Monday, September 23, 2013

Parenting 101 in the Desert

They say you can read The Bible through thousands of times and learn something new with each reading.  And why not?  A reading is couched within different life circumstances, different phases of maturity that drive our quest for meaning in passages fraught with multiple levels of understanding.

Over the past two weeks, I've been plumb stuck in a brain fog as I've sought to understand the Jerry Springer-esque family dynamics of Genesis' Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael.

On our weekly prayer walks so far this September, my pastor has asked what I've been reading, learning, studying.  Each time, my cheeks have burned, embarrassed, as I've stumbled over my admission that I am still mulling over Genesis.  It sounds like a cop-out, an admission of someone not really in the Word at all.

But, the truth is I've been trying to make meaning out of a passage that has suddenly made little sense to me, one I thought I was comfortable with when I read it in the past, but now find it deeply disturbing.

The difference in then and now?  Then, I had not experienced the sacrifices a mother makes for her children.  I saw only through the eyes of a woman, not through the eyes of a mother. Now? I know a mother's love...and a mother's wrath. 

After Sarah abused her suddenly haughty servant Hagar, after Hagar ran away to find the "God who Sees" her in the desert, and after Hagar returned to give birth to Abraham's son Ishmael, Scripture glosses over a decade and a half until that time when Isaac, the true son of promise, is born to Sarah and Abraham.

We pick up with Isaac's birth, his naming, and then his weaning.  And on the day his mother is to stop nursing him, Scripture shows us a picture of a sixteen-year-old Ishmael mocking the toddler Isaac.  Commentator Matthew Henry says the original Hebrew more readily describes Ishmael's actions as "persecution," but in our day, we would likely refer to it as a good case of mean-spirited bullying.

Either way, there was evil intent on Ishmael's part, and it's readily understandable.  Ismael had been the apple of his daddy Abraham's eye for a dozen or so years before the golden child came along.  And overnight, with Isaac's birth, Ishmael's place in the succession had been supplanted by this little kid who was referred to by all as the "child of promise."

Yikes.  After all these years, suddenly being treated as the second-class son of a slave rather than Abraham's firstborn son and heir--with all its rights, perks, and privileges--had to sting.  It had to feel unfair.  And so, he lashed out at young Isaac, seeking to persecute the object of his displacement who had done nothing more than be born.

Of course, Sarah saw the bullying.  I'm guessing Sarah was a hover parent.  Heaven only knows I would be, too, if I had waited until the ripe old age of 90 to bear my first and only son.  I can imagine her instantly scooping up that precious curly-headed boy and rushing straight to Abraham's tent, her hands on her hips as she spat venom at her husband, demanding, "Get rid of that slave woman. Get rid of her son. The slave woman’s son will never have a share of the family’s property with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10).

Sarah's maternal anger pierced through her word choice.  No matter how long they had lived in quasi-peace as a rather dysfunctional family, now, she no longer referred to the two objects of her wrath as Ishmael and Hagar. No.  Now, they were nothing more than "that slave woman" and "her son." 

Abraham was distraught.  As Scripture says, "What Sarah said upset Abraham very much. After all, Ishmael was his son" (Gen. 21:11).  He was in an impossible situation.  So, God stepped in with a solution: "But God said to him, 'Do not be so upset about the boy and your servant Hagar. Listen to what Sarah tells you, because your family line will continue through Isaac. I will make the son of your servant into a nation also. I will do it because he is your child'" (v. 12-13).

Perhaps Abraham knew this was the best and only solution.  Perhaps he had already picked up on Ishmael's attitude towards Isaac, maybe even had witnessed with his own eyes another example of Ishmael persecuting the young boy and knew two competing roosters in the hen house would only lead to trouble

Either way, Abraham did not procrastinate, did not question God's plan, did not even mourn the decision although his father's heart surely must have broken.  Instead, "Early the next morning Abraham got some food and a bottle of water. The bottle was made out of animal skin. He gave the food and water to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulders. Then he sent her away with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba" (v. 14).

This is where I have stumbled most, reading with a mother's eyes.  How could Abraham--who by all accounts was quite affluent at this point in his 100+ year old life--how could he just send Hagar off with just some food and water?  Why couldn't he have given her a horse? a donkey? a herd? a servant? or at least a trusted male companion to guide her safely to the next city or even small town?  How could he just send the mother of his child and his firstborn son out into the desert with nothing more than "some food and a bottle of water?"

My mother's heart has wanted to criticize Abraham for this action, to treat him as the villain in this part of the story.  Initially when I read this passage, I thought this was a good example of there being a wrong way to do the right thing.  And honestly?  I'm still not sure that's a bad interpretation of the facts.

But I think there's more to Abraham's actions than that.  When God told Abraham to send Hagar away, He had also informed Abraham that He would "make the son of your servant into a nation also" (v. 13).  With this knowledge fresh in his mind and heart, then, perhaps Abraham's sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the burning hot desert with nothing more than food and a bottle of water was an act of faith on his part, a faith in God that HE would protect the pair as they wandered in the barrenness where life-giving water was nearly impossible to find.

Perhaps Abraham's refusal to provide more for Hagar and Ishmael was also his attempt to show them that they must not rely on him any further for support but must rely fully on God, a lesson both would quickly learn two verses later when their supplies ran out and they had nowhere else to look but up.

This is the lesson I've been trying to see for three weeks now.  

I am a natural mother.  I have this innate ability to want to mother everyone, to want to care for others even not of my blood with a mother's heart.  Yet, there comes a point when I must turn my back on my natural mothering instincts that say "take care of him!!!" and, instead, choose to have faith that God is the ultimate provider.  There comes a point when I must point a person to God as the ultimate life-giver and not me.

Had Abraham provided for all Hagar and Ishmael's needs when he send them away, they would have had no need to turn to God.

Although it may break our hearts at time, let us seek the discernment to know when to help and when to stand back and allow God to provide.

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