Genesis 17

Abram becomes Abraham (verse five), Sarai becomes Sarah (verse fifteen), and as the names have changed so is their destiny both re-affirmed and slightly elucidated from the earlier statement of covenant two chapters prior. Scholars inform us that this telling is from the Priestly layer of editing and redacting (fifth to fourth centuries BCE), and that its author(s) were apparently unaware of the previous version that predates it and came to precede it in the final version of the text (thought to come from the Yahwist layer (the J source); perhaps tenth century BCE). The promises of land and offspring are the same, but now a sign is added (circumcision) and Sarah is specified as the mother through whom fulfillment will come. Almost the entirety here is a theophanic dialogue between God/“God” and Abraham, and in that setting – if we allow ourselves to think our way into the context and worldview being presented – there is a remarkable moment.

After sixteen verses of God/“God” addressing Abraham and explaining the contours of the blessings to be received and the adjoining expectations (I think that calling these directives “commandments” precludes the necessarily free will found herein), Abraham is evidently skeptical to the point of derision; but he follows this with what might be a touching sentiment for the son he already has through Hagar. The relevant verses are as follows:

17.17-18: “Abraham threw himself on his face [recall that he is being divinely addressed and thus such a response was considered the only appropriate physical action to take; remember too the notion of “seeing God/‘God’ equals death” as discussed in regard to Genesis 16] and laughed, as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah [interesting that he has already taken up his spouse’s new name] bear a child at ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!’”

In reading this I am firstly struck by the chutzpah Abraham demonstrates: he is still in the midst of an experience that you or I would probably be rendered completely dumbfounded by, namely a direct verbal interlocution with the divine. Yet Abraham is not so much awed as he is incredulous; possibly even dismissive. “What, old Sarah and I should have a child?” he seems to scoff. Given the circumstances one would think that Abraham would find anything possible; that he does not endears him to us as a character, and possibly imparts a valuable (and gracious) lesson about humanity and its place vis-à-vis the numinous. There is, moreover, no consequence for his apparent derision, and God/“God” is even given to wink at Abraham in telling him to name the forthcoming son Isaac, which a footnote informs us is from the Hebrew Yiṣḥaq, playing on ṣaḥaq, meaning “laugh”.

That Abraham demonstrates his concern for Ishmael is not necessarily a contradiction of his statement in Chapter 16.6 that Sarai might do as she wishes to Ishmael’s mother since that was purely directed at Hagar (this of course neither justifies nor excuses anything in our eyes, but we must refrain from casting twenty-first century judgments onto the ancients who inhabited entirely other modes of thought and approach), but it is somewhat – or at least could be understood as – evidence of the doubt he seems to have. Does Abraham’s plea reflect more of a desire for the benefit of what-is because he doesn’t believe in the promised what-will-be; or does it rather indicate genuine care as a father for his son? To which side shall we give our weight: Abraham thinking the only chance he might have for the assured offspring and land – if he is to have one at all – is via Ishmael; or Abraham thinking that he doesn’t want his boy to be supplanted, not even by another child who is also his own? That, certainly, is a choice for the reader. We may be comforted though that in all cases God/“God” pledges protection and many descendants (verse twenty: Ishmael too will be “the father of twelve chieftains, and I [i.e. God/“God”] will make of him a great nation”; intriguingly this mirrors Jacob, whose story will soon come to dominate the Genesis narratives). In that too, I think, we might find something the story would prod us to learn, or at least consider.

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