The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/23/00
Text: Genesis 21:8-21
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Over the past several weeks the world's attention has been particularly focused on the news from Camp David. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat have been in the midst of peace talks. As the talks opened, Barak and Arafat engaged in a mock pushing match for the cameras as they entered the main cabin. Arafat, perhaps because he has been hunted as a terrorist for most of his life, likes to be the last into a room. Barak insisted the Palestinian go first. Arafat refused. So Barak, with a big grin, shoved him toward the narrow door anyway. Finally, President Clinton, in his first act of mediation, resolved the problem. "I've got an idea," he said with a laugh. Then he opened the second double door, allowing the two to stride in, smiling, side by side.(1)

Sadly, the smiles have been few and far between since then. The negotiations have been incredibly difficult. This past Wednesday, it looked as though they would be called off without any agreement at all, then, just as everyone was ready to pack their bags, they came back to the table. What will happen today now that the President has returned from Okinawa? Who knows?

To be painfully honest, even if Barak and Arafat do negotiate an agreement, there will be militants on both sides who will object, and probably violently. The world remembers what happened to Anwar Sadat and Yitzak Rabin after coming to terms with the opposition. This is a dangerous business. And the long and bitter struggle between Jew and Arab seems bound to continue.

Sad...and especially so considering that the Jew and Arab are "blood brothers," both children of Abraham - Arabs tracing their ancestry back through Abraham's first son, Ishmael, Jews going back through second son Isaac. Then again, perhaps their problems are understandable because, as the lesson from Genesis makes clear, this family has been dysfunctional since the beginning.

The saga gets underway in Genesis, chapter 12 as Abraham is called to uproot himself and his family and set out for a new land to which his God would direct. During the course of the journey, God makes Abraham some wonderful promises, but they all involve posterity, and by the time we reach chapter 16, we are informed that Abraham and Sarah are still childless despite being relatively along in years. This was a particular disaster in the ancient world since children stabilized that society - they were a supply of labor, a promise of old-age security, and guarantors of the orderly transfer of property. Indeed, for a woman to fail to give her husband children was seen as a curse from God. For Abraham, all these divine promises were "on hold" - if the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, then the promise of descendants so numerous as to be compared to stars in the sky or sands by the sea will begin with a first child. Big problem.

Actually not so big. Not for the well-to-do (as Abraham and Sarah were). There was an alternative: surrogate motherhood. Custom of the day permitted a woman to claim as her own any children a servant girl might bear after a liaison with the master of the house. By the time Abraham and Sarah address this possibility, Sarah was well past her child-bearing years. So, according to the Genesis' record,

Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.(2)
With mistress Sarah's blessing (although I suspect it was given with a forced smile and through clenched teeth), Hagar became pregnant with Abraham's first child.

Now the trouble starts. The Genesis record says "when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress." Uh, oh. What did she do? Little verbal jabs? Eyebrows elevated for a view down the nose? Walk around the tent with belly tauntingly thrust forward? Who knows? Just the meanness of youth sneering at age. Hagar was not nice.

Sarah did not react well. The hurt that she had felt in not being able to bear Abraham's child was now compounded by the anger at being ridiculed. Furiously, she takes her hurt out on her husband: "Abraham, it's YOUR fault; when I offered you Hagar, you actually TOOK her. This would never have happened if it were not for YOU! MEN!!!"

Abraham's response: "Uh huh." How else is a man supposed to respond to that? He finally said, "Listen, she is YOUR servant; she works for YOU. YOU handle it!"

So Sarah did. She took the meanness of Hagar, multiplied it, then dumped it back. She made life so miserable for the pregnant slave that Hagar finally ran away into the wilderness. Not a good move. How did she plan to survive? What could she have been thinking? Of course, she was NOT thinking, just reacting.

Now we find Hagar all by herself, resting exhausted by a spring. Genesis says, "The angel of the LORD [meaning the Lord] said to her, `Return to your mistress, and submit to her.'"(3) You can imagine how Hagar must have been eager to jump at THAT chance. Then the LORD gave her a reason: "`I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.' And the angel of the LORD said to her, `Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.'"

Ishmael -- a Hebrew name meaning GOD HEARS. To be honest, what she hears next might make a woman expecting a child to change her mind. Hagar is told that the child will be a boy of whom God says, "He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin." Delightful. Then follows a scripture verse that became famous in it's King James Bible language - it was posted in cross-stitch on the walls of countless Christian homes, it was carved in wood above the pulpit of the first church in which I regularly preached [St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Pritchardville, SC], and my mother tells me it was the first Bible verse she ever taught me. Hagar listens to the divine voice, realizes that no matter where she might be, she is never beyond the sight of the Almighty, and says those words which have made her immortal: "And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, THOU, GOD, SEEST ME." It is a wonderful affirmation of faith. Obediently, she returns to the tents of mistress Sarah, the baby is born, Abraham's son.

It would be lovely to end it there and say they all lived happily ever after, but we know better. Actually, knowing the personalities involved - two women who hated each other, a man who did anything he could to avoid confrontation, and a boy who even before he was born was predicted to be all but a juvenile delinquent or a gangster - it is almost surprising things did not blow up sooner.

