Genesis 21: 1-21
Last week Sara gave up on God's promise that she would have a son, and insisted that Abraham have a child with her slave, Hagar. This created tension between Sara and Hagar and Sara became abusive. Hagar ran away, but God told her to go back and promised that her son would also become the father of a nation. Hagar returned to Abraham and Sara and later gave birth to her son Ishmael. Almost fifteen years later the story continues . .
And the Lord singled out Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the set time that God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.
And Abraham circumcised Isaac his son when he was eight days old, as God had charged him. And Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac his son was born to him.
And Sarah said, “Laughter has God made me, whoever hears will laugh at me.” And she said, “Who would have uttered to Abraham, Sarah is suckling sons! For I have born a son in his old age.”
And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, laughing.
And Sarah said to Abraham, “Drive out this slave girl and her son, for the slave girl's son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”
And the thing seemed evil in Abraham's eyes because of his son. And God said to Abraham, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes on account of the lad and on account of your slave girl. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slave girl's son too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.”
And Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, and he gave her the child, and sent her away, and she went wandering through the wilderness of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she flung the child under one of the bushes and went off and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away, for she thought, “Let me not see when the child dies.” And she sat at a distance and raised her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the lad and God's messenger called out, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad's voice where he is. Rise, lift up the lad and hold him by the hand for a great nation will I make of him.”
And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water and she went and filled the skin with water and gave to the lad to drink. And God was with the lad and he grew up and dwelled in the wilderness, and he became a seasoned bowman. And he dwelled in the wilderness of Paran and his mother took him a wife from the land of Egypt.
These are not easy stories for us to deal with, are they. For two weeks in a row we have Sarah abusing her slave, Hagar, and God seeming to condone it. In last week's story God even told Hagar to go back to Sarah after she ran away.
As someone who spent a number of years working in shelters for abused women, that part is particularly hard to take. But then I remind myself that when reading these stories, we have to read with lenses of that time and culture, not with lenses of our 21st century North American culture.
That's not to say that Sarah's treatment of Hagar is okay, but rather that by looking at the story with eyes of that culture, we can see more clearly what the message really is. Because obviously the story is not saying that abuse is okay.
Sarah is not held up as a hero, in fact in both stories Hagar is hero, which is significant. So let's take a deeper look at today's story.
I think you'll find that relates much more closely to our times than you might think at first glance. It begins with a miracle. After 25 years of promises, God finally “singles out Sarah” and she conceives. She is 90 and Abraham is 100 when Isaac is born. Isaac means, he who laughs.
When Isaac is old enough to be weaned, which in that culture was probably toddler, around 2, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar's son, laughing with Isaac.Is he teasing Isaac or playing with him? We don't know, the Hebrew is unclear. Whatever the case, it causes Sarah to see Ishmael as a threat to Isaac. Isaac is older, and from what we can tell, he is a strong, well built boy. What if Araham decides to make Ishmael his heir instead of Isaac? Then all Sarah's sacrifice and pain will have been for nothing. Sarah is scared, and fear leads as it so often does, to misplaced anger.
“Drive out this slave girl and her son,” Sarah says to Abraham. Clearly Abraham has some affection for Hagar and Ishmael, as he is distressed by what Sarah is asking. This is where it gets hard for us, because God tells Abraham to do what Sarah wants. But God does it as part of greater plan. As promised to Hagar when she ran away while pregnant, God will make a great nation of Ishmael as well. And the reality is, that can only happen if Ishmael is away from Isaac, who would be considered Abraham's true heir and would always overshadow Ishmael.
So once again Hagar finds herself out in wilderness, because of Sarah's anger, only this time she is not alone, she has her son with her. When their water runs out she is desperate, and prepares to die. Once again God appears to her and speaks to her. Remember that she is the only woman in the Old Testament to whom God speaks directly, Hagar a slave and an Egyptian. God reminds her of that promise that from Ishmael will come a great nation, God gives her water and guides her on her way.
It's harsh, but what would have stood out to the people of that time is God remembering an unimportant slave woman and her son, God treating them with the same respect as Sarah and Isaac. In fact, in some ways God treats Hagar with more respect. God never speaks directly to Sarah, never gives her any assurance or guidance when she is distressed. It's not that Sarah is less deserving of God's attention, but rather that this echoes Jesus' actions in the gospels, where he goes not to those who are considered righteous, but rather to those in need, those on margins.
