I’ve decided to read through the Bible again, this time in 6 months. Slightly less reading but more time for reflection this way.
I started June 1 in order to finish out by year’s end. I am deep into Genesis and reading Matthew simultaneously. Got both Testaments open, baby!
I read in Genesis 21 today all about Hagar and Ishmael. Is it just me, or does the Old Testament sometimes read like a modern soap opera? This woman, Sarah, longs for a baby. Tired of waiting on the miraculous promise of God, she has her friend (maid) act as surrogate. Hagar, at Sarah’s request, sleeps with Abraham. She finds herself with child and bears a son. Sarah suddenly feels bereft. She struggles with frustration, watching Ishmael grow up and not having a boy of her own. I’m surprised there wasn’t a custody battle.
Finally, in the fullness of time, God visits Sarah with a baby. She has a son they name Isaac. Once Isaac is weaned – probably somewhere between 2 and 5 years of age – Abraham throws a big feast. Sarah, amidst the merriment, notices Ishmael and Hagar, his mother, making fun of Isaac (v. 9). She commands Abraham to send them away. Like, now. He does, reluctantly. He loves Ishmael, too.
Hagar and Ishmael leave early in the morning, loaded with water and provisions. Hagar, unsure where to go or what to do, wanders aimlessly in the desert. Ishmael is about 12 at this point. The water runs out and Hagar rests Ishmael under a bush and she sat facing away from him, not wanting to watch him die (v.16).
God meets her there. “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants” (v. 17). Lo and behold, a well of water appears to Hagar, right in front of her.
The narrative goes on to say that God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness (v. 20) and Ishmael became a skillful archer. He became settled in Paran and married an Egyptian woman (v. 21).
Ishmael still counted. Ishmael had value. His father was in God’s blessing and God promised Abraham’s seed would be blessed, multiplying like stars in the sky or sand on the shore. Ishmael became a large, separate nation. Ishmael himself actually had 12 sons (Gen. 25:16) and they became 12 tribes, occupying a large area.
Reading back further, in Genesis 19, we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, his wife, and his two daughters escape. Well, almost. Lot’s wife turns to look back and becomes a pillar of salt (v.26). The remaining clan escape to a little city called Zoar. Lot, afraid of the people there, moves the family to a cave. The daughters, possibly mourning their mother and their now homeless state, hatch a plan: “There are no men left anywhere in this entire area, so we can’t get married like everyone else. And our father will soon be too old to have children. Come, let’s get him drunk with wine, and then we will have sex with him. That way we will preserve our family line through our father” (v.31).
On the surface, it seems logical, right? Let’s keep the family line going. But then you realize it’s by way of incest. Each of the daughters sleeps with him. Each conceives. Lot, it seems, was completely drunk and remembers nothing. What a surprise to find your both your daughters with child – your child!
Why didn’t God intervene here? What didn’t He say, “Ladies, that’s not how I do things. I have men set aside for you. Just be patient.” Or maybe a spontaneous miscarriage? Wouldn’t that have alleviated all the problems of having a family tree that didn’t branch? Or send them a word about a lifetime of celibacy?
There is no mention of that. Lot’s sons/grandsons were Moab, meaning “from father” and Ben-Ammi, meaning “son of my kinsman” . Pretty straightforward. Later called the Moabites and the Ammonites, the descendants of these brothers caused no end of trouble for the Israelites later down the road when they wanted to occupy the promised land.
The sacredness of life, even conceived in ways contrary to God’s plan, comes through these stories. Each of these children had thoughtful human parents. Maybe a little mixed up, but adults to care for them. They were not loved less because of how they were conceived. Humanity is God’s priority; always has been, always will be. Every one of these sons became major nations. God can still work through our poor choices.