Wednesday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 21:5, 8-20

At last God keeps his promise and Sarah, old though she is, bears her one and only son, the son through whom the promises to Abraham and his descendants will be kept. Abraham himself is exactly 100 years old.

The child Isaac grew and on the day that he was weaned Abraham threw a large feast. Weaning took place in the ancient Near East between the ages of two and three. However, when Sarah saw her son Isaac playing with his half-brother, Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the maidservant, she became very angry (while there is an impression in the story that Isaac and Ishmael are the same age, Ishmael would have been in his mid teens by this time). Sarah had not forgotten how Hagar had mocked her for sterility and not being able to give Abraham a son. She was also afraid that, if the brothers got too close, it would affect Isaac’s share of the inheritance. In fact, he will get everything.

The word “playing” here is another allusion to Isaac’s name, where the verb means ‘to laugh’ or ‘to play’. She tells Abraham to get rid of both Ishmael and Hagar. She does not want Ishmael to share any of the family inheritance with Isaac.

Abraham was very unhappy with this because he saw Ishmael as a real son whom he loved. But also according to law and the customs of the day the arbitrary expulsion of a servant girl’s son was forbidden and, especially as in this case, where the father is the head of the household. However, God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s demands because Isaac and only Isaac is to be the father of future descendants.

At the same time, Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, will become a patriarch in his own right as a token of honour for Abraham, his father:

I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.

On the following day, Abraham sent Hagar off with her son and a supply of bread and water – in view of Abraham’s wealth only minimal provisions. She left with her boy and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water ran out, she put her son in the shade of some bushes and then went to sit down some distance off. “Do not let me look on the death of my child.” And she wept. It was the second time she had got this treatment. The boy too must have been crying because an angel spoke to Hagar from heaven:

Do not be afraid, because God has heard the voice of the boy… Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.

“God has heard” is a play on the meaning of Ishmael’s name. When Hagar opened her eyes, there nearby was a well. She filled her waterskin and gave the boy to drink. And now, says Genesis, God was with the boy Ishmael. He grew up, living in the wilderness and became an excellent huntsman, an expert with the bow.

In the next verse, not part of the reading, we are told that Hagar found an Egyptian wife for Ishmael. She herself, we remember, had been brought from Egypt by Abraham. But this marriage only confirms Ishmael and his descendants as outsiders and leaving the field to Isaac.

We are seeing here, of course, the evolution of the Israelite people told through the eyes of the sacred authors. Certainly not everything in this story would meet with our approval today, neither the mockery of Sarah’s barrenness nor the sending away of Hagar. We are dealing with a much earlier society where many of the values which we take for granted had not yet developed in people’s consciousness.

But we also have to acknowledge that these values have not been appropriated by everyone in our own societies. We have only to think of the millions of people who have been driven from their homes and are without even the basic necessities of living. Most of these situations are the result of human (inhuman) behaviour.

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