“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son, Isaac. 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.” Genesis 21:-11
It is good and to be expected that parents will love their children. It is also human nature to be defensive and jealous when we perceive threats to them. But what happens in this story is neither natural nor wholesome. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, seems to feel that her status as wife conveys privilege and priority upon her son, Isaac, and that Ishmael, the son of Hagar (the stranger) is both too big a threat and too alien a person to benefit reap the benefits of having been Abraham’s first born son.
We may distract ourselves from the argument by blaming a system of polygamy and patriarchy, but this story still rings true today. How often do we fear the needs and the claims of the “other”? The one who lives among us as a stranger, an immigrant, or a “drain upon society?” How much suffering occurs in this world because of our insistence on defining everything in terms of “them and us”?
Sarah is not evil. Abraham is not stupid. And Hagar certainly did not ask to be a slave/concubine. But the reality is that the three of them find themselves in a world in which the wealth and privilege of this nuclear family is challenged by Abraham’s responsibility to his son, and Hagar’s dependence upon the man who is the father of her child.
Granted, this is a story about the origins of the Patriarch and the children of Abraham, but the story did not end with them. Even as we struggle to provide for our own children and families, there are others in our midst who must also live. And truth be told, if we are to thrive, then they must also thrive.
The response to want and need is generosity, not defensiveness and exclusion. Left to his own devices, Abraham would abandon his concubine and his son and leave them both to die. But God would have it otherwise. Ishmael is also the son of Abraham, and will be the head of a great people. But the ancient memories of neglect and exclusion remain and the animosity between the sons of Abraham continues.
Imagine how differently the history of the Middle East might have played out if Sarah had not demanded, and Abraham not acceded to the demand for exclusion?
And imagine how much more loving and peaceful our own lives might be if we were to summon the faith and the courage to refuse to be afraid of those who stand in need, and instead to become willing to share what we have.