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Family Values?

Text: Genesis 21:8-21

Every movie has a rating to inform the audience about the material they are about to view. I have often wondered if certain stories in Scripture would benefit from such a rating system, especially the story told in Genesis that we consider today.  

  The story tells of a father who abandons his eldest son and his son’s mother to the desert, both likely to die. In case you did not catch all the details when it was read, this is a story about compliant Abraham, who is married to Sarah. Abraham trusts God’s promise and takes his family and property – and by the way, his property includes human property, slaves – and leaves his home in Haran.

In a scene worthy of Spielberg, Abraham is told by God to look up to the sky and number the stars – that will be the vast number of his future offspring. But there is a narrative knot here – Sarah is barren – which means in the ancient telling, that God has closed her womb. How can Abraham be the father of billions if he can’t be the father of one? So, since she is barren, Sarah gets to work. She finds a seductive, fertile slave girl and insists that her husband sleep with her.

Now, Abraham could have deferred to what we Presbyterians long have claimed, “chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage,” but instead, he said, ever so willingly, “Whatever you say, dear.” Then, he slept with another woman who was not his wife. Hagar, though, was not really “another woman,” for she was a slave, a piece of property, to do with whatever he wished. 

Hagar gets pregnant right away and barren, aging, Sarah does not like the way that pregnant Hagar looks or looks at her. Ever-so-compliant Abraham gets an earful from Sarah: “I hope you’re happy with what you’ve done. You see how she looks at me, how she preens about when I’m around. I just hope you’re happy!”

Abraham has every right to protest this verbal abuse and respond, “Now wait a minute, Sarah. Wasn’t this your idea in the first place?” But, instead, he says, “Yes dear, please do with that slave girl whatever makes you happy.”

And Sarah does. Hagar is beaten and abused by her mistress and finally she makes a run for freedom, but an angel of Lord finds her mid-flight and says, “Go back to Sarah and live as a slave to her, because God is about to open your womb and you’ll have a son, Ishmael, who will be a wild ass of a man who no one will subdue.” 

So far in this story, we have the future father of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity married to one woman and yet sleeping with his slave, and the future mother of two of the three world religions beating her slave, and the mother of Islam being told by God to act like a slave. Post this story in your public schools, Louisiana. I dare you!

Robert Dabney, a personal chaplain to Stonewall Jackson and later a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, wrote a book in 1867 – AFTER the Civil War. His book defends the institution of slavery, largely based on this story from Genesis.

Dabney concluded: “Had her [Hagar’s] subjection to Sarai been, as the Abolitionists say slavery is, a condition of unjust persecution, the Saviour’s instructions to her would doubtless have been: ‘Now that you have escaped the injustice of her that wronged you, flee to another city’. His remanding her to Sarai shows that the subjection was lawful and right” (Dabney, 113). Oh my, what a thorny text.

When I read this text, I lament what sincere Christians like Dabney have done with it over the years and what sincere Christian folk do with it today. For instance, I am truly puzzled by those who read this story and then rail against the collapse of the traditional family and want to reclaim traditional, biblical “family values.” I keep asking myself, “Have you ever leafed through our biblical family album or ever given even a casual reading of stories like this in Genesis?”  

  Well, back to the story for it only gets worse. Sarah laughed first at the thought of a positive pregnancy test in her old age and then Abraham bent over in uncontrollable laughter when the angels suggested the same. True to God’s promise, Sarah bears a son in her dotage and in good Hebrew fun-with-language-fashion, he is called Yitzhak, or in English, Isaac – “s/he laughs.” 

What happens next, though, leaves no one laughing. Older brother, Ishmael and young Isaac are playing together as is the wish of most parents, but not Sarah. She is irate. She tells Abraham: “Banish, drive out, expel the son of this slave girl.” To Sarah, Hagar has no other name than “slave girl,” an offending piece of property, a means to an end. Now that Sarah has what she was promised – her own son, the slave girl and the boy, both pieces of property, must go. 

