Many of the stories of the Hebrew scriptures were recorded by scribes in the courts of Kings David and Solomon, and their purpose was to unite the various groups who lived in Canaan into a single nation, with a common narrative and set of laws and customs woven from their stories and wisdom. An important piece of that common narrative is an origin story. Where do we come from? Who were our first ancestors?
This workshop introduces Abram, who came from Ur of the Chaldees in ancient Sumer, and his wife Sarai. The text says that in a dream, God tells Abram that he will have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky and that they will be blessed. Nowhere in the story does it say why God chose Abram out of all the people on Earth at that time, or why Abram agreed to enter into a covenant with God.
The text tells us that Abram and Sarai had no children at the time of God's promise, and that Sarai was past the age of child-bearing. As the story unfolds, Sarai sends Hagar, her handmaid or slave, to Abram, that Hagar might bear a child. After Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes jealous and Hagar runs away from harsh treatment. In the desert, God comes to her and tells her to return to her mistress and bear her son, Ishmael, which she does. Later, God renews his covenant with Abram and Sarai, whom he renames Abraham and Sarah, and renews his promise of descendents. Soon after, the previously barren Sarah bears a child, Isaac. She continues to resent Ishmael and Hagar, and demands that Abraham cast mother and child out into the desert. God tells Abraham to do as Sarah tells him, and Abraham casts mother and son out into the desert with only some bread and a skin of water. In the desert, an angel of God appears and saves them from certain death by opening Hagar's eyes to the presence of a well with the water they need to survive. God further promises to make a second great nation of Ishmael's descendents. Jewish oral tradition, as well the Qu-ran, name Ishmael as the ancestor of the Arab peoples.
This is a complex story, and raises more questions than it answers. From whose point of view is this story told? Sarah and Abraham, the patriarch and matriarch of the Hebrew people are not painted in a favorable light. Even God's intervention in the tale is morally ambiguous. Why would a people tell such an ambiguous tale of their founding? Why are the ancestors—and God—depicted in this way?
In the ambiguity is the wonder of this tale. This text invites us to examine a story from multiple perspectives and to pay attention to the moral critique in this ancient founding story of the Hebrew people. It provides a case study of what contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Achidie, calls "the danger of a single story" and compels us to view the narrative from many points of view in order to empower and to humanize its central characters.
The story also tells us that God chooses people on the social margins to carry his blessing. Abraham and Sarah are nomads. Hagar, whose social position is even more marginal, is visited by God not once, but twice, and is chosen as the mother of a second great nation. As biblical scholar Anthony Ceresko notes:
[The book of Genesis] is not the record of individuals who took part in the great power struggles of the day and who were integral members of the dominant social, economic, and political structure. Instead, it records the memories and recollections of various groups who for the most part stood outside of these structures, on the margins. These groups, which eventually came together to create Israel in the hill country of thirteenth-century B.C.E. Canaan. Attempted by combining their individual stories to reinforce and cement their newly-won unity as a people. This single multi-colored tapestry, their "history," is an attempt to represent and express their common, unifying purpose to create a life together and to take control of their own destiny and future. (Ceresko, Anthony R., Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997, p. 38 -39.)