When the Hebrew people were released from a half century of slavery in Babylon, they came back to the land of Judah. Having seen the great power of the ancient world for the lie that it really was, they took their collective trauma and channeled it into creating a society and a literary vocabulary through which oppressed people the world over would for thousands of years express their hope and pain. To distinguish themselves from their former oppressors, the Hebrews told and wrote down great stories. These stories imagined things that no one had imagined before.
And I want to talk about one of them.
This story begins with a man named Abram. Abram is a resident of the land of Babylon (an important detail to people who’d just been liberated from that land). Abram is wealthy. He owns flocks and herds and he owns slaves. Whoever first told the story probably was owned by a man like this man.
But then God speaks to Abram.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your family and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”Genesis c12
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
Take a moment to appreciate the gravity of what this storyteller is arguing. To be a great nation had a formula. To be a great nation was to rule like Babylon. To administer like Babylon. To think like Babylon. It was to accumulate power and exploit those with less power. And this author comes along and tells the freed slaves that there is a way of being a great nation that they haven’t seen yet.
Abram leaves his former home but soon is presented with a conflict. Pay attention to this conflict because it is the same great conflict at the heart of the entire Bible—between the limited imagination of imperial, great-power thinking and the expanded, faith-based imagination of what the Bible will later call the “kingdom of God.” As the storyteller explains, God has promised Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, which is nice, but his wife, Sarai, is incapable of becoming pregnant. And Abram reasons that you can’t be the father of a nation if you can’t produce offspring.
So the story tells us that Abram resorts to the same thing that the first hearers of the story had just experienced in Babylon—Abram exploits one of his family slaves and conceives of a son through her. Once she has conceived, however, she is no longer useful to Abram and Sarai. Worse, she has just taken Sarai’s place of honor in this time when women’s value to society came from birthing children. The slave girl’s body has been exploited, but when she is no longer useful Sarai despises her and treats her harshly. The slave girl flees into the wilderness, where she cries out to God. Any Babylonian listening so far would praise Abram and Sarai for having prudently administered the resources of their estate, but this storyteller is not interested in blessing the Babylonian taskmasters.
First, the storyteller doesn’t want us to think of the slaves as a category, but as people. We are told the slave girl’s name. It is Ha’Gar. We are told her son’s name. It is Yishma’el. They are people and they have names and, as I will explain shortly, those names mean a lot.
Next, Ha’Gar is weeping in the wilderness when God tells her that her cry is heard. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of many”) and commands him to accept Ha’Gar and Ishmael as full members of his household. And to fulfill his promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, he causes Sarai to have a son after all. It is through this son that the nation of Abraham will become great. Let’s go back to the storyteller.
What is he telling us?
He is telling us what we should be thinking about when we think about what makes nations great. This storyteller wants the former slaves to imagine a society built not on exploiting other people’s bodies, but on hearing the cries of society’s most powerless. Abram would not get his great nation by using a slave, but by having faith in a power that Babylon could not comprehend.
And this should get your attention: when the Hebrew former slaves eventually formed their legal system, their imaginations were clearly influenced by the storyteller of Abram and Ha’Gar.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and Ha’Gar: I am the Lord your God.
When Ha’Gar resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress Ha’Gar. Ha’Gar who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love Ha’Gar as yourself. I am the Lord your God.Leviticus c19
Ha’Gar is a Hebrew word that means “the alien.”
By the time that all the Bible men in my formative years had given me all their Bible knowledge, I never was taught this. Actually, what I got from these Christian soldiers was the opposite.
When Donald Trump spent the whole of President Obama’s time in office accusing him of a being a secret Muslim born in Kenya, the people who taught me from the Bible for three decades did not form a prophetic witness against the president for his race-bating and xenophobia.
They said “finally, a man who tells it like it is.”
When Donald Trump announced that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” my wise elders did not call on our president to repent in sackcloth and ashes.
They saturated their Facebook walls in the most unaccountable conspiracy theories about Islam.
When Trump signed his first travel ban, Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, and he said “We all know what that means”, my earliest tutors of the Word did not leave the White House and shake the dust off their sandals.
They worshipped and sang “Make America Like Babylon Again.”
This matters. Because this weekend, the rhetoric of the murderer in New Zealand was not very different from the email chains that having been circulating in our churches for decades. They are the messages of Babylon but clothed in the cover of the Bible. They are messages of manufactured fear disguised as “truth telling.” And as this man who peddled in this same online ecosystem pronounced death on the bodies of fifty sons of Ishmael in New Zealand, God heard the voices of those we despised and treated harshly.
Yishma’el means “heard by God.”
The Islamic faith traces its origins to Ishmael, and among the billion people who adhere to this great Abrahamic tradition, there is less than about a tenth of one percent who read their text and hear the call to violence. Language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Koran if one wants to find it there, just as language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Bible if one—like the killer in New Zealand—wants to find it there. But, like most Christians, Islamic adherents don’t hear a call to violence. They are humans just like you and me.
So when you participate in speech that categorically dehumanizes the billions of adherents of any one of the great Abrahamic traditions—as if their Abrahamic tradition has troubling scriptures, but yours doesn’t—you lay the groundwork for the very terrorism that consumes your imagination. And Jesus Christ prophesies hand-in-hand with Ha’Gar that our destruction is near.
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was Ha’Gar and you did not invite me in.Matthew c25