This blog continues a meditation on the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, which began on 1st January 2015. Previous blogs can be found in my archives.The headline helps to keep my thought real.
OAKLAHOMA TO BRING BACK THE GAS CHAMBER
Today is my 73rd birthday. When I was a boy in the 1950’s I didn’t think I’d live this long, but these days I’m told to expect another 10 years of life at least. This unexpected bonus of living time has been useful to me, as I’ve been a slow learner in the art of fruitful living and may almost have learned how to do it by the time I’m 83. This blog, which has been my daily companion for about five years has at least kept the best wisdom of the Christian tradition before my mind; and may have had a beneficial effect on me if no-one else. My archives can be accessed by date, but also by topic, for example, emmock.com/ David will bring up a range of reflections from 1st and 2nd Samuel. I very much appreciate the readers of Bible Blog and their comments.
GENESIS 21: 9
Once Sarah saw the son of agar the Egyptian woman, whom she had borne to Avraham, laughing.
She said to Avraham:
Drive out this slave woman and her son
for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with my son, Yitzhak!
The matter was exceedingly bad in Avraham’s eyes because of his son,
But God said to Avraham:
Do not let it be bad in your eyes concerning the lad and your slave woman;
in all that Sara says, hearken to her voice,
for it is through Yitzhak that seed will called by your name.
But also the son of the slave woman, a nation I will make of him,
for he too is your seed.
Avraham started early in the morning,
he took some bread and a skin of water
and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, together with the child and sent her away.
She went off and roamed the wilderness of Be’er Sheva.
And when the water from her skin was at an end, she cast the child under one of the bushes
and went, and sat by herself, at a distance, as far away as a bowshot,
for she said to herself:
Let me not see the child die.
So she sat at a distance, and lifted up her voice, and wept.
But God heard the voice of the lad,
God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her:
What is the matter with you Hagar? Do not be afraid,
for God has heard he voice of the lad, where he is.
Arise and lift up the lad and grasp hin with your hand,
for a great nation I will make of him!
God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water;
she went and filled the skin and gave the lad to drink.
And God was with the lad as he grew up,
he settled in the wilderness and became an archer, a bowman.
He settled in the wilderness of Paran and his mother took him a wife from the land of Egypt.
The favour of God towards human beings works in mysterious ways so that it could almost be seen as a curse sometimes. In this case God’s favour to Sara and Avraham in the birth of a child gives licence to Sara to express her jealousy of Hagar whom she has already mistreated and her son Yishmael, who vied with Yitzhak for the love of Avraham. What is wrong with Yishmael’s laughter? It expresses a contentment that belongs only Yitzhak whose name means “laughter.” Again in this chapter we see the special use of verbs of seeing and hearing. Sara “sees” Yishmael laughing. The matter is bad in Avraham’s “eyes.” God tells him to “hearken” to Sara’s voice. Hagar does not want to “see” the child die. God “hears” the voice of the lad and “opens her eyes” so that she “sees” a well of water. The perceptions of human beings are driven by their emotions of jealousy or despair, whereas God’s hearing and seeing is compassionate.
The story prepares the reader for the more terrible story of the “sacrifice of Yitzhak” in the next chapter. Here also Avraham loses a beloved son to the purposes of God (and Sara!); here also he places a load on a loved one; here also a child is saved from death by God’s hearing and seeing.
We should note that the events of this story are completely coherent as human events: the expulsion is triggered by a comprehensible resentment and carried out with a comprehensible reluctance. Hagar’s wanderings, her despair and her eventual discovery of water, do not require the intervention of God. The narrator tells the story of God’s involvement without turning the human beings into puppets: God leaves space for the emotions and actions of his human partners. We also notice that in sharp contrast to Sara, God does not remove his eyes from those who are not part of his blessing for the world.
As Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim Abraham as a father, this narrative represents an important parting of the ways. I do not think that any Islamic traditions are independent of the biblical narrative, but are rather interpretations of it. For example the noble Qur’an gives prominence to Yishmael as one of the ancient prophets of Islam and as an ancestor of Mohammed (peace upon him). It gives him a role along with Avraham (Ibrahim) in the construction of the Kaaba at Mecca, but adds little to the bible story. Nevertheless the Islamic tradition insists on correcting the bias attributed to God in the bible passage: Ishmael is at least as important in the plans of God as Isaac. Jews and Christians may object to this interference with their cherished traditions, but doubtless there were once people who objected to the interference of the Genesis author with their tribal traditions. The favour of God is always at the mercy of the storyteller.
33 And he came to Capernaum, and being in the house, he asked them, Of what were you arguing by the way?
34 And they remained silent, for by the way they had been arguing with one another who was greatest.
35 And sitting down he called the twelve; and he says to them, If any one would be first, he shall be last of all, and serve all.
36 And taking a little child he set it in their midst, and having taken it in his arms he said to them,
37 Whoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receives me; and whoever shall receive me, does not receive only me, but him who sent me.
38 And John answered him saying, Teacher, we saw some one casting out demons in thy name, who does not follow us, and we forbad him, because he does not follow us.
39 But Jesus said, Do not forbid him; for there is no one who shall do a miracle in my name, and be able soon after to speak ill of me;
Jesus, the beloved son of God, is on his way to rejection and death but his disciples, according to Mark are willfully blind to this downward mobility and still hanker after power. Jesus’ takes a child, a little one without power, to illustrate where true greatness is to be found, that is, in welcoming and caring for the least important. Jesus saying makes it clear that to receive a child is to receive God. The greatest one comes to human beings in the shape of the smallest and least important. This is a fundamental rebuke to most systems of human power, including religious hierarchies. Those whose eyes are on the smallest and least important will not long for power over others. That does not invalidate ecclesiastical offices such as bishops and popes, or for that matter, parish ministers; but it does suggest that the exercise of their function should never go unchecked. Church communities should be models for secular communities in using power to protect the most vulnerable rather than models of self-advancement and abuse.
In religious communities a by-product of competitive hierarchy is sectarianism: only those who a part of our church are worthy; the others are heretic scum. John expresses the beginnings of this attitude and is sharply reminded by Jesus that there may be different ways of honouring his name; and that all who are not opposed to his way should be viewed as friends. Jesus’ “catholicity” remains a challenge to the churches, especially to the national churches of the reformation, but also to the church of Rome. The inter-faith movement may represent Jesus’ attitude most clearly as it maps out crucial points of agreement amongst faith traditions, rather than points of difference.