Sunday, June 22, 2014

Old Testament Family Values

Genesis 21:8-21

        Tighten you seat belts. For the rest of the summer we are going to take a rollicking ride through the book of Genesis. I am so excited. Some of my favorite stories in all literature come from this book. The writer begins with creation, then moves to and from the Garden, the murder of Abel, and the Great Flood. The prologue is neatly tied up with the hysterically funny story about building a tower to heaven.  All of the major themes of biblical theology, i.e. creation, transgression, forgiveness, redemption and re-creation,     are introduced in those twelve chapters. There is even an encore to remind us of God’s sense of humor.
        Those stories are wonderful and worth examining over and over again, but this summer we are going to skip the prologue of Genesis and concentrate on the family of Abraham.  Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel writes, “Once upon a time there lived a man for all seasons, blessed with all talents and virtues and deserving of every grace. His name was Abraham. He was the first enemy of idolatry, the first to rise up against the “establishment”, the first to reject civilization to form a minority of one, and the first to suffer for his beliefs.  Alone against the world, Abraham affirmed that God is present wherever God’s name is evoked. And yet, Abraham was far from perfect.”
        As you might remember Abraham grew up in city of Ur, nowhere near the land of Israel. He had a profitable vocation and was nearing retirement age. In a dream, Abraham received instructions to leave Ur, travel 600 miles across the desert, and start a new life. The motivation for this madness was the promise of a son. For years Abraham and Sarah had dreamed of a family. They believed a child would secure their legacy. But now retirement was near. Abraham had already moved up to the gold tees. The hopes of a son were all but forgotten. Then in a dream, a reckless dream, a ridiculous dream, their lifelong bequest was once again placed upon the table. With nothing more than the promise in a  vision, Abraham and Sarah headed west. Sometimes a dream is all anyone needs.
        If you remember the story, the child did not come immediately. In fact it looked like the child was not going to come at all. To wretch up the intensity of the story we are informed that the couple was approaching their eightieth birthday. I know numbers are a bit skewed in the telling of any Old Testament story, but the writer has our attention. Abraham and Sarah are too old to think of anything other than rocking on the front porch. Even if Abraham could have renewed his Viagra prescription, why would the ancient Sarah have entertained the idea of pregnancy?
        So Abraham decided to step in and help God out. As so often happens when things are not going according to our plan, we step we decide we have a better way of doing things. Can we really blame Abraham? He was getting restless. He had done everything asked of him and still had no son. He begin to suspect the problem was not with him, but with Sarah. Of course wives know what husbands are thinking long before we husbands know what we are thinking. Realizing Abraham would eventually blame her, Sarah initiated a very interesting conversation. “Abraham, my beloved whom I love more than life itself, I know you want a son. If I could give you a son I would, but that seems impossible. So take my good and loyal servant Hagar. Implant your seed within her that we might have a son.” Then Sarah added the kicker, “Perhaps this is what God planned all along.”
Let’s step outside the story for just a moment. A couple of incredibly dangerous things are happening here. First, there is the obvious. You don’t celebrate your 60th wedding anniversary by impregnating another woman no matter who gives you permission. Abraham was supposed to say, “Sarah, love of my life, how could you suggest such a thing? Either we get pregnant together or we don’t get pregnant at all.” That is what Sarah expected hear. That is what God expected hear. But sometimes men can be found guilty of not thinking with their heads or their hearts. Abraham’s response was, “What a wonderful and caring woman you are. I accept your gift.”
        And that answer leads a second observation. So often today when folks are trying to figure out the complexities of sexual ethics, someone will inevitably say, “What we need to do is to return to the family values of the Bible.” 
        ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Abraham had sex with his wife’s servant. Jacob had twelve children by four women and he didn’t even play in the NBA. David committed adultery and had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and was still considered to be the wisest person in the land.  If that was what the really good guys in the Bible were doing can you imagine what was going on with everyone else? Even so, Abraham should have been bright enough to have seen the hornet’s nest he was creating. Thankfully, our transgressions always give God the opportunity to show us how we are supposed to live.
        Let us return to the story. As we all might have guessed, when Abraham agreed to Sarah’s solution, Sarah had a fit. She wanted nothing to do with a son that was not hers. Abraham couldn’t understand the problem. I can hear him now. “But honey, it was your idea.”
        Meanwhile, Hagar gets wind of the plan and decided to run away. Believe it or not she runs smack into an angel of the Lord who tells her to go back to camp, jump in bed with Abraham       and bear him a son. She is to call him Ishmael, which means, “God hears her affliction”.  Eventually she bore Abraham a son but Hagar was less than thrilled to be caught in this tension between husband and wife. Sarah was furious over the whole episode and Abraham, well Abraham was just happy to play catch in the back yard with his son.
        But then things really got complicated. True to God’s promise, Sarah gets pregnant and has a boy. Abraham was beside himself. Having two sons made him doubly blessed. It also created a problem. Ishmael was the oldest. He would receive the blessing and birthright. He would become the leader of the tribe. Abraham was so overcome with joy none of this occurred to him. But it occurred to Sarah, and she quickly acted on behalf of her son.
        She cornered Abraham and said to him, “Cast out Hagar, the Egyptian, and let her take her son with her.”
I think it is worth noting when there were no children, Hagar was the loyal companion. Now that a second child has been born, the first child somehow threatens to cause great harm to the economic structure of Abraham’s estate. Hagar, who is no longer needed, was seen as an illegal alien who probably crossed the border illegally. Sarah pointed out that Abraham could not possibly grant her the status of citizenship within the chosen people. 
The plan all along was for Abraham and Sarah to have a child. But Abraham was impatient and an outsider was brought in to the plot. The plot thickens with the birth of Ishmael and it boils over with the arrival of Isaac.  The plan all along was for Isaac to be the blessed child but human wants and human desires and human needs and human egos tripped up the best laid plans. And now someone had to go.
I have spent much time in the two great states of Texas and North Carolina. Both states depend greatly on agriculture and both states have a problem finding folks who are willing to work the fields. In Texas this problem was solved by turning a blind eye to folks from Mexico who would work for less than fair wages. In North Carolina, migrant labors have been used to pick the fields of everything from blue berries to tobacco. It seemed to be a good system, at least in the eyes of the owners of the farms. But want happens when the Ishmael and Hagar’s want to be treated fairly? What happens when they want to settle down and become neighbors? Imagine them wanting to be citizens? We who are chosen, we who identify with Sarah and Abraham are never sure they are ready for this new and troublesome development. 
What might the text say to this situation? A thin reading of the text makes the solution quite obvious. Abraham gave Hagar a flask of water and a loaf of bread and said, “You need to go back where you came from.” He probably kissed her on the cheek and told Ishmael to become a man that would make him proud. Then Abraham pointed toward Egypt and told them to be on their way. Soon they ran out of water. Soon all options were gone. Soon it appeared death would be their only companion.
But then Hagar cried out, God heard her cries and the story becomes more complicated. Water was provided. Ishmael was taught how to hunt and with God’s help they turned the wilderness into their home. There is no doubt Isaac was the favored son/nation. But when reading the story please remember Hagar, for perhaps she represents every outcast and refugee of this world. In Hagar those who are rejected find hope for  Hagar represents every exploited maid, every expelled wife, every rejected pregnant woman, and every “illegal” worker.
No one wants to hear their story…. except God, and hopefully…….. us.                To God be the Glory,  Amen.

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