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BIG Stories of Bible: Hagar and Sarah

Last night the Bible Study group explored the interweaving stories of Hagar and Sarah, which includes Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and God as well. The stories can be found in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21.

The story goes something like this. God has promised Abram that he will have a multitude of descendants. But Sarai remains barren years after the promise has been made. So Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands. She tells Abram to take her slave girl, Hagar, whom they got while they were in Egypt, and for him to have sex with her and produce a child. It was sometimes practiced this way in those days – where a surrogate mother would have a child for a woman who was barren. Interestingly, Sarai also gave Hagar to Abram as his wife – not just as a surrogate. Abram went along with the plan, and soon Hagar was pregnant. .

Hagar apparently got some attitude about herself when she became pregnant, and Sarai felt diminished and mocked. So Sarai complained to Abram – who now had power over Hagar – and Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she wished with Hagar. Sarai treated Hagar very harshly, to the point that Hagar ran away.

In the wilderness, God came to Hagar and asked where she was going. Hagar replied  that she was running from her harsh mistress. And then, stunningly, God told Hagar to return to Sarai. To submit once more to the suffering and anguish. This image of God is a troubling one. Why would God send anyone back into an oppressive or abusive situation. Phyllis Trible calls this a text of terror. It feels that way.

Some commentators suggest that God was aware that Hagar could not survive on her own in the wilderness. And if Hagar was away from Abram, then the son she was carrying would not have any connection to the gifts of Abram. So God had Hagar go back as a “suffering servant” figure to insure the safely of Ishmael. This is not a satisfactory reason for God to allow such suffering for most of us. How do you work this out in your mind:?

An interesting note – Hagar has a direct encounter with God and lives to talk about it. And she finds her voice and gives God a name – El roi – which means – the one who sees. She is the only person in the Bible who names God.

Chapter 16 ends with Hagar giving birth to Ishmael, the first son of Abram when he was 86.

Now we move 17 years into the future. Ishmael is growing into a man, but we have no idea who he is or what his relationships with Sarai and Abram are. Hagar disappears from the story for awhile. God comes to visit Abram and again says that Sarai will have a son. God does not speak to Sarai, until Sarai laughs at the idea of her having a child, and God rebukes her. But there is not annunciation story for Sarai. God also changes the names of Sarai and Abram to Sarah and Abraham.

Chapter 21 begins with the birth of Isaac. And along about verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Some texts suggest he is mocking Isaac. Sarah is upset and tells Abraham to cast the “slave woman and her son” out. Note that Sarah does not call them by name. Abraham is not willing to do this, probably because he loves Ishmael his son. But God intervenes on behalf of Sarah, and tells Abraham to do as she tells him. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many people through Isaac, and yet God will also form many nations under Ishmael. So Abraham agreed to cast the boy and his slave mother out. To say it another way, Abraham casts our his first born son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.

Abraham gives them bread and water – not nearly what is needed to survive the wilderness. Why is he so stingy? Why does God have to allow this casting out into homelessness and desolation? Why can’t there be another way? What do you think?

Hagar and Ishmael become famished as they run out of food and water. Hagar goes a distance from Ishmael so that she does not have to hear his cries and watch him die. But God hears his cries, and God comes to Hagar and shows her a well – the boy and the woman are refreshed. God says – I will make a great nation for Ishmael. Now the promise is not to Hagar but to Ishmael. Hagar is left out again.

There is too much to tell here. You need to read the story for yourself. But we have the story of two women who, instead of helping and supporting each other, compete with each other and both are hurt by that competition. We see a strong emphasis on patriarchy – from God and everyone in the story. We wonder at God’s support of the oppressors instead of bringing relief to the suffering. We see God going to the margins to reach out to Hagar, but then calling her back into abusive relationships. The story is complex and troubling.

Phyllis Trible offers this reflection on Hagar: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surragate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mot her, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

What do you see happening in this story? What does the story have to say to us today?

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BIG Stories of the Bible: Abram and Sarai

The story of Abram and Sarai is found in the 12th chapter of Genesis. The first 11 chapters in Genesis is really a set of stories about God’s attempt to find someone who would live a virtuous life and bring blessing to all families on Earth. God starts by attempting relationship with the whole human community – but that did not go well. After 10 generations, God decides to destroy the masses and start over with one family – Noah’s family. But choosing a virtuous man does not guarantee that all descendants will be “Noah-like.” This plan doesn’t work either. Another 10 generations pass, and God does some thinking. God decides not to wipe out humankind again, but instead decides to choose an individual with no family in order to produce a family that ultimately will bring blessing to all the families of Earth. God chose Abram. And Abram is married to Sarai – who is barren.

Ironic that God chooses barrenness – but in this story and throughout much of the narratives in Genesis, barrenness is a metaphor for hoplessness. To be barren is to have no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future if you are barren. But in biblical faith, barrenness is the arena of God’s life-giving action. God can provide what we cannot provide for ourselves. And Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, reminds us that a departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness. To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.

In the first 3 verses of chapter 12, we hear God call Abram – to “leave your land (country), your birthplace, and your father’s home. Go to the land I will show you and I will make you a big nation, will bless you, will make your name great, and will bless all families on earth through you.” Note that what comes first is that God will make a great nation. The context is not Abram – but a people. Blessing Abram is secondary.

I find it extraordinary that the text says “all families” will be blessed. That is pretty radical and inclusive. This image of God is very big picture, very all embracing. How does this compare with our own images of God?

Blessing is central in this narrative. Think about what it means to be blessed – or to offer blessing to another. Blessing is a gft from God issuing goodness and well being into life. Blessing manifests in fertility and multiplication in life. To have herds and flocks, crops, human life. Also material well being/peace/general success in life. And note the interplay between blessing and promise. What’s the difference between the two? Blessing is inadequate and incomplete without promise. Promise is the most basic category. Promise is more than what creation can provide. Promise brings blessing into the sphere of redemption.

In these first 3 verses, we learn that through the family of Abram – the new nation that will come – all humankind will be blessed. What does this mean? One idea is that this group of people will show how a community can live, will care for each other, will create inventions, cures, write literature, music, etc. that will benefit all humankind. And the social and moral point is that Abraham’s descendants are not to live by themselves or only for themselves. Whoever they are dealing with – these people will be a community that connects its birth with a prediction, a promise, an obligation, a destiny – to be a blessing to all.

Verses 4-9 tell of the travels of Abram and Sarai. As they go Abram builds altars along the way in special places. And they end up in the land of Canaan. We did not spend much time talking about this part of the story, except to note that later, in the book of Joshua, God delivers some of these places (like Ai) back to the Israelites – and this is in recognition of Abram invoking the name of God and building the altars. It gives meaning to the phrase that the good of our parents has implications for the lives of future generations. Or in the negative, the curse of the parents is left on the children.

While they are living in Canaan, things are not going well. That is always interesting to remember when we are being faithful and following where God is leading. We don’t assume a promised land is going to be a place filled with difficulties and trouble. But sometimes it is. There is a famine. The crops fail. And the only way to survive is to go to Egypt, where there is food. We noted that the famine was not caused by Abram sinning – but sometimes things just are hard. This new land has a lot of potential, but it needs a healing from what other humans have done to it.

Now the last part of the story has Abram and Sarai gong to Egypt. It is important to remember how old they were – Abram in his mid 70’s, Sarai in her mid 60’s. Abram is aware that Sarai is beautiful, and that the Egyptian men will want her for themselves. Some in our group found it hopeful that older women can be so desirable! One commentator I read said that this is the storyteller throwing some humor into the story. But at this point, Abram begins to scheme – and we wondered, does this mean he is no longer trusting in the promise of God? What Abram does is say to Sarai – if asked, we will  tell them you are my sister.  He is trying to survive. He assumes that they might kill him so that she would no longer be married.

There is some thought that Sarai might be Abram’s half sister. This would not be uncommon for that time. If she is, the Abram is saying – tell the truth, just not the whole truth. Don’t tell them you are also my wife. If she is not his half sister, Abram is asking her to lie so he won’t die. What do you think of this plan?

One commentator suggested that Abram had few options available to him. And none were perfect. He chose to enter a situation fraught with danger and ambiguity and devise a careful strategy, albeit imperfect, self-serving, and dishonoring of Sarai. Does this sound like real life to you?

The Egyptians do find Sarai to be quite lovely, and she was taken into Pharaoh’s house (do you remember who else was taken into Pharaoh’s house to live in a later story – Moses). The king was good to Abram because of Sarai. Showered him with sheep, cattle, slaves – made him wealthy. But then, God intervenes with plagues and Pharaoh asks Abram – what have you done to me – lying about Sarai? He throws Sarai and Abram out of the land – but lets them keep all the possessions they had accumulated in Egypt.

A couple things to note: First, Abram goes into Egypt assuming the worst about Pharaoh – thinking Pharaoh will kill him. But Pharaoh proves to be better than expected. Letting them leave with all their possessions is very generous. Second, it was Abram’s actions that brought about the curse. The one who is to be a blessing to all families on Earth also has the capacity to bring curse. In his first contact with outsiders, Abram fails to bring forth blessing. Instead, it is Pharaoh who brings blessing. Pharaoh proves the better role model. And we learn the God’s purposes are also served by “others.”  The “chosen ones” can do good and bring harm, and the “not chosen ones” are not automatically bad or against God. We have to watch what we assume.

