Who’s telling the story?

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. Genesis 21:9

Dear members and friends,

It is not hard to imagine that there might have been a kind of  ongoing struggle between Sarah and Hagar as we read in Genesis 16:4, “When she (Hagar) knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” For about 15 years, both Sarah and Hagar might have assumed that Ishmael would become the heir of Abraham. Though he was born to a slave, Abraham’s wife was nearly 90 years old and barren. As Ishmael grew older, Sarah might have felt that she must accept Ishmael as the heir of Abraham despite the promise of God, while Hagar might have been feeling that she could usurp her mistress. 

Everything changed with the birth of Isaac, the rightful heir of Abraham. In Genesis 21, Sarah sees Ishmael, now 15 or 16, playing with Isaac. Suddenly, Sarah becomes terribly upset and says to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10) In NRSV, the Hebrew word Tsachaq is translated as “playing.” Tsachaq, however, could also mean to laugh and to mock. In a situation like this, how to translate a word would make a big difference in the story. There is a huge difference in saying “one is playing with another” and “one is mocking another.” The word mock is defined as “to tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.” If Ishmael was simply playing with Isaac, then Sarah was cruel and even neurotic by responding in such a way. However, if Ishmael was mocking Isaac, then Sarah was zealously protecting her own son and the heir of Abraham. 

There are two lessons to learn from this story. First, knowing that nothing truly changes in oneself despite any temporary promotion or entitlement could be crucially important in maintaining a proper relationship. Hagar was a slave to Sarah despite the fact that she gave birth to Ishmael. I wonder, if Hagar acknowledged this fact deeply, and thus acted appropriately, what would have happened to them? Second, if you perceived something to be problematic, you better act sooner than later. Sarah perceived that Ishmael could be a threat to her son Isaac, and thus asked Abraham to “get rid of” them. This is a cruel act, but still might have been better than two of them growing together and later fighting to the death for an inheritance.  Just as one fact could have many sides, and consequently could cause many different interpretations, a story in the Bible certainly could have a variety of interpretations. These lessons are from focusing on the story from the perspectives of Sarah and Isaac.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee