “Ishmael” are used and are translated “God heard”. It is the only time in the whole story that Ishmael’s name appears, as if to emphasize the meaning of the name–God hears. God hears the cries of the outcast and abandoned. God hears and has compassion “and God was with the boy” (21:20). God is with the boy, this outcast son of Abraham. God is with his mother, too, an Egyptian slave woman cast out by the father of her child. God hears and God cares and God will take action to help and guide you…Do not be afraid, though things seem hopeless. Take the child in your arms. I have heard his cries. I will save him and will make of him a great nation. Do not be afraid, I will show you the water you need. Do not be afraid, you have been judged and sent out from your home, but I am here, I am with you and I care. Do not be afraid, for once again, I am showing myself to you—the outcast and oppressed. Do not be afraid, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
And as the story goes, “God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” And he did become a great nation. As one commentator suggested, Ishmael was not in the covenant made with the chosen people (the idea of election is part of what makes this text so hard for us) but he was part of a promise that preceded and was larger than that covenant. The old hymn reminds us, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”
The good news? We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God cares and God saves. May it be so for each of us every time, like Sarah, we are jealous, judge-y, crabby and small. May it be so for each of us every time, like Hagar, we are cast out or left behind or on the outs with someone we love. May it be so for each of us every time, like me, we fail to love the way God wants us to love, fail to put others ahead of ourselves, or just fumble and fall. May it be so that every time—we know that God hears and God cares
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade