When I teach Sunday school, I typically follow the story of “The Call of Abram” with the story of “The Birth of Isaac.” As I reread the story of Isaac’s birth in the Bible, I was struck by how much happens between these two events and what a painfully long wait Abraham and Sarah had for their son. Personally, this story has always meant a lot to me as we struggled with infertility for six years before our first son was born. During that time in my life, I read a study that said women facing infertility go through the same level and kind of stress that a woman facing a cancer diagnosis goes through. But it is such a lonely experience!!! As we approach Mother’s day, my prayers are with all those women hoping for a tiny miracle. For most people children come easily, for some too soon, but for those who know the long wait: The unfulfilled longing for a child is among life’s deepest human anguishes. I think the story of the long wait for Isaac captures it well. This story, of course, has a happy ending. My prayer for those dealing with infertility this week ahead of Mother’s Day is comfort and peace and a resolution in God’s perfect timing.
Shortly after Abram is called by God and receives a promise of divine blessing and protection, he and Sarai travel to Egypt in a time of famine. Abram begs his wife to say that she is her sister because he fears for his life to say she is her husband—she is that beautiful!! The Lord afflicts Pharoah and his house with plagues because of Sarai and the Pharoah sends Abram and Sarai away with great riches. The story foreshadows the journey into Eqypt that their descendants will make much later. It also sets up to know that Abram is not perfect—he gets scared; he stretches the truth. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with less-than-perfect heroes!
Abram ends up doing very well, but he finds that he runs into conflict with his nephew Lot, who God has also prospered. Abram says, “Let there be no strife between you and me…” and gives his nephew the first choice for resettling. Shortly thereafter, Abram receives the first promise concerning the birth of a son: “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” We begin to see Abram as a man of peace, reason, and faith.
On the next page, Abram learns that Lot is in danger due to regional conflict, and he takes 318 men, a regular battalion, and goes to rescue him, beating the superior armies by taking advantage of the forest conditions and the darkness of night. We learn that Abram is a brave and smart military leader.
Then Abram encounters Melchizedek, a mysterious priest who appears out of nowhere and has no back story. In a generous move, Abram gives him a tenth of everything he has. But when he encounters the King of Sodom, he takes nothing from him. He never wants it to be said that the king of Sodom made him rich.
After financial and military success and a blessing from a priest, Abram still has no son and he calls out to God in anguish: “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” The unfulfilled longing for a child can make other accomplishments feel meaningless. Next God makes him a second promise: “Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them…So shall your offspring be.” Abram believes, which God counts as righteousness.
Sarai, however, is a little impatient. She sends her servant Hagar to Abram. And I know why (or at least I think so!) This is not in the text, just my hunch: She does not want Hagar to conceive; she is simply engaged in old-fashioned fertility testing. She wants to confirm that the problem is Abram, not her. But Hagar does conceive, and I totally get Sarai’s frustration. I hate to admit it, but I watched with great envy as women easily had three children before my first baby was born. Hagar does not seem particularly happy about being pregnant either. The Bible says she looks with contempt upon Sarai. Things did not go well between the two of them. Sarai deals so harshly with Hagar that she runs away, which would have brought almost certain death, I imagine. But God intervenes.
In one of the most amazing moments of the events leading up to the birth of Isaac, God repeats the promise he makes to Abram to Hagar, a female servant, someone who could be considered marginal, but God hears, sees, protects, guides, and blesses her. We learn that God cares for her. If I could pick a hymn to go with this story it would be: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He Watches Me.”
(As an aside: Curiously, Islam traces its spiritual ancestry to Abraham through Hagar’s son Ishmael; it seems easy from a modern point of view to read the prophecy regarding Ishmael as foretelling a strained relationship between the Jewish people and their Islamic neighbors, but I’m not sure how others read it. Isn’t it amazing to consider how the future of the world is changed forever when two people have a baby?!?)
