Readings: Genesis 21:5, 8-20; Psalm 34; Matthew 8:28-34
Abraham had a son with his slave girl Hagar, a boy called Ishmael. At first it seemed as if he would be the one to carry forward the covenant the Lord was establishing with Abraham. When Sarah is later blessed with a son, Isaac, she feels threatened by the existence of this earlier son of Abraham, the elder half-brother of Isaac. Her maternal interest in the promotion of her own child leads her to ask Abraham to send the others away. Initially Abraham - a man of honour - hesitates but he is assured by the Lord that all will be well. And so he sends Hagar and her boy away, giving them some food for the journey.
At first they wander aimlessly and find themselves stranded without food or water. But true to his word the Lord comes to their help, he hears the boy's cry, and provides them with what they need. They are not restored to the household of Abraham however. Ishmael, son of Abraham and half-brother of Isaac, is not the one on whom the promise rests. And yet he does not fall outside God's providential care for he is connected with Abraham and therefore with God's purposes in history.
We saw yesterday Abraham's interest in the well-being of Lot. Until the birth of Isaac it would have been Lot, Abraham's nephew, who was heir to all he had, including, we can suppose, the call and promise he had received from the Lord. Now the focus is on Ishmael: does he not have some right to inherit from his father? He will be a great nation, the Lord says, and God was with him as he grew up. But he was not the son who carried the call and the promise that was special to Abraham. That was to be Isaac.
Something is being made clear through these stories - not Lot, not Ishmael, but Isaac is the child of the promise. The Lord is making it crystal clear for us that it is on him, Isaac, and on him alone that the future of the covenant with Abraham rests. All the stranger then the story we will hear tomorrow when God will ask Abraham to sacrifice this son of the promise. It must be absolutely clear, unambiguous beyond doubt, that the promise is a matter of sheer grace, a pure gift of God to Abraham, something given and guarded by the Lord from the beginning until its ultimate fulfillment. It must be absolutely clear also that the contribution of Abraham to this relationship is simply his faith, his sheer faith, put to the test beyond anything imaginable before in what we will hear about tomorrow.
Meanwhile the story of Ishmael continues in a line that serves as a kind of counter-point to the line of Isaac and Jacob. Ishmael was the father of twelves sons, tribal leaders in the territory that was his. Then Esau, the son of Isaac and elder twin brother of Jacob, married a daughter of Ishmael. The stories continue to inter-weave. But always the younger ones are chosen and the elders must give way to them. It is to Ishmaelites that Joseph is sold by his brothers who must later submit to Joseph, their younger brother, in order to save the patriarchal line from dying out. It becomes a theme in the Bible: the younger is chosen over the elder.
Hagar and Ishmael make a final appearance in Galatians 4 where Paul contrasts these two mothers and their sons, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Now it is not on the basis of one being younger and the other older but on the basis of one mother being free and other being a slave. In a curious argument he says that Christians are to think of themselves as children of the free woman who represents the heavenly and spiritual Jerusalem which is free. The earthly Jerusalem is fleshly and enslaved. He is thinking once again of a younger child being called ahead of an older one, this time the children of the new covenant accepting Christ before the children of the first covenant. Once again the stories continue interwoven, the story of Judaism, the elder son, and the story of the Church, the younger son. Each might try to understand itself without the other but it is not possible.
Something persists in the way the Lord deals with his people, to remind us that it is all grace, a pure gift. When we forget this, as we often do, the Lord raises up a child younger than us to remind us, for we who once were the younger can easily begin to live and act as if we are the elder. And then we must move to a different role in the never-ending story and wait for the time when our youth will be restored and our freedom re-established. But always, in whatever wilderness we wander, God is with us, sustaining us and helping us as we grow up.