Ishmael, Isaac, and the Shared Inheritance

Listen here.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘Biblical family values’ and thought this means one mum, one dad, a couple of kids, and everybody being nice to each other, then the story we just heard should rock you to the core. For here we have the father of our faith, Abraham, being bossed around by his feisty wife Sarah. She is insisting that he send his beloved older son into the wilderness. Years ago, she had arranged for Abraham to sleep with her personal slave, Hagar, and conceive this boy. Now, however, she has her own son, and so the other boy has become a threat. For God had promised Abraham a blessing: land, wealth, and descendants. From him would come a great nation—and Sarah didn’t want to share.

She said, ‘The son of this slave woman will not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Ishmael was the son of a slave, you see; worse, his mother Hagar was Egyptian. She wasn’t ‘one of us’. And now Ishmael is seen laughing with Isaac: looking dangerously like her own precious son, whose very name means ‘laughter’. So Sarah gets rid of Ishmael, that potential threat to her family fortunes, and he and his mum are sent into the desert. So much for Biblical family values.

And if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘God’s chosen people’, and thought this means Christians, then this story should shake you even further. For just when it looks like Ishmael and Hagar will die of thirst, an angel of God calls to Hagar and shows her a well, and promises that, just as Isaac would be the father of a great nation, so too would her son. And God was with the boy as he grew up.

Now, the line of Abraham to Isaac to Jacob began the Jewish line, and Christianity is a branch of Judaism; whereas Ishmael is considered the forefather of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. In other words, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of God’s promise to Abraham; we are all children of the inheritance. This story about Abraham and his sons, then, is also about the inheritance of nations. Sarah thought there was only enough for Isaac and his line, but the story is clear: In God’s economy, there is enough for both sons. In fact, there is enough for everyone.

Since we’re talking about the blessing of nations, we might want to think about Australia at this point. There are an awful lot of Australians who don’t want to share the blessings of one of the richest countries in the world; and there are an awful lot of Australians who consider Muslims outside of God’s blessing. We take a very low number of refugees in relation to our GDP, and we send many asylum seekers to remote detention centres. A friend of mine visited a detention centre last year. She told me that in that stinking hellhole, water doesn’t run during the hottest hours of the day; and that children live there. Those children and adults suffer because we, as a nation, have voted for politicians who refuse to share the blessing with people who are not ‘like us’.

In tonight’s story, the joke was on Sarah. She sent the threat away, but God met Ishmael in the wilderness and stayed with him and gave him a blessing, too. In Australia, the joke is on us. We elected politicians who won’t share the blessing with those ‘other people’; now, in successive budgets, the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer: now, the powerful won’t even share the blessing with what they like to call ‘ordinary Australians’! Those of us who have largely benefitted from history would like to think that our nation’s wealth is our birthright, but God has a way of saying, no, not really; and did it ever occur to you to share?

As a small congregation in rural Victoria, we won’t be changing the government’s approach to boat arrivals any time soon, nor will we overturn the hostility our nation can feel towards people who are not ‘like us’. But we can take small steps in our local area, and the first is to stop talking about ‘them’ and ‘us’. I read an article recently which raised some good points, but its title was ‘Do refugees understand the Bible better than us?’ The title implied that refugees are never ‘us’: people who gather together to read the Bible and pray, and maybe think about these things in relation to migration. Given some of the refugees I know have doctoral degrees in human migration, and a great many are active members of local churches, the title simply stinks. It’s like when we talk about ‘ethnic’ churches, as if congregations largely made up of Anglo-Saxons have no distinctive cultural identity. Again and again in our language and our thinking and our theology, we talk about ‘us’ as if there is an ‘us’ in the first place, and that ‘us’ always seems to means white middle class Anglo-Saxon heterosexuals; usually married with children; and with a Christian heritage.

But this story about Ishmael, Isaac, and their shared inheritance shows that other people are equally beloved by God; other people share in God’s blessing. We are all children of Abraham, and in God’s eyes, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. We see this worked out through the Gospels, when Jesus came to understand that his mission was to all people; and later, in the Acts of the Apostles, when the early church exploded across the world.

So thinking about language is important. More practical steps for this mostly Anglo congregation include supporting refugee groups and turning up at Love Makes a Way actions. We can challenge the racist comments we hear in casual conversations; we can remind other Christians that Muslims are also children of Abraham, and co-inheritors of God’s blessing. We might learn a few words of Korean and greet the young workers we bump into at IGA; we might make friendly eye contact with a woman in hijab, or exchange a few words. We could learn more about Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong history and culture, and think hard about how we could work for reconciliation. And we might reflect on our own cultural assumptions and blind spots, that we can better recognise them and hold them in check when they emerge.

These are tiny gestures, mere starting points, in a world so wounded by ‘them and us’ thinking. In London, in Syria, on the West Bank, in Chechnya, in so many places, people are intimidating and hurting and killing other people who are seen to be different; and we must pray long and hard for reconciliation and healing across the world. But we must also do what we can to challenge ‘them and us’ thinking here in our own region.

For God’s blessing is granted across human boundaries; God listens to ‘us’, yes, but also attends to the cry of every Muslim in detention who has limited access to water on a hot day; God hears the cry of every migrant to the South West who is culturally isolated, and lonely, and a very long way from their father’s house. Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”. In other words, if we want to serve Jesus, we need to be going out of our way to welcome the stranger, through whom we serve and welcome our king. And we do this in full confidence that God’s generosity and blessing is for Isaac and Ishmael; Christian, Muslim, and Jew; Pakistani and Samoan and Indigenous Australian and Anglo-Saxon and Dutch: it’s for everyone. We are not called to be Sarah, for we know that gifts are to be shared. And we know that, in God’s economy, five loaves and two fish feed thousands: there is always more, so much more, than enough. Thanks be to God. Ω

A reflection on Genesis 21:8-21 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 25 June 2017. Image shows a detail from Hagar in the Wilderness (Camille Corot, 1796-1875, here)

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