Hagar and Ishmael – Held on Sunday, December 2, 2012

Gen. 21: 09 – 21 – Hagar and Ishmael


I brought up two points that developed over the previous week.

The first had to do with something that Ken had shared. He mentioned something that happened to him while listening to the give and take of questions and answers that occurred while he was listening to Catholic Radio. He realized that often times he would not know the answer to a question until he actually heard the answer but somehow he knew that that answer was his answer too. It was as though he understood something but couldn’t put it into words but hearing the answer did just that. I thought that Ken’s experience is a common one that we all might be able to relate with. At the same time, we might not think that Jesus himself shared in that experience in a way too. Theologically we believe that Jesus as God knew all that God knows but as man he had to grow in knowledge and grace. How can this be? Well the knowledge that Jesus had was, technically speaking, ineffable, that is, a knowledge without words. Jesus had to grow to find the right words to express what he knew. His growth began with learning a specific language, Aramaic, and that language had its inherent limitations of the first century of our times. Something for us to think about …

A second point came out of the bulletin again,http://www.stanthonyallsaintscanton.org, in reflectingon the readings, the article stated, “God’s Word always comes to specific human beings in concrete situations. It’s not airy, floating in the clouds.” The Bible, indeed, is an account of the God’s word coming to specific human beings in concrete situations; that’s true. The Bible is also human words and those words share in the human consciousness out of which they [the words] emerge. Thus the words are rooted in time and place, limited by the culture of the authors, etc. In reading the Bible we can easily take the words to mean what they mean to us. A simple example that came out in our discussion today was the word, messenger. Heber pointed out in our discussion that it was a messenger that spoke to Hagar. We had a lengthy discussion on just that one word.

If we recall that this sequence of stories began with three messengers appearing to Abraham. We learn later that one of the messengers is the Lord and that the two other messengers go on to meet with Lot and then deal with the people Sodom and Gomorrah. “Messenger” is word that conveys God communicating with human beings. Later we will read that God communicated in dreams, think of Joseph for example. Over time God’s messengers were angels sent from God. We then developed an entire world view of good angels lead by Michael, bad angels lead by Satan, an epic war, angels sent down to lead us astray, tempt us, guardian angels to protect us. In time the messengers became the message.

The point is that God communicates to us and as Tim was to say that God communicates is the important thing not how he communicates. God’s word is concrete, yes. But like Ken in our first point we don’t always know how to express the very concrete experience we have. And it is extremely rare that God sends a concrete messenger who knows that he or she, the messenger, is sent from God. Most often, as Carol remarked, it is the message that resonates with us. Someone just says something, something just happens and we think of this as God’s message. There is a huge issue though, and that is the issue of discernment. History is replete with people who thought that God was telling them to do something; the something was in fact not from God but a justification of what the person or his/her group want to do. Think of all the people who did and do awful things and justify it by quoting the Bible. Ultimately the discernment is not in the words but in the actions that follow. If we mirror Christ, love your enemies, do good to those that persecute you, feed the hungry, etc., then we can be pretty sure that such message was from God; otherwise it probably was not.

This part of our discussion led to Ken making a telling remark. He argued that it is hard to get out of our own way of thinking. We think of literature in terms of fact or fiction; one real, the other not. Faryl added that one of the more difficult things to accomplish in the reading of any literature is knowing what the theme, plot, lesson of the literature is meant to be. She sees the Bible as filled with the symbolic which isn’t grasped or appreciated unless we can get pass the concrete. For me, “concrete” is a tricky word though. It some sense the symbolic is concrete; it’s an image that awakens in us feelings. Children are often afraid of the dark and the dark is concrete. This discussion proved to be very fruitful and is evidence of the value of an adult scripture group gathering to hear and share what the words, story means.


Doublets occur a number of times in the Abraham cycle. This story of Hagar and Ishmael is one, we’ve also read of two stories dealing with Sarah in which she is portrayed as Abraham’s sister, the story of Lot has two sequences to as does stories of the covenant. Readings the notes will add a few points of explanation that help to grasp the meaning of this story. http://www.usccb.org/bible/genesis/21

This story once again resonates with many but not all contemporary Muslims who would trace their lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael. Sarah is portrayed as deeply concerned to protect the inheritance of her son, Isaac. Abraham is torn between the request of Sarah and his love of his son, Ishmael. The narrator makes clear that Hagar is both Egyptian and a slave and her wandering aimlessly in the desert can’t help but bring to mind the wandering of the Israelites themselves. But it is God’s role that stands out. He tells Abraham to do whatever Sarah is asking of him, that it is through Isaac that the promise of ancestry will be fulfilled; God listens to the cry of Ishmael, responds to Hagar, saves them, and promises to raise a great nation from Ishmael too.

