Sunday, June 25, 2017

'Call Me Ishmael'

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away.
—Gen. 22:14a
I. Papa Was a Rolling Stone
Call me Ishmael. You’ve probably heard that name before. Certainly, God has… in fact that’s what my name actually means: God Has Heard …more about that later.

My mother was from Egypt, and a wandering Aramean was my father. They weren’t married, by the way. My mother was a slave—she belonged to my father’s real wife, a woman I was never exactly fond of. And I guess that’s as good a place to start as any: My father and the woman who was not my mother.

Their names were Abraham and Sarah, and they were from a place known these days as Iraq. But, as I said, Abraham was a wanderer, and his wanderings eventually took him all the way to Egypt, and one of the mementos they picked up while they were there was my mother. Her name was Hagar.

Now Sarah couldn’t have any children, and so at one point, she told her husband that he should have a child by my mother so that they could raise him as their own… as though my mother never existed. Mother wasn’t consulted in this matter, but Abraham did as he was told, and that’s where I came into the picture.

Except that things didn’t work out exactly as they were supposed to. When Mother got pregnant, Sarah changed her mind. “Hagar’s looking down her nose at me because she can have children, and I can’t,” Sarah told her husband. And rather than loving Mother’s child as her own, Sarah treated her slave so badly that she had to run away. It’s a wonder I was ever even born.
II. El-Roi
But Mother was more resourceful than you might think. And though she was brought up worshiping the old Egyptian gods, she had adopted the faith of Sarah’s husband, my father Abraham. Though it may seem strange to say it these days, Father’s was a unique faith—not in a lot of different gods, but in one God only; and not in a god you could look at made of wood or gold or stone, but a God nobody could see.

Except for Mother, who said she saw God in the desert when she was running away from Sarah. But what’s more important is that she said God saw her, a slave-girl, a nobody that nobody else ever noticed… unless they wanted something from her. And so that’s how Mother always talked about this otherwise invisible God: She called God El-Roi, the God Who Sees. And El-Roi sent Mother back to Abraham and Sarah, and it was there that I was born, the son of a slave and her owner’s husband.

Now, because Sarah was so jealous of my mother, you’d think that my childhood would’ve been horrible. But the truth of the matter is that it was actually pretty good. My mother adored me, and my father loved me, too. And Sarah? Well, she just pretended I didn’t exist. I was my father’s only child—something she seemed able to at least cope with. That is, until, miracle of miracles, Sarah actually conceived in her later years.

You’d think I would’ve been the one who was jealous now. But nothing could be further from the truth. Though my father was my father, I’d always known I was a bit of an outsider. The fact that he was going to have another child didn’t exactly send me into a tailspin. After all, I was practically a teenager by this time, and I kind of relished the idea of having a little brother or sister.
III. LOL
And, as it turned out, it was a little brother. I know you’re used to names that just sound pretty and are based on a child’s parents’ good taste (or bad taste, as often as not). But back in my day, names meant something. Just as my name has a meaning—God Has Heard—my little half-brother’s name also had a meaning. A very funny meaning. Literally. His name was Isaac, which meant Laughter, or She Laughs. They named him this, because it’s said that my father’s wife, Sarah, actually laughed out loud when she was told she was going to have a baby.

But funny name or not, the name fit Isaac. I’d been around babies before, but none of them were ever as happy as little Isaac. Everybody loved him—including me. When I babysat him, he had a way of making me feel special with his smile. Even as a kid, I knew that, though he was younger than me, he was ahead of me in the pecking order. His mother was my mother’s owner. I didn’t harbor any delusions that I was as important as Isaac was. But that didn’t mean I held it against him.

But this was something Sarah could never quite wrap her mind around. Instead of pretending I didn’t exist, as she’d always done before, she began to notice me. And it wasn’t a good kind of noticing, either. She began to resent me. And she resented me because she thought I resented Isaac.

It all came to a head one afternoon when I came in from the fields. You see, the older I got, the more responsibilities I had to take on; and by this time (I was about fifteen) I was spending several nights at a time away from everybody else in our little caravan, guarding the flocks. When Father Abraham finally sent one of his hired hands to take over for me, I ambled back into camp all tired and dirty and hungry and thirsty.

You’d think the first thing I’d have done was to sleep or eat or take a bath or get a drink. And that’s what I wanted to do. But teenage boys are easily distracted, and the first person to meet me when I came back was little Isaac, who was about two by this time, and was increasingly hard to keep confined to one area. He didn’t know that he was supposed to resent me. In fact, he thought I was just about the coolest person alive. And so there, at the edge of camp, I dropped my load and sat down in the sand and started playing with my baby brother.

