In Genesis 21, who is the bad guy in the story? Is it Ishmael? If we look at the beginning of the story it says that Ishmael was playing with Isaac, which seems harmless enough. But the word translated as “playing” there could also mean mocking. Ishmael theoretically could be a teenager at this point. Could he have been mercilessly teasing Isaac, therefore starting this whole horrible chain of events?
Is the bad guy Abraham? Sure, he was following God’s orders, but he was the one who ultimately sent Hagar and Ishmael off with nothing more than bread and a skin of water. You think he could’ve given them a little more than that. Abraham was the one who really approved this whole thing. So Abraham has the power, so must be the bad guy, right?
Or is it Hagar? We didn’t hear it in the story today, but back in chapter 16, Hagar instigates some of Sarah’s anger in the first place, when she looks at Sarah with contempt. There’s bound to be complicated dynamics when two women share a husband. Was Hagar provoking Sarah this whole time?
But really, isn’t it Sarah? She’s the one who banished a woman and her child. She’s the one who overreacted. Isn’t it so easy to see just how awful Sarah is in this story? How could she be so cruel as to send away a mother and her child?
But Ishmael was just a kid. Abraham was a faithful servant of God. Hagar was oppressed. Sarah was protective.
It’s really easy to believe that bible stories are supposed to be neat packages that carefully present us with some moral truth. Bible stories are supposed to be simple and easily animated, right? Preachers sometimes can be the worst at this, taking an unpredictable bible text and turning into three alliterative bullet points. Over the years, there has been a whole bunch of interpretation of this story that sets a clear distinction between who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. John Calvin though the bad guys in this story were the women. He said that Hagar had a servile temper and Sarah overstepped the bounds of a modest wife. Islam traces its roots back to Ishmael and nearly always sides with Hagar. In the fourth chapter of Galatians, we are taught to side with Sarah over Hagar, for Sarah represents freedom and Hagar slavery.
Picking sides in a story like this is almost always revealing about who we are. When I read this story, I immediately targeted Abraham. I saw a story about oppressed women who were forced into bad situations and a father who was ready to sacrifice his sons. I was very protective of Sarah because I saw a strong woman and I was sympathetic to that.
But this isn’t Disney. There is no bad guy. This is a troubling, confusing story. And it takes an awful lot of empathy to be able to step back and try to understand the people in this story without completely oversimplifying what is going on.
We need to learn how to read scripture well. We need to be able to pick up a text and turn it around, examining it from all angles. It’s important to listen to Ishmael, to Sarah, to Abraham, to Hagar. Part of what make our scripture sacred is that it will hold up to this kind of scrutiny. Be we have to first be willing to listen.
I learned an important lesson from a professor who taught a class on medieval church women leaders. These are your Joan of Arc types. Powerful, important women. But as soon as any of us students sat down to read what these women had written, one word kept coming to mind…crazy. These women were crazy! Just insane! One woman, Christina the Astonishing, always sticks in my mind. Christina supposedly once died, but then came back to life after visited both heaven and hell. During this near death experience, she claimed to have levitated for hours. After this experiences, she is said to have ran into hot furnaces, just to prove that she could not be burnt. She also said that she hated the smell of other people because she could smell the sin in them. Crazy.
But my professor helped us begin to erase that word from our vocabulary. Because every time we said “crazy” what we were really saying is “not like me.” We were being judgmental. And when we said that, we forgot to listen. As a woman, I am embarrassed about how quickly I dismissed the voice and stories of these women, just because it didn’t fit into the way I wanted things to be.
This professor made us spend time each class reading the words of these women out loud. We had to stop, and listen, no matter how crazy we thought they were. Unsurprisingly, what we all found is that over time, we became better listeners. Once you listened to someone like Christina the Astonishing, you found a woman who struggled in a society that didn’t want to pay her any attention and a woman who was willing to share the message she received from God in any way possible.
But we had to learn how to read generously, without reservations, and to listen with open ears for what might being said.
Reading the bible isn’t so different. We have to be able to read generously, to listen to the hidden stories, to just pay attention to what is being said without letting any of our cynicism and dismissiveness get it the way. Sometimes that means reading a scripture twice, slowly and out loud. It means thinking about what prejudice we might have built up over the years.
This isn’t important just because I like reading the bible and I want you to as well. But this matters because how we respond to the bible is reflective of how we respond to the world.
The same judgments we read onto biblical characters are the same ones that we use in the real world. We constantly are making snap judgments on people. We all know how this goes. We look at a person and make assumptions. In many ways, it’s just how our brains our wired. However, new research shows that our split-second judgments are often wrong because they rely on crude stereotypes and other mental shortcuts.
When we call Ishmael a troublemaker, it’s like when we are still distrustful of young black men when walking on the street late at night.
When we call Hagar provocative, it’s like when we judge a woman on what she wears, not on what she says.
When we call Abraham a failure it’s like when we tell sometime to “man up” and that real men don’t have emotion.
When we call Sarah cruel it’s like when we judge the female CEO as bossy, when a man would be a leader.
We need to be able to read the bible generously because we need to be able to read people generously. Our mental shortcuts that help us categorize people as good and bad makes for some wonderful Hollywood movies, but it doesn’t work so well in real life. Our stereotypes and categories turn us into terrible readers and terrible listeners, because we assume that we know what happens at the end of the story.
We have to risk being naive, because that means we’re listening without an agenda. We have to be open to the people around us. I’m reminded of the latest news from the Pope who has refused to use the pope mobile, taking away the bullet-proof glass that had been encasing the Pope when traveling, because he said that it put him at a distance from people. For the Pope, it was worth the risk to be exposed and open to the people, no matter what might happen. We’ve got to have that kind of openness when we encounter people.
John, just last week, preached about same-sex marriage and how it was going to be voted on at General Assembly. Well, our delegates have returned. Clergy now have the choice to officiate at same-sex weddings if they want to and language in the book of order is in the process of being changed. At GA, there were many more issues that could be divisive, pitting people into calling one group the good guys and once group the bad guys. A big question at times like these is wondering if God picked a side at General Assembly. We believe that God is on the side of justice and that there is good and evil in the world. And yet, God must have loved all people at General Assembly.
Which really, isn’t that the kind of love God shows to all of our characters. Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, all get God’s open attention and care. God listens to and loves all of these people. As Frederick Buechner writes about the story, In the midst of the whole unseemly affair, the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.
Just in this story, God reassures Abraham, doesn’t rebuke Sarah, goes with Hagar into the desert, and listens to Ishmael. God unabashedly seems delighted and protective of all of these flawed characters. This is not a story of God showing preferential treatment to one group of people.
We’ve got to be better at listening generously to everyone because by doing so we are building the kingdom of God on earth. We’ve got to be able to read this story and feel Sarah’s defensiveness, Abraham’s sadness, Hagar’s grief. Make room for all of their stories. Let me encourage you to open up your bible this week to practice. Practice by reading the bible creatively. Think about each character, especially the ones we like to make villains and think creatively about what they might be thinking, what they might be feeling. Watch for what God might be doing. Use your imagination. Practice compassion.
Once you’ve spent some time in the word, practice on those around you. Hold your snap judgments at bay. There are no bad guys. Live generously.
The end of our story today leaves us in the wilderness. Hagar and Ishmael are still there, without any neat reconciliation. The troubling family dynamics never get resolved, which is a story much closer to our own experience of the world. But God provides, not by swooping in and saving the day, but by simply opening Hagar’s eyes to what was right in front of her.
May we too, so be opened.