A Critical Question by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Genesis 16 Hagar and Ishmael

Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, "The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.

He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me."

"Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?"

"I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." The angel of the Lord also said to her: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now looked toward the One who sees me." That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Luke 4:31-37 Jesus drives out an evil spirit

Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an unclean spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, "Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God!"

"Be quiet!" Jesus said sternly. "Come out of him!" Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.

All the people were amazed and said to each other, "What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to unclean spirits and they come out!" And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.

Arcana Coelestia #1949.2 The critical nature of truth alone

If our rationality consists in truth alone, even if it is religious truth, and does not at the same time consist in the good of kindness . . . we are quick to find fault, make no allowances, are against all, regard everyone as being in error, are instantly prepared to rebuke, chasten, and punish, show no pity, and do not apply ourselves nor make any effort to redirect people's thinking--for we view everything from the standpoint of truth, and nothing from the standpoint of goodness. In short, we are harsh people. The one thing that can soften our harshness is the good of kindness. Good is the soul of truth, and when goodness draws near and implants itself in truth, the truth becomes so different that it can hardly be recognized.

The angel of the Lord said to Hagar: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers." (Genesis 16:11-12)

What's a future Patriarch to do? Eighty-five years old, with a wife long past childbearing age, and no children to serve as his heirs! Abram's wife Sarai had an idea: Hagar, her female slave, was still young. She could bear children in Sarai's place. These children would be considered to be Sarai's children, so that Sarai could "build a family through" Hagar.

Abram had no better idea, so he consented to his wife's plan, slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant from the union. Now, in those days, a woman's worth was measured largely by the sons she bore for her husband. So as soon as she had conceived and was pregnant, Hagar, though she was a slave, began to look down upon Sarai, her mistress.

This was unbearable to Sarai, who already bore the shame of being childless, and could not brook the further shame of being held in contempt by her own slave woman. She promptly blamed Abram for her troubles--even though this whole plan was hers in the first place.

But Abram was nobody's fool; he knew better than to argue with his wife and attempt to point out the injustice and irrationality of her accusations against him. Instead, he put the power in her hands to deal with Hagar as she saw fit. This must have been difficult and painful for him to do, since Hagar was now to be the mother of his first child, and he must have felt protective of her for that reason. Yet in yielding discretion to Sarai in this matter, he also wisely avoided driving a wedge between himself and his wife--a wedge that could have torn apart his household.

Ironically, Ishmael, the son born of his union with Hagar, turned out to be of a very different spirit than the wise and forbearing Abram. His character is described by the angel who spoke to Hagar in the desert after she had fled from the harsh treatment she suffered at the hands of Sarai. Here is how the angel described the character of the son to be born of her: "He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." Abram looked at things from a higher vantage point, and chose to use thoughtfulness and restraint in his dealings with his family. Ishmael, his firstborn son by Hagar, would look at things from a lower "me against the world" attitude, in which he considered himself to be right, and everyone else to be wrong. And so he would "live in hostility toward all his brothers."

This provides the key to the spiritual meanings involved in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. It's all about the perspective from which we view things, and the way we use our intellectual and rational capacities in our relationships with others.

As I already mentioned, Abram was nobody's fool. He showed himself a shrewd character, able to make pragmatic choices to save his own skin and advance his own interests and position. He could also be a courageous fighter when necessary, as shown in the story of his heroic rescue of his nephew Lot from the armies of the Babylonian kings. Yet he was also able and willing to deal with others in a reasonable, respectful, and mutually beneficial way. We find him having many contacts with the various peoples inhabiting the land in which he lived, and generally getting along with them peaceably. Abram represents a wise love coming from within us. This wise love is also the Lord's presence within us.

In the life of the Lord Jesus, Abram is his own inner divine self. Abram was the divine love that carried his life forward, and Sarai was the divine wisdom that guided its course.

Ishmael, on the other hand, was a "wild donkey of a man." His mother was Hagar, an Egyptian. And as we have discovered before, Egypt in general represents outward, worldly learning, and looking at things from the perspective of sensory data and the things we learn from experience in the world around us. If Abram is our inner dictate, Hagar, the Egyptian, is what our senses tell us.

These are often very different. Our inner dictate tells us that the Lord is everything, that goodness, truth, spirit, and compassion are the most important things. But our senses tell us that personal power, reputation, money, praise, possessions, and pleasure are the most important things. And our worldly nature tells us that we ourselves are the most important thing in this world, and that we see things more clearly and understand things more accurately than anyone else. Not only that, when we think from what our senses tell us, and from "just the facts," or "truth" alone, without the inner compassion and enlightenment that softens us, we become just as Swedenborg describes in our reading from Arcana Coelestia:

We are quick to find fault, make no allowances, are against all, regard everyone as being in error, are instantly prepared to rebuke, chasten, and punish, show no pity, and do not apply ourselves nor make any effort to redirect people's thinking--for we view everything from the standpoint of truth, and nothing from the standpoint of goodness. In short, we are harsh people.

This is the character of Ishmael: a wild donkey of a man who lived in hostility toward all his brothers.

I suspect we have all encountered such people--and some of us may have gotten caught up in that sort of attitude ourselves. In fact, as teenagers we humans are famous for thinking we have all the answers, and that everyone else is stupid compared to ourselves. It can be quite remarkable to experience the consummate lawyerly skill of teenagers seeking to justify their own position and portray any other possible way of seeing things as utterly crazy and foolish. And of course, those who think differently than they do must be crazy!

But this attitude is in no way confined to teenagers. We adults are also quite capable of being sure that we are right and everyone else is wrong. It is our natural inclination. It is the Ishmael in us--the firstborn fruit of our spirit in an early, immature style of rationality that desires to seek out and discover what is right, but still thinks it can do so based on how things appear outwardly rather than on the Lord's deeper dictates coming from within.

This can also manifest itself when we first become religious--when we make our first conscious commitment and effort to change our lives for the better according to the teachings of our church. One of our natural inclinations at that time is to start comparing ourselves to others who have not made the same commitment we have made, and to condemn and criticize them in comparison to ourselves. Psychologically speaking, it is really our own remaining bad attitudes and inclinations that we are condemning; but we don't realize that. We think we're pretty good for having made that commitment to turn over a new leaf, and that everyone else who hasn't done so is distinctly second-class. And so we can become just as Swedenborg and the angel of the Lord describe us in that state: self-righteous, critical and condemnatory towards everyone around us, with our hand against everyone and everyone's hand against us. It is a lonely, "desert" kind of a state to be in--and the desert to which Hagar fled from her mistress was an emotional desert as well as a physical one.

The Lord Jesus, as a young boy, felt the pull of the "wild donkey" type of rationality within himself. After all, he, of all people, had a right to be critical of others. He had far deeper insight than any of us into both the true nature of things, and into the true character of the people around him. And he himself had never committed any sin. It would have been easy for him to take the self-righteous, critical "Ishmael" path, blasting away at everyone around him just because he could. And later in his life he did at times draw on the Ishmael in him, when lambasting the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

Yet he saw far earlier than any of us do that no matter how clear-sighted he was, and no matter how accurately he saw the real character of those around him, without love and compassion, this meant nothing. At times, harsh criticism of others may be necessary when nothing else will get through. But even then, to be truly effective, it must be done from an underlying compassion that hopes for the person to genuinely change from the heart, and to become better and happier as a result.

Our New Testament story gives a brief vignette of the approach Jesus took to others. When he saw the man possessed by a demon, he could have taken the course that most of the people and their religious leaders took in those days. He could have assumed that the reason that man was possessed by a demon was that he had sinned, and therefore deserved everything he got. He could have passed on by, turning a cold shoulder to one who was so obviously not deserving of his respect and his healing powers.

But that is not what he did. Instead, he had compassion on the man, and confronted the demon who possessed him. His words to the demon were stern, but in his heart was a warm and burning love for the poor soul who, for whatever reason, was in the grip of evil, pain, and sorrow. It was from the power and authority of that deep underlying love that the Lord could command the evil spirit to leave the man, and the spirit had to obey.

We face a similar choice in our own dealings with people. Will we yield to the Ishmael impulse to accuse and criticize? Or will we listen to the deeper promptings of love, calling on us to have compassion on others, and do what we can to alleviate their suffering and help them along a path toward goodness?


Painting: Hagar in the Wilderness
by Giovanni Lanfranco 1582-1647
Courtesy of Web Gallery of Art

Webpage background design by Judy

Music: Hear My Prayer
Bruce DeBoer

Used with Permission

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