[Sermon] Comparing Genesis 21 & 22

Rabbi Alexandra Wright
High Holy Days 2019/5780

Our Liberal Machzor, Ruach Chadashah includes two Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah: Genesis 21 and Genesis 22. In the former, Hagar and Ishmael are cast into the desert by Abraham at Sarah’s behest, and with God’s agreement. In Genesis 22, the Akedah, Abraham responds to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah and is saved only at the very last moment, by the voice of an angel telling him not to do anything to the boy. In my own community at the LJS, we alternate the readings from year to year. In more traditional synagogues, Genesis 21 is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Genesis 22 on the second day.

Hagar is the archetypal victim. As an Egyptian in the land of Canaan, she is first of all a foreigner. Secondly, she is a slave, a fact mentioned several times in Genesis 21. Thirdly, she is grossly manipulated for the purposes of her mistress, Sarah, so that Sarah can obtain children through her. Fourthly, and perhaps most grotesquely, she is expelled together with her son into the wasteland of the desert with little more than a skin of water and some bread. Yet, in spite of this, one thing remains clear: God is on her side. She is the first, indeed the only woman in the Torah, to whom God speaks through an angel, promising that her descendants shall become a ‘great nation’.

Few remember Hagar. When we cast our minds back over the text of the Torah, it is the narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah among them, who are remembered so vividly. They are our ancestors, and Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, who becomes the forerunner of the Arab peoples, is often forgotten. Few realise that her story is, in fact, a powerful inversion of our own story as foreigners in Egypt, expelled into the desert with little more than the dough hardening in the sun on our backs. Suddenly, when we realise that Hagar is the symbol of our future oppression and victimisation, we sit up and take note, and become interested in her background and her story.

There are a number of interesting parallels between the two texts. The journey that Hagar makes with her son Ishmael into the wilderness of Beersheba is similar in tone and word to the account of the journey Abraham makes with Isaac one chapter later. Abraham arises early in the morning to accompany Hagar and Ishmael, just as he wakes up early to saddle his ass and make his way with Isaac to the mountain which God will show him. In Chapter 21, Abraham places the bread and skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder, while in Chapter 22 he lays the wood for the burnt offering on to Isaac. When Abraham has dispatched them, Hagar leaves the boy under one of the bushes and goes and sits at a distance, a bowshot away. The water and bread are finished; all that remains is for her to wait for the child to die. In the following chapter, Abraham builds an altar, lays out the wood and then binds his son Isaac and lays him on the altar on top of the wood. Both seem to be about to witness the death of their child. At the very moment when death seems certain, an angel calls to Hagar in this chapter, and Abraham in the next from heaven. The questions are different – Abraham’s name is called out with intense urgency as he’s about to plunge the knife into Isaac. In Genesis 21, the angel sees Hagar and asks her, ‘Mah lach Hagar?’ ‘What’s up, Hagar?’ ‘What’s the matter?’

Both Hagar and Abraham then become aware of the means to save themselves and their sons – Hagar sees the well of water and immediately fills the skin with water and gives it to the child to drink. Abraham sees the ram caught by its horns in a thicket and offers it up instead of Isaac. The angel offers both boys the blessing of greatness – for Ishmael, it’s nationhood, for Isaac both nationhood and national territory.

There is a close and similar pattern to the lives of these two boys – both beloved by their father Abraham, and by their mothers, Sarah and Hagar. Of Ishmael and Isaac’s relationship, we know only here that the son of Hagar was ‘playing’ – a pun on Isaac’s name – m’tzachek. Sarah’s decisiveness in casting out her slave girl and her son comes about because of this interaction: ‘The son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac’ (Genesis 21:10). She sees in this simple act – of childhood encounter – the frightening vision of what the future might hold: Ishmael intruding into the space of Isaac, her own son.

Abraham’s emotions prevent him from understanding the consequences of this relationship between Ishmael and Isaac. God confirms Sarah’s judgement. What Sarah sees is that these two brothers cannot possibly coexist. ‘Though they seem to be playing together, there is murder in the wind’ (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire, page 135). Sarah sees in her son and Ishmael, a replaying of Cain and Abel. Rashi cites the midrash that the boys are playing a kind of William Tell game, with Ishmael shooting arrows at Isaac and then claiming, ‘But I’m only playing.’ They would go out into the field, says Rashi – echoing the verse earlier on in Genesis where Cain and Abel confront each other in the field, precisely the place where Cain murders Abel.

Sarah dies without being able to reverse this image of two brothers in conflict with each other. The image resonates painfully. We think of Israel and Palestine and ask ourselves, will these two peoples ever live peaceably with each other? Is it possible to create a parity without removing or oppressing one people to make place for the primacy of the other?

We think of our own nation here in the UK, divided, exhausted by the endless conflict and bickering around Brexit. And we ask ourselves, what needs to give for there to be compromise? What must happen to heal the fractures in the nation, in communities and families? Sarah dies because her vision of humanity is one-sided – Isaac only in the world.

And Abraham’s vision of the world? It’s more complex, more painful, involved and emotional. He is the father of two beloved sons, the only sons of their mother. He is capable of differentiation, of recognising the rights of both his sons and his own responsibilities to them both. In the Torah, both Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah and in the verses that follow, it is clear that both brothers establish their line through their descendants. Both fulfil the promise made to their father by the angel of God and offer a message of companionship, healing and hope.

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