We must’ve been quite a sight: The pampered little toddler princeling playing with a dirty teenage shepherd boy. And just as his mother laughed when she was told she was going to give birth to him, tired as I was, he had me laughing in no time, too. It was hard to feel discouraged when Isaac wanted to play. But laughter isn’t always appreciated. In fact, when Isaac had me laughing with him as we played pat-a-cake at the edge of that desert encampment all those years ago, it started events in motion that are still playing out today… only now, I don’t know if anybody’s laughing.
IV. The Party’s Over
And I guess this is where my story gets a little bit surreal. For when she saw us that day, Isaac idolizing me and I laughing at Isaac, Sarah became enraged. “Look how he laughs at my son!” I heard her telling my father. And it suddenly dawned on me that she didn’t see me as the son of a slave who could simply be dismissed, but as a threat to her son’s future. I was, after all, still the older son. Maybe I’d have eventually come to believe myself to be more deserving than Isaac. But as an adolescent, I just wasn’t thinking in these terms yet.

What I thought no longer mattered. What my mother thought had never mattered. And even what my father thought only mattered as long as it didn’t contradict Sarah’s thinking. So when Father held a big party to celebrate a new milestone in Isaac’s life (he’d just been weaned), Sarah had decided to make it a real celebration. Not only was Isaac weaned from needing his mother’s breast, but now he was going to be an only child as well. I knew about the hate in Sarah’s face when she saw me playing with Isaac, but what I didn’t know was that she was planning to send me and my mother away. For good.

When I got up the morning of the festivities, I was as excited as anybody else. I saw that my father was already awake and getting things ready—I assumed for Isaac’s party. But when he started bringing them toward the tent my mother and I shared, I was confused. Was I to be honored, too?

But no, I was not to be honored. The day of Isaac’s celebration, as it turned out, was also the day my father took a cloth bag of food and a skin full of water and sent me and my mother away, just like that, into the desert alone. I wish I could tell you what I was feeling, and what I said. But I don’t remember. Maybe I was mute. The story as it’s come down to me certainly makes it seem that way. In fact, it makes it seem like I was a very little boy in my mother’s arms. And whether I was comforting her or she was comforting me, I no longer remember. But I guess one of us did end up in the other’s arms as Abraham handed us a few supplies and turned his back on us.

In all fairness, he did what he did with tears in his eyes. But I’m not sure if that’s much of an excuse. Does asking forgiveness for a crime before it’s committed excuse the crime? Maybe it does in your eyes. But in my eyes, it didn’t then, and all these years later, it still doesn’t.
V. A Day Dimly Shining
What happened next is a blur. I remember walking and walking. The desert sun was horrible and the thirst was even worse. But I only pretended to drink my full share of the water. I needed to save some for my mother, for I was afraid she was going to die in the heat. The walking and the thirst seemed to go on forever, but it must’ve been just a few days. By the third day the water was gone, and though she didn’t realize it, Mother had drunk well over half of it. By the next day, I was out of my mind with thirst. And when I couldn’t go on any further, Mother pushed me down under a small tree to get what shade I could from it. And then she walked a little ways away and began to pray to her God, the God of her oppressors, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the One she called El-Roi. As I lay moaning in delirium under the bush, she asked El-Roi not to let her watch her son die.

I believe God heard her prayer, but she swears God heard my moaning. After all, didn’t she name me God Has Heard? Whatever happened, I remember hallucinating: I saw a young man in the distance. Whether he was from the beginning of time or the end of days, I do not know. But he didn’t look like someone from my day and age. He was young—not as young as me, but a young man. And he was smiling and handsome—he looked like I imagined my little brother would look when he grew up. And he didn’t exactly disappear, but he became a haze, a glow, as of the glow of a day dimly shining. And though he receded, the shiny haze did not. My mother saw it, too. Or at least she saw something. For the next thing I know she was where the young man had been, and she was filling our skin with water. And then she was pouring it in my mouth. And I slept, and when I awoke I was beside a spring, shining in the desert sun.

And I did not die, but I lived… to tell the tale, as they say. My mother and I learned to live in the wilderness, and I eventually married and had children. I don’t know that I ever forgave my father for what he did to us. But I learned not to hate him, and for my little brother’s sake, I suppose that maybe I did forgive. As hard as my life was, I don’t imagine Isaac’s could’ve been much easier. Our father was a man who loved his God. But if God loved him, he was living proof that God’s love wasn’t earned by perfect righteousness and wasn’t won by strength of will, for Father had neither of those. Even without my own experience, the stories that Isaac told me later were proof enough of that.

But nonetheless, when he died, Isaac and I buried him together next to Sarah. That’s the last I ever saw of my little brother, and I’ve often wondered what happened to him. I loved him and I miss him; and in my old age I like to imagine that perhaps someday his sons and mine will find each other again—that they’ll remember the hardships of their fathers and forgive the weakness of their grandfather. He was only human, after all, and if enemies can learn to love one another, then certainly a son can learn to look beyond his father’s (or his father's father) cruelty.

He gave me one thing that can never be taken away from me: No matter where I go, no matter what befalls me, the God of Abraham is my God—and even when my father could no longer look at me, my father’s God was and is a God Who Hears my voice and answers my prayers.
—©2014 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

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