Sunday, 3 April 2011

Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac

Sermon on Galatians 4: 21-5:1, St Matthew’s, Oxford, 3rd April 2011, Mothering Sunday

Today’s epistle reading is odd. The Oxford Bible Commentary says of this passage, ‘there is no agreement on the reason for the inclusion of these verses at this point in the letter. Some scholars suggest they are an afterthought or have even been displaced from elsewhere. Others link them to the exhortation of the final main section of the letter. The traditional and preferable view is to take them as Paul’s striking final argument in his sustained exposition [on the law] that starts at 3:21’ with the words ‘O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?’

Whatever Paul’s intention these verses now have other resonances. I sent them to my colleague Abdul El-Sayed who is studying for a doctorate in my research group but also preaches at his local mosque and he said in his e-mail. ‘I appreciate you sending me those verses and your reflections thereon. I had never read them, but even a cursory reading suggests that they have very important implications for modern geopolitics!‘

Just to remind you: Moslems see themselves as the descendants of Ishmael the son of Abraham and the slave woman Hagar, so when Paul says, ‘But what does the scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman,’’ he is, inadvertently, telling Christians to ‘cast out’ Moslems and justifying this as the will of God.

Today I want to say something about the way we use the stories about Sarah and Hagar and their sons Isaac and Ishmael and what they can tell us about God. Using stories in the Old Testament to illustrate truths about God is something that, of course, New Testament writers and Jesus himself do all the time. Paul, as here, is very keen on stories about Abraham.

Note three things about his use of the stories:

Firstly Paul is consciously uses the stories to say things about the nature of God and his relationship with human beings. He says, ‘Now this is an allegory: these women are covenants.’ He means the two women represent two possible type of covenant between God and humans. This use of allegory here seems, on the face of it, somewhat forced. In what sense is a woman like a covenant? But Paul is saying that the way that God deals with Abraham and his two wives with their respective sons tells us something about God. He is saying in a rather tortuous way what he has said previously in his letter that slavish obedience to the law – such as that given to Moses on Mount Sinai - is superseded by the promise of God as given to Abraham because of his faith and that we as Christians are inheritors of that promise of freedom.

Secondly note how Paul uses non-biblical detail to embellish the stories to make them serve his argument better. Paul talks of two covenants: one with regard to Sarah and one with regard to Hagar whereas the Genesis account talks only of one covenant: the one which God establishes with Abraham [17: 9] and then Isaac [17: 19]. Moreover Paul has Hagar coming from Mount Sinai – a detail not mentioned in Genesis where she is said to come from Egypt [16: 1]. Although, of course, Sinai is on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land on the Exodus journey. Finally Paul has Ishmael persecuting Isaac. Galatians 4:28 says: ‘But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now’. This is just not in Genesis at all. In fact when Abraham dies both Isaac and Ishmael come to bury him [25: 7]: hardly the sign of brothers in dispute.

Thirdly note how the mention of Hagar and Isaac – Sarah and Ishmael are not referred to by name only referred to indirectly – almost automatically brings to mind the whole of the story about these characters: in particular the story of how Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert by Abraham (on God’s orders) – and to which Paul does refer – but also the story of how God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and at the last moment apparently changes his mind and supplies a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.

These are difficult stories because they are hard to reconcile with thinking of God as a loving God. How can a God that we believe to be god of love command a father to send out his son into the desert (in the case of Ishmael) or command a father to sacrifice a son (in the case of Isaac)? Of course the two related stories have parallels to the idea that God the Father – sent his son Jesus – out into the desert to be tempted and sacrificed his son on the cross. Perhaps this is why, like Paul, Christians wrestle with the meaning of these stories today.

But as Paul couldn’t have predicted, we also know that Moslems were – some 500 years after he’d written his letter to the Galatians - to take up the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael and make them part of their faith, so that Paul’s rather loose quoting of Genesis 21: 9 takes on a new meaning. Genesis 21: 9 actually says ‘So she [Sarah] said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac”’. Paul makes it seem that we should all be ‘casting out the slave and her son’ but this isn’t actually what Genesis says. It is rather a particular injunction on the part Sarah to Abraham which God then endorses a few verses later [21: 1] where it says ‘God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad [Ishmael] and because of your slave woman [Hagar]; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tell you..”’

So besides Paul’s allegorical use of the Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac stories: what do these stories have to tell us today? Paul’s use of the stories in his argument with the Galatians about covenants based on law or promise surely does not exhaust their meaning.

Well what meaning you take from them clearly depends on whether you are a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim. All interpret these stories slightly differently. And in fact Christians, Jews and Moslems all have slightly different versions of them. Much as Paul adds details to the stories not found in Genesis so do Jews and Moslems.

