Genesis 21:8-21


Jesus says that family relations can be difficult at times. Your family constantly influences you and you them. We leave our mark on each other's souls that either hurt each other or help each other. That's the way it's always been . . . since the beginning of time. Each of us is born into a family system and no one begins in the beginning of anything. Jill [name changed for privacy reasons] comes today as part of a family system. She and each of us begin in the middle of a system that has a history and has terrific power. Take, for instance, the story that was read today from Genesis.

Last week we were laughing with Abraham and Sarah because he was 100 and she was 90 when they had their first baby together. On the way to the geriatric ward they made a stop at the maternity ward. So they named their boy Isaac, which means "laughter": Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter [Isaac] for me; everyone who hears will laugh [Isaac] with me." (21:6)

How quickly the laugher changes, however. You see, Isaac is not the only boy in the tent. Back when Abraham was a young man of eighty-six (16:15) and Sarah a mere seventy-six, they still had no child, so Sarah suggested to Abraham that he "borrow" her Egyptian slave-girl--Hagar--and plant his biological seed in her. Abraham agreed and Ishmael was born.

Now, sixteen years later, when Ishmael is a teenager and Isaac is about three years old and coming off of breast milk, the family has a party to celebrate Isaac's passage from infancy to childhood. They throw a party with food and laughter for Isaac (who is "laughter"). And the family system's dynamic raises its head.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. (21:9). That's not a great translation of this verse. For one thing, you notice in the footnote in the pew Bible that the original Hebrew text does not have with her son Isaac. Second, the word "playing" in this verse is the verbal form of the name Isaac in Hebrew, and we remember that the name Isaac means "laughter." So the literal reading of verse 9 is Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, laughing."

Sarah sees that the older boy, Ishmael, is laughing--that is, enjoying himself at the feast given in honor of her son. His laughter (which is Isaac's name) seems to mock her joy, perhaps bringing back her own doubting laughter and reminding her that there remains another child of her husband's who could still cause problems for her darling Isaac.

What's the problem? Well, the official name is primogeniture--the rights of the first-born. We will find this summer as we walk through these stories in Genesis that families are more concerned with the rights of the first-born than is Yahweh. Even today, families assume that the oldest child--often the oldest son--is the one who is chosen to carry the family tradition and to be the leader of the family simply because of birth order. It's part of our family system that we assume. You may be where you are today in your family system simply because of your birth order. If you read Genesis carefully, though, you will find that Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are leaders not because of their birth order but because of their giftedness. The call of Yahweh is not limited by birth order but is governed by Divine discernment regarding gifts. The issue of primogeniture is not limited to nomadic tribes in Israel, of course.

The second major problem I see in Sarah's reaction is exactly that--her reaction. Sarah says to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." (21:10). How do you think Sarah said that? Do you think she whispered it? From what I have experienced in family, I imagine she shouted it: "CAST OUT THIS SLAVE WOMAN WITH HER SON; FOR THE SON OF THIS SLAVE WOMAN SHALL NOT INHERIT ALONG WITH MY SON ISAAC!"

Did you hear how she said it? Notice that she does not use the name "Hagar" or the name "Ishmael." The only person she names is her son, Isaac. And notice that she says, "my son Isaac!" She does not say to Abraham, "our son Laughter." No one is laughing now.

Let's see what's going on with Sarah's reactivity. I hope you notice two major features of family systems in Sarah's reactivity. One aspect is that she creates a triangle. Her issue is with Ishmael (and also with Hagar), but Sarah talks to Abraham. The triangle is Sarah-Ishmael-Abraham. She does not confront Ishmael with her concerns. She goes to Abraham, who loves both Sarah and Ishmael, and, in effect, she says, "Why don't you carry the anxiety of my relationship with Ishmael for me?" And Abraham does.

Verse 11 is deliciously ambiguous: "The idea was very evil to Abraham because of his son." Which son does he have in mind? The obvious answer is Ishmael, but his concern is also for Isaac, who witnesses the family turmoil and suffers the loss of his half-brother. As in chapter 16, Abraham takes no initiative when confronted by the angry demands of Sarah and acts only after God reveals to him that all of this is somehow part of the divine plan. Both are his sons, however.

We all live in triangles. Whenever we have an issue with one person and talk about it with another person, we create a triangle. I create triangles; you create triangles; we all create triangles. Triangles are part of our lives. They can be destructive or helpful, but most of the time they are destructive. Triangles, like family systems, go all the way back to the beginning when Adam tells God that Eve is to blame for the forbidden fruit incident.

Sarah's triangle is probably related to another triangle--Sarah-Abraham-Hagar. Edwin Freidman tells us that what Peter says to you about Paul tells you more about your relationship with Peter that it does about Peter's relationship with Paul. After all, Sarah was the one who could not trust the promise of Yahweh and took birth matters into her own hands and persuaded Abraham to have a baby through the slave girl Hagar. Can you imagine the feelings that childless Sarah felt each day for thirteen years as Ishmael played (and laughed) there in the tent? And even for the three years while Isaac was there, can you imagine the feelings Sarah had each day as she watched the two sons of Abraham play together? She finally had had enough and screamed to Abraham.

