God Saves Us Despite Our Rebellion

“What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” (Gen. 21:17)

By Julia Gatta

For ancient peoples, as for modern nations, it was important to tell the stories of the founding ancestors. These were the heroes of the past, whose combination of courage and vision shaped their nations at decisive moments, laying the foundations of law and custom and setting a high bar to inspire future generations. As school-age children we all heard stories of our founders that have become part of our national lore.

So it’s all the more remarkable, when we turn to the ancestral stories of the Old Testament, to see in them story after story of very flawed people. To be sure, the Old Testament is never without some admirable figures: at times we see, for example, Abraham’s faith, the perseverance of Moses, and the courage of the prophets.

But the writers of the Old Testament were not really all that interested in passing along tales of Hebrew heroes; they had another story to tell: of how God had saved them in Egypt, called them into a special covenant relationship with himself, and given them the twin blessings of a law by which to live and a land to live in.

God accomplishes these things out of his love — not because the Hebrews particularly deserve any of these benefits or graces — and the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures take some trouble to make that clear. And so the Old Testament is a decidedly anti-heroic book, showing how God saves his people despite their foibles or occasional rebellion against him.

The lesson we heard read this morning is from a part of the Book of Genesis that is called the “patriarchal history” — that is, it consists of a cycle of stories about the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the founding fathers, so to speak. The theme of these stories concerns the promise to Abraham to make from him and his descendants a great nation, God’s own people, and to lead them into the land of promise.

The story of Hagar and her son Ishmael is strangely out of sync with this forward march, and it says something profound about the universal perspective of the Hebrew writers that it’s in the Bible at all. For this is a tale of a mother and child who fall outside that group, who end up expelled from Abraham’s family. Yet they do not fall outside the scope of God’s love and providential concern.

We have to go back a few chapters to make sense of the actions of the principal characters in this story: Abraham; his wife, Sarah; her maid, Hagar; and two boys — both Abraham’s sons — Ishmael and Isaac. Much earlier, God had promised Abraham and Sarah a son, even though both were in advanced old age and childless. This would be the child who would become the “father of a multitude” — and to the Ancient Near Eastern mind, nothing could be a greater blessing than numerous descendants.

But as time wore on, no child was born. So Sarah, frustrated and impatient, decides to give God something of an assist. She proposes a solution to her sterility to Abraham that was considered both morally and legally acceptable. She would surrender her personal maid, Hagar — an Egyptian — to Abraham’s bed. If Hagar conceived, the child would be considered Sarah’s. When Hagar ends up giving birth to a son, Ishmael, the problem of an heir seems to be resolved — but in fact, the problems of this family are only just beginning.

Sarah’s plan backfires on her, and she feels threatened by Hagar. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she cannot abide the presence of these other two. Watching the boys Ishmael and Isaac play together as equals, she determines to send her rival packing. Abraham is brokenhearted when Sarah insists on their exile; Ishmael, after all, is his son, too. But in the end Abraham acquiesces to Sarah’s jealous pique. Oddly enough, God assures Abraham that he can take this step in good conscience because God has plans for each of these children.

Next we see Abraham, rising early in the morning to provide bread and water for Hagar and Ishmael before sending them on their way. Hagar has nowhere to head except south, towards her home in Egypt, but she gets lost in the wilderness. Before long all the water is gone; both she and the child are parched with thirst. Hagar knows they are doomed, but the more fragile child will die first. She cannot bear to watch, but she cannot bear to leave him, either. So she places the child under the shade of a bush, keeping watch from a distance.

The child is crying and so is Hagar. God hears their cries. Just as Moses would learn from the divine presence in the burning bush, God hears our cries and knows our distress. An angel speaks to Hagar as a voice from heaven, and the angel’s words are the same words of assurance an angel would speak to Joseph about taking Mary for his wife, or the angel would speak to the women at the tomb: “Do not be afraid.”

The angelic voice insists that Ishmael has a future, and a remarkable one at that. For the Hebrews, Ishmael’s descendants were their near neighbors to the south, the freewheeling, hunting, nomadic Bedouin people. For Muslims, Ishmael is their patriarchal ancestor. As the story ends, Hagar finds a well nearby, and in the course of time she finds a wife for Ishmael among her Egyptian people.

The patriarchal history in the Old Testament does not glorify the patriarchs; it glorifies God. In the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, none of the characters are shown at their best. Abraham is a bit weak-willed; the matriarch Sarah doubtful of God’s promise, conniving, and mean-spirited. The story of the chosen people is interrupted by this story of those who were not chosen.

Ishmael and his descendants were not the people of the covenant, but still beloved of God, people with a future and a divine destiny. God sends his angel to Hagar to save her and her son, Ishmael, just as later God would send his angel to Abraham to save his son, Isaac. God rescues people in the convoluted messes of their lives, starting with a family riddled with rivalry and jealousy and where, as is often the case, highly vulnerable children are caught in the crossfire.

Much, much later, St. Paul would write of God’s mercy: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). Christ’s love for us, going as far as it could to death by crucifixion, is the most definitive act of God on our behalf.

But the Bible indicates that God has been working like this all along. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, our dilemmas may be mixed up with our families. Or also like these figures, they may have still larger implications for society or for the future. Our muddles may have started, as Sarah’s did, with a minor infidelity toward God, ending with major consequences for everyone around her. We all stand in need of forgiveness; sometimes, outright rescue. None of us will escape death.

And so, not because we deserved it, but because we couldn’t; not because we could work it out for ourselves, but because we can’t, God sends not an angel to us but his Son. Baptism, as today’s epistle asserts, unites us to him, to his saving death and resurrection. This Eucharist is the ever-deeper living into that holy communion with our Lord, where the infinite depth of his mercy and life are there to rescue, refresh, and renew us.

The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology in the University of the South’s School of Theology.


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