I have to say, re-reading these stories, I’m remembering how little there is to like about most of the main characters. It’s easy to dismiss them- the women are alternately manipulative or shrewish, and the men are buffoons. “Here”, says Sarai, “it’s obvious God’s made a mistake. He must have meant for me to bear your children through Hagar. It was all metaphorical*. Go on, take her.” “Durr, uh, ok…” says Abram, gets Hagar knocked up with no trouble, but then, uh-oh! These feuding women! Hagar gets uppity, and Sarai gets pissy, and what’s a man to do? Wash his hands of the whole matter, apparently, and let his wife mistreat his pregnant mistress until she runs away to the desert. What else?
Then poor Ishmael is cursed- he is to be a hairy brute of a man, always fighting, always lost in contention. He will not be the true heir, through no fault of his own, but God’s covenant is lost to him forever.
And what of this promise? I, like Stephanie, will forever remember Number the Stars whenever I read this passage- it’s beautiful, poetic, evocative. And yet. How many people do we need on this earth? In these days of overpopulation, of famine and garbage islands, of the quiver-full movement, and female infanticide, this promise gives me more than a little pause.
As numerous as the stars of the heavens, as countless as the grains of sand upon the seashore…
Soon there will be Isaac, “he who laughs”, named for Sarah and her incredulous laughter. Who can fault her? I certainly can’t. If I were 90, barren all my life, I’d laugh too if someone told me I would have a child. It’s always struck me as massively unfair that she has historically been so castigated for her “lack of faith”. I see her as a practical woman- she *did* believe God’s promise, and so she initially set about making it happen. Faith is action, after all. When that didn’t work, and still people are showing up at her tent promising her this mythical child, after 90 years, I think she’s earned the right to a surprised laugh without being decried as an unbeliever.
And so there are two children- Isaac, named for his mother’s laughter, and Ishmael, “God hears”.
It’s the second of the “usurper” stories (Cain and Abel being the first)- the younger son is favored by God, flying in the face of the very established cultural mores. The younger son will inherit the things of value, be blessed, and prosper. (see also- Jacob, Joseph, David, etc)
And what are we to make of this God? So concerned with righteousness and rules, and yet so willing to upset the rules of humanity at a whim?
Beware of strangers at the door, and show them all hospitality- you never know when they are angels or gods in disguise, and you never know what they may offer you if you treat them well.
*at this time, a child born to a slave was legally the offspring of the wife, and could be a legal heir. sarai really was trying to make it work. see also A Handmaid’s Tale.