Fellow Passenger: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 16:7-12) transports me to Melrose Dorm of my freshman year in college, where a group of us guys watched a horror movie marathon one Saturday (must have been Halloween). The marathon had a theme, possessed babies, and we started with the cheesiest of the bunch, It’s Alive (there’s only one thing wrong with Frank and Lenore Davis’ baby, the film’s trailer tells us, it’s alive!). We proceeded to probably the best of the lot, the classic 1968 thriller starring Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby. Ruth Gordon was excellent in her role as the Satanic neighbor. We finished with the book of Revelation inspired The Omen, which I found laughable because of all the bogus biblical interpretations, but which served to seriously freak out my roommate. He had not grown up as a church-goer, and was sufficiently unfamiliar with the Bible to wonder if what happened in the movie could really happen. One of the unforeseen consequences of the movie marathon was that it led to a dorm Bible study, and a new found faith for my roommate, along with some renewals of faith among some of my hall mates.
Roman Polanski and company were not the first to employ this trope of cursed babies born to a life of horror. We can find the genesis of the idea all the way back in Genesis, where Ishmael seems to fit the mold. At least that’s the way many have traditionally read the annunciation passage where the angel tells Abraham’s slave, Hagar, that she is with child. You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son, the angel says. You shall name him Ishmael [God Hears], for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers. Ok, it’s not exactly like being born with fangs and claws, or a 666 birthmark, but it does have the ring of a curse at first reading. Your kid is destined to be a wild ass; he’s inherited the violence gene and will be hostile to everybody. This reading finds a home among those who then want to use it as a prophetic curse on the Arab world in general and the Muslim faith in particular, as Muhammad traced his lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael. So that explains radical Islamic terrorism, some would say. Not so fast, biblical scholars counter. For one thing, the child is named God Hears, demonstrating that he is an answer to prayer, and a chapter later he receives a blessing from God, promising that he would be the father of a great nation. So what about the wild donkey description? Scholars argue that taken in light of other biblical uses of this metaphor, such as Job 39, the image of the wild donkey is actually positive; it describes a freedom-loving creature who resists captivity.
Ok, but what about the hostility? If we take the wild donkey image to be a prophetic announcement that Ishmael and his progeny would be freedom-loving wilderness wanderers, aka Bedouins, as some scholars have, then the statement about him living in constant turmoil is simply a reality check, a warning. Daniel Quinn, in his book, titled appropriately enough Ishmael, wrote about how the ancient world was deeply divided between the settled peoples (the ranchers and farmers), and the nomadic hunter-gatherers and Bedouin shepherds. It’s the root of the hostility described in the fratricide of Cain and Abel; this simple story told a larger story of the genocide that took place in the centuries after the agriculture revolution 10,000 years ago, as the settled folks (who raised grain) systematically killed off the wandering folk (who kept sheep), in a dispute over land rights. The conflict continued and continues to this day in many parts of the world, and it could well be that the angel was telling Hagar that her son was destined to be on the Bedouin side of this battle. He would be a freedom-fighter, resisting the captivity of settled life, but it wouldn’t be an easy life. The way of the wilderness folk would always provoke hostility toward the people craving more and more land to put under the plow so the olive oil could flow farther and wider. It may not be the greatest of omens, but at least there’s the good news that God indeed hears the cries of these unsettled folk, and God’s blessing is upon them.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.