Hagar fled (barah, Gen 16:6, 8) from Sarah, Israel fled from Egypt (Exod 14:5, 13-15) and God intervened in both instances.
This is also the very first instance in Scripture where an Angel of the Lord meets a human being, and Hagar, the Egyptian servant is the chosen one. “Now the Angel of the Lord found her” (Gen 16:7).
In spite of the grandeur of this story, it is still puzzling to many how God acts in mercy and compassion toward the “marginal” character of the story.
It is one thing to acknowledge the centrality of Abraham and his descendants in the overall plot of the book of Genesis, but there is something amiss when the center is allowed to fill or erase the margins, especially when some of these apparently marginal characters may fairly claim to be the focus of God’s benevolent concern in ways that parallel or even rival the divine attention paid to other, seemingly more central characters. (Thompson 2001:18)
In this specific context the “reading for the center” would lead one to choose Isaac and reject Ishmael while the Genesis text does not require this. Isaac is indeed the son of promise (Gen 17:19) through whom the covenant will be established. Ishmael, though, “is the oldest son of father Abraham. He is not adopted, not an intruder, but born to the man of promise” (Brueggemann 2001:183). From the very beginning God makes a special commitment to Ishmael and “cares for this outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon” (183). At times, as we will see, Ishmael “mysteriously” shares center stage with his brother Isaac.
God’s initiative to find Hagar is intentional and is a result of mercy. This has profound theological and missiological significance. This is the God of Genesis. As God found Abraham and called him out of his clan, culture, and city, so he also finds Hagar, He hears her cry and gives a command and promises. As God enabled Abraham for his journey, Hagar was also strengthened to obey through promises of God’s providence. As Abraham had a vision of God, so did Hagar. God’s choosing of Abraham for his covenant does not exclude the “other.” It seems as if God was rehearsing for his future stories used to describe his mercy.
Chiastic Structure of the Abraham Narrative
In his book Bible Lives, Jonathon Magonet proposes the following chiastic structure for the Abraham narrative found in Genesis 12-22 (1992:25).
- 202 Festschrift: Jerald Whitehouse
|12a||The Call (‘Lech l’cha’). Blessing promised|
|12b||Abraham in Egypt. Wife-Sister motif|
|13-14||Lot in Danger. Sodom|
|17||16||Hagar and Ishmael|
|20||18-19||Lot in Danger. Sodom|
|Abraham in Gerar. Wife-Sister motif|
The chiastic structure indicates a progression from the extremes to the center. Note that Genesis 12 and 22 correspond with each other for both contain the call of God to Abraham to go “to a land that I will show you” and “to offer his son as a sacrifice. The Hebrew expression ‘Lech l’cha’ (go for yourself) which is only found in these two chapters again links both chapters in a special sense. Magonet points out that the Rabbis considered the story of “Isaac’s binding” not as the only one but the tenth of a series of tests God gives to Abraham. There seems to be a progression in the intensity of the tests and the chiastic structure reinforces this.
Likewise, Genesis 12b and 20 describe stories containing the wife-sister motif in Egypt and Gerar. Genesis 13 -14 and 18-19 describe different circumstances when Lot and his family are in danger. Genesis 15 and 17 describe the covenant that God initiates and fulfills with Abraham.
For Magonet, the center of the chiastic structure is the story of Genesis
Not surprisingly, he struggles with this conclusion, though, and calls it a “false climax” (1992:29). Goldingay, however, contends it is the actual center of the narrative. “Rhetorically or dramatically it is simply not the case in Genesis 12-22 that ‘the center stage belongs to Isaac.’ . . . Isaac shares it with Ishmael. Centre stage was Isaac’s destiny, but before his birth his father gave it away” (Goldingay 1998:147).
If the chiastic structure of Genesis 12-22 (chapters 23-25 are left out) has Genesis 16 as its center there are at least two short chiastic structures in Genesis 17 which point to Ishmael. The following chiastic structure focuses once more on the centrality of Ishmael (Wenham 1994:26).
19a Sarah will bear a son for you, Isaac
19b I will establish my covenant with him
20 But I will bless and multiply Ishmael
21aI will establish my covenant with Isaac
21b Sarah will bear him for you.