An Awkward Neighbor-ness – Owen Gray

OwenGenesis 21:9-20 (NRSV)

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him 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 about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast 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, “Do not let me 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? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.


The experience of being someone’s neighbor is, when you think about it, more than a little bit awkward. Based on whatever brings you to your current residence, it’s quite likely that there will be living beside you total strangers with whom you may or may not have a single thing in common. That’s how it was for my family. Growing up, my sister became best friends with Margaret who lived next door, and I became close friends with JJ, who lived across the street. Yet to the neighbors behind us we kids hardly ever talked, except to occasionally and not-so-subtly imply that we would like to swim in their pool. We were very different families, us and them. Yet because we were neighbors our families encountered each other almost every day, made small talk, and borrowed each others’ lawn equipment. It wasn’t friendship. It wasn’t family. It was neighbor-ness.

I can only imagine Sarah and Hagar existing in neighbor-ness that held quite more tension than any I have experienced. Inviting another woman into a marriage for the sake of childbearing would almost ensure that, wouldn’t it? But as Genesis tells it, Sarah co-existed with Hagar and her son Ishmael for quite a while… until one day when Sarah saw Ishmael and her son Isaac together.

The Hebrew word here (מְצַחֵק) is famous for its complexity. Is Ishmael “playing” with Isaac? Is he “mocking” Isaac? What about this moment sends Sarah into a fury that brings her to expel Hagar and her son to certain death in the wilderness? What breaks the neighborly relation?

At least one expert posits that we should translate this word literally; that Ishmael was “Isaacing” with Isaac. Ishmael was acting as Isaac acted, in a way so equal that Sarah could not stomach it. This wasn’t how the Promise was supposed to be fulfilled! Oh right…the Promise. Let’s talk about that.

Remember with me that the Promise is what occupies virtually everything in the Old Testament after Genesis 11. It’s the notion that God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people; that they will be made great; that they will come to bring God’s rule to Earth through their existence. They will “be blessed, and be a blessing,” as a Union professor so often puts it. Abraham and Sarah go to great lengths to ensure that the Promise was fulfilled. They traveled hundreds of miles seeking a homeland. Sarah lied to Pharaoh about being Abraham’s sister and swindled him out of a fortune. Soon, Abraham will take Isaac up the mountain, intent on killing him for the sake of the Promise. And prior to the text at hand, Sarah agrees to let Hagar bear Abraham a son so the Promise could be fulfilled in their descendants. For these two, the Promise was everything.

Then it all got mixed up, since Sarah eventually did birth a son to Abraham. Woops! Abraham had a firstborn son (Ishmael) born to an Egyptian, and a second-born son (Isaac) born to his Hebrew wife. But doesn’t this continue a trend for them as well? Because it seems that every time Abraham and Sarah sought to manage the Promise—to put its success into their own hands—they fail. In finding a homeland, in tricking Pharaoh, in finding an heir: each and every time, these two decide that they know better than God how God’s plans might be achieved, and disaster ensues. Case in point: let’s invite Hagar to bear Abraham a son, when all along God intended for Sarah to bear a child.

So here we are. Sarah is looking at Ishmael—the product of her failure to obey God—playing with her son, and they are playing as equals. The Son of the Promise, made equal with Ishmael, an Egyptian. And it was all Sarah and Abraham’s fault! Sarah freaked out. She banished Hagar, hoping that the problem would go away and that the Promise could continue unabated. To make up for her own shortcomings, Sarah abandons being a neighbor and, ironically, abandons the calling that God has for us all.

And God does have a calling for us as it regards our neighbors. Surely it’s a calling that goes beyond those we live near to include all those who live within our contexts and experiences. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” God says. And so we should.

Throughout the United States, residents of neighboring southern Latin American countries (Mexico, among others) have settled without undergoing the immigration process demanded by law. There are also thousands every month who attempt to enter the country through its southern border by various means. Estimates as to the number of Latin American immigrants in the US without documentation range from 12-17 million. That’s a lot of neighbors. How do we love them as the Bible calls us to?

Answers range widely. “Build a fence!” to “Amnesty!”; “Deportation!” to “Fine them!” Where do we begin?

I submit that this is a response that does not embody trust but rather embodies distrust, fear, and meanness.

To me, Genesis offers a darn good analogy. Just as Sarah viewed Hagar and Ishmael as unrightful heirs to God’s Promise, so too do many Americans look at immigrants. But just as Sarah was ultimately responsible for Hagar and Ishmael’s presence, so too are we largely responsible for the plight that brings Latin American citizens to so strongly desire to flee their homelands. By incentivizing corporations to pay unlivable wages to Mexican workers, to fostering a drug culture nation-wide that feeds Mexican drug-cartel violence, to vicious overthrows of democratically elected officials in Ecuador and Brazil and other countries, to supporting ruthless dictators in El Salvador and Chile that set their national well-being back generations, there is no doubt that American foreign policy has driven millions to a point of such desperation that they feel compelled to leave family and friends, risk their lives to travel north, and seek a better existence in our country. Hear me when I say this: I’m not naïve to the opportunistic few who cross our border to cause harm. But much, much more real is the reality of millions who, were it not for American policy, would never leave their homes in the first place.

After Hagar and Ishmael were banished, God found them in the desert and rescued them. Certainly God stands with the oppressed, and certainly God has a special place in God’s heart for Latin American aliens. So whatever path forward we choose politically, we ought to approach our brothers and sisters with love, knowing that sin exists on both sides. Did many break the law to get here? Yes. Has America given them very many reasons to do so? Yes as well.
We should learn the lesson that Sarah learned—it is the self-giving love of God that will win the day, and we ought to concern ourselves much more with displaying that love than fearing that which we do not understand. Indeed, it took the near-sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain for she and Abraham to understand the type of trust that the Promise requires.

The Promise is still alive, and we ought not to manage it guided by fear. Instead, let us seek to be a blessing to all, and just as importantly, receive the blessings of those we encounter along the way.

Click below for this historical overview:


NOGALES, AZ - JULY 6: The border wall is illuminated at night July 6, 2012 in Nogales, Arizona. The president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, stated that he wants to expand his country's drug-war partnership with the United States but that he would not support the presence of armed American agents in Mexico. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
NOGALES, AZ – JULY 6: The border wall is illuminated at night July 6, 2012 in Nogales, Arizona. The president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, stated that he wants to expand his country’s drug-war partnership with the United States but that he would not support the presence of armed American agents in Mexico. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)


Owen Gray is a second year student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. A Kansas City native and University of Nebraska graduate, Owen spent his years before seminary basking in the glorious flatness of the great plains. His passions include college football, string bass, good books, Beethoven and Mumford, Royals baseball, and spending time outdoors, especially with his lovely wife, Grace.



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