Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah proclaims to be wrestling with the difficult questions and paradoxes in the bible. It is an exercise in apologetics which acknowledges the more you find out about the bible the less you realise you know and the harder faith can become. That's how the book is sold, (see the You Tube clip below) & I have to say I was interested in learning from it. I didn't expect by the end of Chapter One The Abraham Paradox to be sitting there screaming and swearing about the simplistic way it sought to portray a complex Patriarch and put a whitewashed version of the text forward.
The key paradox it is examining is "The God who needs nothing but asks for everything" and the core of the text focuses on Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, when God asks Abraham to be ready to sacrifice Isaac. However, more broadly it is a chapter which looks at Abraham in order to examine the character of God . I was hoping somewhere within this mix for Hagar and Ishmael to be mentioned, perhaps just for a paragraph or two and the pain which was involved in Abraham having to send that son away to be mentioned.
Alas no, there was one dismissive mention in a paragraph made up of an overlong sentence on page 15. It says "At the end of their lives, this living-dead couple are offered a new start, after several scrapes - a sexual liaision with a servant girl, surrogate child, Abram pretending his wife is really only his sister, not forgetting the rebrand to the new names 'Abraham' and 'Sarah' - the couple are finally en route to the Promised Land with their new-born son, their miracle baby, Isaac.".
From that moment Krish focuses on the wording of Genesis22 verse 2 where it says, "Take your son, your only son Isaac", and talks of Isaac in that exclusive way.
For me this highlights one of the more difficult paradoxes in the way in which we treat the bible and the patriarchs in particular. In seeking to reinforce the Judaic Christian version of history and the political implications of that we don't wrestle with the more difficult aspects of those characters.
For me this is focus on one part of the story is particularly problematic as I believe it stops us using some of the most contemporarily relevant parts of scripture we have.
I want to bring Hagar and Ishmael back into the story for a moment and see how it reads then.
Abraham, under Sarah's instruction, has sexually used a foreign servant to give him an heir. As a pregnant slave being abused and humiliated by a jealous Sarah, when Abraham has effectively absolved responsibility, Hagar runs away. God meets the runaway Hagar in the desert via an angel and tells her to return to that abusive situation, but at the same time promising that he will greatly multiply her offspring. Before then giving her the news that her son will be a wild ass of a man who is in conflict with everybody including his kin.(Gen 16: 1- 13)
However, this woman gets to see God and live. In the mist of this tragic situation God doesn't hide himself from her rather he reveals himself to her in that moment.
Now to me that raises far more paradoxical and difficult questions about what sort of God sends a woman back into an abusive situation. It is a situation which is awful and of the type we seek to rescue women from today. I cannot see how it was loving or right to send her back and how it can ever be loving or right to send people back into those situations now.
However, it is clear that God recognises what an extraordinary situation this is because he shows his face to her, something which he would not let others see. Those in these situations may see something of God that the rest of us can't.
In Genesis 17 we read how things apparently changed to some extent. Ishmael grew up in a more positive situation, Abraham clearly loves his son. He asks God for Ishmael to be in his sight and for a blessing to be on Ishmael. God on one level rejects Ishmael making it clear that he has another plan, which will involve Isaac, the son yet to be born. However, he does grant a blessing upon Ishmael. Again another paradox about the nature of God is involved.
This one can be seen to illustrate how God's blessing is not exclusively for those who he regards as his children, who are under his sight. Personally, I find this useful as it illustrates that whilst God may have particular plans and blessings for his people he will also bless others too.
Finally in Genesis 21 Isaac is born and Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Isaac is Sarah's only son and she is eager to ensure that he gets the whole inheritance. The fact that Ishmael is the boys half brother is something which causes Sarah pain. She tells Abraham in verse 10 to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
This is the bit in which I believe we find ourselves with a useful and contemporary story. Abraham is the father of two children from different women. When the woman he is married to becomes worried about her economic position she asks him to cut contact with his first son. Abraham finds this very distressing, he doesn't want to become an absent father without contact.
Then in steps God and tells him to what Sarah wants because Isaac is the more important son. I find this really difficult and again it presents a huge paradox about God. What sort of God can say one son has a greater value and worth than another. This is a reflection of my questions about what sort of God can say that Christians are more children of his than non-Christians?
Off Hagar goes and as her resources fail she suffers reactive depression. In the mist of that situation she encounters God again and is shown the resources she can use to help her son. There is the question why does God let her get into this state? Why didn't he show her the water sooner? Again these point us back to the paradox about the nature of God.However, I do find this bit easier because in showing her the well at that point transformation occurs. She is no longer dependent upon others. Once she is signposted to the right resources her life starts to be transformed and she is able to provide for herself and her son.
We don't know exactly what happens but we do know by the end of the story Hagar is able to go back to her own people in Egypt and find Ishmael a wife. This is significant because to do the latter she would have been able to provide a dowry, (Genesis 21: 1-21).
Whilst there are real difficulties and paradoxes within the story I feel it has hope to give to single parents both with and without care of their children. If we focus on Isaac as the only son, and write Ishmael out, we are writing out the value of children who may not be seen by the absent parent. If we keep Ishmael in we have a message of hope for fathers who perhaps don't have contact with older children. We also have an empowering message of hope for single parents, particularly single mothers on a low income, who may be feeling the pressure of having lost everything apart from their child, through no fault of their own.I would also argue that it backs up the essential point Kaniah makes in this chapter, rather from detracting from it if we keep both sons in the story. We may not understand aspects of the narrative and why God asks the seemingly impossible but we can see enough through these stories to encourage us to follow.