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Injustice and Fairness
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 2: God: The Source of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 9, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Genesis 21:8-21
Key Scripture (NIV):
“God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up, and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’” Genesis 21:17-18
- To learn the value of this narrative as it relates to God’s faithfulness and our obedience.
- To learn to identify with emotions and actions of the biblical characters to better understand the story.
- To embrace the powerful truth that God keeps covenant with us in spite of our sins and mistakes.
The difficulty we experience creating Sunday school lessons from the biblical texts is that we create and teach our lesson in a common format. However, the Old Testament narratives were not written as Sunday school lessons. They were recorded to tell a story with an intended meaning. Thus, trying to force a narrative into the usual Sunday school structure and format can be difficult. There is always a danger of trying to make a narrative “fit” the message we want to convey. This can cause us to misstate the message or miss it altogether. We always want to be true to what God inspired the original author to write and true to their reason for writing it.
On this occasion we will simply examine the story, highlighting the truth that breathes through its people and events. As stated in previous lessons, the Old Testament is concerned with God’s Covenant with Abraham and the world. Each narrative adds to the story of that Covenant by sharing how the covenant was experienced and affected God’s people. Then, we always deal with the question, “What this mean for us today?”
The easiest manner for us, I believe, to grasp the message of this story is to examine: 1. The background of the story; 2. The people in the story; 3. The events in the story; and 4. The implications of the story.
The Background of the Story
Again, our story occurs in the early days of God’s Covenant with Abraham and Sarah. The collective story of the Bible is an inspired saga that recognizes God has initiated and called us into relationship with himself (“himself” to be understood without regard to gender; God is Spirit). From the onset of Genesis through the end, we have a narrative that reveals who initiated this Covenant, for what reason, and with whom. It is the Creator of all who invites us into relationship. The relationship was established in Eden and broken through the sin of Adam and Eve.
The following narratives reveal the pattern of God continuing to offer a new beginning in spite of our sin only to have men and women abuse, neglect, or violate this offering of grace. Cain will slay Abel, yet God marks Cain for protection and life. Noah’s family will experience drunkenness and shame, yet God establishes the rainbow as a sign of covenant and hope for His creation. God has designed the blessed creation with diversity and beauty, yet at Babel there is a neglect of that diversity. There was also the desire to “reach the heavens,” a realm belonging only to the divine. Thus, God scatters them. The story of Genesis now makes it obvious that humankind cannot “save themselves from themselves” and their sin. Only God can save them. Thus, the special covenant with Abraham and Sarah is established, which I refer to as the Covenant. God promises to be their God, and opens the door for them to be his people. Their descendants biologically and spiritually will multiply and fill the earth.
Thus, the Covenant is established in Genesis 12. However, since we believe in progressive revelation, (that is, God reveals to us what we can understand at the time, in a manner we can understand it), this basic Covenant is “fleshed out” over the ensuing years. Eventually the question arose, “What does it mean for God to be “our God” and for us to be “his people?” Thus, the Mosaic Law is revealed to add “meat to the bones” of the Covenant. However, as Israel should be progressing morally, they grow stagnant. The intention of Covenant was to establish a relationship of the heart. Thus, Jeremiah foresees a day when the Covenant will be written upon our hearts. Finally, Jesus was the Covenant incarnate. He was the Covenant, lived the Covenant, taught the Covenant, and fulfilled it in the deepest sense. He made it possible for the Covenant to be written upon the heart of a person through faith.
Our text occurs in early days of the Covenant. The promise of future generations has been given. Abraham and Sarah, like most near-eastern people, understood this facet of the promise biologically. They would produce sons and daughters to fill the earth. In their patriarchal world, sons were perceived as the vehicle through which this family of God multiplied and lived in covenant.
Since Abraham and Sarah understood the Covenant in these biological terms, giving birth to a son was to be a ratification of the Covenant with God. If they were to be God’s people upon the earth, God would give them a son. As the years passed and Sarah did not conceive, the seeds of doubt were sown. They faced the important question, “Should we wait on God, or take matters into our own hands?” They took matters into their own hands. This impatience would lead to both blessing and heartbreak.
Have you ever been impatient in prayer? Have you ever taken matters into your own hands, acting without proper forethought and prayer? Can you share such a moment? Can you share the consequences of such impatience? If you have been patient in prayer, can you share the benefits of that patience?
The People of the Story
Abraham is known as the biological “father of the Jewish nation.” What many fail to recognize is that he was also “father of the Arab nation.” You are encouraged to read the genealogy of Abraham for a broader understanding of who he is. His name was originally Abram. In the Bible, when people experience a transforming moment through an encounter with God, their name is changed. Abram becomes Abraham, Sara becomes Sarah, Simon becomes Peter, and Saul becomes Paul.
Abram is 75 when he encounters God. God initiates a holy covenant with Abram and circumcision is instituted as a “mark or sign of the covenant.” In this encounter, and as circumcision is instituted, Abram’s name is changed. Furthermore, Sara’s name was changed to Sarah. Both were important to the Covenant! Though it was a patriarchal world, Sarah is an important person in the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people. Abraham would be 100 when he and Sarah gave birth to Isaac in the biblical account.
Abraham is also known as the “father of faith.” He was asked to leave the home of his father, Terah, and walk into the unknown, later settling in Haran. From there, he and Sarah journeyed to Egypt during a famine. Later they traveled back to what we know as Israel. Faith isn’t always related to stepping into the unknown. Often faith involves trusting God to help us do what we “know to do,” and “go to places we know” in life. However, it requires great faith to step into mystery and trust God. Remember, it was a hostile world. Traveling from place to place without the protection of numbers was risky. Furthermore, Abraham is no longer a young man. He most likely was as comfortable in life as possible. However, God is calling him to step into risk. He is to step out of comfort and into discomfort. This act of following God into the unknown will become one of the great examples of what it means to live by faith for both Jewish and Christian communities. Abraham is the father of faith because “he believed God.”
Abraham’s faith was intensely tested in the days following the birth of the promised child Isaac. Surrounding nations often engaged in child or human sacrifice to appease their gods. Abraham is called to offer Isaac to God in such sacrifice on Mt. Moriah, later to become the Temple Mount. In anguish and faith Abraham raises the knife. However, the Angel of the Lord stills the knife sparing Isaac his life and Abraham the greatest heartache he could ever know. Abraham’s God would not require child sacrifice! Instead, a lamb was provided. Abraham’s God would prove different from the many gods of his neighbors. God was merciful and faithful to the divine word!
Can you share a time in your faith when you stepped by faith into mystery, into the unknown? Were there risks involved? From where did you get the desire and courage to take that step? What was the result? What was the personal benefit you received by stepping out in faith?
We are rarely given the genealogies of women in the Bible. Again, it was a patriarchal world. Sadly, we only know Sarah as “Abraham’s wife.” In the Genesis account she is approximately 10 years younger than Abraham. However, just because it was a patriarchal world does not diminish the important role in our faith of women like Sarah. She, too, had to follow into the unknown, trusting God’s promise to her husband. She was human! She, too, had fears, reservations, and even other opinions! However, these were laid aside to follow. She, too, is a person of great faith. It is true that it took great faith for Abraham to follow God into the unknown. It is also true that it required great faith for Sarah to follow her husband into that same unknown.
Life was difficult for all women in the Old Testament era. It was a hostile world, and often an unkind world. A woman was esteemed for one major reason: she could give birth to a son, an heir. Sadly, the greatest cause of death for women was most likely childbirth. If she failed to give birth she could be divorced, shunned, and rejected. Sarah had to be a person of strong character to persevere in her world and circumstances. Thankfully, the narrative does seem to imply that Abraham had both affection and respect for Sarah. He wants to make her happy and listens to her requests.
Can you relate to Sarah’s disappointment? Culture and life placed a great expectation upon her to give birth to a son. What are some expectations life, culture, and faith place upon you? Are they realistic? Can you share a time when patience in your faith made a great difference in your life?
Hagar became a concubine for Abraham, but she was also a victim. She is an Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah – a slave. Remember, Sarah “gave” Hagar to Abraham to bear a child. Hagar had little or no control over her own life. Most likely Hagar was well treated by Abraham and Sarah. We cannot judge whether she was happy with her station in life. There isn’t enough information for such an assertion. However, the tone of the narrative indicates she was an important part of Abraham and Sarah’s lives. Many slaves were treated like members of the family. There most likely had to exist some level of trust between the three of them. Still, her life was not her own.
Some state that Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham in the end was a good thing. Her relationship with Abraham did offer Hagar the ability to do the one thing that gave a woman’s life meaning in the Old Testament era: she gave birth to a son. The child, Ishmael, would become the father of the Arab world. Thus, Hagar played a special role in biblical and world history. Though the result of her relationship blessed her, we should always remember that she lived under the yoke of slavery. The Old Testament history of covenant repetitively reveals moments when God takes the sins and mistakes of humanity and accomplishes unimaginable good. A good result in no way means that slavery is ever acceptable.
