Saturday, September 03, 2005



Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I was the one who believed in the promise. Oh, sure, El Shaddai gave it to Abraham. He was the one who got talked to. But read the story again – I’m the one who’s always trying to help things along. Abraham is running around testing God at every turn, and I’m just trying to keep him from screwing everything up! I trusted in God’s faithfulness to us, and time and again I was proven right.

God had his hands full taking care that his promise wasn’t misunderstood. First, there was the whole Egypt debacle. Abraham (he was Abram at the time, but who can keep these things straight?) assumed right off the bat that the child of God’s promise was Lot. He was our only living male heir, after all (what a lack of faith – I knew God wouldn’t cut me out of the picture so easily!). That’s why Abraham took Lot to Canaan, and later to Egypt. Of course, Lot had to be protected at all costs – and Abraham wanted to save his own skin – so I became an expendable and convenient way for Abraham to do well in the land.[1] What kind of example was that for little Lot? No wonder he later offered up his daughters to abusive strangers – he learned from Father Abraham that women are little more than bargaining chips!

But here’s the question that Abraham would never answer for me: Why would a man who has actually heard from God audibly, and moved all over creation on account of this promise, suddenly turn into a big chicken?

Of course I went along with it – I didn’t really want them to be eliminated. And I trusted God to protect me (unlike Abraham). I must say things weren’t all that bad in the royal palace. I even fancied the idea that perhaps my bringing forth the promised nation would somehow be seeded through Pharaoh. It would serve Abraham right for giving me up so easily – and for bothering me about being barren.[2]

But I realized that was all wrong. I didn’t belong in Pharaoh’s harem. I was being oppressed, just like my many children would be in this land in later generations. I remembered El Shaddai’s covenant and I cried out for God to make things right.[3] And what do you know? God did it. So you see, I was right all along.

Things were never really the same after that. I couldn’t trust Abraham to be competent with the covenant. And you must understand how horrible it was. Ten years without a child after being promised one! Lot hadn’t worked out, and I wanted God’s promise to be true. So I had to take matters into my own hands. I did what I thought I had to do to give my husband an heir. I turned to a surrogate mother.
Can you understand why? I didn’t know how it would turn out. “The mysteries of baby-hunger, the famine that forces desperate women to take desperate measures on either side of the birthing line, the mystery is powerful, something in God’s hands.”[4]

Secretly I thought my husband might be beyond his ability to perform (we didn’t have Viagra in those days, dears). But he did just fine with the slave…and that killed me. Oh, why didn’t Abraham say no – protest my suggestion, insist that God would provide? He was the one given the promise! He was the one who spoke to God directly! I could be excused my error, but Abraham should have known better. He should have trusted God’s hesed to provide.

El Shaddai did teach him that lesson later, in a much more difficult way. But I get ahead of myself.

So the slave conceived a child for me, and Abraham was then perfectly content to have Ishmael be the child of promise. All of which was fine, until the slave began acting like she was his mother! That was not the arrangement! Since when is the slave the mother of the heir? We had to get that straightened up right away. I was Ishmael’s mother. And El Shaddai was, of course, on my side, because I was again trying to fulfill the promise. Here I’ve been waiting all this time for our family’s blessing, and I do what I can to help, and what do I get for it? A whole lot of attitude from a girl who does not know her place![5]

I set that girl straight – and my husband wisely trusted me to do so. Then after all our sacrifice for her, she runs off. That was plain stupid. Off she went with the promised child – our child. I prayed for her safety and return, out of the generosity of my heart.[6]

And return she did – boasting of talking to God on a level with Abraham! That did it! That heathen witch could never talk to my God. Not when I can only listen behind the scenes. I have to hide and be ashamed for what I hear. And El Shaddai would reward her for her brash behavior![7] Even making her mother of a nation?! No, it could not be true.

I had to get her out of my house. She was a liar and a bad influence on my precious Isaac. And once again, God told Abraham to do as I said – because God knew I was the protector of the covenant, I was the one who trusted him.

