A Truly Tragic Tale - Reflections on Genesis 21:8-21
by Dr. John Holbert on Thursday, June 15, 2023
A Truly Tragic Tale
Some biblical stories are very dark, and the one for today is one of them. After the relatively light-hearted story of the miraculous birth of the child of laughter, Isaac, we are confronted with a rivalry between sons that we did not anticipate. Earlier in the story, Abraham and Sarah, desperate for a child, called on an Egyptian servant, Hagar, to serve as a surrogate mother for the elderly couple. The move proves successful with the birth of the boy, Esau. Several years pass before the child Isaac is astonishingly birthed by the aged Sarah, though she was past the day when such a thing could ever have been expected.
Because the second son, Isaac, the son of the couple chosen by YHWH to be the founders of the “great nation,” promised in Gen.12, is the favored one, as he grows and is weaned, “Abraham made a great feast” to celebrate the event of his weaning. No comparable feast is mentioned for the now nearly-forgotten Esau. But Sarah has not forgotten the boy born to Hagar, but instead of rejoicing in the fact of two healthy sons, she can hardly now speak the name of that son “born to the Egyptian woman, whom she had born to Abraham” (Gen.21:9). The wretched reality that Hagar and her husband had made Esau together in a sexual act, without her, clearly rankles Sarah, so when she watches Esau “laughing,” the reading of the Hebrew text, she is furious; only the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate add “with her son Isaac.” The Hebrew I find darker and completely understandable from the perspective of the furious and chagrined Sarah. Even seeing Esau’s laughter (yes, it is the same word that forms the name Isaac) is too much for her; the NRSV’s “playing” is a poor rendering of the word. She turns to Abraham and demands, “Throw this slave woman and her son out! The son of this slave woman (she repeats the objectification of Hagar as slave) shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” (Gen.21:10).
The next line is deliciously ambiguous: “But the thing was vastly evil to Abraham because of his son” (Gen.21:11). The translation of the NRSV “distressing” is weak and conveys little of the supposed anger and frustration displayed by Abraham, according to the verb, usually used in contexts of very evil actions. In addition, which son is referred to by Abraham, Esau or Isaac, both of whom are his sons? Luckily for the patriarch, God (Elohim) at that very moment speaks to Abraham, “Do not consider it evil because of your slave woman; all that Sarah says to you, listen to her, because it is through Isaac that heirs will be named for you” (Gen.21:12). God here sides with Sarah and Isaac against Esau, and bids Abraham to do what his wife asks. This command nicely lets Abraham off the hook; what he thought as evil is in reality a work of God.
Besides, God has a plan for Esau, too. “About the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him, too, since he is also your offspring.” Note, however, that no one uses Esau’s name; he is, in the mouth of Sarah and of God only “the son of the slave woman.” There can be little doubt that the narrator of the story uses all means available to denigrate Esau as merely a child of a slave. So, Abraham, now free of any real responsibility either for Hagar or Esau, acts toward both of them with maximum cruelty. “So Abraham rose early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, placing it on her shoulder, along with the child, and tossed her out. She left and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba” (Gen.21:14). This must be seen for the monstrous action that it is. The hapless Hagar and her son are turned out of the camp of Abraham and Sarah, given a bit of bread and one skin of water, and are forced to “wander around” the trackless waste of the wilderness of Beer-Sheba. This southern desert is bereft of any good sources of food and water; one meaning of the word Beer-Sheba is “well of the seven,” but that well is apparently the heart of Abraham’s camp. Once one is denied access to that famous well, one is doomed to hunger and thirst in a vast wilderness.
And so it occurs. The water soon is gone, and in utter desperation Hagar “sends (casts) the child” under a nearby desert bush. She herself, unable to bear Esau’s piteous cries, goes off in the opposite direction, “about the distance of a bowshot (perhaps 100 yards?), saying, “Do not let me see the death of the child.” Sitting far from the boy, “she raised her voice and wept” (Gen.21:16). Note now that God does not hear her voice but the voice of the child (!). And an angel (messenger) enters the scene, and “calls to Hagar from the sky, ‘What is it to you, Hagar? (The odd phrase appears to mean “what’s the trouble” or something like that.) Do not be afraid, because God has heard the voice of the boy right where he is. Get up, pick the boy up, grab his hand, for I will make a great nation of him’” (Gen.21:17-18). “Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; she went to it, filled her skin, and gave the boy a drink.”
The story ends prosaically, as “God is with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness, and became a great marksman with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt” (Gen.21:20-21). Well, it is something of a happy ending, but it does not wash away the foul dealings of Sarah and Abraham with Hagar and Esau. Sarah’s cruel jealousy demands that even laughter from the mouth of Esau is unacceptable to her, and he can have no place in her orbit, nor in the orbit of her favored son. Throw her out, she demands of Abraham, and he does it forthwith. And despite the narrator’s attempts to save Abraham’s reputation by claiming that Sarah was only acting on God’s orders, his cruel abandonment of Hagar and Esau to a terrible death in the desert cannot be excused in any way. In a kind of delicious irony, Esau in the Quran replaces Isaac as the progenitor of the nation of Islam, the vast religious faith that today includes well over one billion adherents. The nation that is founded on Abraham and Isaac has only some 15,000,000 followers. Purely in terms of numbers, the heirs of Esau vastly outnumber the heirs of Isaac. The story is a dark one, and the result of its jealousy and cruelty is the long struggle of one people against another, still unfortunately all too real in our own time.