Some Jewish interpreters, for example think, that Hagar was also called Keturah: Hagar just being a generic name for a stranger and Keturah being Hagar’s proper name meaning ‘restrained’. Genesis records that Abraham marries a woman called Keturah after Sarah dies and it is clear that Abraham, whatever the initial reason for Abraham taking Hagar as his wife, comes to care very much indeed for her. It’s not implausible – pace Paul -that there is a reconciliation after Sarah dies.

Islamic stories of Abraham and his wives are also slightly different to Jewish and Christian stories. Famously Moslems believe that it was Hagar’s son Ishmael that God told Abraham to sacrifice in a dream and not Sarah’s son Isaac in real life. But note the Qu’ran doesn’t actually say which son it was. The idea that it was Ishmael comes from later traditions or hadith. But the Qu’ran does suggest that Abraham’s son knows what is going on (Surah 37). This is in contrast to Genesis, where Isaac apparently knows nothing of what Abraham intends and says at one point, ‘My father.. Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for burnt offering?’ The son, according to the Qu’ran, says to Abraham ‘Oh father, do what you were ordered, you will find me, God willing, from among the patient‘

Interestingly I think, Genesis tells us nothing about what Isaac felt about being nearly sacrificed by his father when he does find out what the fire and wood were for (nor indeed what his mother Sarah said when he got home!) Did Isaac understand his father’s actions (as the Qu’ran suggests) or was he completely bemused by the whole affair?

The Qu’ran doesn’t actually mention Hagar by name but she is an important person within the Islamic tradition – being the mother of Ishmael from whom the Moslems believe they are descended. And the Abraham, in leaving Hagar and Ishmael, is said to have made a very famous supplication to God, quoted in the Qu’ran: ‘O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by thy sacred house; in order, O our Lord, that they may establish regular prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them with fruits: so that they may give thanks.’ (Surah 14)

So important is Hagar that When Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a portion of the rites commemorate the story of her ordeal in attempting to sustain her son when she has been sent by Abraham into the desert. It is said she ran up and down two large hills seven times each in search of water. Genesis too tells us that Hagar and Ishmael, having been sent away, quickly run out of water to Hagar’s despair. Hagar’s search for water is remembered by the pilgrims to Mecca climbing the two hills seven times each in the same way as did Hagar.

After Hagar has given up and turned her situation over to God, Ishmael, strikes his heel to the floor, and according to Islamic tradition, water begins to spout from the spot. The well called “Zamzam” (after the word Ishmael said upon seeing the water) stills flows in Mecca to this day. In the Genesis account Hagar pleads with God to save her son from dying of thirst and Ishmael weeps; God hears the cry and sends an angel who tells Hagar to open her eyes and she sees a well of water. Slightly different but with distinct similarities to the Islamic tradition.

Do these slight differences between the stories make a difference to what they mean to people, whether they are Christians, Jews or Moslems? Well both yes and no.
One thing to note at this point that the story of the Abraham’s banishing Sarah and Ishmael and nearly sacrificing his son (Isaac in the Genesis account, Ishmael in the Islamic tradition) all have parallels which are clear in all three traditions. In both stories God asks Abraham to do something to a son that it is impossible to conceive that a loving father would contemplate, let alone enact. In both cases Abraham passes what looks like a ‘test’ of some kind and is obedient to God. In both cases the son survives and becomes the founder of a great nation.

Here, for example, is what my colleague Abdul says of the Hagar and Ishmael story:
‘Similar to the sacrifice story, this story is generally interpreted as a testament to the infinite capacity of God to sustain and provide and the sacrosanct importance of obedience to God. Abraham submits to the will of God in leaving Hagar and Ishmael in the barren dessert, but asks God to protect his wife and son and to produce from among them a people who worship God. Obviously, leaving one’s wife and child in such a harsh climate with no water, food, or protection is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things a man could be asked to do—but Abraham complies to the order of God knowing that God is the Sustainer, and that He will care for Abraham’s wife and child. In the end, Abraham is rewarded with not only the sanctity of his wife and child, but also a lineage that descends from his loins through Ishmael—who include among them the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.’

Would Christians (or Jews) disagree with any of that? No but of course Christians – like Paul – cannot but help also interpret the stories in the light of stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One – and I stress one – model of the cross is that God the Father gives up his son, permits him to die – for the sake of the rest of us, for a greater good if you like. This model of the cross is one which some people find impossible to stomach. Some feel that it makes God out to be a monster, particularly if God is conceived as of as omnipotent and therefore able to stop it all. Others cannot bear the idea of anyone – let alone God’s son - being sacrificed for them. But the stories of Ishmael, and Isaac, demonstrate that God sometimes find it necessary to ask the seemingly unthinkable of a father for the sake of something more important than the life of a son.