Though not slaves, in what way do you think we can best relate to Hagar’s feelings and plight? Have we ever felt our life was not our own? Has God accomplished something good from a difficult situation in your life? What does Hagar’s life teach us about trust and acceptance?
The Events of the Story
The cultural and religious pressure upon Sarah to give birth was tremendous. As the years passed, the weight of that expectation grew heavier. Consequently, her impatience to give Abraham a son is understandable. However, as is usually customary, her impatience led to the rash judgement of giving Hagar to Abraham. Remember, Abraham did not reject that judgement. He could have simply refused Sarah and Hagar. Thus, he too was either impatient or his frail human desire chose not to resist.
Our narrative pointedly reveals the humanity of the characters. Isaac and Ishmael are normal children. The birth of Ishmael was certainly initially celebrated. However, the birth of Hagar’s son did little to alleviate Sarah’s feelings of disappointment and failure. There should exist little surprise that young Ishmael mocked Isaac. He is witnessing a great feast in honor of Isaac being weaned. Another has taken his place as the favored son. Ishmael is a young boy and therefore not fully responsible for his jealous feelings. However, Sarah’s response to the mocking proved another opportunity for her to act rashly. Isaac is the child of promise, he is the son who has granted her favor in life with Abraham, their people, and God. Her attachment to Isaac, as that of most all mothers, was strong. It was a biological, emotional, and spiritual attachment.
Notice the change in her tone toward Hagar. Initially, she entrusted Hagar to Abraham that an heir could be born. Now, Hagar is “that slave woman.” Hagar and her son have become a threat to Sarah. Though the threat was not real, Sarah felt threatened nevertheless. Once again, Abraham does not resist Sarah’s rash judgement and sends Hagar and Ishmael from the camp. We would prove rash if we perceived Sarah as the sole cause of the banishment. Abraham is just as complicit.
Again, we are allowed a glimpse into the humanity of Abraham. He is distraught, for Ishmael “is his son.” This will not be the last occasion when Abraham is emotionally distraught over the possibility of losing a son. In a few years he will be asked to offer Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The intervention of the Angel of the Lord granted Abraham some sense of relief in sending Hagar and Ishmael away. He hears the promise of God for his son Isaac and also for Ishmael. Both will become fathers of great nations.
The following event is difficult for us to understand. Abraham takes a little provision of food and water and places them across Hagar’s shoulders. Imagine a long pole, balanced with bags of food and water on each end, and we might have some indication of how Hagar appeared when she left. Perhaps the food and water were draped across her shoulders alone. Standing at her side was Ishmael, a young boy, Abraham’s son. As they walked into the Desert of Beersheba, Abraham had to know that without intervention the two would die. Even though Abraham trusted God to take care of them, it would still have proved difficult for him to engage in such risky behavior. Most of us cannot fathom the fear Hagar must have felt. She literally has no one, other than Ishmael and God.
What do you think of Abraham’s actions? Even though God promised to care for Hagar and Ishmael, do you think it would prove easy to let them go? Do you think this is a great act of faith on Abraham’s part? Or do you perceive it as an unthoughtful, risky act? How do you reconcile the two?
Eventually, the provisions dissipate. We can almost feel the mother’s broken heart and fear. She cannot watch her son die. Thus, she places him at some distance and walks away to die. In the narrative God intervenes and both are saved. God’s promise of covenant with Isaac and Ishmael remains unbroken in spite of the rash behaviors, complicities, and sins of His children.
Implications of the Story
Once again in Genesis, we encounter the story of humankind seeking to live out God’s Covenant in spite of their human frailty and sin. Most of us can relate to every emotional struggle and poor judgement in the story. Yet, the story powerfully proclaims God’s faithfulness to the Covenant, and thus to us. God refuses to disown us or allow our mistakes to hinder His redemptive will.
Can you list all of the emotions present in this story in the characters of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar? In what ways can you relate to them? How can these emotions and others effect your walk of faith? What are the rash and poor judgements? Have you engaged in such behaviors? What did you learn from past poor judgement? What did you learn about yourself and about God? What does this narrative say to you about God’s faithfulness?
Almighty God, we confess our sins and weakness. So often they cloud our perceptions and lead us into misguided actions. Forgive us and teach us. Reveal to us anew your faithful love for your children. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org