8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 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.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But 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. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So 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.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then 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. 17 And 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then 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.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
The birth announcements have long since gone out. The thank you notes for the shower gifts have been delivered. The child can now toddle around and wins over complete strangers with his crooked smile. The day arrives to celebrate his independence from his mother—he is weaned and the community joins with his elderly parents to mark this moment.
In verse 8 there is a shift in mood. In the first seven verses of chapter 21 we learn that this boy is fulfillment of a promise God made to his father: “Out of you I will create a great nation.” That was ten chapters ago in the story! Abraham was old when God made this promise and now he is impossibly old to be a new dad. The son is named Isaac, which means “laughter.” Sarah laughed when she heard the prophecy that she would have a baby and she laughs now as she parades her son through the village. Most women in their 90’s break their hips but she carries her youngster on hips made strong with joy.
As the tables are being set and the food prepared for the celebration of his weaning, something changes. Marking the maturation of this tiny boy must have triggered a thought for his mother: There is only one inheritance and two sons. When the promise for the two of them to have a family failed to come true, Sarah had suggested that her elderly husband get together with her servant girl, Hagar. (This was customary in their culture at that time.) A child born to Hagar would technically belong to her. Hagar had a son and he was named Ishmael. It became clear very quickly that Hagar loved her son and Sarah would never feel like he was her own. Abraham loved Ishmael deeply—as a father would—and that became a problem when Isaac arrived.
Two brothers play together. Ishmael is a doting older brother to a smiling, drooling toddler. Sarah looks in on this scene, one she has seen countless times before, but this time she sees competition. Ishmael is a threat to her plan for her boy, the one promised to her over a decade ago. The dialogue is sparse but painful: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son, Isaac.” Abraham is distressed but does as his wife requests, packing off this precious pair with a crust of bread and a supply of water. God assures Abraham that He will do for the boy what Abraham will no longer be able to do: care for him and raise him to be the patriarch of his own great nation. Imagine elderly Abraham, whose sight could well have been dim by then, seeing the outline of his son moving away from him into the wilderness. Meanwhile, Sarah smugly folds decorative napkins for the family party.
Brothers. Many of us have raised boys. I discovered it’s quite different from raising girls. In my birth family there were five girls and then a boy. My brother is 12 years younger than I so I only overlapped with him for 6 years before leaving home. I understand sisters but I didn’t understand brothers. Then I had two boys, 13 months apart. We bought identical plastic boats for bath time. Each needed their own police hat so we provided duplicates of everything. That was the best formula for peace. Brothers are best buds as children, tumbling around like puppies with non-stop physical contact. But puberty does a number on all siblings. Two brothers often see each other as competition, especially if they’re close in age. The teenage years are marked by self-differentiation. So brothers tend to focus on the ways that they differ from the other. Jealousy can result in distance. Boys who played in the sandbox together and tossed a ball in the backyard stop speaking. This wilderness time for brothers that can be bridged when they’ve made their way into adulthood with their own unique identity more clearly defined.
The Bible is full of stories about brothers. Some are parables that Jesus told, most memorably the story of the Prodigal son, which has been often renamed The Parable of Two Lost Sons! Isaac, the son of Abraham who won the inheritance coin toss, had twin sons. The younger twin duped Isaac into granting favored birth rights to him which led to a rift that forced Jacob-the-Schemer to run for his life. Another father’s heart was broken. Jacob carried on with God’s promise of making of Abraham a great nation by having 12 sons. We remember Joseph of technicolor dream-coat fame. Jacob made the mistake of spoiling him so his older brothers sold him into slavery and lied about it to their dad. Jealous, murderous plots keep up the legacy of fathers broken-hearted because of competitive sons. Too often in the scriptures we find that the relationship between brothers produces sore spots rather than tender reunions. Even if we buy two of everything when they’re young, we can’t control the way their relationship develops in their adult years.
God’s promise to Abraham, as he sent his oldest son away, was that Ishmael would become, by God’s grace, a great nation. Our reading today shows how, in their time of desperate need, God provided lifesaving water for the boy and his mother. He grew up, married an Egyptian woman and started a family of his own. Muslims points back to this son of Abraham as their ancestor in the faith. Jews trace their religious roots back to Isaac, the boy of promise. Both are beloved sons of the great Patriarch, Abraham. We Christians came along a bit later and were birthed out of the Jewish nation so we, too, claim our heritage as children of Abraham.