Besides, my banishing the slave wound up being a nice object lesson for my descendants. Perhaps I mistreated the Egyptian, but that horrid race certainly gave it back to us a hundred fold! My children, the “great nation” of which I was Mother, was enslaved for four hundred years by the very people of the slave and her son. Really, if you look at it in “a providential light, [my] actions are the first step in the divine plan leading to Sinai.”[8]
But I’ve gotten the story all mixed up again. You don’t even know where my precious Isaac came from, do you? Let’s leave off the slave’s story – I dislike it so. We can just forget that girl – and her boy – ever existed.

You probably heard about our reactions to being told of Isaac’s impending conception. And I’m sure you understand why we laughed. But I want to make one thing clear: when God took me to task for laughing (he expected more faith from me than Abraham, of course), “I denied my laughter not because I doubted God's capacity for miracles but because I doubted my own.”[9] I believed, as I always have, in God’s steadfast love and promise to our family. But for once in my life, I was afraid of my ability to live up to expectations. As always, though, my momentary lack of faith did not prevent El Shaddai, blessed be he, from doing what he promised.

Oh, and you’ll love this – what does Abraham do, now that he knows for sure I’m the bearer of the promised child? He up and moves us all again, and passes me off as his sister to yet another king, while I’ve got the covenant baby inside![10] Will this man’s lack of faith show no limit? God put a stop to that behavior right quick. Abimelech didn’t even get a chance to see me. As usual, I was looking out for the promise – God knew he had a faithful partner in me.

So Isaac was born and I named him, not only after our snickering but also my joyful giggles at his birth, and the love that welled up in me every time I looked in his face and burst out in a laugh.[11] And we had more unpleasantness with the slave, but as I’ve already mentioned, God rescued the promise yet again by ensuring Abraham listened to my counsel.

Finally, as we neared the end of our lives, it was time for Abraham to stand up on his own. It was time for him to claim the promise. El Shaddai got me out of the way and proposed a most evil plan to my husband.

Sometimes I wish he’d tested me. But then, he knew I couldn’t hold up. After everything I’d been through to get this child, there was no way I’d have relinquished him. I think I would have gone up the mountain and slit my own throat for Yahweh’s pleasure.

So it’s just as well, in the end, that Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham needed to own the covenant. And later, he was there to talk to El Shaddai about how it feels to send your son to die.

I wound up on another mountain, Horeb, apart from Abraham, during the dastardly deed, and not long after I did yield up my spirit. It hurt my son, but he was comforted with a good wife his father found.

My Abraham had finally laid hold of the promise. But when you tell my story, remember how I was on board from day one. I spent all my life working in God’s will for my family. And the Almighty One remembered me, and made me the mother of his most beloved people. Truly, he is a God of steadfast love.

[1] Clines, 69-70.
[2] Visotzky, 32.
[3] Van Dijk-Hemmes, 232-3.
[4] Visotzky, 42.
[5] Goldingay, 87.
[6] Frankel, xv-xvi.
[7] Visotzky, 48.
[8] Frankel, 19.
[9] Frankel, 23 (italics added).
[10] Clines, 75-76.
[11] Goldingay, 77.


Clines, David J. A. What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 94: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), pp. 67-78.

Frankel, Ellen. The Five Books of Miriam: a Woman's Commentary on the Torah (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1996).

Goldingay, John. After Eating the Apricot (Carlisle: Solway, 1996), pp. 65-101.

Nunnally-Cox, Janice. Fore-Mothers (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), pp. 5-9.

Teubal, Savina J. “Sarah and Hagar: Matriarchs and Visionaries,” from A Feminist Companion to Genesis, edited by Athalya Brenner (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 235-250.

Trible, Phyllis. “The Sacrifice of Sarah,” from Feminism and Theology, edited by Janet Martin Soskice and Diana Lipton (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 144-154.

Van Dijk-Hemmes, Fokkelien. “Sarai's Exile: A Gender-Motivated Reading of Genesis 12.10-13.2,” from A Feminist Companion to Genesis, edited by Athalya Brenner (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 222-234.

Visotzky, Burton L. The Genesis of Ethics (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996), pp. 20-120.

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