By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 25, 2023
Genesis 21:8–21 (ESV)
8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 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. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
This week we reflected again on one of the queries within our faith and practice. You might ask what are these queries and why do we read them? I asked this for many years. Then as I began to study the life of prayer and began to deepen my understanding and relationship with God, I found these questions to be beneficial. Are they the Quaker ten commandments? No, but like the ten commandments or ten words as it might be more accurately translated from Hebrew, these queries provide wise guidance to the active participation I the life of Christ.
Today’s query we might find a bit judgmental. Why do we care about the consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs? Are we just being legalistic? On the surface it might look that way. But I hope we look deeper. If you were to do a study on the evolution of Friends beliefs you would find that this was not part of our original faith and practice, in fact in George Fox’s letters he encouraged various meetings to have spirits available at the meetinghouses. It seems a bit odd today for a religious society to offer alcoholic beverages at worship outside of the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. But as with everything context is key.
The abstinence of the use of alcoholic drinks among Friends has a unique history. It emerged before the advent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but we did encourage the development of this organization. Our testimony of limited use of alcohol emerged from our testimony against slavery. Even before the Revolutionary War Quakers were actively attempting to stop this barbaric practice, because in our opinion it went against everything we believed. When scripture tells us that we are all equal in the eyes of God, we believe that. And even though even Quakers participated in this dehumanizing practice, we worked to abolish it.
One of the methods Friends used to testify against slavery, was the practice of boycotts. Early Friends would look at the products that used forced labor, and they would stop buying those products or would buy only producers that could confirm production practices that complied with their values. You might notice fair trade certifications on labels today, this certification was started by Quakers, for the same reason used in our history. Yes, even today there is slavery in our world. Thankfully it is not the same as it was during the history of the United States. But there are millions of people around the globe that are living in bondage and under exploited labor conditions. I am not a conspiracy theorist, I just know that there are companies that exploit the disadvantaged for gain especially in the agricultural and textile markets. Friends began their boycott of the use of alcohol because many of the resources used in the production of these beverages were obtained from exploited human labor, mainly sugar derived from the plantations of the Caribbean.
As you might notice, none of this history is found in our query today. Instead, it speaks of health and social aspects of the use of intoxicating substances, and it goes beyond alcohol. This shows the evolution of traditions of faith. We started in one place and as time progressed, we began to see additional benefits. Friends began their abstinence movement as a testimony against slavery but once slavery was abolished, they began to see that other forms of bondage were attached to these substances. So, they continued to advocate for abstinence.
The query is a question for you to answer in your life and among those closest to you. It is not a law, but a question to examine if your words and actions are harmonized. At the core of the query is something profound. A concept that stretched back to the very dawn of human existence and remains to this day. It is a concept with which all people struggle, we see it in our children and among nations. This query speaks to the inner conflict of our own desires in relation to those around us.
The scripture accompanying today’s query is from Galatians 5, and in this it says that the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. Notice here that Paul did not complete the list. He ended that list with, “and things like these.” Meaning that there is room for us to actively participate in the completion of the list. I do not want us to jump right into that exercise because there is more work that we must do before we can engage in such a practice. We must first understand what works of the flesh means, because the list that comes after that are evidence of or examples of whatever the work or desire of the flesh is.
The concept of flesh in the Greek language revolves around the body. It is the meat within the skin. The stoics would often teach that skin dries but the meat within rots. These Greek philosophers would say then that anything of the body is corrupt and can rot. Our culture often tells us that Christianity is a religion that forces us to deny bodily pleasure but even the Greeks taught this sort of thing. The interesting thing is that the followers of the Hebrew God differentiated things a bit differently.
The flesh in this case still revolves around the body, but instead of saying all bodily desires are base, they instead insist on controlling our desires for a greater wholistic good. The faith of the Hebrew people was community oriented. Anything that denies the community is considered taboo. It is selfish desire or the desires of one faction within a community over others that those within the tribes of Israel advise against.
This might be a way of looking at the law that is foreign to you and believe me it has been difficult for me to accept as well. Our religious culture is built on our personal relationship with God through our decision to follow Jesus. Where does our community come into play? Community has always been a part of our faith. When Jesus was questioned about the greatest commandment, He affirmed that all the law and the teachings of the prophets’ hinge on one thing: Love God with everything you are and have and love your neighbor as yourself. In that one nugget of wisdom from the very mouth of God Incarnate we are told that how we interact and live within our community is just as important as how we live before God.
It is this community aspect that I want us to focus on today. In Genesis 21 we are told of the disfunction within Abraham’s household. Last week three visitors came to Abraham’s tent, and he threw a party fit for a king. One of those visitors was revealed to be the Angel of the Lord. When we see this phrase, it is important. Angel in Hebrew is something that is difficult to translate into English because the term is Elohim. This word most of us would understand as being a name for God, but it is used for all spiritual beings including God and angels. But when we see the Angel of the Lord it carries a greater meaning, those that see this particular spiritual being equate it to the Most High God, Yahweh. From our Christian perspective we believe this to be a pre-incarnational manifestation of Jesus.
At this meeting, God told Abraham and the eavesdropping Sarah that in a year they would have the son that God had promised to them. They were old at this time. Abraham was around one hundred years old, and Sarah is thought to be around the spry age of ninety. This young couple were finally going to see the fulfillment of God’s promise. Unfortunately, there is a problem, Abraham already has a son through Sarah’s slave Hagar. This sounds odd to us today but was culturally acceptable in much of the ancient world. In fact, it was much more acceptable than we might like to admit even in more recent history.
