Genesis 21 – Pondering the Silences

A little (spiritual) imagination.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”

24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”

25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized. 26 But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”

27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29 and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”

30 He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”

31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

32 After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines.33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. 34 And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

So much of these three stories, and indeed all the stories in the Bible, are unwritten.  This can be cause for confusion and frustration, for sure, but also a chance for our spiritual imaginations to take flight.  Some might find this a dangerous or unsettling process, but I think anything that gets us to reflect on God and the Bible is good.  I had to spend most of the day in the car yesterday, so had plenty of time to ponder this chapter.  I’ll share three very short vignettes with you that I came up with:

 

Sarah smiled down at the baby on her breast.  He had taken to feeding right away and seemed content.  She had been worried about so many things, even though Abraham told her not to be.  One of them was feeding this miraculous infant.  She had seen mothers much younger than her who’s milk had dried up or never been enough for their infants.  Some had supplemented with goat’s milk, some had wet-nurses to help them; but more than anything she remembered one poor woman who, no matter what she tried, could not get her baby to eat, and seemed to whither away as her child did.  But that would not be the case with Isaac, she was determined.  God willing, he would grow to be the man she and Abraham had dreamed of so for so many years.

***

There was not a hint of warmth in the sky when Abraham woke Hagar. There had never been any true love between them, but a shared affection had grown over their son Ishmael, whom Hagar could see Abraham adored.  Which was why she was surprised by his curt words.

“Gather your things, you must take Ishmael and go now,” Abraham said.

“Why? What has happened?” Hagar asked.

“Sarah is displeased, and the Lord has willed that this be so.”

Hagar put her meager belongings in a sack: a comb, two small clay bowls, a toy horse Ishmael had long outgrown but she kept as a reminder of the small child he no longer was. Abraham handed her a loaf of bread and some dried meat wrapped in cloth and a small skin of water. Abraham led Hagar and her son to the door of the tent, and put his hands upon their heads in blessing, “God be with you,” he said, and turned abruptly inside.  Ishmael, still bleary and half asleep, looked at his mother, confused.  Hagar’s anger welled up inside her, and she marched towards the desert, now pink with the rising sun, as if it had been her decision, as it had been years ago.

***

News of the birth of Abraham’s son by Sarah reached Abimelek, and he smiled.  He had fifteen sons by his wives and concubines, and knew the joy of securing a bloodline.  He also knew that now the time was right to summon Abraham for an oath of allegiance.  Was he afraid of Abraham? Abimelek had pondered on this question.  It is true, taking Sarah as his wife had caused great affliction in his court, and it seemed that Abraham was blessed beyond measure in everything he did, and to cross such a blessed man surely would bring no good to Abimelek or his kingdom.  No, he was not afraid of Abraham, as Abraham seemed to have no designs upon his throne.  But still, better now to ally Abraham in official treaty while his spirits were high from the birth of his son.  Yes, Abimelek thought, now is the time.

Genesis 20 – Just a Few Thoughts

Sarah as a cougar, Biblically acceptable incest, and Mamre.

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.”10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”

11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him.15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”

16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

I’m not contemplating any greater truths today, rather just addressing some things I find interesting and didn’t want to let go unmentioned.

This chapter is all about Sarah being taken-for the second time-as a wife by a king who coveted her.  Sometimes Bible timelines drift back and forth and aren’t exactly linear.  But it seems pretty clear that this happened after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, which was after God’s revelation that Sarah, now in her nineties, will bear Abraham a child.  Sarah was said to be beautiful, apparently still beautiful enough in her nineties to make her a prized addition to a royal harem. The Bible also said she was well past her child-bearing years (which makes sense for a nonagenarian), but people were still living rather long lifespans – Sarah lives to be 127, Abraham was 175 when he died.  Being a super nerd, let’s say she’s exactly 90 here, which means she’s lived 70% of her life.  Apply that to today’s average life span of 80 years, and she’s the equivalent of around 57, which, yes, could reasonably be called “well after childbearing years.”  So is Sarah some super-foxy cougar? Like a Biblical Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer?  I kind of get a kick out of that thought.

Second, let’s talk about incest.  It happens a lot in the Old Testament.  I was reading an article about it some time ago – I think something I stumbled upon when researching Chapter 10 or 11 of Genesis with all their long genealogies – that was explaining Deuteronomic or Levitical law and it’s views on marriage.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which article to source it.  But basically it said intergenerational incest was OK as long as it was through different sexed siblings.  AKA, it is alright for a man to marry his niece birthed by his sister, but not his niece birthed by his brother. This was all about reinforcing family lines and establishing alliances.  A woman was under her father’s rule until she married, then she was then under her husband’s rule.  If that woman’s brother marries her daughter, there is now a double-matrimonial link between the two families.  It makes for some pretty complex family webs.

So, is Sarah Abraham’s sister or not?  Some, including my NIV text notes, say it was a little bending of the truth when Abraham says so to Abimelek.  Many scholars identify Sarah with Iscah, mentioned in chapter 11.  I’m still not really sure why, since Sarah is mentioned separately in the same passage, but I’ll defer to their more in-depth studies.  If Sarah and Iscah are the same person, then Sarah would be Abraham’s neice – through his brother, yes, but this is before both Deuteronomic and Levitical law, so I guess that’s still OK, by Genesis standards.  Since grandfathers and even great-grandfathers were referred to as “father” (again, see all those genealogy passages we went through earlier), then technically Sarah could be called Abraham’s sister, because they share common ancestors. Even if Sarah is not Iscah, and her relation to Abraham is matrilineal, she is almost assuredly related. This would reinforce the idea of Abraham and his offspring coming from a people chosen by God, able to trace their lineage not only through their father but also their mother back to Noah, even back to Adam, through all the important patriarchs like Eber and Enoch who preceded Abraham.