In many ways it is difficult to hear this story for what it is, that is, an account of the care and concern that God has for the non-Israelites. It is sad for me to read how Ishmael has become, even to this day, a divisive symbol among Jew and Muslim. To the extent that my observation has any reality to it, it points to the need to read the Book in search of its actual meaning. A key to doing so is to read with a questioning but disciplined mind, in search of the meaning that the author / narrator is conveying. I continue to repeat, therefore, our questions as an aid in our search.

Our Questions

For the sake of completeness I will include in our blog the basic questions that guide us in hearing the passages we study each week.

  1. First who are the characters and what role does each play? To the extent that we can identify
    1. what the characters say and do, or
    2. don’t say and do but we would expect them to do so, and
    3. finally when they enter into the passage and leave it

We can more easily and more accurately know what their role is from the point of view of the author and / or the editor of the passage.

  1. The “when” question is quite complicated and again for the sake of completeness; there is
    1. The “when” within the story / passage itself,
    2. The “when” of the editor, and most importantly,
    3. The “when” of our life at the time we are actually reading / studying the passage.
  2. What is the plot, the point of the passage?
  3. Finally, because each passage is at one and the same time the word of human beings and the Word of God, there is revealed the values that are part and parcel of the human beings in their time and place and there is the values revealed by God for the believer. Our final question is to discern which values in the passage are attractive to us, we are drawn to and which are we repulsed by, inclined to reject? The more difficult task, if we do identify these two responses in us of the values revealed, which are of God and we are being challenged to embrace and which are not of God and we are being challenged to correct and develop.

My Refrain

Before we read though, let’s quiet ourselves, remember whatever we can from the background, our questions and, most importantly, pay attention to what happens inside of us as we read.

Reading of the passage http://www.usccb.org/bible/genesis/21.

Discussion Gen. 21:09 – 21 – Hagar and Ishmael.

Our discussion began with identifying the characters and their role in the story. We started with Annette identifying Hagar. Hagar is described first as an Egyptian and also as a slave. [There is one sequence in which she is not so described, identifying that communicates the story too.] When we hear that Hagar is an Egyptian and a slave, perhaps little if anything is conveyed in an emotional way too us. A search for the words that would convey the same feelings to us that Egyptian and slave conveyed to the first audience of this story might prove rewarding. Who are our “Egyptians?” Ones who oppressed us, enslaved us, held us captive, our enemies; maybe in Fr. Tom’s words, those we struggle to love, we don’t love.

Next we brought up Ishmael. Little did I know that his character was to lead our group into a real round robin of a discussion. I find it difficult to convey all that happened but will attempt to do the best that I can. It began with me asking again well who is Ishmael. Kai quickly pointed out that he was Abraham’s son and thus a son of the covenant [remember he was circumcised]. He was Hagar’s son too but that made him an Egyptian and in some senses a slave. This lead me to point out the really difficult situation Ishmael found himself in. I said, almost in passing, that none of us pick our parents. For me that statement seemed a matter of mere fact, sort of uncontestable. Ken said again in passing, “Well, not that we know of.” And it was that sentence that started the go around, as it were.

I commented that Ken may have just been talking but in reality we don’t pick our parents and we know that. I was speaking of our biological parents but may not have expressed that clearly. Tim talked about his mom and her sister and how we’re a lot like our parents, even if we don’t want to be. Faryl felt strongly about her situation in which she has chosen her grandparents as her parents. Ken was aware of people who have had a near death experience sharing that they learned they had picked their parents.

Then Ken asked did Jesus pick Mary as his mother. In the heat of the conversation, I said that Jesus was both God and man but that is an article of faith and he didn’t pick his parents. Rosemarie shared our Catholic faith belief in the Blessed Virgin Mary. I realized that in faith we do believe that Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of his son. So you can see that things really went all over the place. Kai responded to Ken by asking him if he, Kai, claimed that the number 7 was an even number would he be correct. At this point I suggested that we get back to our original conversation.

Annette aided us by asking about the fact that Hagar found Ishmael an Egyptian wife, the only time in the entire bible that such has occurred. It further suggested that Hagar remained true as a mother to her son.

This exchange was extremely fruitful even though we haven’t had a chance yet to bear that fruit. For me at that heart of this give and take are deeply philosophical and theological issues. From my theological perspective first there cannot be a conflict between what we believe in faith and we can come to know in our human endeavors since God is the ultimate source of both. That is not to say that there hasn’t been and will continue to be conflicts but I personally don’t think such conflicts are ultimate. And whenever there is a conflict we must approach them in a spirit of humility and in a search for truth. Finally from my philosophical perspective, we can and do arrive at truth and thus at what is real. To reach the truth, however, is first to understand what we have come to experience through our outer sense or in our inner experiences. We have to recognize though that our understanding can be correct or incorrect so that it is only when we judge our understanding to be correct that we have arrived at truth. Whether any of these thoughts of mine will be discussed further only time will tell.

Your comments, observations, questions are welcomed. See “comment” link below.

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