This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Good News Translation (GNT)
15 God said to Abraham, “You must no longer call your wife Sarai; from now on her name is Sarah.[a] 16 I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will become the mother of nations, and there will be kings among her descendants.”
17 Abraham bowed down with his face touching the ground, but he began to laugh when he thought, “Can a man have a child when he is a hundred years old? Can Sarah have a child at ninety?” 18 He asked God, “Why not let Ishmael be my heir?”
19 But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will name him Isaac.[b] I will keep my covenant with him and with his descendants forever. It is an everlasting covenant. 20 I have heard your request about Ishmael, so I will bless him and give him many children and many descendants. He will be the father of twelve princes, and I will make a great nation of his descendants. 21 But I will keep my covenant with your son Isaac, who will be born to Sarah about this time next year.” 22 When God finished speaking to Abraham, he left him.
23 On that same day Abraham obeyed God and circumcised his son Ishmael and all the other males in his household, including the slaves born in his home and those he had bought. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen. 26 They were both circumcised on the same day, 27 together with all of Abraham’s slaves.
This is an alternative version of the more subtle story of Isaac’s conception contained in Chapter 18. In this version Sarai becomes Sarah (princess) and the child to be born is called “he laughs”, because Abraham has laughed in delighted disbelief and because God has laughed (smiled) on Abraham and Sarah. I will write about the conception of Isaac tomorrow, but today I’m concentrating on the character of Ishmael.
His name means “God listens” because the birth of a son shows Abram that God has heard his prayers, even if the child’s mother is Hagar the slave and not Sarai his wife. The supposition of such a child’s future would be that he would take second place if the wife were to have a child. In this case, no such birth is expected and Abram views Ishmael as his heir. Sarai on the other hand out of envy had treated the pregnant slave so badly that she’d run off, but the Lord appeared to her and promised a future for her child and his descendants. He would however be a “wild donkey of a man.” The story sees Ishmael as the ancestor of the desert Bedouin. It would perhaps have been easy for the Jewish editors of this story to have ignored Ishmael’s existence along wit the Lord’s blessing upon him, to concentrate solely on the Jewish line of descent. The fact that the story remains indicates approval of its original purpose, which is to show that God’s favour to the descendants of Abram and Sarai does not mean rejection of anyone else. Indeed his favour to one family is always intended as a way of bringing a blessing to all families. After the birth of Isaac,when Hagar and Ishmael are expelled by Abraham, God intervenes to protect the child and promises to continue his care.
This insistence on God’s blessing of the less fortunate and the outcast is a feature of the Bible. Israel herself is ultimately seen as an outcast who suffers for other nations. The New Testament continues this theme in the ministry of Jesus to outcasts and in the picture of Jesus himself as crucified and outcast. It runs as a counterpart to the depiction of God’s blessing on the “righteous line” of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s preservation of the outcast begins with Adam and Eve and continues in Cain; it is a sign of God’s stubborn unwillingness to destroy those who have gone wrong and his appreciation of those disrespected by others. Given God’s capacity for wrath however it would be wise to rely too much on his forbearance.
In any case it’s surely no accident that one of greatest of all novels begins with the words, “Call me Ishmael.”