The reason it was acceptable was not because of misogyny as we might think, although that happened, but it was acceptable because it was important to have an heir. There needed to be someone to whom all the wealth and property would be passed down to. In our minds when we think of Abraham and Sarah, we often see them as a family today. We see a husband and wife because that is where a family begins. In an ancient nomadic culture like Abraham’s the family had a different definition. It included servants, both free and slaves, and extended family. The father was the oldest male within the group and the oldest son would take on that role once the father died. If there was not an heir, the entire community would fall apart because there was no father giving oversight. The laws against adultery were important in this regard. Today we interpret it as not having relations outside of marriage. But in ancient times it only applied to the women, because the community needed the assurance of who the rightful heir was. Yes, patriarchy is real, and yes it can be a form of bondage to some. I am not defending the practice, just saying that it exists. When the wife of the patriarch was not able to bear a child, it was socially acceptable for the patriarch to produce an heir with a servant.
Before we through the bible out I want us to remember that Abraham did not do this for a long time. His wife urged him to do this. Abraham sought a different way, instead of using a servant he wanted to legally adopt his most loyal servant. But legal adoption was not really a thing in a nomadic tribe, just naming an heir does not keep the tribe together. Sarah urged Abraham to produce offspring through a hand-picked servant, her personal servant Hagar. And it worked, Abraham had a son in his mid to late eighties and named him Ishmael.
Now fourteen years later, Abraham has another son named Isaac and more disfunction enters the family. Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. Remember the feast that he threw for three random visitors, and that would give you an idea of what is going on at this event. Everyone is celebrating for a good reason, there is finally an heir in the family. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, laughing. Sarah then demanded that this woman and her son be cast out, “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
This term that is translated as laughing in the English Standard version has been translated a couple of different ways over the years. In the New Revised Standard version, they translate it as playing. Where the New International, The NET bible, and the King James Version all translate it as mocking. Each are accurate translations, but which ever one we use causes us to create a different image in our mind. I think the key is what Sarah says after the laughing, “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
I do not think mocking, or making fun of is what is going on in this scene. I believe that Ishmael was enjoying the feast his father was throwing, this teenage boy was excited and joyful with everyone in the community. I think Sarah was jealous and resentful. Shortly after she had urged Abraham to bear a child with Hagar, she became jealous of the servant and began to treat her harshly. Hagar was treated so poorly by Sarah that she ran away into the wilderness, but God visited Hagar and urged her to return. Sarah was jealous, she saw that Abraham and Ishmael were together celebrating the weaning of Isaac, and the laughter of Ishmael set her off. “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Sarah was jealous for her son. She saw a potential rivalry, and divisions. She might have even been a bit envious. She bore these emotions because Ishmael was a teenage boy. Ishmael had spent the last fourteen years with his father Abraham who is now one hundred years old. She was very aware of her husband’s age and what if he died before Isaac became a man? The nomadic life is hard on the body, so it was very possible that Abraham would die before Isaac became old enough to fully inherit the property of his father. Until that time Ishmael would be seen as Isaac’s equal. And Sarah could not bear the thought of the son of this slave woman being an heir with her son.
Sarah had prejudices. Yet we look at her as being one of the holiest women of faith. She is human as are we. Abraham fathered a child with a woman that was not his wife, today we would call that adultery, and yet we regard him as one of the most faithful people to ever live on earth, and the father of our own faith. He is human as are we. None of us are perfect. We can all fall into moments where the works of the flesh are more evident in our lives than the fruit of the Spirit.
Sarah’s actions that day displeased Abraham. And God spoke to Abraham in this distress saying, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”
This troubles me. Is God honoring Sarah’s behavior? Is God telling Abraham that Sarah is right? No. God is acknowledging that we are human. We are often thick and resentful. We are prone to anger and grudges. God knows that Sarah and Hagar are not best of friends and probably never will be. And sometimes for the good of the community we must do things that are not easy.
Abraham was also very aware of his age. He knew that it was likely that he would die before Isaac would be of age to inherit the property of the family. He was aware that Isaac may need his big brother to help him along the way. This is why Abraham was displeased. If he was going to listen to his wife who would help Isaac? God gave Abraham peace. He said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” God is telling Abraham that he will be around long enough for Isaac to grow into his role as head of the family. And God also told him, “I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” God is promising Abraham that he would provide.
What does all of this have to do with today’s query? I wish I knew.
Why did Friends first start to abstain from alcohol? Why do people consume alcoholic beverages? Why do they use drugs? Why do we as humans challenge laws and rules? Why do we do much of what we do? We can look at this query from a legalistic perspective and conclude that good people don’t drink smoke or chew or hang with those that do. But that does not really prevent me from wanting to participate in those activities. I still have the desires in my flesh because I am human, and Benjamin Franklin said, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” The point of the query is to be mindful of our actions and consider how they will affect those around us. Do you intelligently and lovingly use your influence to limit the use of any substance and seek to minister to those already damaged by such use?
This query goes beyond having a drink with friends, it speaks to how we live our lives with others. Will we use our positions and our influence to contribute to the works of the flesh or the fruit of the Spirit?
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