17 December 2011

And His Name... Shall be Called... Ishmael

The Advent Season is the best time to be a Christian, and it's not just because of Christmas presents or the yummy food at Grandma's house.

The Advent Season is a season of promise.  Emmanuel is coming!  And the promise of "God with Us" is a realization that I treasure year after year after year.

It's just that every year, I find Emmanuel in a new place. It may be in the glow of candlelight or in the words of a Christmas carol.  I may find it in a gift or scrawled on the back of a Christmas card.  It's always such a surprise.  I know I will find "God with Me," and I will be blessed by that revelation.

There is one place I find Emmanuel more than any other, and that is in the Bible.  Advent is a time for scripture, and whether it is in the Psalms, the Gospels, or the lyrical prophecies of Isaiah, Emmanuel is often there waiting.

This year I found it in a Bible study I attend at Oasis Church.  We've been making our way through Genesis, and the text for study was chapter 16: the birth of Ishmael.  What I found there was the Christmas story--yes, perhaps one with Father Abraham instead of St. Nicholas, but a story with a special meaning for gentile Christians (like me) nonetheless.

The chapter begins with the matriarch of the Jewish faith, Sarai.  (Abram was a patriarch, indeed, but he fathered many different nations.  The strain of the Jewish story in the Old Testament wends back to Sarai/Sarah and the child God promised through her, not through Abram.)

Sarai gives up waiting for a child, and she gives her slave to Abram as a surrogate mother.  There is no mention of the enslaved woman's feelings about this arrangement--the prospect of a union with an 85-year-old man could not have felt too enticing.  The slave--an exiled Egyptian girl named Hagar who was part of the human bounty of Sarai's brief marriage to Pharoah--becomes pregnant, however, and soon begins to "despise her mistress" (verse 4).  The context of the verse implies an "I'm pregnant and you're not" attitude, 
but I would posit that Hagar is enslaved by Sarai, forced into a sexual union with Sarai's elderly husband, and impregnated with a child that will legally become Sarai's.  I would argue that there are very many reasons for Hagar to "despise her mistress."

What follows is abuse.  Sarai mistreats Hagar; Abram abandons her to Sarai's vengeance, "Your servant is in your hands" (verse 6).

What follows is escape.  Hagar runs away, and she doesn't stop running until she's on the road back home to Egypt.

What follows is Christmas.

The way to Egypt is perilous for a pregnant young woman to travel alone.  Hagar finds a well and waits there for help.  The Bible doesn't say it explicitly, but it's safe to say that Hagar prays for help there--begging from the merchants who passed by, and calling out to the God of her elderly protector.  (To understand the scene and her need for assistance at the well, consider the assistance her nephew, Jacob, would later give Rachael at a well in Genesis 29: 6-10).

It is at this well that Hagar meets "the angel of the Lord."

The angel encourages Hagar to return to Abram and Sarai, promising not just one child but many descendants.
The angel of the Lord also said to her:
"You are now with child
     and you will have a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
     for the Lord has heard you" (Genesis 16.11)
Christmas suddenly seems closer.  This seems very close to the directions an angel later gave to Mary:  
"You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  For he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1.32)
The names are different, but the stories share key elements.  The message is delivered by an angel; the promise is for everyone.

Ishmael means "God listens."  In Hagar's distress, God listened.  And the woman whom God heard was no patriarch or matriarch, but an enslaved, abused, runaway, foreign girl.

I know far less of Mary's background than of Hagar's, but the words of her Magnificat echo back in time to paint the picture of Hagar's redemption at the well which she would later name, Lahai Roi, or "The Living One who Sees Me."
My Soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant" (Luke 1.46-48).
The name Ishmael--"God listens"--seems very close in spirit to the name that Mary gave her child, Immanuel, "God within us."

Even as Advent is a time when I rededicate myself to "God within," the message of Ishmael's name also resounds.  God listens.  When we are trapped in the desert, God listens.  When we are enslaved, God listens.  When all hope seems lost "God listens"...Ishmael--"God listens"...Ishmael, Ishmael, Ishmael.

I'm not the only writer to connect Mary with Hagar.  Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, included in the Qur'an a description of Jesus' birth much different from the ones found in the gospels.
"So [Mary] conceived [Jesus]
And she retired with him
To a remote place.
And the pains of childbirth
Drove her to the trunk
Of a palm tree:
She cried in her anguish"
"Ah! would that I had
Died before this...!
But a voice cried to her
From beneath the palm tree:
"Grieve not! for thy Lord
Hath provided a rivulet
Beneath thee
And shake towards thyself
The trunk of the palm tree;
It will let fall
Fresh ripe dates upon thee...
At length she brought
The babe to her people,
Carrying him in her arms.  (Surah 19. 22-27)
When I read this text, I don't see Mary.  I need Joseph in my Christmas narratives, and a cave in Bethlehem is just too much for me to give up for a lonely birth at the base of a date palm.

When I read this text, though, I see Hagar.  She is alone.  The son she carries isn't hers--it's Sarai's.  A return to her mistress may not necessarily be a return to slavery, but it feels just as bad.  Yet here in the desert, Ishmael--God listens.  And a stream appears (a reference to Hagar's final escape in Genesis 21.19). And sweet, nourishing dates fall all around her as she strains against the tree in her labor.

I freely admit that I read the Qur'an just as I read the Old Testament: not as a believer, per se, but as a Christian seeking to understand the truth of my Savior, Emmanuel.  But I must also admit that I am rooting for Hagar and Ishmael as this story unfolds.

God promises, and the birth of Abram's second son, Isaac, would fulfill the promise that Sarai had sought to circumvent by giving her slave to her husband.  It was through Isaac's line that David would rise and the Christ child would be born.

But God listens, as Ishmael's name attests, and God blessed Ishmael and Abraham's other sons with another promise of source.  At the time Isaac and Ishmael were being born, I had ancestors living.  Most likely they roamed the forests of Northern Europe completely unaware of the machinations of Sarai and her slave.  The hope of their deliverance--and of mine--comes through Ishmael as well as Isaac.

God listen then (Ishmael), and God Ishmael's today

And that is the special message Advent has given me this year.

(I did not have time to add Paul's commentary from Galatians 4.21-28.  Suffice it to say, he takes a different take on the Ishmael story--demeaning him as a representative of the old law, not as a part of the promise that Isaac represented.)

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