Hagar in the Desert
Genesis 21: 14-19
14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she[a] began to sob. 17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
Chagall came back to this text on at least three occasions, and completed as many drawings. He must have been moved or troubled by these verses. As a boy in the Baptist Church I heard this story of Hagar in the desert and couldn’t get my head around the majority of the tale. I had a sense of Sarah’s jealousy, that concept held meaning in my social constructs of the time. However, I didn’t analyze the account of God providing for Hagar and the child, Ishmael, who is not referred to by name in the prescribed text. Likewise, my focus did not land on God’s proclamation regarding the lad’s future, or how a couple of verses later the boy went from a dehydrated infant to a married man and patriarch of a nation.
As a preteen boy, I focused on Genesis 15:2-6 where Abraham longed for a son. I recalled Sarah’s love for her husband when she provided the womb of a concubine to give the gift of offspring to her husband (Genesis 16: 1-2). I heard a proud father (Genesis 21:1-7) lauding the birth of his son. These bells could not be unrung. In the Baptist Church it was not uncommon for us to study Biblical stories and to commit them to memory. Given all that and my personal history in a broken family, this reading worked hard on me as an impressionable and emotional youngster.
I cringed at the ease with which Sarah came to despise the Hagar’s child, as well as Abraham’s willingness to banish his son and the boy’s mother into the wilderness of the desert. I wondered, how could he possibly release the child he had previously begged God to have? Did Abraham not love Ishmael? To be sure, I was troubled by Abraham’s most notable act in Genesis 15. He prepares to sacrifice is second son, Isaac. We’ll deal with that story in more detail in a future piece.
Reading these verses in years past I visualized Ishmael’s life itself. I imagined his rapid ascension to greatness as a raspberry at Abraham, one he deserved. These days I read much more, literarily, politically, and figuratively, into the text. In other settings I’ve written about the birthright passed on from Abraham. In traditional conventions Ishmael carries the birthright as the first born. This is not to be confused with the royal birthright of Isaac. As I noted in the birthright article, Isaac may well be the son of the unnamed Pharaoh. His conception could of happened when Sarah was taken into the Egyptian harem (Genesis 12:10-20), yet another story for another time.
As for Genesis 21: 14-19 in the here and now the one thing that shines through is that Ismael is a child of promise, a child born in covenant with God (Genesis 17: 23-26). Titles aside, Ishmael is Abraham’s son. That's not my potion. The Hebrew Bible is clear, as is the Quran. Thus, nearly two billion Muslims see it the same way.