"HALF-BROTHERS" - Genesis 21

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Texts: Romans 12:9-21; Genesis 21


            The first 11 Chapters of the Bible – in the book of Genesis - talk about cosmic things. God creates the world and calls it good. God creates all things in the world – day & night, sky & earth, and every living thing. God creates humankind – Adam and Eve – and gives them instructions in how to live. Two weeks ago, we looked carefully at one of those early stories in Genesis – the story of the first children born into the world, Cain and Abel - and the first murder: Cain killed his brother Abel.

            This week, we have been inundated again with the continuing and horrible legacy of that first murder – brothers continue to kill brothers; it is not just two brothers in a field but one brother with massive automatic weapons firing continuously into a crowd at a music festival. So many killed and so many wounded.

            God is still crying . . . and God is still calling us to a more wholesome and compassionate existence in the world.

            In Genesis, Chapter 12, as I have shared before, the cosmic story of God and the world, and God and people, becomes very particular and very specific. As you may recall, God changes the plan and calls a certain person, Abraham, from a certain place, Haran, along with his wife Sarah. This is what God said: “Go from your country and from your kindred, . . . to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.”

            From Genesis 12 onward, this begins the story of God and God’s beloved, chosen people. God is Lord of all. God made the whole world and is at work in the world. But God has a particular purpose that starts with Abraham and Sarah. This story will go through the generations – through Isaac and Rebekah, through Jacob and Rachel, through kings and prophets, through ups and downs, through Jesus and the early church, through thousands of years . . .to the present, to here – to US. God’s particular purpose – through God’s people - is to bless and to make us a blessing in the world. God’s particular purpose is a world of harmony and hope, a world of joy and justice, a world of peace for everyone.

            How will God make this happen – bring blessing to the world? Well, it will be through God’s CHOSEN people. It starts with Abraham and Sarah; and it carries on through their extensive family.

            And what is the goal of God choosing Abraham and Sarah? Well, it is clear: that the world will be blessed. “I will be your God. You will be my people.” And “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

            This idea of being God’s CHOSEN people is really quite delicate. Almost as soon as these words of God calling come into Abraham and Sarah’s ears, they – Abraham and Sarah – get quite grandiose in wanting to hasten God’s plans. They start participating in this plan – to be a blessing – but their efforts become mostly scheming and plotting for land and resources and wealth so they CAN BE GREAT. Just a few verses into the story of Chapter 12, it says Sarah is “beautiful,” not only that, she is “desirable.” Sex is the bait. Abraham offers Sarah to Pharaoh. In return, Pharaoh gives Abraham “sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels.” Abraham figures he is on his way to blessing so he can be a blessing. But instead of trusting in God and God’s plan, he took matters into his own hands – out of his sense of CHOSENNESS.  . . .  making a mess of things. And this is going to happen again and again.

            None of us are very good at letting God be God. Most of us, like Abraham and Sarah, are much better at taking the initiative, trying to make things work toward our plans, NOT trusting God and God’s plans. This happens again and again in the Bible . . . and with us.

Then, . . . we get to a very interesting part of the story. If Abraham and Sarah are going to be a blessing to the world, they need NOT just wealth and resources; they need children. God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be “as many as the stars.” This is the way to become “a great nation,” and a blessing to the world – through progeny.

Yet the years pass and the journey unfolds . . . and Abraham and Sarah still have . . . NO children.

In despair, and again trying to take matters into their own hands instead of trusting God (see, we are good at this!), Sarah proposes an arrangement to get children. She offers her handmaid, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham. Hagar would be a surrogate mother. Perhaps she will bear a child; then the blessing would continue.

In the ancient world, this kind of arrangement was not so unusual as it sounds to our modern ears. If the wife offers her slave, this forestalls the husband from taking a second wife. The womb, like the muscles of slaves, can be used to serve the master and the master’s needs. Sarah and Abraham know they need to have children in order to fulfill God’s chosen plan for them. Hence, . . . this plan with Hagar.

But this plan, as you might guess, because it involves intimacy and jealousy, is fraught with conflict. Hagar indeed conceives and this alters the relationship between the two women – no surprise there! As Genesis 16 says, Hagar “no longer respects her mistress.” As the bearer of Abraham’s child, she is no longer content to be treated as a slave. Sarah notices this change and takes another action, blaming not herself who hatched this plan. She says to Abraham: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.” . . . (We are all so good at passing the blame! Does this happen in your home?)

Abraham shrugs this off.  “Sarah, do what you want with your maidservant.” Sarah kicks pregnant Hagar out. She flees into the desert. There, Hagar is met by an angel who tells her to go back. The angel also says she will give birth to a son, whom she should call Ishmael. She returns and Ishmael is born. Abraham now has a son.

But it is getting quite messy. If you like interesting stories and real life with dangerous twists and turns – this is as good or better than your favorite TV drama or Netflix series. J

So then another twist emerges – in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham he is going to have another son, born to him by Sarah. At this, Abraham fell on his face and laughed, saying: “will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will a son be born to a woman ninety years old?”

