Ishmael

what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the phrase “family values.”  Many of the people who have been the strongest advocates of “family values” have 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.

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“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 look like American families!

A good case in point is the family in our Old Testament reading.  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, a mess of which he appears unwilling or unable to seriously address.

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, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1985.  (I admit, I haven’t read the book.)  The show illustrates with brutal honesty, what’s behind our story and a multitude of others like it.

2 fatherToday’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.)  Still, the fact that by this time Sarah is past menopause, which would be a legitimate reason, presents a problem.

Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  Knowing she’s no longer able to give birth, Sarah comes up with an idea.  She has a servant, a young Egyptian woman named Hagar, who is certainly able to produce a son.  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’s the result of this union, 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.[1]

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 primarily for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

All three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate and probably at her husband.  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 very real bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah presents her complaint, 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; do whatever you want.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar is expelled into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God and receives the promise that she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is very 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 about fourteen 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 was weaned, which can happen when the child is three years old or more.[2]  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it in verse 9, Ishmael “playing.”

What we have in verse 9 is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is also the source of Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq).  The similarity in the words for “playing,” “laughing,” and “Isaac,” probably points to Sarah’s alarm at how similar Ishmael is to Isaac.  She knows he’s a threat to Isaac as the heir.  As a result, she takes decisive action.  She demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

I’ve taken some 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.

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?

Still, Abraham is chosen by God 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.  Leaving his homeland wasn’t at the top of his “to do” list.

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 half-brother with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I don’t think he would have gone along with that idea anyway!

3 fatherOn Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, and that 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 all the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teenager who’s 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 it 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.  (At least, that’s how I perceived it.)  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.

“What kind of father is that?”  All of us 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.

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My dad (Jim) and I at my sister's apartment, Christmas 1987. Someone is under the mistletoe.

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”!  Also, please forgive the masculine imagery for God.)

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?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.

[2] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co., 1964), 155.


family ties

Sometimes when I’m watching television, a commercial will come on in which the advertisers make an interesting promise. Whether it’s a business that will bake you a pizza or fix your car, this is their claim: “We treat you like family.” In fact, I think that the Olive Garden makes such a claim. I recently said to Banu, “‘Treating you like family’ is not necessarily a good thing.” I can think of plenty of people, and plenty of situations, in which being treated like family would be a bad thing—even a terrible thing! In fact, something you might avoid like the plague is being treated like family!

Something similar to that is a humorous observation about family. It’s the idea that every family has an oddball. (Some more than one!) Maybe it’s the uncle with wild conspiracy theories, like the secret army of dolphins being trained by the military in mind control. Or maybe it’s the cousin who insists on speaking with a British accent, even though she isn’t British. (I’ll let you decide if I invented these people, or if they actually exist.) But here’s the point: if you can’t think of an oddball in the family, then it’s probably you!

This is all about putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional”! The Bible is no stranger to dysfunctional families. It is filled with them, from start to finish. Genesis 25 gives us a look at one such family—the family of Isaac and Rebekah. We’ll get to the dysfunctional part in a moment, but first we have a theme that is repeated several times in the scriptures: a woman who is said to be barren.

In ancient times (and even today, in some quarters), if a couple could not conceive, it was almost always considered to be a problem with the woman. She was the soil to receive the man’s seed. And if nothing took root, then there was something wrong with the soil.

Before the invention of microscopes, the idea that some men’s seed were not very good swimmers never occurred to them! (By the way, contrary to what we now know about chromosomes, it was thought that the woman determined whether the baby would be a boy or a girl.) Along those lines, it was often thought that, with couples who could not conceive, the woman was cursed by God. She was being punished.Amazingly enough, there are still some people today who have that idea.

Accordingly, Isaac sought divine intervention for Rebekah. And guess what? It worked. They had been married for twenty years before Isaac was born. That’s a long time for people to look down on you, to make you feel like you’re worthless. Who knows what stories were passed around? Who knows what tales were told? In any event, when they find out that Rebekah is pregnant, it looks like they’re home free. This is an answer to prayer. But hold on a minute: Rebekah has a difficult pregnancy. In fact, her suffering is so great that she gets to the point of wondering if life is even worth living (v. 22).

When she does give birth, there are twin boys who are said to be struggling with each other—as if they could possibly know to do that! The first to come into the world is Esau, but Jacob is right behind him, holding onto his heel. The author of our story, looking back in time, sees this as a sign of things to come, of fighting between their descendants.

There’s something that I hope we all know—and if you don’t, you find this out pretty soon. It’s that, when you get married, you are also marrying the other person’s family. That’s something I make sure those with whom I do premarital counseling understand. In my case, I have a little bit of a buffer, since my in-laws literally live on the other side of the world! Still, my wife and I are both products of our families.

We don’t know very much about Rebekah’s family, but we have a good bit of insight into Isaac’s upbringing. I won’t go into great detail, but the son that Abraham fathers with Hagar, the servant of Sarah, becomes the focus of jealousy and contention. (Honestly, who could have foreseen such an outcome?) Ishmael is pitted against his half-brother, Isaac. There’s another problematic event in Isaac’s childhood. It happens when his father tries to kill him!