There is also of course another parallel between the stories of Ishmael and Isaac and the story of Jesus. This is that they all have happy endings. Ishmael and his mother are rescued by God. Genesis (and the Islamic tradition?) say that God promises Abraham that he will ‘make a nation of the son of the slavewoman also because he is your offspring’ [Genesis 21:13] and indeed fulfils this promise (recorded in Genesis 25: 12-18). Isaac, of course, goes onto be the ‘Father’ of the Jewish people. And finally Jesus is raised from the dead after three days so that – in the words of Galatians - we ‘like Isaac may be the children of promise’ [4:28].

So to summarize. Perhaps from all this we might learn to respect one another stories more, to worry less that other peoples’ stories are not exactly the same as our stories – or indeed as the elusive original story. Paul adds to the Genesis account and Moslems (and Jews) have slightly different versions of the stories to us Christians. But in the end the stories remain and, I think, still speak powerfully to us today.

I’ll give the last word to Abdul: ‘While there are some differences [between the stories] there are definitely many more similarities that also bear reflection. To me, they are promise that we, Muslims, Christians and Jews are not so different after all, and that unity, coexistence, and peace, are perhaps closer than many believe they could be. May God guide us to reflect on these similarities, and to find therein purpose and peace!’


  1. Respecting other people's stories is a great idea, and the sermon carries this message in terms of Christian/Muslim relations. It only goes to prove that there are 'multiple realities': no two people experiencing the same event would give exactly the same account, because we attend to and give value to experience differently. Of interest to me in this story, is how the 'will of God' is determined. To modern sensibilities, it would seem inconceivable that God would tell anyone to act in a way so seemingly detrimental to the welfare of others, let alone a father to his children (in this case to both Isaac and Ishmael). So, a further 'reality' within these two story versions might be that Abraham misinterpreted the will of God, a notion touched upon within the body of this sermon!

  2. Anne

    I am not saying stories have an infinite number of meanings. The meaning of a story is surely circumscribed by its content so it is not possible to interpret a story in just any way you choose. This also means that even slight differences between Christian, Moslem and Jewish versions of the same story are significant even possibly important.

    Nor am I saying there are an infinite number of realities. In fact I think there is only one universe and just one planet on which conscious life has evolved, and hence one 'reality'

    Yes it is just about possible that Abraham misinterpreted the will of the God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son. Perhaps this is why the Islamic version of the story, 'softens the blow' by making God appear in a dream to Abraham and for God's words to be reported by Abraham to his son ‘second hand’ (Surah 37). The Jewish/Christian version however suggests that God was pretty clear in his instructions (even if he apparently changed his mind later). As the story is recorded in Genesis it is difficult to see how Abraham could have misinterpreted God.

  3. I could write a story and tell you that God told me to get married to my first husband. Later I interpret that story differently, realising that the god that I was listening to was my codependence. If you read my first story you could be convinced that there was no other interpretation than it being the will of God... The author is surely key in these things?

  4. No: the author isn't key (unless you mean heavenly inspiration here which I'm assuming you don'). The text is the key. The text is what remains after the author is dead and can no longer be questioned about his/her intentions. Who can really say what the authors(s) of the Abraham and Isaac near-sacrifice story meant and does it particularly matter?

    If you had told me a story that God had told you to get married to your first husband then this story (as a famous friend once said) would have needed to be untold. The story that remains when all is said and done is what matters.

  5. If it doesn't matter what the story meant and we can't question the intentions then surely there are a lot of possible meanings that we could give to the story?

  6. I am not saying that the author's intentions aren't something but just they are not everything. People say things that they don't mean!

    Yes there are lots of possible meanings to every story: some more helpful than others, some more consistent with the meaanings of other, related stories, but there isn't an infinite number of meanings.

    Similarly I think there are stories that are important and some with lesser importance. For instance I think the story of Jesus' crufixion is more important (really more important - i.e. not merely a matter of perception) than the Abraham and Isaac story which, in turn, is more important than say the story of your first marriage (Lesley).

    Of course not everyone is going to agree with this! And the order of importance I am giving to stories might offend either Abdul or you or both. But so be it.

    At the moment the sermons at St Matz are on the cross. It's impressive how many meanings of that story there are. I don't think we have to choose between meanings.

    In a way I think it is increasinlgy hard to say anything about who or what God is. Paul does his best but doesn't really make much sense to me. All we can do is tell (or perhaps enact) stories. As a scientist I can't believe I have just said that.