Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent 15: Sarah, a Postscript

"Abraham and Sarah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

This comes in two parts.

First, the "binding of Isaac" in chapter 22 of the book of Genesis has other layers of meaning than as a precurser to the cross. It is arrogant of Christians to layer a particular theology of the cross (of which there are many) on this Hebrew text.

One very pragmatic assertion about the story is that it is one of the many stories in Genesis that falls under the category of etiology. Examples: How was the world created? (God spoke it into being.) How did we get language? (The arrogance of those who built the Tower of Babel.)

The question this text answers is, "How did God's covenant people step away from the ancient practice of human sacrifice?"Genesis gives us a story of a man who believes he hears that God desires a particular sacrifice, and who then learns that, no, that is not what God wants at all.

Second: The monologue I posted yesterday was in reaction (my strong reaction) to the story, and in particular, to the fact that Sarah has no voice in the story. Sarah has borne the burden of this covenant promise of children. She has borne it, even to the point of losing her own humanity in casting out another mother and child, and being willing to be responsible for their perishing. That she is sequestered away from this episode, that we do not get even a glimpse of her anguish (or the cruelty of the possibility that she has not been told), is a painful gap in the story. I am not the first to wonder: Is this what killed her?

It seemed important to give this flawed and fascinating woman at least one final opportunity to speak her love and possibly her terror and anticipatory grief. Sarah deserved her say.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lent 14: The Caprice of God, and the Death of Sarah

I have had a difficult time posting this entry, partially because I am caught up in the madness that is a pastor's Lent. But it is most because this is a painful part of Sarah's story, and one that takes an emotional toll.

In Genesis 22, Abraham receives an unimaginable command from God to sacrifice this child, Isaac, whose birth and existence has consumed so much of this narrative so far, and whose coming was promised by God as part of the divine covenant with Abraham and Sarah.

Is God as capricious and cruel as this?

Christians have used this story as a precurser narrative, equating it with the theology identifying Jesus as the substituting sacrifice to atone for all humanity's sins.

I don't actually believe that to be true. But it is beyond the scope of what I intend here, which is to ponder the lives and experience of some women in the biblical narrative.

In this week, when the community in which I live is grieving the loss of not one but two children-- one, an 18-year-old college freshman, and the other, a seven year-old-- I can only read this passage as a mother, in the long run, helpless to protect her children from whatever cruel caprice life may have in store.

Below, an imagined monologue of Sarah.


Where can they be? It's been days.  What kind of foolish errand have I allowed?

When Abraham told me he wanted to take my son, my only son Isaac, whom I love, off to the God-forsaken land of Moriah, for the purpose of taking part in a sacrifice... the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I felt a chill. How far is it... perhaps 55 miles? 60? 

I know what they say about Moriah: It is a holy place. It is a place where God meets men and speaks to them. It is a place that is fought over by warring tribes, each believing their God wants them to have it.

Well, Abraham has met and spoken with God in any number of places. In Haran. At Shechem. In the hill country, east of Bethel. By the terebinths of Mamre. Here! In this very place? Why Moriah? Why now?

If I am honest, I have seen a change come over my husband. It would be easy to say it is age... but this has been sudden. These last few days. A cloud has descended upon him. I come upon him, and his eyes tell me he is far, far away, in some misty recesses of thought or feeling to which I have no access. Maybe he's with his God. How should I know? But he has a haunted look, the look of a man who wishes he did not know what he knows, or wishes he did not have to do what he must do.

And then... I saw it last night. A cheer had come over him, but when I looked closer, more deeply into those eyes I have been looking into for... how many dozens of years?... I could see, it wasn't a cheer at all. It was resignation. A decision, which always lightens the mood, terrible though it may be.

What is this terrible decision?

And why does it terrify me, that Isaac is somehow involved?

Listen to me... the ramblings of a fond old woman, with but one child to love, and to tend, and to fuss over. If I'd been able to give Abraham a houseful of children I wouldn't give it a second thought, seeing my son helping him to pack their provisions and give is father a leg up onto that old donkey. Watching them grow smaller as they walk away towards... their goal. Seeing them side by side is what did it... Abraham's age blooms in the presence of Isaac's beautiful youth. As Isaac becomes a young man, his father wears his age even more heavily, a burden making his shoulders droop.

Why is it that my heart clenches so within me?

Where is he? My son, my only son Isaac, whom I love?

Where are they?

What is it? What has that God of Abraham's has asked of him now?

My dread grows with every passing hour. I feel sick... my breath comes in short bursts... 

Where are they?

Where is he?


At the conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Moriah (believed by some scholars to be Jerusalem), there is some brief business involving family names. The next chapter opens with the news that Sarah is dead.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lent 13: Hagar: The Tears

"Hagar and Ishmael" by Abel Pann (1883-1963)

It was never going to last.

(Read the next part of the story here (NRSV) and then here (CEB).)

By my count, Hagar hung in for fourteen years as the slave-who-was-also-the-mother-of-the-heir (by my calculations Ishmael was about fourteen years old when Isaac was born).

