Say his name!

photo by Katherine Brown

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “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.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. 

Genesis 21:8-21; lectionary text for Sunday June 21, 2020

Sarah’s urgency and Abraham’s inertia and God’s inscrutable assent to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael make this a hard text at any time.  To read it these days as the nation continues to roil with racial reckoning long past due is even harder.  Convicting.  On its face this text seems to unquestioningly endorse the separation of the two brothers — God enjoins the act — yet the narrator’s sympathy is with Hagar and Ishmael.  The text seeks to be read from their point of view.  I have imagined Sarah’s years-long plight of being but Abraham’s ‘barren’ wife, going when and where and because Abraham goes with no voice of her own, mute even as she is offered by her husband to one king and then another, suffering knowing that she is too old for any newness now.  But now I feel the anguish of being sent away out into the wilderness as if I myself am Hagar.

We were just at a feast, celebrating the safe birth and weaning of Isaac, God’s promise-child, Sarah’s long awaited Laughter.  It was a great feast.  And now?  Now I am sent away with my child — our child, Abraham, our child!  The son that you and Sarah together got of me.  The feast may continue for you, for them, but for me and for our son, this 16 year old boy-man, there is but some bread and a skin of water.  How long will that last in the midbar, the desert wilderness in which water is scant?  We were just at a feast rejoicing that nothing is too wonderful for the LORD, that Laughter had been born and heard and named in our midst, and suddenly everything turned.  For what?  Because our son, Ishmael, was ‘joking’? ’playing’? ‘mocking’? ‘Isaac-ing’?*  Because suddenly Sarah is frightened for her son, our son must be driven out?  

There was a moment I might even have laughed with Sarah’s God-brought laughter.  She herself foretold that all would.  Yet already I’ve forgotten whatever mirth there might have been.  Sarah’s own joy is already ended.  She cut it short herself.  Her vision is too small.  She looks at our son, Abraham, yours and mine, and sees him only as an alternate Isaac, a reminder of those barren years before and a competitor for her son’s future inheritance.  What is that inheritance, Abraham?  Is it not that all the earth should be blessed?   In her zeal for her son’s full measure, Sarah has cut off her own joy.  She had laughed and spoken the world to laugh with her.   Now Sarah speaks to cast out half the world — as measured in sons of Abraham.  

Our son.  Ishmael — say his name, Abraham.  Though Sarah does not, you at least should name him, for he is your son too, on whose account you are distressed.  Say his name, Abraham!  Say it aloud! ‘Ishmael’ — ‘God hears’ — Ishmael, our son, yours and mine.  Our son is as truly God-named as is your son with Sarah.  Both of them have names given by the LORD.  Why can you not say his name aloud?  Is it because you are afraid to say aloud the truth that ‘God hears’?  That God heard my cry before our son was born?  That God might hear our cries again?  

Say his name, Abraham.  Ishmael.  God hears.  Say it!

God does hear.  God will hear.  

Will God hear?

I cried out at Abraham.  I demanded our son’s name from his mouth.  

Or did I?  

Was it only in my head that my voice was heard?  Was I, in reality, as silent as Sarah who — having spoken that word of expulsion — spoke no more?  

Ishmael.  God hears.  My lips move.  But do I say it?  Can I any longer trust the name’s claim when the God himself did not speak it to Abraham, did not speak either of our names, but gave us the titles that Sarah had used, that Abraham had used.

We have wandered.  Our water is gone.  I have left him.  Cast out because of him, sent away with him, now I walk away from him.  I will not, cannot watch him die.  I lift my voice.  Does he?  Does he cry?  Does he hear?  

Which ‘he’ even do I mean?

ve-Ishma-el-ohim reads the Hebrew text.  ‘And God heard.’  The name of my son held in that phrase.  The name that Sarah would not say, that Abraham could not say, that the LORD God did not say. Ishmael, God hears, now cries out from the text itself.  As the blood of the murdered Abel cried out from the ground.  As the cutting off of peoples causes stones of the house to protest and plaster of the wall to respond.  As the stones of the city will cry out the presence of the Christ if his followers themselves do not.  The text telling my story returns to me the name of my son.  No more is he ‘the boy,’ ‘the child,’ son of ‘Hagar the Egyptian,’ ‘the slave woman.’  The text becomes the testimony.  Murmurs my son’s name in the larger claim.

ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’  Saying the name moves the story from desperate need to divine response.  God heard.  And God called and renewed and expanded God’s promise and opened my eyes to the life-giving water. ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’   

‘A future with hope’ unfolds.  

‘Make strong your hand in his,’** God tells Hagar. 