Muslims. Christians. Jews. All point back to Abraham at the family reunion. How’s that working out now? This past weekend tensions mounted between Jews and Muslims in Gaza. Netenyahu pledged a massive strike to control the Palestinians. We witness the dysfunction of the family by looking in on tragic scenes in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and California. As descendants of Abraham met to worship in their mosque, church and synagogue, they were attacked with hateful rhetoric and deadly bullets. The majority of homicides are committed by people who know their victim. Known as expressive violence, the aim is to make a statement. It’s a power ploy and murders that happen between people who know each other are more apt to involve physical brutality. When a crime is committed within a family, it’s all the more heartbreaking. In Escondido, California, two congregations grieved: The Chabad of Poway where a woman was killed and three others, including the rabbi, were wounded; and the Poway Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where the family of the alleged killer raised their son with Christian values. The pastor and rabbi stand together in a sign of solidarity amidst the horror at this family reunion.
We learn in this sad story from Genesis that God’s got enough love to go around. God loves both of these boys and provides a rich future for each of them. God doesn’t cause the division. Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands when God’s timing didn’t match up with their own. The couple played God and introduced heartache into their own lives and generations enacted the same tragedy. Tension between Jews, Christians and Muslims has plagued our world. Some have lost their lives while kneeling in prayer. Have we forgotten that we worship the same God of Abraham? Do we fail to notice that God has a special commitment to Ishmael, giving him a future when his earthly father could no longer do that? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches His apostles about God’s mercy: “…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” As Hagar fears that she and her son will die of thirst, God provides for their most basic need: water. Not only will they live but Ishmael will thrive.
It’s easier to act hatefully toward others when we don’t know them. In the passage from Genesis 21 notice that Isaac is referred to by name four times but Ishmael is never named. Sarah spitefully refers to her son’s half-brother as “the son of this slave woman”. God responds to the cries of Hagar, calling her by name. But Ishmael, an innocent pawn in an adult world, is simply the son of a slave woman. Though cast out from family, God never loses sight of this beloved boy.
Rev. Cain Felder tells the story of his name. He is the eldest of nine children, born in Giddy Swamp, South Carolina. When he was 13, the age traditionally considered a “coming of age”, his mother told him about his name. His other siblings had Biblical names but he couldn’t understand why he would be given the name of a murderer and wanderer. He learned that his biological father had mental struggles which led to him being hospitalized. When Cain’s mother was at the facility, the man raped her and she became pregnant. Thirteen years later his mother explained to him, “I named you ‘Cain’ because of how you were born. You were born in utter sin. You were born in an assault. You were born in all of the ugliness attached to it: a brother murders a brother. When I opened up the bible, there it was, so I gave you that name.” But she went on to tell this son that his first name was not his sole destiny. Cain tells of this conversation in an interview with Rufus Mayfield:
She said, “But remember, that’s not your full name.” I asked, “What do you mean?” She said “You’re so different from all of your other brothers – you don’t have a full brother, or a full sister, so you’re really unique. I started weeping and she said, “Now I see that you’re weeping. I want you to understand your whole name. What does your grandmother call you?” I said, “Grandmother calls me ‘Cain Hope.’” She said, “I do, too! You’re not named just ‘Cain’ it’s ‘Cain Hope,’” and I say that may have been, Brother Mayfield, my call to ministry, being empowered by my mother who stopped going to school in the sixth grade, to my becoming a “Latin School Negro”, there learning Latin, with four years of French, three years of German – all before I came to Howard [University]! No one from either side of my family had ever graduated from high school, and here, a sixth-grade woman who in the south used to pick cotton in South Carolina was empowering and choosing this “bastard” child to understand that, though you began in sin, there’s no telling what the Lord will do with you! So you have here the basis of a profile that I myself didn’t know what was going to come of all of this. All I knew was that I was being led by a certain spirit to move forward. destiny-pride.org/spotlight/july-2011
The story in Genesis 21 between two half-brothers who never reconcile paints a poignant picture of our human condition. We all claim the same loving Parent who assures us that there’s enough love to go around. But we bicker and fight and distance ourselves from each other out of jealousy. We inflict wounds on each other and point to the sore spots in the family history rather than the blessings. This plays out over generations and the sin into which we were born alienates us from each other and from God. Perhaps we all bear the name Cain Hope at our very core. We are this seemingly irreconcilable mix of sin and hope, of being both fallen and grace-filled. If we can confess that we hold hateful attitudes deep within us, we have a chance at seeing another not just as the interloper to our own claims—but as a brother or a sister with a name.
I take great encouragement from a story a few chapters down in Genesis that tells of a reunion between Isaac’s twin sons. Jacob robbed Esau of his inheritance then fled. As the two approach each other, years later with unresolved baggage, Jacob is afraid for his life. As they come within sight of one another, Jacob begins to bow low to the ground in a showing of humility. Bracing for the worst, he is surprised by the reaction of his brother. In Genesis 33 we peek in on this emotional scene: “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids…He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
Too often we focus on the sore spots that mark our family history. We refuse to let the resurrection bring new life and forgiveness into our relationships. We forget that God has a unique destiny for each of us as beloved children. Though born in sin, God holds out hope. At the reunion there can be tears of reconciliation for us, our nation and our world!
May it ever be so! Amen.