Abraham thinks God wants him to do it, but going on a camping trip, the highlight of which is the father tying the son to an altar, while brandishing a dagger, doesn’t help very much in father-son bonding! It’s probably not the best of role models in showing one’s son how to be a father. Who can say what effect this has on Isaac?

One thing we can say is that he and Rebekah play favorites with the two boys. As the scripture says, “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (vv. 27-28).

Esau’s idea of fun would be to go out and shoot a deer, but Jacob would just as soon read a book. Esau is the outdoorsman, while Jacob is more the stay-at-home type. And based on the next paragraph, it looks like he learns a thing or two about cooking from his mother. The way it’s presented, Esau is the impulsive one; Jacob is the intentional one. One wonders how much influence his mother has had on him.

At any rate, one day Esau comes home and smells the stew that his twin brother has been whipping up. Esau blurts out, “That smells delicious! Give me some of that stuff.” He’s the older twin, so the inheritance that goes to the eldest son belongs to him. Jacob replies, “You can have it on one condition: let’s switch places and give me your birthright.”

“Fine,” says Esau, “I don’t care about that stuff. Here I am, starving to death. I’m ready to eat!”

It would seem that Esau isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer, so to speak. But maybe he isn’t as dim-witted as the scripture portrays him. We have to admit that this is told from the perspective of Jacob, later known as Israel (32:28).

There is a certain bias at work. I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know all of Esau’s motivations. Is it possible that he is relieved to be rid of the responsibilities that go with being the elder son? Esau knows how his brother is. Could it be that this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for?

733px-Isaac_Blessing_Jacob_-_Govert_Flinck

Isaac Blessing Jacob -- Govert Flinck (1638)

Whether or not that’s the case, how does that play into our own families? Some of us are an only child. The rest of us fall somewhere in the order of siblings. What were, and possibly still are, the expectations laid on each of us? Which of those expectations are unwanted, and on the flip side, which of those are desired? Much of life is based on things we didn’t choose; much of it is based on an accident of birth.

When we bring in the element of faith, we find out that God makes choices in the family. Isaac, rather than Ishmael, is chosen. (Though Muslims say the opposite is true.) And Jacob, rather than Esau, is chosen. Again, the author is looking back in time and seeing how things played out.

But we can still ask, on what basis is one chosen, rather than the other? It seems so arbitrary.

Aside from that, they all have their dysfunctions. None of them is deserving of blessing. One writer says, “In that all of these undeserving characters are so deeply flawed…God’s choice was clearly not based upon merit.”

This is a radical picture of grace—undeserved grace, as grace is by definition.

On that note about the often arbitrary nature of life, the often random nature of life: none of us chose the family we were born into. And in my case, I didn’t choose the family I was adopted into.

I have to say that I am not a fan of country music. Here’s where we get into what I just said about accident of birth and/or adoption. I was raised and loved by two people who were really into country music. When I was growing up, I was bathed in the sounds of Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn, just to name a few.

But there’s one song in particular that has stayed with me. It speaks of the frequently arbitrary nature of life—the cards that we’re dealt—but also, what we do with those cards. It’s “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers.

To set the stage, the singer is “on a train bound for nowhere” when he is joined by the gambler, who dispenses some advice about life. The gambler says that “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

But it’s the gambler’s final words that especially impress the singer: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run / You never count your money / When you’re sittin’ at the table / There’ll be time enough for countin’ / When the dealin’s done.”

As the gambler has discovered, we don’t choose how we come into this world, but we do have a say in how we live in this world. Again, some decisions are made for us. We are not consulted in the matter. Some of us were dealt a lousy hand. Still, as the song says, “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

Having said that, there is a reality we must admit. My current hero, Richard Rohr, puts it this way in On the Threshold of Transformation:

“Have you ever met [someone] who didn’t seem comfortable in [their] own skin?… Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, [they were] not given the first permission—permission to exist.

Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken. No one ever held their face, looked into their eyes, and said, 'Welcome to the world, dear little one. I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist. I love you.’”

God gives us permission to exist. Indeed, God does much more than that. We have been adopted into the family of God.

In Romans 8, Paul says that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (vv. 14-15).

We have received a spirit of adoption. What does that mean? What does it mean to receive a spirit of adoption? Among other things, it means that in God’s eyes, the hand we’ve been dealt, whether good, bad or indifferent, is not the one we’re stuck with. There’s something better.

Can we see how this applies to Jacob and Esau? For whatever reason—and as already mentioned, we don’t know all of his motivations—Esau rejects his birthright.

Here’s a question: what do we do with our birthright? Again, as with Esau, we haven’t chosen our birthright. Our birthright includes all of the images, the worldviews, the ways of looking at reality, even religious biases that were given to us by those who raised us.

Birthright includes the way we were shaped as children. But our adoption by God goes beyond all of that. Adoption into the family of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, brings us into a new relationship—a new creation. Our birthright is transformed into something in which the old rules no longer apply. It is a new kind of family tie. As disciples of Jesus, we hear his words “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).