Now, you may be thinking, this is nice, but it sounds a lot like last week's message. Never fear, I have a new direction. I wasn't actually going to focus on this part of story, I was going to focus on Sarah and her finally getting pregnant, but then as happens sometimes, current events interfered. The more I read articles and saw news clips of the situation in Nova Scotia with the conflict between non-indigenous fishermen and the First Nations band trying to start their own fishery, the more I saw connections with this reading.
If you have been following the news, you will have seen how a Mi'kmaq band in Nova Scotia have been trying for years to start their own fishery. A Supreme Court decision 21 years ago confirmed their right to fish for a moderate livelihood, based on a treaty from the 1700's, but the government has been very slow in coming up with the details. The Mi'kmaq finally decided to just start their own fishery. This upset non-indigenous commercial fishermen because the First Nations fishers are not following the same rules. They were fishing during the off season, when the lobster are breeding and moulting. Non-Indigenous fishermen had been told they weren't permitted to fish during that time because it could cause numbers to go down. So they asked how come the Mi'kmaq could fish at that time and they couldn't?
It didn't take long to go from questions, to arguing to violence. I've worked in several fishing villages over the years, so I have some sense of what's going on in the minds of fishermen. I remember talking to fishermen in Harrington Harbour, on the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, who had lost nearly everything when the cod stocks plummeted. I talked with fishermen in Nova Scotia who worried about making their mortgage payments when the price of lobster went down so low they couldn't even cover the cost of fuel to go out to get their traps.
Over the years many rules have been imposed on the fishing industry and not all of them make sense to the fishermen, yet at the same time they are worried that if the rules aren't followed, the numbers will go down and more restrictions will be imposed.
It's understandable that people in the commercial fishing industry are scared by this new fishery that doesn't follow the same rules. Unfortunately, fear often leads to the inability to listen, to understand the bigger picture, and then that fear leads to anger.
Fear and anger are understandable, but violence is not, especially violence that is clearly rooted in racism. And yet isn't racism so often rooted in fear. We see this happening in the story for today.
Once again Sarah's actions are abusive and unacceptable and once again they are rooted in fear, fear that her long awaited son is threatened by Hagar's son Ishmael – and so Sarah lashes out in violence.
There are definitely elements of racism in her violence towards Hagar and Ishmael. Not only is Hagar a slave, an object in Sarah's eyes, but Hagar also is Egyptian, the epitome of “foreign” in the Old Testament. Hagar is as “other” from Sarah as is possible, making her an easy target for Sarah's fear and anger.
What is God's response to this situation of racism and violence in the Bible? To uphold those being attacked, to say that Hagar and Ishmael are as valued as Sarah and Isaac and are worthy of covenant in the same way.
How does that connect to the situation in Nova Scotia today? It tells us that in God's eyes, people being oppressed are to be treated with even more respect than those who are not. It tells us that as people of faith on the other side of country, the most important thing we can do is NOT to look away and say that it doesn't involve us. If there is anything we have learned over the past six months of protests over racism, it's that everyone's attitude matters.
It's encouraging to see that the response in the media and among Canadians across the country is changing. Before when there were issues with First Nations groups over treaty rights, Canadians tended to look away or blame the First Nations or just be apathetic. Now we are listening to what is happening, it dominated the news for a number of days. There have been demonstrations in Halifax with non-indigenous people standing up with First Nations people for the rights of Indigenous groups to fish, people sharing posts on Facebook with information to better understand the situation.
Even more encouraging, many in the commercial fishing industry are trying to hear and to understand the rights of the Mi'kmaq to fish. The President of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association condemned the violence and said
“Dialogue is the only way forward.”
So there is a lot of hope. As people of faith, we are called to be a part of that dialogue, whenever and however we can. The first step is to be aware of our own unconscious bias, aware of any unconscious negativity towards Indigenous people or any other people of color. We might not like to admit it, but we know it's there, that's why there are so many books right now about identifying white privilege and seeing racism.
Once we've taken an honest look at our own attitudes, we are called to keep learning, to participate in dialogue, to raise awareness of racism, to name it and the fear that lies behind it, and to help each other move beyond it.
I saw a beautiful video of a country song this week called Seeds. It's by Rissi Palmer, a female black country artist, which is quite a statement on its own, coming in a white male dominated industry. The song is about how the only way to overcome racism is for people of all races to work together to change attitudes. She says we are the seeds of a new way of being in the world.
I'd like to end with its chorus, as words of inspiration for us.
And when we rise up / No weapon can stop us /
No wall can block us / No hate can’t stop love / We are seeds!
May God help us all to be seeds of love and justice.
[To watch the Seeds video, click here]