During that time, there is no evidence that her status as Ishmael's mother protected her from the harsh treatment that caused her to run away.

Nor is there evidence she continued to be harshly treated.

It is a hole in the story. Since it is about the well-being of a slave, this shouldn't surprise us.

Then, with a new heir by the mistress of the household... it is entirely possible that Hagar's status dropped in the eyes of Abraham. Any protection or special treatment he offered her was no longer required. Her son was no longer the heir. By the law and custom of that era, he was a slave, just like his mother.

Isaac was weaned, when? Age three? Four?

Meaning, this incident took place when Ishmael was seventeen or eighteen. A young man.

As translated here, the incident that awakened Sarah's rage (or, perhaps, the incident she was waiting for....?) makes no sense.

Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. ~ Genesis 21:8b-9

 "Playing with," with no hint of malice, doesn't account for what happens next.

The King James Version translates the word, "mocking."

It turns out, the word can be used to mean "playing," "mocking," or "sporting," which has even caused a few exegetes to envision sexual misconduct on Ishmael's part, because "sporting" contains a sexual undertone in an entirely unrelated passage ("behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife..." Genesis 26:8, KJV).

Here's what the Common English Bible says, and I think it's a very canny translation:

Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. (21:9)

Turns out, in the Hebrew, Isaac is nowhere near this sentence.

Of course, anyone who heard this in the original Hebrew would have know exactly what was going on.

Remember: Immediately before this passage is the story of the birth of Isaac, whose name means "laughter," and who brought joy and laughter to both his parents.

There was no room in this household any longer, for the laughter of Ishmael.

I believe Sarah was looking for an opportunity to get rid of the teenager who must have continued to remind her of the pain she had experienced when seeing another woman-- a slave, even-- pregnant with her husband's baby.

That was over. Out they went. It was never going to last.

The thing pained Abraham, we are told, but not enough so that he would give the boy and his mother anything resembling an inheritance for their well-being. He gave them enough for a day or two-- the classic prisoner's ration of some bread and water--and, reassured by God that they would be looked after, sent them off, again, into the wilderness.

Again, we see the seams in the narrative... for those of us keeping track (me), the "child in the sling" or "on his mother's shoulder" doesn't make a lot of sense. The story was told, and told again, and the final editor(s) of Genesis decided to piece together this version and that, and what we have are ages that don't go with a particular version. It's ok. We'll be ok.

This version highlights the desolation of Hagar in the wilderness, with a son, however old, who was at risk of dying there.

She settled her child where she wouldn't see him dying (a strange thing, for any mother... but can anyone truly place themselves in this story, and claim to know what someone would have/ should have done?). 

And then Hagar "cried out in grief, and wept."

The passage assures us that God heard Hagar's cries, and sent help, and that Hagar's eyes were opened and she saw a well (eyes, again!). The passage wants us to believe all will be well with these two, because the passage, honestly, is ashamed of what has been done to them.

Maybe it is Israel's later experience of slavery in Egypt that is being forecast here. Maybe there is empathy for a slave, even in the telling of this story, about who is the right and proper heir. 

But I do believe that the editors felt shame at the casting out of a woman and her son from even the no-status status of being slaves, into a hostile wilderness with nothing and no one to provide for them.

The story betrays itself: It is ashamed of what has been done to these two.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lent 12: Sarah: The Laughter

"Sarah" by Indira Bailey

The first verses of Genesis 21 return us to creation story mode; we are speaking in poetry, a poetic couplet:

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, 
and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised... 

Sarah did indeed conceive, beautiful ninety-year-old Sarah... but for the next several lines, the narrative celebrates, not the son of Sarah's old age, but of Abraham's.

Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 

Scripture tells us stories of remarkable women. That we even know their names is remarkable, for the culture of patriarchy which brought us their stories. This passage firmly reminds us; this is a story about men and their nations, men and their accomplishments in old age, men and their sons.

The story returns us to the foreshadowed joy of chapter 18 in the next verses, though, and Sarah pushes her way to the forefront of the narrative again. 

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

It is a brief moment of recognition, affirmation, even speech. Sarah gets to speak, and this time, not in her fury, but in her joy. 

It does not last long. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Lent 11: Sarah: What, Again?!?

Detail "Sarah Taken to Pharaoh's Palace," Tissot


In Genesis Chapter 20 (you can read it here), Abraham once again pulls the "she's my sister" thing, and Sarah once again is taken into the keeping of a king who thinks she's quite a dish. At ninety.

And you know what? I know some gorgeous ninety-year-old women. I don't doubt Sarah's allure one bit.


Now that that's out of my system...

These wife-sister stories (as the scholars call them) betray an enormous amount of anxiety of the issue of succession and legitimacy.

This story differs from the first in a number of ways, but here are the most significant:

In the the earlier version (blogpost here), it is possible... even likely... that Sarai (as she was still called then) did indeed have sexual relations with the Pharaoh. In this version, great pains are taken to demonstrate that Sarah did not have relations with Abimelech... which is helpful to the overall story, because the very. next. thing. is the announcement of Sarah's pregnancy and the birth of Isaac.

