Even Ishmael's Life Matters
22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested while riding a Montgomery bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Four days later she was convicted for breaking segregation laws, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, and that launched a public campaign that had been in planning for quite some time. While King and Parks became relatively instant civil rights legends, it took a longer time for Claudette Colvin to be celebrated as well. If you are not aware of her name, you are probably not alone. It seems that only recently that Colvin’s story has begun to be told regularly despite the fact that she was arrested for the same “crime” nearly 9 months before Parks and was also a plaintiff in the federal court case in 1956. As historians have told the story, the difference between the story of Colvin and the story Parks is that Colvin was an unwed, pregnant teenager, and she was not seen as being respectable enough.
Neither this story nor its underlying tensions are unique. Respectability is a often played game, at times with serious stakes on the line. It is why in the court case with Trayvon Martin, in the media Mike Brown, and in any number of cases of similar magnitude, the character, and thus the worthiness of the victim was brought into question. “We are not missing out on much” is what the underlying message seems to be. “We can accept this loss, regardless of how unnecessary, avoidable, or illegal the killing was.”
In this Biblical text, Isaac was the son of promise, given to Abraham and his first wife, Sarah, who was considered to be too old to be able to have children. Abraham and Sarah are often celebrated because they showed great faith as they waited for years for Sarah to become pregnant, and thus started the generational line of succession that has been invoked in plenty of Baptist church prayers (God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). This passage is often lifted up because it not only demonstrates Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, even if it means the death of the son he’s been waiting his entire adult life for, but seemingly there is also Isaac’s trust in his father to the very end. These actions and their apparent motivations seem to establish Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac as the first family of faith. But what if this Bible story was about more than blind faith? What if this Bible story was about Abraham being forced to wrestle with his own failings as a father?
If one steps back and reads this text in the larger context of the Abraham narrative, one quickly sees a familiar pattern emerging. Remember that while Sarah was Abraham’s first wife, she was not his only wife. In addition to the wife Abraham will take after the Sarah dies, Genesis 16:3 claims that Hagar is more than a surrogate or a “baby-mama” but that she becomes Abraham’s wife also. (While that does not sit well with our current American view of marriage, just remember that Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had two wives almost all of his married life.) Abraham and Hagar conceive Ishmael, giving Abraham his first born son. However, God is not done with Abraham and Sarah, for they conceive Isaac, and once Isaac is born the tensions between Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac apparently make Hagar and Ishmael’s lives matter less.
This is where the story gets really both interesting and really complex for me. This is where the pattern begins, and where it becomes hard to talk about God’s actions. The narrator of the text says that God speaks to Abraham and essentially co-signs Abraham’s kicking them out of the house. Abraham does so, sending them into the wilderness with only a few resources. So I need to pause here to say that it seems that Abraham could have at least given his exiled family a portion of the wealth they all had accumulated over the course of the text. much like the way that prodigal son’s father gives him his portion of the inheritance at the sons request. What Abraham gives them is bread and water, and sends them out into the wilderness in what looks to be a slow death sentence. At the point when they are out of resources, and Hagar appears ready to die, the angel of God steps in and provides what she needs in the form of a well.
In our text, God speaks to Abraham, telling him to take Isaac out into the wilderness to offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham loads up his son and servants and goes on the journey to where God is calling him. This next part is me reading into the text, but I cannot imagine Abraham is walking on this journey without thinking about Ishmael. Maybe it occurs to Abraham that he has taken more provisions on this excursion than he gave to his exiled wife and son to attempt to survive and start a new life on. Maybe it occurs to him that the sacrifice of Ishmael was extremely costly, because once he sacrifices Isaac, he’ll have no sons left. Maybe the purpose of the journey is for Abraham to wrestle with the true cost of treating members of his family as if their lives did not matter, and the unexpected ways it could reverberate in the life of the members of his family who matter a great deal to him.
I won’t finish this story here (although I do want skip ahead to point out that the angel who stops Abraham which leads to discovery of the ram mirrors the angel stops Hagar’s crying and leads to the discovery of the well). I do want to note that the decision to silence the story of a brave woman like Claudette Colvin feels like sacrificing our own children on the altar of acceptability under the white normative gaze. The well-criticized, but enduring practice of demonizing young people because of their fashion choices (including where they wear their pants) or how they adorn themselves with jewelry and/or permanent body art, a practice that broke my heart when it was present at Freddie Gray’s funeral, feels like sacrificing our children on the altar of acceptability under the white normative gaze. The willful embracing of terms like “thug” and “criminals” and the intentional separation of the “peaceful protestors” from the “rioters and opportunists” feels like sacrificing our children on the altar of acceptability under the white normative gaze. It all leads me to wonder how many Ishmael’s we will willingly offer up as sacrifice without realizing that we cannot do so without reverberating in the lives of those we view as Isaacs.
You can look at my raw and rambling attempt to preach this message in the middle of what was happening in Ferguson below.