During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the term “family values.” Many of the people who became the strongest advocates of “family values” held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.
“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.” The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models. Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest. Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction. In that sense, they tend to resemble American families!
A good case in point is the family in Genesis 21. We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal. I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess.
To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery! Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible. Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!
And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The show illustrates with brutal honesty what’s behind our story and others like it.
Today’s account really starts in chapter 16. God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened. (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale. Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)
Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir. But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring. As you might guess, Sarah hasn’t given birth, but they do have a young woman as a servant. So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby. The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response. He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!
The son who is born, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir. And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child. That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.
But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun. In a society in which women are valued largely for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.
The three of them are driven by different forces. Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate. Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah. And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the bond that now exists with Hagar. When Sarah complains, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6). In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; leave me out of it.”
Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar runs away into the wilderness. It’s there she encounters God who tells her to return but also says she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10). This encounter is important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).
Let’s jump ahead a few years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21. The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir. Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.
Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac is weaned. The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off. She sees, as the scripture puts it, Ishmael “playing” (v. 9).
What we have is a play on words, a pun. The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is where Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq) comes from. Some say “playing” can also mean “mocking.” Some even think “playing” means Ishmael doing something even worse to his little half-brother! In any event, Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.
I’ve taken this time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family. It also helps us understand Abraham. As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.
[Max, the father of our dog, Ronan]
My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?” If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.” What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness? What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?
(Even worse than that, later we have the truly horrific event of the binding of Isaac in which he is being prepared for ritual sacrifice by his father’s hand.)
Still, Abraham is chosen to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3). It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass. Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads. And despite himself, he succeeds. And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.
Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience. It’s led me to think of my own father. And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a son with whom I now have a bitter rivalry! I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone along with the idea!
On Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, which is fitting. But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived. Thankfully, I’m not in that category!
What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me. Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me. I know I was truly wanted.
When I was young, we did the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football, etc. But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets. (I realize, I was the only teen who ever felt that way!) For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering, “What would be like to think with her brain?”
Something happened in 1985. Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ. Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much. We didn’t have many deep conversations. But Jesus Christ changed that. We felt free to open up to each other. And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!
Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham. He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy. In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other. I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.” I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing! But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.
[Where along the scale of creepiness would this family fall?]
“What kind of father is that?” We all can ask that question of our own fathers. Each has a different answer. But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.
According to the apostle Paul, this one is “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Co 1:3-4). That’s a lot of consolation. We might be forgiven if we don’t see Abraham in that light, and as hinted before, perhaps our own fathers.
Aside from binding and healing our wounds, this consolation has another role: we are to pass it on. Paul continues, saying God’s consolation is given “so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (v. 4). If we haven’t experienced consolation, if we haven’t experienced comfort and solace, that well will run dry before we know it.
The Father’s gracious provision enters a perpetual cycle through the risen Son. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (v. 5).
What kind of Father is that? Fortunately, we need not be a father to share in the self-giving that best epitomizes the character of “father.” We need not be male to share in that. By the way, Jesus modeled qualities which are too often labeled “feminine.” It simply who he was.
Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.” (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!)
We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction. The second stanza has something to say about that:
“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”
As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father. So much violence has been done in that name. But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves. With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”