Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Don't Forget the Minor Character

What happened to Ishmael? He was Abraham’s son by the slave-woman Hagar. As we read in today’s lesson from the Old Testament (Genesis 21:1-21), on the day that Abraham’s other son Isaac was weaned, Isaac’s mother Sarah got jealous and told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. After hearing confirmation from God that this was the right thing to do, Abraham sent his first son and his mother out into the desert with a loaf of bread and a skin of water and said, “Good luck.”

The interesting part to me is what happened to Ishmael—not just in the desert, where God intervened and saved them but in the years beyond. The Hebrew bible doesn’t say much. A few chapters later, Ishmael and Isaac both come back together years later in order to bury their father. And Genesis lists the names of the twelve princes that Ishmael gave rise to. But we never hear more than that. As the text tells us, the covenant was made with Isaac—not Ishmael. For the Jewish tradition, Ishmael isn’t much more than a cast-aside.

So why, then, did the story include such incredible promises to Hagar and Ishmael? If you’re simply going to write a character out of the plot, why bother giving that much backstory? In their moment of distress, dying in the desert, God’s angel calls to Hagar and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” A great nation. Father of twelve princes. Those are the sorts of promises that a nation and a religion are built upon. If you’re going to prepare the audience for a spin-off, why didn’t they ever make the new show?

Of course, according to tradition, Ishmael becomes the father of the Arab peoples, and the prophet Muhammad picks up where the story leaves off and gives us the role of Ishmael. The Quran has some wonderful stories about Abraham’s love of his first-born son—how he rode across the desert to check on his former slave-woman and her son. Most of these stories don’t play a role in our faith, but they do offer some resolution to an otherwise unfinished story.

Still, why? Why bother with those little details? If the Jewish people will eventually become rivals with the Arab people, why not just excoriate the Ishmael-promise from the biblical text? Why make him such bold promises? I think Ishmael’s story, although not central to our faith, echoes our understanding of who God is. God goes off-script. He leaves open the possibility of pursuing plot lines that at first seemed abandoned. And he does that because human history often goes awry.

God’s promises are bigger than we are. Even if we don’t understand how everything fits together, God does. He doesn’t abandon any of us simply because we aren’t central to the story. God works in ways that aren’t always obvious or traditional. God seeks relationship with individuals and with peoples that don’t always make sense to those in the mainstream. We don’t often celebrate Ishmael—we leave that to our Muslim brothers and sisters—but maybe we should. How many of us identify with Ishmael’s role in the story—abandoned but not forgotten, cast-aside yet eventually redeemed?

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