God cares about the ugly stories
I confess to you that if God had chosen me to write the Bible, I would have written it quite differently.
I tend to think that to inspire people in their faith, the Bible should have portrayed the key figures as purely noble models of faithfulness—not as flawed individuals like Peter denying that he knew Jesus, or David having an affair with the wife of one of his generals, or Abraham abandoning to the desert his wife’s servant and the child they had together. I would have filled the pages of Scripture with victorious stories of the Red Sea parting, and manna coming down from heaven, and the walls of Jericho falling. I would have left out depressing passages like Hagar and her son being chased away from their home.
But God insists on stories like this being included in Scripture because God seems to have a special place in his heart for those who have been shunned, disenfranchised, exploited, mistreated, and abandoned. In the pages of the Bible, God keeps telling their names and their stories.
Although I would have omitted from Scripture the story of Hagar’s and Ismael’s abandonment in the desert, God includes it. And though I would still rather ignore it, God would have us listen to Hagar’s story, because the stories of those who are disenfranchised matter immensely to God.
Indeed, Hagar’s story is included in Scripture because so many disenfranchised people find themselves in her story. Phyllis Tribble writes about Hagar’s travails in Genesis 16 & 21, “All sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar]. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”
Genesis 21 begins nicely enough, with a party thrown to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, the miracle baby born to Abraham and Sarah in their great old age. But the story quickly turns ugly. Sarah sees Ishmael (the 16 or 17-year-old son Abraham had with Hagar) “playing with her son Isaac.” (Some scholars suggest that this could mean that Ishmael was playing as if he was Isaac, as if he was the child who was the heir. Other scholars speculate that this could mean that Ishmael was molesting Isaac.) Sarah demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ismael. Abraham gathers some bread and a skin of water and sends them off. When the water runs out, Hagar leaves her son under the shade of a bush while she walks “a bowshot” away so that she would not watch her son die of thirst. But God heard the boy crying and sent an angel to minister to Hagar and to rescue them.
Abraham and Sarah may have closed their hearts to Hagar and Ishmael, but God had not. Abraham and Sarah may have cast Hagar and her son aside, but God was still listening to their cry. Abraham and Sarah may have abandoned Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, but God went to the desert to find them.
God has a special place in his heart for those who are abandoned. Since they matter to God, those who are cast aside should have a special place in our hearts as well. I have read that some churches in China welcome new members by saying, “Jesus now has a new pair of eyes to see with, new ears to listen with, new hands to help with, and a new heart to love others with.” As God’s people in this world, it is our job to look at others with God’s eyes, to listen to others with God’s ears, and to care for others with God’s heart.
Some years ago a prisoner shared, “My next-door cellmate is black, 24 and illiterate. I do all his reading and writing. The guy received a letter from a concerned citizen. The writer called him a human being. The guy made me read that particular sentence over and over and over. The thought of someone calling him a human being made all the difference.” When we look upon others with the eyes of Jesus, and listen to others with the ears of Jesus, and care for others with the heart of Jesus, we can make “all the difference.”
God listens to the cry of the disenfranchised, and he shares the stories of those who have been abandoned. May we do so as well.