Indeed, a year later, Isaac is born. Listen now to Genesis 21:

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” 8The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So 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.” 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But 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. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

14So 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. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then 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. 17And 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. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then 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. 20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            Children and jealousy, blessing and promise, competition and confusion, distress and . . . . God (as always) responding!

            So it seems clear – just as Abraham was chosen out of all humankind to be blessed and build up God’s plans to bless the world, so is Isaac.

            But what about Ishmael?

Isaac and Ishmael are half-brothers.

            Historically, the tension in this story – between Hagar and Sarah - has created significant and lasting tensions in the world. Jews, and later Christians, have claimed themselves to be heirs of the covenant – God’s precious, chosen people – to be blessed and to be a blessing in the world for God’s purposes. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel – these are the families that follow in the story of Genesis that continue to unfold through the Holy Scriptures, . . . to us.

            As you might know, Muslims have another interpretation of this ancient story. Ishmael, the first-born son to Abraham, is viewed as the real bearer of the blessing, the chosen one, not Isaac. Muslims accused the Jews of falsifying the biblical texts, re-writing it to make Isaac the hero, instead of Ishmael. It is thought that Islam is descended from Abraham through Ishmael. Once these faiths had each claimed themselves as heirs of the Abrahamic covenant, it looks like we are destined for continuing conflict and debate and tension.

            But perhaps we should NOT be so quick to see things so simply.  It may not be so “either/or.” Perhaps we should NOT be so certain that for Isaac to be chosen, it means Ishmael is rejected. In a recent book by one of my favorite writers, Jonathan Sacks, a prominent Jewish rabbi, he makes the point that this traditional reading – Isaac chosen, Ishmael rejected – is actually wrong. (See, J. Sacks, Not in God’s Name, p. 110) And this has misled us for so long!

            In fact, there are four different places in Genesis that say Ishmael will be BLESSED BY GOD. When Hagar was in the desert, thrown out by Sarah, before Ishmael was born, the angel told Hagar “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” That is the same language that Abraham heard from God – his children would be “too numerous to count.”

In Genesis 17, God speaks to Abraham – amidst all the tension between Sarah and Hagar, and God says “As for Ishmael, . . . I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly,  . . . and will make him into a great nation.” This sounds so familiar too because we have heard it so often applied to Abraham and Isaac. But it is also applied to Ishmael.

            Then when Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away because of the confusion about the blessing with these two sons of different mothers, God says to Abraham, “Listen to Sarah, it is through Isaac that descendants will bear your name.” But then God says, “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (v. 13). God recognizes that Ishmael is God’s son and will be blessed accordingly.

            And then finally, as we heard in the passage today, when Hagar is running out of water in the desert; it appears that Ishmael will die – which means no blessing. BUT God heard the boy (Ishmael) crying, (Ishmael means “God hears”) and the angel said what angels say – “fear not, . . . for God has heard the cry, and will make him (Ishmael) into a great nation. God was with the boy as he grew up.”

            Isaac has been chosen for a specific purpose, for sure. But Ishmael is not rejected – Ishmael is also cared for, sustained, protected, and made great too. We so often minimize or miss this point. And it has led to some many continuing conflicts and tensions between religions.

            And then there are two more important scenes that involve Ishmael and God’s astonishing ways. In Genesis 25, after Sarah has died, Abraham took another wife, named Keturah. She bore him 6 more sons. We have had ALL this drama about no children, no blessing, and then great tension about Ishmael and Isaac.  

Many of the rabbis think that Keturah is Hagar, welcomed back into Abraham’s home and heart after Sarah died. He brought her back to give her a place of honor. He brought her back and had more sons.

And you know what else happens in this same chapter? Abraham dies, “old and full of years, and he was gathered to his people.” Then it says this – “his sons, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave, near Mamre.” Ishmael and Isaac standing together at their father’s grave! (Genesis 25:8-9). Amazing!!

There is something so important for us to learn here – in these days, through our religious tensions, and divisions in the world.

We are so quick to assume that Isaac and Ishmael lived separate lives. We are so ready to focus and fight on who is chosen and then who is not. We are so happy assuming one religion is best and the other is not. BUT a more careful reading of this Genesis story of the HALF-BROTHERS shows that God is always faithful and caring. God is interested in blessing people to be a blessing. That is the MAIN POINT. We all have different journeys but we are all beloved of God. Just as God is with Isaac, God is with Ishmael. He becomes a great nation. The two HALF-BROTHERS stand together at their father’s grave. There is no hostility between them. Their futures diverge, but there is no conflict, nor do they compete for God’s affection. God’s affection encompasses them both. What an image for us! What an image for the world!

Brothers can live together in peace. This is OUR calling – especially with our Muslim half-brothers. HALF-BROTHERS are still   brothers. We are called to a more wholesome and compassionate existence in this world.

So often, we act like Sarah – we are afraid there won’t be enough – not enough love to go around, not enough water to survive, not enough of an inheritance for two sons. And God’s grace keeps surprising us. If half-brothers – with different destinies - can stand peacefully together at their father Abraham’s grave, we can certainly respect each other – our brothers and sisters and half-brothers and half-sisters - and work together for a more wholesome and compassionate and peaceful world. May it be so. Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to hear your call, to live as a blessing always – that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on October 8, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

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