When Abimelech calls Abraham out on his deception, Abe drops mic with the following:

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. ~ Genesis 20:11-12

Oh, biblical times. 

W. Sibley Towner, with a straight face, says, "At least he is not a liar." (Westminster Bible Companion).

Just look at Sarah's face. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent 10: In which we interrupt the story of Sarah to explain the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah

"Abraham and the Three Angels" by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

When we look at scripture in our church's Monday evening bible study, we always pay attention to context. In fact, the way we most frequently approach scripture is by reading a single book all the way through. So, each time we meet, we begin with "Now, last time, we were reading..." and we move on from there.

It is vitally important to understand: the story of Abraham and Sarah's hospitality is linked with the "sin" of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are one story, and they illuminate one another.

The story of the last post was titled "On Hospitality. And Laughter." I used the last post to talk, a bit, about the Ancient Near East culture of hospitality, as I understand it.

Immediately after that passage concludes, the story turns to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,  seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” ~ Genesis 18:16-21

Remember: The chapter began with three men visiting Abraham and Sarah, and then the three men (or one of them?) was identified as "The LORD." There is a similarly slippery identification going on here. "Three men" become "the LORD" and two angels. Talking amongst themselves/ Godself, they wonder: Shall we let Abraham know what's about to go down?

Sodom and Gomorrah are already known as places where righteousness and justice are not practiced or honored. The LORD is ready to render judgment.

In verse 22, the "men" and the LORD separate again  Two men (angels?) head towards Sodom, and Abraham has an extended conversation with the LORD (read it here) in which he attempts to bargain for the life of the city. In the end, the LORD promises to save the city if there are only ten righteous men in it.

In chapter 19 we encounter the source of the confusion about Sodom and Gomorrah. The two men, now identified as angels, come to the city. They are greeted by Lot, who offers them good hospitality, just as his uncle had. The angels/ men want to spend the night in the square, but Lot strongly urges them to come under his roof-- i.e., his protection.

You know what happens next: the "men of the city" try to gain access to the strangers, in order to gang rape them. (Lot offers his virgin daughters, rather than yield the travelers to whom he has promised hospitality, i.e., safety.

For a long time this story has been a favorite Christian proof text in support of the argument that what is being condemned here is "homosexual behavior."

Gang rape of men by men is not homosexual behavior, any more than gang rape by men of women is heterosexual behavior. The crime that is attempted here is about violence and power and fear of the "stranger"-- the traveler. 

This is a crime against hospitality.

This story is presented over and against the perfect biblical depiction of hospitality because the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah is inhospitality-- refusing to welcome the stranger, but instead, preying upon him.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. ~Ezekiel 16:49

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogposts.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lent 9: On Hospitality. And Laughter

"Three Figures Announce to Abraham the Birth of Isaac " by Alexander Ivanov (early 19th c.)

It's like a dream.

It's a warm day, by the oaks of Mamre. As the heat rises from the ground, Abraham takes shelter at the entrance to his tent.

He is neither in nor out, but he is at the threshold. He is in a liminal space, a space where anything is possible, anything might happen, all possible futures still stand open. He is not what or who he will be; nor is he who he has been.

In the heat of the day, three figures arrive.

Abraham receives them as royalty. He invites them to rest under a tree, to take some water to wash their feet (and, presumably, to drink), and to rest while he brings them "some bread." (Actually, while Sarah prepares a feast.)

This is biblical hospitality. This is how you are supposed to receive anyone-- anyone-- who shows up at your dwelling. In a climate where it is often too hot and there is usually a real hunt for water, knee-jerk hospitality is a strict part of the social compact. Anyone could die out there; next time, it could be you.

So, this is how you receive guests. This is all exactly the way it should be.

After serving the bread and some yogurt and the calf Abraham has slaughtered and Sarah has prepared, Abraham stands under the tree near his guests while they eat.

It has to have been hours since they arrived. Abraham slaughtered a calf and Sarah cooked it.

It starts to get weird when the conversation begins.

Where's Sarah, your wife? they ask.

She's inside...

Then one of them says,

“I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him...  ~ Genesis 18:10

It is like a dream. 

Sarah is standing at the entrance of the tent.

She is neither in nor out, but she is at the threshold. She is in a liminal space, a space where anything is possible, anything might happen, all possible futures still stand open. She is not what or who she will be; nor is she who she has been.

In the midst of the dreamy scene, the alert biblical reader notices some seams in the story; we are told something we already know, as if we don't know it. 

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  ~ Genesis 18:11

And Sarah cackles to herself, at the thought that she might know the pleasure of sex again.

Sarah laughs.

And now the dreaminess returns... because, suddenly, it's not "three men," but "the LORD," who calls Sarah out on her laughter.

(Abraham laughed too. No one called him out on it. Just saying.)

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? I/ We will be back this time next year, and there will be a bouncing baby boy for you two crazy kids.

And the scene ends on a repeat and fade.

"I didn't laugh."

"Yes, you did."

"Did not."

"Did too."

And, scene.