Finally, I wonder if Abraham and Sarah were sad to leave Mamre.  I’m assuming they had been living there for some time before Ishmael was born, and Abraham is said to be eighty-six when that happened.  He was 100 when God and the two angels came to visit him, so I’m guessing they all lived in Mamre for at least twenty years, plenty of time to get attached to a place.  The “sacred trees of Mamre” aren’t mentioned here, but are specifically mentioned twice, in chapter 13 and chapter 18. I love that the author felt the need to mention not just the site name but also the trees, and I’ve kind of built it up in my mind as a really lovely spot: Shady and peaceful, a micro-climate of flora and fauna not found in the surrounding desert, almost a mini-Eden.  I’d be sad to leave it.

Those are just my asides for today.  I’d love to hear little observations you’ve come across if you’ve been reading any of these chapters, too!

Genesis 16 – Sarai and Hagar

Protecting the patriarchy and male supremacy.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Volumes have been written on these two women. Volumes.  This older US News article provides a good summary of some of the major themes and subjects that continue to attract us to this story, some of which include the similarities between Hagar’s story and the female African-American experience during slavery, and the origin of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tensions.

Coming at it from a decidedly feminist-revisionist standpoint (yes, I can totally admit that bias), the most interesting theory I’ve read while researching this chapter is that the writer was just as concerned with propping up male superiority and the patriarchal system as he was with illuminating the divine supremacy of God.  Again, according to the US News article, by illustrating that God, then considered male, has the ability to control female fertility, the author has established male superiority over the very female power of child-bearing.

I don’t want to come across as cynical, but I do wonder how much of this story was written to make Abram look good at the expense of Sarai and Hagar.  There are many examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but it’s generally accepted that the belief was polygamy was not meant to be the moral ideal – remember Lamech lusting after both Adah and Zillah?  Sarai offering Hagar to Abram is reminiscent of Eve offering Adam the apple.  Here is something tempting (a young girl, a delicious fruit) that will bring about something desired (an heir, knowledge) that the weaker woman (Sarai, Eve) offers to the apparently blameless or at the very least coerced man (Abram, Adam).  As to this male inculpability, Abram is often depicted in art history with his hand extended palm up while Sarai brings him Hagar, a symbol of rejecting responsibility or designating innocence.  But he still sleeps with Hagar…so how is he innocent of impatience and faithlessness while Sarai is guilty of being so? I just have a hard time holding only Sarai responsible for deciding Abram better sleep with Hagar, especially if so many other parts of this story are written to reinforce male dominance.  I can’t imagine the anguish Sarai was going through experiencing infertility for so long, especially in a time when fertility was kind of your defining trait as a woman.  That just doesn’t seem like the mindset that would arrive at a decision of “oh, yes, let this other beautiful, fertile woman sleep with my husband instead.”  I don’t believe Sarai was blameless, because that would be reductive in the other direction, but I do think she’s been given too much of the blame.

Also, if Abram was (at least partially) more responsible for deciding to sleep with Hagar than the writing of this story would lead us to believe, it would help explain the animosity between these two women a little more, and why Sarai mistreated the pregnant Hagar (16:6) and why in a few chapters she is insistent upon Hagar and Ismael being sent into the desert.

Really, the more I write about it the sadder I become.  They both became mothers of nations, but how fraught both these women’s lives were.  Hagar literally needs an angel to lift her out of her despair in this chapter.  It sounds like Sarai has reached a breaking point, herself.  The only thing I can say is – Ladies, let it be a reminder that we need to work cooperatively.  Gentlemen (and everyone else!) you can totally get in on this, too.  Let us not be jealous of each other’s successes, or gloat over each other’s short-comings.  Let us work to uplift each other.  We have generations of embedded male superiority to overcome still, as was made abundantly clear by the recent Bret Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford Senate hearings, MeToo movement, and other news stories of the past year.

So yes, maybe I am a little sad and a little cynical this morning.  But I’m going to channel that anger into productive change in Jesus’ name, and I hope you will, too.  A quick Google search of “how to empower women” or “how to promote gender equality” comes back with some great ideas.  Below, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite, and I hope you’ll be moved to participate in some of them:

  1. Support New Moms – This can be anything from locally to globally.  The wonderful ladies at my church in Charlottesville set up a meal train for me when Betty was born, and I didn’t have to cook for a month.  It. Was. Amazing.  Reach out to moms of newborns, if they are in your community.  You can also support moms in developing countries through programs like the White Ribbon Alliance and the International Women’s Health Coalition, among others.
  2. Support Female Entrepreneurs – shop female-owned businesses, mentor female entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, or just provide encouragement and positivity to women and girls with an entrepreneurial spirit.
  3. Encourage young girls in school, particularly in STEM programs – girls are super smart, but we’re not always taught to value that.  Mentoring a girl you know, or one through a program like Big Brothers, Big Sisters goes a long way towards building a girl’s confidence to do well in school.  Additionally, you can support female education worldwide through organizations like the Campaign for Female Education.
  4. Speak up – speak up when you see sexism at work.  Speak up for the rights of other gender minorities (aka trans or non-binary peoples), because we are stronger together.  Speak with your vote and elect female candidates and candidates that are committed to furthering gender equality.
  5. Keep talking.  I’d love to hear some other ways you all have supported the women in your lives (or how someone has supported you) – whether it’s an anecdotal story of person-to-person support, or an organization you think is doing good work, or whatever!  I look forward to hearing them.