Archive for June, 2005

The Ambivalence of Family, or The Lesson of Hagar

Sunday, June 19th, 2005
Genesis 21:8-2

Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:24-39

What a pleasure it is to welcome all the fathers this morning, on Father’s Day, especially since I am a father myself, in fact a grandfather for two months as of today! I salute my son-in-law, Jeff, the father of my granddaughter, Gwendolyn, and also my other son-in-law, Stephen, who is about to become a father in six weeks or so, God willing. Today I also think about my own father, Richard, whom I remember with ever increasing respect and love, despite the fact he died more than thirty years ago. The contours of families can be traced through the lines of fathering. Of course they can be traced just as well through the lines of mothering, but this is Father’s Day and the mothers had their turn several weeks ago.

These sweet sentiments are strangely out of place, I must say, in the Revised Common Lectionary that has given us the readings for this morning. In the gospel, we have one of Jesus’ more vituperative attacks on the family, saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” and so on. I’ll come back to this. But first we need to conjure with the story of Abraham and Hagar.

Now Abraham was a great hero of Israelite history. He brought his family out of Mesopotamia into Canaan and established the nation of Israel, which is named after his grandson. Both Jews and Christians look upon Abraham as the founder of their faith. The Arabs trace their ancestry to Abraham’s son Ishmael, and Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are often called the “Abrahamic faiths.” Yet if we look at Abraham as a family man, there is much to worry about.

Abraham was a kind of nomadic war-chief who traveled with a very extensive kinship family—we know most about his nephew Lot, formerly of Sodom—all of whom had many retainers, slaves, and herds; Genesis 13 says he was also rich in silver and gold. As Abraham traveled through Canaan his forces sometimes had pitched battles with the armies of the city-states there. His wife Sarah was very beautiful in her youth, and when they visited Egypt the Pharaoh was smitten with her. Not wanting to get into trouble himself, Abraham said Sarah was his sister, and the Pharaoh married her. But God, in a rare moment of swift justice for adultery, even though poor Pharaoh did not know he was committing adultery, sent plagues on the Egyptians. Pharaoh found out the cause, that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and expelled Abraham’s whole clan from Egypt, blaming Abraham for not being honest to claim his wife. Abraham was not the kind of man to stick up for his wife. Nor was there any suggestion that he loved her.

He seemed, however, to be obsessed with having children, and interpreted his wanderings as a journey to a land God promised to him and his descendents, who would be as numerous as the stars of the night sky. But as he and Sarah got older, they were still childless, and Abraham complained to God that the heir of his house was a Syrian named Eliezer of Damascus. (I’m not sure why Lot was not an acceptable heir within the family.) Sarah was worried about Abraham’s obsession and finally told him to take her Egyptian maid, Hagar, as a wife whose child would be Abraham’s family heir. Polygamy was the standard form of marriage in the biblical view for those rich enough to afford it. When Hagar became pregnant, she looked with contempt on old, barren, Sarah, which was a great mistake. Sarah complained to Abraham and Abraham said she could do whatever she wanted with Hagar. Sarah beat her, and Hagar ran away. God’s angel appeared to Hagar, struggling pregnant and thirsty through the wilderness and told her to go back to Abraham’s encampment, which she did. She gave birth to Ishmael and Abraham did raise him as his heir. But then thirteen years later, Sarah in her very old age became pregnant and bore Isaac. This is where our Genesis text comes in.

Ishmael liked to play with his little brother, according to the text, and I think this is the only expression of love in the whole Abrahamic story except for the mention that Abraham loved Isaac when he agreed to murder him and offer him as a sacrifice as he thought God had commanded. Sarah’s reaction to Ishmael’s affection for Isaac was to have a fit of jealousy and demand that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be turned out into the desert. Of course she wanted her own son Isaac to be Abraham’s principal heir rather than Ishmael who had already been acknowledged at her own suggestion. So Abraham, who had given his senior wife to Pharaoh, gave his junior wife and her son, his heir, to death in the desert. As our text recounts, God rescued them. The Islamic version of the story is that Ishmael remained Abraham’s heir, and Isaac turned out to be only a younger brother.

Now this is not an uplifting story for Father’s Day. Fathers are not all perfect, as we know. But who would want a father who sent his wife to the bed of another man in order to feel safe himself? Who would want a father who was ready to kill his child because he thought God wanted that? Who would want a father who would let a senior wife disown and imperil a junior wife and her son who is the first-born heir? The text says that Abraham was coached in most of these things by God, but we wonder who was doing the reporting.

If we look at Abraham’s story, not in the context of the biblical saga of creating the Jewish and Christian peoples, but in the context of what it says about fathering, two important points stand out. First, our ideals for fatherhood, which derive from the ethic of Jesus and have to do with loving, teaching, and care-giving, are a far cry from the behavior of Abraham the patriarch. We should take care not to let Abraham’s model, or that of a good many of the other heroes of the Hebrew Bible, influence our ideas of fatherhood too much. We can accept St. Paul’s praise of Abraham as a man of faith who followed God blindly, even to the point of readiness to kill his own son. But we should bite our tongue if there ever is a suggestion that we should behave that way ourselves, those of us who are fathers or potential ones. I suspect mothers ought not look to Sarah as a model either. The heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible are not good models of parenting. Although we can derive ideals for families from the larger values of the Bible, such as love, care, and responsibility, we cannot derive them from biblical models, and need to be very careful to reject the main part of biblical family values. I’ll come back to this later.