Thirdly, have we noticed who has not spoken at all. Sarai! Why is she silent?  Is this her way of honoring Abram? Is she simply not empowered to speak because she is a woman? Do you notice that the story really  develops around Sarai – not Abram. She is silent but powerful. She is mentioned 13 times in this text. She is not a minor figure in the story. Sometimes we need to pay the most attention to the silent ones.

So that is the story. What does it mean to you? Why is it such a BIG story in the Bible? I hope many of you will share your thoughts by posting a response.

Rev. Joe Hoffamn

 

 

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BIG Stories in the Bible: The Parable of the Loving Father

Last night we began our summer Bible study series by exploring the Parable of the Loving Father, perhaps better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You can read the story in Luke 15:11-32 We had 10 participants of different ages and life experiences, and it was a spirited conversation. You can join us on Mondays from 6-7pm each week of the summer!

The larger context of Jesus telling this parable is important. Jesus was teaching a large group of people, including some Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded to those complaints by telling 3 parables. These are called Parables of Joy, and include the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the loving father. Each is about something or someone being lost and then found. In the first parable, a sheep is lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness, and searches for the 1 lost. When it is found, the shepherd rejoices. In the second, a woman has 10 coins, but loses one. She searches the whole house until she finds the one – and then has a party to celebrate finding the coin. In both parables, the person searching refuses to give up the search until the object is found.

The Pharisees and scribes can appreciate searching for something of value. The first two parables would make pretty good sense to them. But then we come to the 3rd parable – a story about a man with two sons. In those days, Roman law said that the oldest son inherited 2/3 of the property of the father. The younger sons split the remaining third. And it was very unusual for any of the sons to ask for their part of the inheritance before the father died. This was very disrespectful and was like saying – you, my father, are already dead to me.

But in this story, the younger son does ask for his part of the inheritance, and the father gives it. The younger son moves away to a distant land, squanders the money, hard economic times fall on the land, and the son finds a job feeding the pigs – and was so hungry that he longed for the corn cobs he fed the pigs, but no one gave him anything. Last night we wondered why the son would want to leave home? Was he a rebellious spirit? Did he not want to go into the family business? Did he feel he couldn’t be himself or live his life at home? What do you think? Have you ever chosen to go to a “distant land” in your own life experience?

Then, I love this next line, the younger son came to his senses! He realized he needed help. He realized that his father was kind and generous, and that all the servants and hired hands of his father’s had plenty to eat. So he decided to go home, to say – I am not worthy to be your son – but will you take me on as a hired hand. When have you “come to your senses” and asked for help?

The story continues with the father seeing his son off in the distance and running out to greet him. Before the son can say his rehearsed speech, the father says – bring out a robe, kill the fatted calf, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, was lost but now is found. In one swoop the father takes the son in, restores him to full status as a son, and throws a party. Why would the father do this? Why not let the son come home (as both Jewish and Christian tradition allows for) but let him eat regular food, let him think about what he has done and why? Why a party?

Which brings us to the older son. He hears the music and comes to the house. He asks what is going on, and is angry when he learns that the younger son is back, and that his father has thrown a party for him. He refuses to go in the house. But the father comes to him, greets him just as he greeted the younger son. But the older son blames his father for never throwing a party for him – and he had been faithful and good. We can understand the son’s frustration and anger, can’t we? It doesn’t seem fair. And thus we must face the fact that grace is not about fairness, or even justice. Grace is a gift we are given and don’t deserve.

Now, remember that Jesus is telling this parable to help the Pharisees and scribes to know why he eats with tax collectors and sinners. This story would offend the Pharisees and scribes. The actions of the younger son – feeding pigs – was unclean. And while the sheep and the coin had value, the younger son – who was a sinner – had no value at all until he repented. In this story it seems that the one who has done wrong is rewarded.

In the commentaries I read on this, it was said that the father’s value system was different from the usual criteria of fairness and justice. his values rejoice in the presence and health of both his sons. The older son’s faithfulness over the years was a great gift that the father treasured. And now, the younger son was home and safe, the one who had been lost has been found, and what could make a father more joyful? We often thing in terms of dualisms, of either / or. But here we have an example of a father loving both sons.

And so we might realize that grace offends a sense of fairness, and forgiveness can come across as condoning. And as one commentator put it – “we get a glimpse of divine sadness at human resentment of divine compassion.”  And is it true that we resent such compassion, especially if we have been the good and faithful child serving every day, giving up other things we might have liked to do?

So I hope you will share your thoughts on this. What do you connect with in the story? What is your impression of each of the characters? Are you offended by such grace that isn’t fair?

(Next week our story will be from Genesis 12, the story of Abram and Sarai being called.)

Rev. Joe Hoffman

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