Years after Hagar gave birth, God gives Abram a new name and a fresh start. God repeats his promise that he will be the father of a multitude of nations. Then Abram gets this strange request from God: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” Maybe after the incident with Hagar, God gave Abram a reminder where he needed it? Particularly as a woman reader I’m not sure what to make of this. I just know, it must have been a bad day at camp when Abram fulfilled this directive! Sarai is given a new name, too, and once again, it is promised that she will have a son.
My husband said, “I can’t wait to see how you illustrate this passage.” I guess I took the easy way out, turning to St. Paul who tells us something that I relate to more easily: “Circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit, not the letter.” I believe that God does continue to mark us. He writes His Word in our hearts as we mark up his Holy Word (and yes, God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword!). And Revelation tells us that the mark which was in Abraham’s flesh, but private, also in the heart, but private, will one day be on our foreheads for all to see. All these marks are simply signs of in invisible reality! We have a covenant relationship with God. And is God is marked, too: God’s hands and feet are marked, when God comes to us as the person of Jesus. We belong to God, a God who loves us and wants to be in a real relationship with us.
Three heavenly visitors come to see Sarah and Abraham. And Abraham offers generous hospitality. The angels give this message: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah overhears this and laughs. I’ve read some commentators suggest that she laughs in disbelief, but I know that she laughs just to protect herself. She has had more monthly disappointments than can be counted, and I know too well the roller coaster of emotions that a woman faces as a month comes and goes with yet another disappointment. I would have laughed, too. It would ease the pain of remembering all those disappointments. But we have to leave room for God to surprise us!!! I love the question: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” When I read it, I am reminded that the author of the Gospel of Luke answers the question: “Nothing is impossible for God.”
As we turn the page, Abram learns that God will destroy Sodom and he argues with God on their behalf: If there are fifty righteous, wouldn’t you save the city? Forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? God assures Abram he would save the city if ten righteous could be found there. Then God prepares to destroy the city, but God is faithful to Abram’s nephew Lot. God sends angels to move him out of harms ways, even though Lot is reluctant. I love that God’s angels have to take him by the hand and drag him in order to save him and his family. It shows the extent God’s faithfulness and mercy to Lot, even as God executes justice on Sodom. I have to think that Abram’s prayers and petitions and past personal efforts to save Lot made a difference, but God had to carry Lot like a mother cat carries her kittens! Some of us go more willingly!!!
Lot’s wife was not so lucky. I remember feeling quite traumatized as a child by the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back at Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. For some reason, I distinctly remember lying in bed as a child rehearsing this exact situation in my head, thinking “I will not look back. I will not look back.” What’s the moral of this story: We should listen to our angels! They said not to look back! When we leave a bad situation, we need to move forward confidently without hesitation and keep looking toward our shepherd Jesus and to the better future that God has planned for us!
There’s a strange story on this page that I did not try to illustrate about Lot and his daughters. After pondering it in light of the rest of the saga, it seems to illustrate how strange and frustrating fertility can be: The two sisters decide they want to have children. After one try with their drunk father, of all things, in a cave, and both women become pregnant. It’s curious how God uses this less than ideal situation: The first born daughter’s son becomes the father of the Moabites, and the heroine of the Book of Ruth is a Moabite, who is also featured in the genealogy of Jesus. Our decisions have long-lasting consequences!
And finally at long last, Isaac is born. It almost feels anticlimactic after the long wait and all the events that led up to the moment. For this post, I originally planned to illustrate this one passage, but I couldn’t think of what to say, other than a child was born, something rather common. Sarah announces: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said: “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Sometimes the biggest, most incredible, amazing miracles in life are the tiny ones right before us.
In quieter moments, I like to reflect on the marriage of Sarah and Abraham and the impact their union continues to have on all subsequent generations of their family. Thousands of years later, the story is remembered of Abraham’s faith, of just how long it took Sarah to get pregnant, and of the miracle of Isaac’s life. The stories of our ancestors become part of who we are. Marriages are part of the intricately woven fabric of human life and help answer on a basic level questions regarding our existence and how we came to be. Sarah and Abraham remind me that when God brings two people together a whole new world is created; the future is changed forever.