The story inserts itself into my own hand, clenched as it is in anguish for persistent division and in aching uncertainty for how to move towards justice.  The text pushes itself in, makes itself strong within my palm.  My fingers ease and curl around its strength.  I am lifted to do the next thing:  to name aloud the claim that within the story God himself does not utter but does fulfill. 

Ishmael.  God hears.

Say the name.  Say all their names.  That act shifts the whole story.  Align myself with the text’s own subtle work of inclusion and reconciliation and wholeness.  God’s promise for each and for all.  That all the families of the earth will be blessed.

* The Hebrew verb in 21:3 is a form of the verb ‘to laugh,’ from which the name ‘Isaac’ comes.  The Hebrew text reads ‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar, whom she bore to Abraham, playing.’  The phrase in the NRSV ‘with her son Isaac’ is in the Greek, not the Hebrew.

** This is the literal Hebrew of God’s command in Gen 21:18, ‘Hold him fast with your hand.’

Twisted System

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”  So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, “Name him Jezreel*; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah**, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”  When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, “Name him Lo-ammi***, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”  Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 

Hosea 1:2-10; lectionary text for Sunday July 28, 2019

The text and I are in the kitchen together.  One of us is at the sink, washing dishes.  The other stands looking at the dishwasher’s back.  For a moment neither of us speaks.  I can no longer stay silent.

‘‘Wife of whoredom’ — really? — my God! do you hear how alienating that sounds?  Who wants to spend a week with those words ringing?  They’re coarse and unwelcoming.  Hostile, even.’

‘’Wife of whoredom’ — of course it’s alienating.  Don’t you hear what’s going on?

‘What I hear is ‘whoredom.’’

‘So then you stop listening?  Because it’s offensive?  Because it’s uncomfortable?  No!  Don’t shut your ears and refuse to hear more.  And don’t assume you know what I mean and start talking over me, responding to the point you assume I’m making.  It’s not about the sex.  It’s not about fertility cults or harvest orgies or temple prostitution.  Don’t turn away!  Listen to me!’  

The voice of the text had risen strident.  Now it drops without losing any of its fervor, its force somehow stronger in its quietness.

‘It’s about fidelity.  It’s about identity.  And it’s about how brokenness is bigger than just one person, just one couple.  Brokenness spreads like cancer throughout the land.  We beat each other with it, blame each other for it.  We forget and lose who we are meant to be.

‘Yes, the words are alienating.  How else to name alienation?  How else to make it plain?’

The text and I are facing each other now.  Her face is worn; her voice hardly more than a whisper.

‘Read me through.  Try.  Hear the pain behind the anger.  Think how it feels to have to name your daughter ‘not-pitied,’ your son ‘not-my-people.’  These your children whom you called as your own:  ‘I will take you as my people, and I will be your God’ (Exod 6:7).  These your children whom still you love.  These your children who have turned away, who seek security and power and purpose elsewhere.  Whose claimed identity is no longer God’s-own but …  

‘… but their own.’ Now I am speaking back to the text.  ‘Who live as if they have made themselves and called themselves.  Who cry in the dark, nor can figure out why or what is wrong.  Who do not realize how far from that way they have strayed.  Because still they make the ‘right’ decisions, celebrate the ‘right’ festivals.  Who respond to the promptings of the larger society — whether walking lock-step or rigidly resisting — so that its imperatives govern their way, define their lives.  The system is sick, and it’s twisting us all.  And worst of the sickness is that it’s unacknowledged or mis-diagnosed.’  My own voice is now a whisper, echoing that of the speaking text.  ‘So it’s not about the sex. It’s about the children.

The text replies, ‘Yes. It’s about the children.’

‘Is it plea, then, rather than judgment?  To name them ‘Not-pitied’ and ‘Not-my-people?’  

‘Oh, child.  It is both.  A plea for turning and a warning of consequences.  The sowing of Jezreel (‘God sows’) is judgment.  The sickness must be named and the sickness must be treated.’  Her voice is warmer, now, but still firm.  Her face is set — she will not relent — there’s ache and understanding in her gaze.  There is love.  My own eyes drop.  The text presses.

‘Where do you find your worth?  How do you define your worth?   What is the name you’re truly living now?’ the text asks.  ‘What is the true name you were meant to bear?’

Still gazing down, I feel for a moment a hand resting blessing on my head.  The text speaks on, ’In place of the name ‘Not-my-people’ it shall be said, ‘Children of the living God.’’

* Jezreel means ‘God sows.’ ** Lo-ruhamah means ‘Not-pitied.’  *** Lo-Ammi means ‘Not my people.’