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Summaries of the story of Abraham and Sarah declare that they are examples of faithful living. As a result, I assumed they set out from their homeland with a clear sense of God's plan for them. Examining their story more closely, I found it is more complex than that.

First, the details of how the promise will work out are revealed slowly. God's initial call offers them a land and promises that they will become a great nation and a blessing. That's all. No details. No roadmap. It takes a strong faith for them to leave familiar territory with their livestock and household.

When they get to the land and there is a dispute with their nephew Lot, the family divides. At this point, Abraham asks God who is going to inherit the promise. This is the first time that he is told he will have a son.

With this news, he and Sarah figure out a way for that son to be born. Using a surrogacy pattern recognized in their culture, she gives him her maid-servant, Hagar, and with this woman, Abraham has a son, Ishmael. Things seem quite on track to fulfill what they know of God's promise.

But when Ishmael is thirteen, God comes again and tells Abraham that this is not the child who will inherit. His wife Sarah will have a son. This is the first time that the promise of a child for Sarah is mentioned. 

With this slow revelation of the details of how the initial promise will work out, I realized that these two faithful people are feeling their way forward as they go. This is a helpful reminder. Even with faith, there is a direction and a hope but not a road map. We feel our way along step by step with the goal ahead of us and the path to that goal masked in shadow and mist.  

There is more to the story though. Let me back up to the moment Abraham is told Sarah will have a son. When God says this, Abraham looks down, away from God, and asks that God recognize Ishmael.

Abraham is looking at the situation from a position of privilege. He has a son. He is fine with the way things are. But on this path, Sarah is left out. God sees Sarah's sorrow and her marginalization. God acts to include her. It is not enough for Abraham to be okay with the way things are working out. Sarah needs a place in the story.

In time, Sarah does bear a son, Isaac. She is fully included by God in the fulfillment of the promise.

In the next part of the story, neither Sarah nor Abraham behave faithfully. The relationship between the wife and the surrogate is not comfortable. Hagar does not release her son to Sarah but claims a position in the family. Sarah is nasty to her. Eventually, Sarah insists that Hagar and her son be sent away.

Abraham is upset with this request, but God promises that Ishmael will also father a nation. Abraham then agrees with Sarah and sends Hagar and his son away with bread and a skin of water.

Later, after Sarah dies, Abraham will have several more sons. These are also sent away from Isaac, but they are given gifts, perhaps enough to start them on their life journey. Hagar and Ishmael are sent with food and water for a day. They almost die.

These two people belong to the household of Abraham and Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael are people they are responsible for. But they treat the mother and son as property that can be cast aside. Sure, God assures Abraham that Ishmael will be fine, but based on that promise, Abraham could have acted faithfully with his son, providing what Ishmael needed to make his way. Instead, Abraham throws up his hands and lets God do the work.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is what it always was, but my reading of it has changed. The first shift was to notice that they were migrants on a long complex journey. More recently, I have shifted perspective, looking at the events not from Abrahams position but from the position of those marginalized by the way events are unfolding. This reading can help me uncover the blind spots that come with my position of privilege.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway

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