Mercy in the Mess (A reflection on Genesis 16)

I wrote yesterday that I wanted to be intentional about spending time with the daily readings from the Hebrew Bible. Well, today’s is a doozy, filled with both the inspiring and deeply problematic elements we expect from these old stories.

God has promised Abraham (at this point in the story, Abraham and Sarah are still Abram and Sarai, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll call them by their later names) that he will be the father of many nations. But Abraham and his wife Sarah are getting impatient. They are now old, probably three times the life expectancy for their culture, and they still have not had the child God promised them. So, Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands and has Abraham sleep with her slave Hagar, but when her plan actually works and Hagar conceives Abraham’s child, Sarah becomes jealous and drives Hagar away. In the end, Hagar is instructed by God to return to Sarah. 

Wow. There’s a lot going on here. It seems like a good opportunity to put the five steps of my integral hermeneutic to good use: Experience, Encounter, Explore, Challenge, and Expand.

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Experience 

The first thing I noticed in reading the story is that no one comes off looking good. Abraham appears weak, allowing himself to be talked into the plan by Sarah. Sarah and Abraham both appear to lack faith in God’s promise — even if we can have some sympathy because God really was taking a long time! — and devise an objectively bad plan in response. (The plan is so bad that the problems that arise later come because it succeeded and not because it failed!) And even Hagar, who is unquestionably to our eyes a victim of the story, a powerless possession offered by Sarah for her husband’s use, doesn’t come off well, lording her successful conception and delivery over her mistress. 

But the second and more interesting thing I noticed is that the story is full of God’s mercy and grace. The humans have made a complete mess of things, trying to force the fulfillment of God’s promise through their own scheming and sowing division, harming relationships, and creating long-lasting questions about identity and inheritance in the process. Abraham and Sarah are still without the child of promise and their household has been broken. Hagar has been used and is now an unwed mother who has been instructed to return to the service of a woman who hates her. Ishmael, Hagar’s son, will grow up without the rights and responsibilities due to the firstborn son. And yet from this mess, each of them is blessed by God. God hasn’t given up on Abraham and Sarah and the master plan. God visits Hagar and promises her that her son will, just like his father, thrive and become the father of many nations. And this promise becomes God’s blessing upon Ishmael.

Encounter

This step instructs me to look at not my own experience of the text, but what the text itself might be trying to say. This story is part of the larger narrative of Israel’s patriarchs, the origin story of the people of God. Surrounded as they were by nations descended from Abraham’s less favored descendants, part of this origin story involves explaining how it could be that Israel’s forefather Isaac was the child of God’s promise to Abraham and not his older half-brother. Perhaps there’s another unspoken question at play in the story: if indeed Ishmael was not the child of God’s promise, why were his descendants so many and so powerful? As much as it is a story about God’s mercy, it’s also a story about the origin of Israel and its rivals. 

Explore

This step is a little beyond the scope of an early-morning Bible reading, but in the context of a fuller interpretive opportunity, the questions I would want to ask here are about the similarities and differences between this story and the later narrative of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21, which covers some of the same material but from a different perspective. I would also want to learn more about the role of slaves in nomadic Middle Eastern cultures so I could have a better sense of Hagar’s real standing within the clan and what rights her offspring from the head of the clan might legitimately expect within that culture.

Challenge

The challenge portion asks me to look critically at the text: What power dynamics are at play here? Whose story isn’t being told? Very clearly the text is trying to explain why Isaac is the child of promise and not his older brother. While God’s tendency to prefer the younger brothers eventually becomes a motif in the Scripture, it is not yet established at this point in the story. This is no small question. Not only was it clearly important for ancient Israel’s self-understanding, but it remains a live question to this day. In the Arab version of Abraham’s story, which is recorded in the Qur’an, it is Ishmael and not Isaac who is the child of God’s promise, and therefore the child who receives the fullness of God’s blessing and the rightful inheritor of Abraham’s land, which is in our day the disputed land of Israel and Palestine.

There are also difficult questions about the power dynamic, particularly between the two women. While Hagar is blessed in the story, the bulk of the difficulty is placed on her shoulders: She must sleep with her mistress’s husband; she must give birth to the child; she must deal with Sarah’s envy and feels she must flee for her life and the life of her son; and, in the end, she must return to the household she has just fled. It’s to the text’s credit that it doesn’t erase her from the story in its focus on Abraham and Sarah, but it’s still very much not her story. It also reminds me of the undue and utterly unfair pressure on women in traditional societies to have children. For a woman to not be a mother was the ultimate shame, and she would be viewed by society and her family as a failure. There is no doubt that this pressure is part of what motivated Sarah to act as she did: even if she couldn’t give Abraham the heir he “deserved,” she could at least make it happen.

Expand

In this step, we bring the different pieces together and see how the expanded reading might encourage us to grow. What stood out to me through this process is the law of unintended consequences: the butterfly effect of our decisions and actions. God stays with this messy situation, but the result of Abraham and Sarah’s scheming remains that the life of their son Isaac and his descendants will forever be more complicated, surrounded by rivals with a very different story of what went down between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Not only is it a story that warns us about the unintended impacts of our decisions, but also what can happen when we see other people as means to our own ends. This whole plan was Sarah’s idea, but she ends up filled with anger and envy at Hagar’s “success” where she had “failed.” Those quotation marks also remind me of the dangers of having too narrow an idea of what success and legitimate contribution to society. Sarah is a smart woman, beloved by her husband, and likely a very important behind the scenes contributor to his immense success and wealth; and yet, she is driven to desperation by her culture’s insistence on child-bearing being a woman’s main goal in life. In this way she too is a tragic figure in the story.

But my initial impression of the story still stands: This is a very messy situation, but God’s blessing and mercy flows within it. The situation will always be more complicated because of what Abraham and Sarah decided to do, but God blesses the mess anyway. And so the story calls me to think of the unintended consequences of my decisions and actions, particularly as they relate to others. It reminds me to lift up others for what they are contributing positively rather than focusing on what they aren’t. It reminds me that there are always (at least) two sides to every story, and that God’s blessing can be found in both of them. Even those on the outside of the story can be blessed within it. But most of all, it reminds me that there is no mess I can make that is too messy for God to bless. God’s mercy is big enough. God’s love and forgiveness, God’s grace, are big enough for all of the world’s messes, including mine.

And thank God for that!

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