On “Call me Ishmael” – June 22 (Part I)

 “A depiction of Hagar and Ishmael. . .”


The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) has two choices for the first reading and the psalm for June 22, 2014.  (See The Lectionary Page.)  The second reading and Gospel are “set.”

The readings to be used in The Scribe’s church include Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 Page 709-10 BCP), Romans 6:1b-11, and Matthew 10:24-39.

Genesis 21:8-21 tells more about the birth of Isaac (begun in Genesis 21:1), to Abraham and Sarah, when they were “well past their prime.”  (As Wikipedia said, “Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Sarah was past 90.”  Isaac – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

But this Sunday’s reading is more about Hagar, and Abraham’s other son Ishmael:

Hagar . . . was an Egyptian handmaid of Sarai (Sarah), who gave her to Abram (Abraham) to bear a child. Thus came the firstborn, Ishmael, the patriarch of the Ishmaelites. . .    She is revered in the Islamic faith and acknowledged in all Abrahamic faiths. In mainstream Christianity, she is considered a concubine to Abram.

See Hagar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  In other words, for the longest time Abraham’s wife Sarah couldn’t give him a son (to carry on the patriarchal line), so way back in Genesis 16, Sarah “gave” Abraham her slave woman, Hagar.  Sarah did this so that her husband wouldn’t be childless (or more accurately, “sonless”).

That is, in Genesis 16:2, Sarah said “go in to my maid,” and Abraham – like a good husband – said, “Okay!”  (In the language of the Bible, he “hearkened to the voice of Sarah.”  Ah, the good ol’ days.)   But when Hagar got pregnant she “looked with contempt” upon Sarah, her boss, which wasn’t very smart.  So Sarah kicked Hagar out into the wilderness, but in Genesis 16:7-16 she had a talk with God and decided to return to Abraham.

Then came the story told in this Sunday’s reading, in which Hagar and her son get kicked out again, at the “behest” of Sarah.  Sarah saw Hagar’s son Ishmael – who was apparently about 13 at the time – either playing with or mocking the infant Isaac (depending on the translation).  So Sarah – who apparently had a pretty short fuse where her competition was concerned – told Abraham to kick out Hagar and her son again.  Abraham was “distressed,” but had a talk with God, and God told him it was okay to do what his wife wanted:

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.

In other words, Abraham sent Hagar and his son Ishmael out into the wilderness to die,* and when she thought that they were both going to die, she threw her son under a bush then went away, “about the distance of a bowshot,” so that she wouldn’t have to watch her son die.

But then magically God heard Ishmael crying, and provided a well for them to drink from so they survived.  He then fulfilled His promise to “make a great nation” of Ishmael; later on he married a woman from Egypt, and so became the “father of the Ishmaelites.”

As to who these Ishmaelite “wild men” are or have been, answers vary.   The Jewish Virtual Library said they were a group of nomadic tribes, “Bedouin who live in the desert,” who were also “desert robbers (cf. Gen. 16:12),” who periodically overran and/or plundered permanent settlements “(Ps. 83:7; Judg. 8:24).” See Ishmaelites – Jewish Virtual Library.

Later on the Bible mentions certain Ishmaelites (or Midianites) who purchased and/or sold Joseph as a slave to Potiphar, “an Egyptian officer of Pharoah.”  See Who purchased Joseph, the Ishmaelites or the Midianites , which noted:  “The Midianites were descendants of Midian, a son of Abraham and his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).”

At this point the reader may want to type into his or her search engine, “Just how many dang children (or sons) did Abraham have, with his wife Sarah, or his wife’s Sarah’s slave(s), or his concubines?”  For one answer, see Why Did the Lord Allow Men to Have Concubines? – UK Apologetics, but at this point we are digressing greatly…

The point could be this:  Just as Jacob-turned-into-Israel could be a prototype for anyone who “struggles with the idea of God,” so this Ishmael could be a prototype for anyone among us who has been cast out from “decent society” and still managed to survive, with God’s help (as in – for example – having your ship sunk by a “monstrous big whale”).



The upper image is courtesy of Ishmael – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The full caption:  “A depiction of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert by François-Joseph Navez.”

The image just above is courtesy of Moby Dick (1956 film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, which added:  “Ishmael is a fictional character in Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick (1851).”  Seen as a minor character when the book was first published, later literary criticism “served to establish Ishmael as a central force in the book.   By contrast with his namesake Ishmael from Genesis, who is banished into the desert, Ishmael is wandering upon the sea.   Each Ishmael, however, experiences a miraculous rescue; one from thirst, the other as the lone surviving crewmember.”  (Emphasis added.)  “The opening line, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ is one of the most recognizable opening lines in Western literature.”


*   As to Abraham sending Hagar and her (and Abraham’s) son out into the wilderness to die, that practice is arguably not unlike the tale of Eskimos sending or leaving their old folk “out to die.”  See Senicide – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  For another point of view see The Straight Dope: Did Eskimos put their elderly on ice floes …, where – in response to a question whether Eskimos “still did that” – the writer responded (somewhat snippily):

Do Europeans cause rat-borne plagues by killing cats because cats are demon spawn?   Sorry for the iciness, but it bugs me when questions about strange Eskimo customs are phrased in the present tense, as if nothing could have changed since the eighteenth century.  But yes, in the past some Eskimos did kill old people when circumstances were sufficiently desperate. . .   [W]hen food did run short, the old and sick were looked upon as drains on the community’s resources. Sometimes they were killed – thrown into the sea, buried alive, locked out in the cold, or starved to death. Far more commonly they were simply abandoned to die.  The victim might be taken out in the wilderness and left there, or the whole village might pick up and move away while the old person slept.

Which may explain why Abraham wasn’t averse to Sarah’s command.  Apparently such practices were just not that unusual at that time and place.  Which leads to a logical conclusion that God didn’t particularly like that practice, but had to work with the resources available.  That is, He – and His spokesman Moses, who had to write down all this stuff – had to speak to His Chosen People using “language and concepts that his relatively-pea-brained contemporary audience could understand,” as noted in On the readings for June 15 – Part I.


Just as Jacob-turned-into-Israel could be a prototype. . .   See On arguing with God.


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