And here we come to the second major point about this family system and every other family system: Sarah is not willing to self-differentiate herself in the system. The family systems specialist Murray Bowen introduced the term self-differentiation to name the capacity of maintaining the two forces of balance (separateness and closeness) in emotional relationships. Bowen says that self-differentiation is

- defining yourself and staying in touch with others;

- being responsible for yourself and responsive to others;

- maintaining your integrity and well-being without intruding on that of others;

- allowing the enhancement of the other's integrity and well-being without feeling abandoned, inferior, or less of a self;

- having an "I" and entering a relationship with another "I" without losing your self or diminishing the self of the other. (How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, by Peter L. Steinke, The Alban Institute, 1993, page 11)

Of course Sarah was concerned about primogeniture and about the inheritance rights for her son since Abraham had two sons. Of course Sarah was jealous of Hagar and Ishmael. Of course she thought that they sometimes were laughing at her rather than with her. I imagine that Sarah said, "Hagar makes me feel angry" or "Abraham makes me feel second class." What's wrong with saying that? I hear it every day and so do you.

The issue is that no person makes me feel anything. No other person is responsible for how I feel. My feelings are my responsibility, even when my feelings are in close proximity to what someone else says or does. I have learned that how I use words portrays what I think. As I try to stop myself from saying, "You make me feel . . . ," I am moving closer toward self-differentiation and farther from reactivity and destructive triangles.


We find in Genesis 21 a lot of destructiveness in this family system--hurtful triangles, lack of clear communication between persons, seeing others as a role and not as a person, lack of self-differentiation, refusal to lead the family, very little faith in God's power.

We can also find in this story, however, plenty that is good about family systems. Abraham is willing to listen to the Lord's direction. Abraham gives provisions to Hagar and his son. Mistreated and oppressed Hagar, like most mistreated and oppressed women, somehow finds a way to survive in the wilderness.

And the great aha of this story is that when Hagar and Ishmael are near death there in the wilderness and far from their family, they are not far from God. In verses 17-18 God says to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him."

God hears their cry. Do you know what the name "Ishmael" means in the original Hebrew? "Ishmael" means "God hears" and even though Hagar will not say the boy's name, the Lord does: God hears [Ishmael] their cry and tells Hagar not to be afraid. Because of laughter (Isaac) and because Sarah did not like another's laughter, God hears (Ishmael) - those who are oppressed and those who are in need. Both women are Abraham's wives, both boys are Abraham's sons, and all of them--Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael--are the Lord's children as well. And the Lord makes a great nation out of each son. Yahweh has always been in the business of taking hurtful, dysfunctional family systems and using very human families to bless the world. That's the good news--that's the gospel word--that comes for us today concerning your family system and my family system.

Perhaps you already know that it is through Abraham and Isaac that the Lord has blessed the world with the Jewish nation. but did you know that it is through Abraham and Ishmael that the Lord has blessed the world with the Arabic and the Muslim people? Nearly one billion Muslims, 85 percent of whom live outside the Middle East, call Ibrahim (Abraham in Arabic) father, too, and are the descendants of God's promise to Ishmael to make a great nation. How is the other half of Abraham's family going to relate to these brothers and sisters in ways that acknowledge this ongoing promise of God?

I have never preached on this story from Genesis 21, but throughout the world it is a very important story. One of the five pillars of Islam is the hajj, the journey to Mecca. According to traditional Muslim belief, Mecca is the navel of the world--the spot where creation began and where Ishmael and Hagar almost died.

According to Muslim tradition Hagar was lost in the desert with Ishmael and ran desperately about looking for water for the infant, until she found that a well had sprung up at Zamzam where Ishmael had struck the sand with his heel. Later, under God's instructions Ibrahim built the cubicle shrine at Mecca--the Kaaba--with the help of Ishmael. In the corner of the Kaaba was placed the Black Stone brought from heaven by the angel Gabriel. The Kaaba is now the center of the great open-air mosque of Mecca and is the real focal point of all Muslim worship. All mosques throughout the world have a niche in a wall facing the Kaaba in Mecca.

Each year Muslim pilgrims on hajj travel to Mecca and identify with Ishmael and Hagar. Pilgrims walk seven times around the Kaaba and then they trot seven times between two low hills in imitation of the frantic Hagar searching in despair for water for wailing Ishmael.

You and I are part of this family system. Ishmael and Isaac did not make us enemies and did not make us angry. Isaac and Ishmael did, however, continue a family system that is seen today in Jerusalem with suicide bombers and bulldozed homes, in countries where Muslims and Christians clash, in the United States where we too quickly banish or suspect any person of Arabic descent.

Please remember, however, that family systems can be not only destructive and dysfunctional; for family systems can be restorative and redemptive. Which way will it go? That depends on how much you and I are willing to listen to the voice of Yahweh, who had two children--Laughter and God hears--and who wishes to make from these boys larger families that will be blessings for the world.

Frederick Buechner writes, "The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten dollar bills." (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, 1979)

Robert E. Albritton, Ph.D.
Millbrook Baptist Church
Raleigh, North Carolina