Second, we need to be cautious about accepting Jesus’ admonition to think of God as our Father. To be sure, to think of God as a Father rather than a warrior is an advance toward the Christian ethic of love. But we need to be discriminating about the senses in which God should be thought of as a father. In Jesus’ teachings, God was like a father in being a loving caregiver, providing his children fish, not snakes, bread, not stones, and noting the fall of every sparrow. But would Jesus have thought of God as fatherly when he wiped out all humanity except Noah and his family in the flood, and nearly all the animals as well? Was it fatherly to wipe out all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah except Lot’s family? Even Abraham was against that! Was it fatherly of God to side with the Israelites, and then the Christians, against all the other peoples of the world who were equally his children? Think of the biblical stories of God demanding the slaughter of all the women and children of people’s defeated by God’s army! Those people were God’s children too. We need to be extremely thoughtful in accepting the character
of God as depicted in all the parts of the Bible as fatherly.

Or to put the point another way, we need to examine biblical history, especially its depictions of God, with a moral as well as theological point of view. For that history shows all the biases of its authors, biases we take to be morally questionable as well as theologically self-serving. The Bible is the great source of the revelation that grounds and guides the Christian religion, as well as Judaism, and to a lesser extent Islam. Yet in order to understand that revelation we need to read the Bible with discernment, both moral and theological. For, the culture of biblical times, especially regarding family as an economic and biological unit rather than a social unit of love and care, and its acceptance of slavery, contains many things we find to be morally incompatible with a social life based on the ethical principles of Judaism and Christianity.

This brings me back to the nasty things Jesus said about the family. Jesus is never recorded to have said anything positive about the family structure as he knew it, except to apply some of its metaphors to non-kinship relations, as when he said that all people who do God’s will are his brothers, sisters, and mothers, explicitly denying any special status to his own brothers, sisters, and mother. That saying is recorded in Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 8, all three. Luke duplicates the same saying as in our Matthew text this morning, about setting a “man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Jesus actually was quoting the prophet Micah, chapter 7, where these lines were a complaint about the degenerate times in which Micah lived. Jesus applied the lines more generally to the family structure of the society that he knew: his own gospel was so devastating to traditional family structures that it would bring not peace, but a sword, setting family members at war with one another.

I need immediately to remind us of what Jesus’ main message was, although you all know it. His message was that people should emulate God’s love of all creatures, including all human beings. This has direct implications for justice, peace, poverty, and care for those who need help. The way to emulate God’s love, Jesus said, is to live in communities voluntarily drawn together, like his band of disciples, where people could love one another and practice the maturing responsibilities of love. The Beatitudes in Matthew chapters 5-7 and the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17 are compact summaries of Jesus’ teachings. The Church from very early on has taken this ideal of voluntary communities devoted to God and God-like love as its own definition. Unlike the ancient Judaism of Jesus’ own religion, which defined one as a member because of a kinship identity, being Jewish, the early Christian community was open to anyone who voluntarily joined and took on the divine role of loving, with its obligations to justice, peace, care, and personal love.

In our time we have almost completely abandoned the ancient view that the family is primarily a social arrangement for managing property and producing heirs. An economic dimension is important to family life, of course, and our laws define economic rights and responsibilities. But we reject the economic exploitation of women in the ancient family, and also the belief that children are important mainly for giving parents descendents and heirs: we think children are important for themselves. We say rather that families are the most intimate social arrangements for learning how to love, where married people grow old together through all the forms of love on life’s stages, where children can learn to be loved and to love, and where extended families express the mobility of love in our society. The ancient world said a woman could be divorced for being barren or an economic bad deal; Jesus was dead set against divorce in this sense, as are most of us. We regard divorce as a tragedy, but allow that its main justification is some kind of breakdown in love, however complicated this might be. That we have no-fault divorce, and laws to protect children against bad parenting, indicates that even family membership has a voluntary dimension, and that its highest rules have to do with good care. Our own time is not in all respects an improvement on biblical times. But in matters of family values, we have taken on Jesus’ larger value of love in community, and that is an advance.

So with regard to Father’s Day we celebrate the Christian model of fatherhood as devotion to a loving community, practicing and teaching justice and peace, caring for the poor and the needy, practicing and teaching love to all family members, especially children, inspiring the love of God, and nurturing appreciation of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Parenting is much more shared these days than in the past. Many fathers are the chief economic providers for families, but many others take care of children while others earn the living. Fathers often share both economic and domestic work. There are single fathers who bear both burdens. There are fathers separated from children by divorce or the distance of independent careers, fathers who are widowed or bereft of children through death. There are new fathers with small children, and there are grandfathers of multigenerational families. Let us celebrate today with all fathers who, in any of these conditions, who can bear themselves as lovers of God and love as God loves, with justice, peace, care, responsibility, and intimacy of affection. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville