President Obama has been visiting Indonesia, one of my favorite countries — where the good morning greeting is “selamat pagi,” where bananas and mangoes grow wild, and where street vendors sell satay cooked over tiny charcoal fires, along with peanut sauce that’s off the hook.
Unfortunately, since Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, Obama-haters have used the event to play up their hare-brained game of pretending to believe the president is a secret Muslim (this article cites a number of examples). I never cease to be amazed that so many people are so gullible that they believe believe some of the hogwash they read or hear: a recent Pew Research Center poll reported that 18 percent of Americans believe President Obama — who self-identifies as a Christian and who reiterated his Christian faith while speaking in Indonesia — is a secret follower of Islam. That’s up from 11 percent in March 2009.
Why confuse a mean-spirited conspiracy theory with something as illuminating as facts and a man’s word?
Not unrelated: a thoughtful student came by my office yesterday to talk about Hagar. He’s working on an exegesis of Genesis 16, the chapter that describes how an aging and childless Abraham and Sarah decided to take matters into their own hands (euphemistically) and utilize Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar as a surrogate mother. Artificial insemination wasn’t available, so Abraham had to impregnate Hagar the old-fashioned way. As the time for her delivery approached, Hagar relished her role as the mother of Abraham’s child so much that she lost respect for Sarah, and Sarah resented Hagar so much that she treated her badly and sought to send her away. Abraham, despite his reputation as a wise and courageous man, let Sarah have her way, and Hagar was sent into the wilderness, where she nearly died of thirst before experiencing a miraculous encounter with an angel. The angel not only provided water, but a prophecy that Hagar’s child, Ishmael, would become the progenitor of so many descendants that they would be too numerous to count.
My young friend and I marveled, first, at the way the story is told so matter-of-factly, with no apparent condemnation of Hagar for her pride, or of Sarah for her meanness, or of Abraham for his willingness to send a lone pregnant woman into the dangerous scrublands of the Negev. It was what it was.
We noted how interesting it is that an Egyptian slave girl would receive a visit from an angel, and that she would be the first biblical personage to attribute to God a new name: she called him El Roi, “the god who sees,” because God had seen her affliction and delivered her from it.
And, we thought with interest about that promise to Hagar that Ishmael would become the father of uncountable descendants. One would think this would be setting up a constant conflict between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael in the biblical narrative, but the Ishmaelites don’t really play that large a role in the scriptural story. Now, however, nearly 4,000 years later, conflict between the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael is the most dominant threat to peace in our time. Both Jews and Christians see themselves as either physical or spiritual descendants of Isaac, the chosen heir of Abraham. Muslims believe they are descended from Ishmael, and thus also are children of Abraham.
The common bond of “Father Abraham” has the potential of bringing the various groups together, but extremists on both sides continue to foster fear and distrust of the other, creating a culture of lies that leads from suspicion to name-calling to acts of terror to outright war.
Hagar’s contempt, Sarah’s meanness, and Abraham’s failure to foster reconciliation led to world-shaking repurcussions the old patriarch and the biblical authors never could have imagined.
Is there hope for a better outcome than the ugliness we now face? If so, there will have to be a lot less contempt and meanness, and a much greater willingness to seek reconciliation.
And that has to come from uncounted individuals, each willing to do his or her part to forswear hatred and embrace the kind of love that includes enemies as well as friends.
Are we up to it?
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.