Opening The Old Testament
God Has Made Laughter For Me, Sorry About You! Reflections on Genesis 21:1-18
So the camp is filled with gales of laughter as Abraham and Sarah and all those with them delight in the astonishing birth. However, there is another child in the camp, Ishmael, the child of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah's much younger and far more comely Egyptian maid. Well, that child was Sarah's own idea, we remember, the result of Abe's and Hagar's tryst when it appeared likely that Sarah would never have a child of her own. But all that has now changed, as Isaac plays at the feet of his mother.
One day, Sarah sees Ishmael "playing," and she cannot stand his very existence. The delicious irony of the story is that the word often translated "playing" is more literally "laughing," the same word on which the name Isaac is based. Now laughter has turned to fury and rejection. Sarah demands that Abraham "throw out that child and her slave mother, too." The narrator claims that Abe is "angry on account of his child," but makes it none too clear exactly which child he means. Neither is the source of that anger very clear either; is he mad at the child or at Sarah or at himself for the whole mess? Whichever it is, he gives Hagar a bit of bread and water and drives her and her child, Ishmael, out of the camp, dooming them to a terrible death in the desert. Once again, Abraham refuses to defend someone he supposedly loves, while Sarah demands that any rival for the promise of her son, Isaac, most be disposed of. Thank YHWH, Ishmael is spared, due to the gift of God, but no thanks to the foul couple, Abraham and Sarah.
What are we to make of such a sordid tale, one where the joy of laughter turns into the anger of disparagement and near murder? I wonder if this story is in fact a microcosm of the entire story of the choice of Israel and its latent dangers. Again and again, the Israelites, escapees from the slave pits of Egypt, are warned that they must never forget their origins as slaves. Once they forget that, they may too easily become the monstrous pharaonic masters from which YHWH had freed them.
Too easily any one of us may forget our own origins, may assume that we are far grander than we in fact are, and may begin to treat others as slaves and lesser beings. Sarah forgot that she was long a barren woman, and after arranging to have a surrogate child, then having a child of her own, too soon treated the child with contempt and scorn. How easily does our gracious laughter turn to angry arrogance when the shoe is now on our bigoted feet? I've now got mine—sorry about you! How very human all this is! How very human we are, when we leave God out of our calculations and take control of our lives to the exclusion of others and of God. Such an old story, and yet how current it finally is, offering a lesson that we still have yet to learn.
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John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.