When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the Almighty God. Obey me and always do what is right. I will make my covenant with you and give you many descendants.” Abram bowed down with his face touching the ground, and God said, “I make this covenant with you: I promise that you will be the ancestor of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham, because I am making you the ancestor of many nations. I will give you many descendants, and some of them will be kings. You will have so many descendants that they will become nations. I will keep my promise to you and to your descendants in future generations as an everlasting covenant. I will be your God and the God of your descendants.
God said to Abraham, “You must no longer call your wife Sarai; from now on her name is Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will become the mother of nations, and there will be kings among her descendants.”
Abraham bowed down with his face touching the ground, but he began to laugh when he thought, “Can a man have a child when he is a hundred years old? Can Sarah have a child at ninety?” He asked God, “Why not let Ishmael be my heir?”
But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will name him Isaac. I will keep my covenant with him and with his descendants forever. It is an everlasting covenant. I have heard your request about Ishmael, so I will bless him and give him many children and many descendants. He will be the father of twelve princes, and I will make a great nation of his descendants. But I will keep my covenant with your son Isaac, who will be born to Sarah about this time next year.” When God finished speaking to Abraham, he left him.
Honesty is the best policy!
In preparing for this reflection, the first few times that I read this passage, I searched for the positive; in fact, that was all that I looked for. There are some obviously positive aspects of the passage, we could look at the life-changing promises of God, and how it is never too late for God to bless you.
But (you knew one was coming), I cannot help but feel some sympathy for Ishmael in this story. He is an innocent child, and it appears that because he is not born of Sarah and Abraham, God will not allow him to keep the covenant. Instead Isaac, who is not yet born, will eventually keep the covenant.
That to me does not seem at all fair. The text also raises questions for me about Sarah’s role in God’s plan. She does not get a say either, although God promises to bless her with a child. Well, we know that she wanted one when she was younger, but does she really want one at ninety?! Even Abraham laughs.
How then do we deal with the Bible when it challenges us? My first instinct was to try and skip over this and write the more upbeat reflection, but is life upbeat all the time? Mine certainly isn’t. There have been times when it feels unfair and unjust – does that mean though that we are to give up on God or on our Christianity?
Absolutely not! Sometimes we just have to be honest with what we struggle to understand or feel comfortable with and bring it to God.
The most solid relationships in my life are the ones with people that have been there through the hard times; through the times where we just cannot make sense of anything. Sometimes it is not about solving the issue, just about being honest with it.
After all the hours spent trying to make this reflection ‘work’, what I came to is honesty, it is ok to be honest with the Bible, perhaps we should be more but knowing that this wrestling can actually strengthen our relationship with God.
We thank you for our living word,
for the freedom we have to express it in our lives.
We pray for those who are not allowed freedom of expression
and space for understanding your word.
We stand united with them through this prayer.
Lee Battle is an ordinand at Northern College in Manchester.