Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

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.

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