Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name [was] Hagar.
Thus begins one of the most shameful episodes in the life of Abraham, and arguably one of the most devastating for the world (see Note below). I must admit, it makes me wonder whether God should have also appeared to Sarai (Saray, princess or ruler), or at least been more explicit to Abraham that she was included in the promise of a child. As it was, her barrenness (lo’ yalad) makes her turn to Hagar (Hagar, flight):
And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
A fateful act of listening (shama`). One can’t help but wonder what was going through Abram’s mind. Did he seriously believe that this was the intended means God provided for him to bear a child? That Yahweh (Y@hovah) had deliberately shut up (`atsar ) Sarah’s womb? Was he just tired of waiting? Or, perish the thought, did he just enjoy the idea of his wife giving him a young bedmate, and not think too closely about it?
And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
It seems that this was not an unusual situation, and perfectly legal according to the law/custom of the day. Regardless, bigamy is clearly against God’s design of marriage as one man, one woman cleaved for a lifetime. And, frankly, a second wife is really a stupid idea, as Sarah soon discovers to her regret:
And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes
Okay, who didn’t see that coming? Well, Sarah, who blames Abram:
And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong [be] upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.
Actually, I tend to side with Sarah on this. It really is Abram’s fault. He was the one who had the promise of God. And, all debate about male leadership aside, I fully believe in male responsibility. Abram clearly abdicated sound judgment by going along with his wife’s reckless scheme to ‘help’ God fulfill His promise — rather than confronting and comforting her with the promise of God. And he does the same thing again:
But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid [is] in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.
An ugly scene. Yet, amazingly, God intervenes where Abram falls short:
And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.
The messenger of Yahweh (mal’ak Y@hovah) makes his first appearance right here, not to a faithful patriarch, but his despised second wife. Whether or not this is a pre-incarnate Christ, he surely speaks with divine authority:
And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.
I am struck most by the irony. This mirrors the promise given to Abram — but it is given to Hagar, of all people. I can’t help but suspect that if Sarah had cried out to God, instead of scheming her own way, she might have received this very promise.
And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou [art] with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.
That’s truly a mind-boggling assertion: Yahweh hears affliction (shama` `oniy). He doesn’t just respond to offerings, or faithfulness, or the strong. He is the God who will hear (Yishma`el). Of course, that doesn’t mean Ishmael won’t suffer from his dysfunctional parenting:
And he will be a wild man; his hand [will be] against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.
A fine mess, which arguably continues to this day. God can bless and preserve despite our mistakes; yet those very mistakes and failures leave an indelible mark, which can sow destruction for countless generations. We must be mindful of who we listen to, as well as who is listening to us. And watching (ro’iy):
And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?
God, I confess that I have failed to listen to you, and abdicated my responsibility to my wife. Teach me to take responsibility for what happens in my household, and to lovingly engage with my wife and family if I see their behavior is not glorifying you. I pray also for all of us who call Abraham father, that we would repent of the abusive neglect that has too often characterized our mutual relationships. Teach us your ways, that we might walk humbly before you, the God who sees. Both sides. Amen.
I realize there is often debate about whether Arabs are Ishmaelites and descendants of Abraham. But, that’s really besides the point: many Muslims consider themselves the legitimate heirs of Abraham, and I believe that Story is the reality we must work with, rather than waste time trying to fight it. Let us seek to find common ground as spiritual children of Abraham to live up to the best of his legacy, rather than too often living down to the worst of it.