When arbitrating fights between myself and my brother, my mother frequently heard the accusation, "She/he started it!" Her response was always the same. "I don't care who started it, I want you to stop it!"
The Biblical story in Genesis 16 gives us an interesting perspective on the "who started it" question: the which came first, the offense or the victimization, the chicken or the egg? We're shown a domestic disturbance in the privacy of the home of Abram and Sarai. Sarai, unable to bear children, offers Abram a surrogate in her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar. When Hagar successfully conceives a son, friction grows between Hagar and Sarai. Hagar shows contempt, Sarai responds with abuse.
On the small scale, Abram hears the accusations and mutual blame between the women. On the grander scale the Hebrew people record an incidence of abuse, the abuse of an Egyptian slave, generations prior to their own enslavement by the Egyptian people.
I'm fascinated by the honesty of this passage. Even the patriarchs and matriarchs had their Jerry Springer moments, their family drama. More startling, here is an admission, an open sharing of the fact that when the roles are reversed, the Hebrew people and the Egyptian people make equally brutal slavemasters of one another. Perhaps I am overstating it, comparing one family's squabble to the enslavement of a nation. But I believe the story is included for that very reason.
Many modern people find these ancient stories unworthy of the Christian tradition: too brutal, too violent. But they are part of the family tree, part of our family history, and I believe we would benefit from owning them. These ancient people passed along the stories of their faith and their bravery. But they also passed along the stories of their faults and their failures. I admire them for the fullness of their tale.
Hagar's son,Ishmael, became the father of nations, nations that continue to fight and war with the children of Sarai. Perhaps we should remember as we call out our blame and accusations that we are just as capable of base behavior and inhumanity as our distant cousins. Instead of wreaking revenge, perhaps we should look inside, at our own history and our own violence, our own envy and brutality. Instead of casting blame on the other, perhaps we should take the first step to stop the cycle, to initiate the unprecedented behavior of peace.
Just a Few Steps Off the Usual Path
10 months ago