I Am Ishmael


My name is Ishma-El - in the language of my people, it means "God Hears". When I was young, I was always taught to believe that it meant that my birth (that I) was the answer to a prayer! But later, on the verge of manhood, I learned a truth that no child should know; one full of both bitterness and grace. I had two mothers, and when I was young, I thought that they both loved and cherished me above all else in the world. But again, there was that coming bitter truth waiting to be revealed.

My father was Abraham, and his beloved wife was Sarah. God promised them that Sarah would bear my father a son to be the caretaker of God's covenant with mankind. But Sarah grew tired of waiting - they weren't getting any younger after all! So she directed my father to be with her slave girl, Hajar. As long as there has been slavery, masters have always had children by their slaves. But this was not technically a rape or other illegitimate birth. By the laws of the Patriarchs like my father, his child born through the property of his wife was legally Sarah's child. So my birth mother was Hajar, and my legal mother was Sarah; both cared for me and raised me. 

When I was thirteen, God in his time, fulfilled the promise and Sarah gave birth to a son of her own blood. She still treated me as a son, but more and more it became clear that I was not her favorite. Three years later, at my brother Issac's weaning party, the depth of her love became clear. I was a good big brother and loved Isaac; we were playing together on the floor when my mother Sarah spoke in her loud and commanding voice so that all at the party would hear: "Get rid of this slave and her bastard. He must have no part of my son's inheritance!"

One of my mothers didn't want me? Did I accidentally hurt or insult my little brother? Why all of a sudden? I thought she loved me? She was my mother, didn't she have to love me? What was worse was how my father reacted. He did as his wife told him! When did a Patriarch ever, in the history of the world, ever do as his wife told him? "Ishma-El," he said, "I love you, but you and your mother must go. Here, take this loaf of bread and water-skin." One lousy loaf of bread? One dried goat-stomach of water? He sent the two of us out into a God-forsaken desert with just a snack and a day's worth of water? Did he think he is being merciful by not selling us to the slave-traders? Or did he want to wash the blood from his hands by sending us out into the desert like scapegoats to let God kill us as sacrifices? I still don't know to this day, but he must not have loved me as much as he claimed.

Soon the bread was gone. Soon the water was gone. Soon, our lives would be gone. Before she collapsed, my true mother put me in a small spot of shade. Maybe someone would find me after she died? She could not bear to watch me die, so she moved away from me to lay down and die herself. I cried. I was alone, hungry, dehydrated, sunburned - I cried because I was afraid. And then, only then, did I learn the miracle of my name; God heard me.

God spoke to us: "Hajar, why are you frightened? You don't need to be afraid. I AM here! I have heard - Ishma-El. Come, help him up and take his hand. I am not done with him yet, for he will be the father of a great people, and you their grandmother."

Then, God opened our eyes so that we could see that all along, right there in front of us, was a well! How did we miss it? Was it the heat-stroke? Sand in our eyes? Were we blinded by our despair? We drank of the cool clear life-giving water, and we lived. We moved on, out of the desert of Beesheba south into the Sinai to the desert of Paran. There I grew strong, and became an expert in living freely among the sands. I married a woman from Egypt, the land of Hajar my only mother; and Hajar became the grandmother of many.

Genesis 21:8-21




(photography by tiwago)

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