As you know, between the time of Ishmael's birth and the scene in this morning's lesson, 16 or 17 years had elapsed, and a major miracle had taken place. About two-and-a-half years before, at the age of 90, Sarah had given birth to Isaac. Suddenly, everything was changed. As is often the case, the family is now focused on the new arrival, and attention is diverted from earlier children. But this shift was different. The presence of Hagar and Ishmael was unwanted evidence of Sarah's previous pain. Now that Isaac was on the scene the faster that reminder could be removed, the better. No doubt Sarah kept her eyes open for an excuse.

Finally she found one. It was at a big family party celebrating one of those rites of passage - the weaning of the child, the first step on his road to manhood. The Genesis account says, "Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, `Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.'"(4) What? For playing with the baby you get thrown out of the home? For you scholars, it should be noted that the Hebrew is not as clear here as we might wish - it could mean that the playing was more along the lines of mocking or taunting, but still, PERMANENT EXILE??? Wow! This is one tough lady.

We might wish that father Abraham would have shown himself worthy here of the reverence and respect shown him for centuries by three great religions. No. The story says that Abraham was displeased with the demand - after all, Ishmael WAS his son. The boy might have been a bit of a hand full, but a son is a son. We do not just get rid of them in favor of a newer model. For whatever it is worth, Abraham was able to justify being an incredible wimp and acceding to Sarah's demand by relying on God's promise that Ishmael would also become the source of a great nation. What could the man have been thinking? "Oh gee, Lord, that puts my mind at ease. Now, I, a wealthy man having the wherewithal to provide handsome support, can send them out into the desert with nothing but a loaf of bread and a skin of water and not give it a second thought." Right.

That IS what he did, you know. Bread and water and bye-bye. They were on their way to die.

Picture it. Bread and water now gone. The desert heat has taken its toll. Hagar sits on a small rock in the blazing sun, rocking back and forth, back and forth, clutching her arms about herself, trying not to hear the distant whimper of her son, her dying son...(5) If she had stayed right by him she would have gone mad. So she went off. There was nothing more she could do. "Well, we always do as we are told, God. You want us to come out here and die, we come out here and die. Is this what you wanted, God?"

"Go and hold the boy," a voice within her seemed to say. "Go and put your arms around your child. Hold on tight - resist the temptation to distance yourself. Do not let despair drive a wedge between you and this child. I have plans for him. This is no time for you to start letting go. Hold on tight, and bear him up. Hagar stumbled over rocks and thorns to take the dehydrated body of her son into her arms from under the bush where she had placed him for some protection from the beating sun. His moans were weak, but at least he was still alive. She poured her mother love into the boy, and she wept...and wept and wept.

Through the water of her tears she saw a well. Had it been there before and had she just not seen, or had God given her a miracle? She almost dropped the boy in her hurry to fill the skin with water, then to press it to Ishmael's thin cracked lips. At first he hardly responded, but then he moved, and slowly, bit by bit, he drank.

Hagar's hopes renewed, then crashed once more as she remembered who she was - a slave - and where she was - in the hot and unforgiving desert. Again she cried, she looked toward the well, and from the deepest well within her soul she heard a voice. "From you and Ishmael shall come a people," said the voice of God within her. "You will survive. Your son will grow. And he will have a wife and you shall then be grandmother to a fine and gentle race of people; a race of people who will know the pain that you have known; a race of people who will know how it feels to stand weeping outside the tents of wealthy men."

The descendants of Ishmael are the Arabs, and if there is any curiosity regarding the sources of the present-day Middle East conflict, one need look no farther than the family quarrel between Sarah and Hagar. Because Islam traces itself from Abraham through Ishmael and Judaism and Christianity trace their lines through Isaac, Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all "blood brothers," the spiritual "children of Abraham."

Hagar and Sarah, Abraham, Ishmael. A sad story, and one that continues to this day. Since the founding of the nation of Israel in 1948, the people have suffered through four wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973). Five if you count the 1969-70 "War of Attrition." Six if you count the continuing conflict with various terrorist organizations supported by hostile nations. A fierce family fight that has been going on and going on and going on and going on. No heroes here, only survivors.

But there is a wonderful lesson. It is simply "Ishmael" -- God hears. The Psalmist knew it:

Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy...Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.(6)
"Ishmael" - God hears. God hears the cry of Hagar in the wilderness before her son is ever born. God hears the cry of her boy in the face of imminent death. God hears the cry of those of their descendants who have been denied a homeland, and for over 50 years have been relegated to refugee camps. God hears the cry of every child in pain. This is gospel: God hears. If you remember nothing else from this morning, remember GOD HEARS. When the world seems to be tumbling in and all around go rushing by, remember, God hears. When it seems that your heart's most fervent prayers cannot manage to get past the ceiling, remember God hears. God hears the cry. Hagar's, Ishmael's, mine and yours. God hears. And answers.


1. "Horseplay and High Stakes," Newsweek, 7/24/2000, p. 24

2. Genesis 16:2-4a

3. Genesis 16:9ff.

4. Genesis 21:9-10

5. This is adapted from a Ralph Milton midrash on the Story of Hagar and Her Son. These excerpts were posted by John Lohr, Franklin Lakes, NJ in the PresbyNet meeting "Sermonshop 1996 06 23, Note #8, 6/17/96 and blended with an monologue posted by Chris Ewing of the Roland & Myrtle United Church Pastoral Charge in south central Manitoba in Note #53, 6/21/96.

6. Psalm 86:1, 6-7

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