June 25, 2017
8 The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Once upon a time, there were two little boys. One was lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned. They shared a father. These half brothers didn’t know they weren’t of the same standing, as one was born to a slave woman and the other to a wealthy woman. They played together as equals, because that’s what children do until they’re taught not to. Their mothers did not always (okay, ever) get along. One had all the power and privilege; the other was property. Her name was Hagar. Hagar didn’t even have a say when Abraham needed a womb to carry his child. She resented the woman who made that happen: Sarah, his wife. She resented cleaning her floors; she resented being looked through like she wasn’t a person; she resented her boy being kept away from the finer educational opportunities.
Sarah, in turn, resented Hagar. She was jealous of her fertility, and bitter about her ability to have dignity no matter how undignified a task Sarah gave her to do. No, these women did not like each other at all. But their boys were a different matter.
One day, as the boys were playing and laughing together (that Isaac nearly always laughed), both mothers looked on. For a moment their eyes met across the plain, and silently (in the way women do), they came to a decision together. They hated each other, yes. But their boys would not.
They let the boys keep playing together. Specifically, Sarah let those boys play together, and play they did. Ishmael, though seen as less-than because of his skin color and mother, was an older brother, through and through. He taught Isaac how to tend the sheep, and was always in charge of whatever fantasy game they invented. Isaac, though first by privilege and inheritance, adored his older brother, mimicking his every move. Ishmael was his hero.
The boys’ love for each other eventually thawed the frosty hearts of their mothers. You couldn’t notice it at first, but in tiny ways, Sarah started being easier on Hagar. She stopped mocking her openly, gave her more comfortable tasks, and finally, one night many years later, as Hagar placed Sarah’s plentiful dinner before her, and turned to go eat her own meager meal by the fire, Sarah put a hand on her arm. She asked, not told, her if she’d like to share her table.
Hagar rightly expected it to be a trick, but it wasn’t. She saw genuine repentance and kindness in Sarah’s eyes, and so she did sit with her, that night, and nearly every night since, for dinner. And so it happened that two little boys, half-brothers, taught peace to generations after them, all because they were allowed to play together.
…but that’s not what happened, is it? Those two little boys, one lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned, weren’t allowed to play together after all. When their mothers’ eyes met across the field that day, Sarah’s were filled with rage. She heard the echoes of a lifetime of unjust judgment and patriarchy ring in her ears: “Barren. Less than a woman. Less than a slave. Empty. Nothing.” Trapped in her own bitterness, she then exacted that same unjust sentence on a child who’d done nothing wrong, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac!” she shouted to her husband Abraham.
If the boys were allowed to play together, then they were equals. And so were their mothers. And Sarah wasn’t so sure that, when measured up to the dignity and fertility of Hagar, she would come out on top. She couldn’t allow that to happen. Hagar and the boy had to disappear.
Hagar wasn’t asked, of course. She was ordered to go into the wilderness of Beer-sheba with her son Ishmael, a sentence somehow so-called justified by God. Abraham gave them a puny skin of water and a few crumbs, but she knew it was only to make himself feel less guilty. The water gave out soon, even though she never dared drink even a mouthful, so Ishmael could have it all. Though parched with thirst, her tears flowed freely as she laid the child she’d had no choice in having (or loving) under the shrub that gave the most shade. She wandered away, a broken person, less than a person, which is perhaps what Sarah wanted all along.
She tried to stop her ears to the cries of the boy, but she couldn’t. Each one broke her more than the last. But she wasn’t the only one listening. God was. God heard the desperate cries of that abandoned child, and spoke to Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
They survived, and God was with the boy, and he grew strong, making the wilderness his home. He missed his little brother desperately, but the look on his mother’s face when he mentioned Isaac made him eventually stop saying his name.
And slowly, in the way that often happens, the bitterness and anger of parents got passed on to those boys, until playing together seemed childish, foolish, and even reckless. Isaac was told Ishmael was dangerous and cunning, a threat to his inheritance, and eventually he believed it. Ishmael was told Isaac wanted only to enslave and defeat him, and eventually he believed it.
They came together to bury their father at Hebron many years later, but there was no love between them. Brothers in blood, but strangers in spirit. It turns out they shared an inheritance, after all: one of brutality and bitterness. And thus the spiritual children of Isaac and Ishmael – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – have struggled with that inheritance ever since, fighting even over the very burial ground of that common father Abraham.
But just because Sarah made a very wrong choice the day those boys played together, does that mean we have to keep making that choice? Thanks be to God, the answer is no. We don’t. We don’t have to let our prejudices and fears poison our children’s chances at peace.
We can change the course of this sad story. Sometimes, the only way to interrupt the cycles of hatred and injustice, of oppression and conflict, is with creativity, with art. Art doesn’t take sides; it doesn’t demand a particular interpretation or indoctrinate those who experience it. It simply offers itself, freely and honestly. One such offering comes to us from Jewish poet Shin Shalom. It is named “Ishmael, Ishmael,” and speaks from the perspective of a conflicted Isaac.
Ishmael, my brother,
How long shall we fight each other?
My brother from times bygone,
My brother, Hagar's son,
My brother, the wandering one.
One angel was sent to us both,
One angel watched over our growth -
There in the wilderness, death threatening through thirst,
I a sacrifice on the altar, Sarah's first.
Ishmael, my brother, hear my plea:
It was the angel who tied thee to me ...
The caravan progresses, out of breath,
Crossing the desert, a march to death.
But we have seen a mission divine,
Eternal secrets are thine and mine.
Why should we blind each other’s eyes?
Let us be brothers; brother, arise!
The heat of the desert has narrowed our mind,
Our common grazing ground we cannot find.
Let us remember our father’s kind heart,
Let brothers never again from each other part.
Remember “the well of the Living God Who sees me,”
Let bonds of friendship bring me to thee.
Time is running out, put hatred to sleep.
Shoulder to shoulder, let's water our sheep.
If once upon a time, a mighty conflict that rages still was born through two little boys who weren’t allowed to play together, can you imagine all the good that can be done with even the tiniest of actions? It is time to put hatred to sleep, to create space for the brothers and sisters of this weary world play at peace.
Because one day, there will be two little boys, one darker-skinned, one lighter-skinned, one Christian, one Muslim, playing together. And the world will begin to know peace.
Is this story just a fairy tale? Is that day today?
That, my friends, is up to us. Amen.