In the Hebrew and Islamic traditions, Ishmael and Isaac are brothers. Try telling that to Sarah. She has more than petty parental concerns in mind. She knows how inheritance works in her neck of the woods; she knows that Ishmael is the firstborn to Abraham and she is not about to let a slave boy inherit what rightly belongs to her freeborn son.  

Renita Weems is a scholar of Hebrew Scripture and she is also the great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter and granddaughter of domestic workers. She worries about the temptations that come to those of us with privilege. She writes:

“[T]hrough freak circumstances and the grace of God, I am an educated and employed black woman upon whom, from time to time, capitalism confers the opportunity to exploit other women . . . My potential victims are those who are neither educated nor employed.

“I am painfully aware of this when I step across the floor recently mopped by the black cleaning woman at the office building where I am late for an executive meeting. This fact becomes glaringly evident when I eat out at a restaurant, and the white waitress who is the age of my mother calls me ‘ma’am’. And I am reminded of my privileges when, while sitting at a desk in my hotel putting the final touches on a speech for an organization of Christian women, the Latina maid tiptoes in to replace my soiled linen and make my bed.”

Professor Weems concludes, “None of us is safe from the ravages of a society which makes room for only a chosen few . . . For those of us who are educated and employed, there is always the potential to be a Sarah” (Weems, A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships, p. 11). 

Weems is especially hard on Sarah, so let me take my turn with Father Abraham. Where is the voice of the Father of Three World Religions adamantly insisting that his slave “wife” be freed and his firstborn son be protected? As Sib Towner writes, “Abraham displays the milk of human kindness toward his second wife Hagar and his son Ishmael – sort of. He packs them a lunch before sending them into the wilderness” (Towner, Genesis, Westminster Bible Commentaries, p. 181).

In one of the most pathetic and desperate scenes in all of Scripture, Hagar casts her son under a bush and sits at a distance because she is now the barren one – bone dry of milk or water or food. Like most any parent, she cannot bear to watch her own child, the fruit of her body, die. 

The cast-aside, left-to-die, Ishmael, is the one we meet in literature, the one cast out by his own father. He is the classic outcast, the archetypal survivor. Though today’s story ends with God hearing – the Hebrew meaning of “Ishmael” actually – and then responding to the cry of the abandoned child and making a divine promise to him as well, it is still a horrendous story and sadly, some of it is not far from our own imagining or from real human experience today. 

Fast forward to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. He has seemingly gone mad. Instead of saying, “I’ve come to reinforce biblical family values,” Jesus says, “I’ve come to set father against son and mother against daughter?” What kind of family album are we looking at in Scripture? Where is the biblical traditional family for which the Religious Right pines? Where are the decent family values that they insist on so much?

  Ultimately, Scripture spends little time talking about “traditional families” and “family values.” Instead, it spends a great deal of time talking about what the “family” of God should value. It is clear that God does not value the starvation and dehydration of a child and his mother in the wilderness, slave or free, and neither should we. God does not value that the “Other” be abandoned, cast outside the province of God’s care, and therefore, of our care. It is not a “family of God” value to see that we get ours and explain away all the rest of the world’s suffering as “God’s will.”

This troubling story begs us to ask what the “family of God” should value? How can the “family of God” sit still while over 11 million children live below the poverty line in America today, while you are far more likely to be arrested and convicted if your skin is not white, while women see their rights diminishing in 2024 America and their health and well-being threatened by legislative acts and judicial decisions? 

[At the baptismal font]

Did you notice how the theme of water, cleansing, life-giving, hope-producing water, splashes throughout this disturbing story? First, there is a meager skin of water given by Abraham to Hagar and Ishmael as they head into the desert. Then, there is a life-giving spring of water that appears out of nowhere in the desert to assuage the thirst of dying Hagar and Ishmael. 

Maybe the baptismal font is our well in the wilderness, our reminder of the refreshing waters of God for all who are desperate and thirsty and cast out. Maybe you and I are more than the adopted children of Abraham. Maybe you and I are the Ones called by God to show all needy children in our world to the well, to these lifegiving waters, to the One who will never let us thirst.

If you want to talk about traditional, biblical family values, maybe that is the greatest “family of God” value of them all.





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