I was feeling depressed enough today (long day at work) that I almost considered skipping this tonight, but then it occurred to me that doing something disciplined and structured might be what I need to get my mind off things.
In chapter 21, after 9 chapters of foreshadowing, Isaac finally appears, much to the delight of Sarah. She decides to forget that God commander her to name her child Isaac because she laughed at the idea of getting pregnant, and instead name him in honor of the way she’s been laughing in joy since having him.
I don’t find Sarah all that sympathetic in the passages I’ve seen of her. I mean, I can get angry on her behalf when Abraham treats her poorly, yet it seems whenever she has agency, she’s just being mean to Hagar. But maybe some of that’s because I can’t identify with her desire to have children and her envy of other people, like Hagar, who can. I have basically no interest in having children, something which shocks people when I mention it, since I work in early childhood education. Teaching and caring for children is a very different thing than actually having one, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt a real urge to have a child. Maybe that’s something that will change when I get older, and should I ever meet someone with whom I’d want to have a child. Maybe if I wanted children and couldn’t have them I’d be as petty and mean as Sarah.
The English and the Japanese give substantially different versions of what happens in this chapter thanks to the translation of a single word. The NRSV says in verse 9 that Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac, and gets upset. In the NCT she sees Ishmale teasing Isaac (karakatteiru). The former makes it sound as though she’s upset because Ishmael dares to even associate with her son, whereas the latter makes it sound like Ishmael might have been doing something wrong. In other words, she comes across as somewhat better than in the English translation.
There are other noticeable translation differences. In verse 11, the NRSV gives the fairly bland “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” But the NCT says that “The matter exceedingly troubled Abraham, because the child was his son.” It really reinforces the idea that Abraham had made a connection with Ishmael, who following the chronology in the text was now almost 15 years old. Ishmael had been his only child for that whole time. He’d tried to argue with God to fulfill his promises through Ishmael (17:18). Maybe Sarah really did have reason to worry that Isaac would be neglected in favor of the older connection?
Regardless, Hagar returns to our story as Abraham gives her food and drink (not enough, apparently) and sends her on her way. After which point, she exits the story for good, unfortunately, though we know she and her son Ishmael turn out fine. It’s mentioned that she gets a wife for him from Egypt, so maybe they returned home for a while. I’d like to think she was able to find and help her family.
The rest of the chapter is a contract Abraham makes with Abimelech, the same king of the last chapter. It seems there mostly to serve as an explanation of the name of Beer-sheba, but it reinforces the idea that Abraham was becoming known as a man particularly blessed by God, which may be what was meant by calling him a “prophet” before. Abimelech once more comes across as a pretty fair sort of fellow. In another fun translation quirk, what the NRSV renders as “dealt loyally with you” in verse 23, the NCT gives as “took a friendly attitude with you.” Also, I kind of love that he bluntly asks Abraham to “not deal falsely with me” (“don’t deceive me” in the NCT), with an implied “you know, like you did before, jerk.”
The Japanese: fukamaseru “to suckle” (v 7), chibanare “weaning,” seidai “grand,” shukuen “celebratory banquet” (v 8), karakau “to tease” (v 9), kanboku “bush” (v 15), azamuku “to deceive, cheat,” yuukouteki “friendly, amicable,” taido “attitude,” kiryou suruu “live temporarily” (v 23).
In the next chapter, I will attempt to tackle one of the most difficult chapters in Genesis, Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac. Wish me luck, I think I’ll need it.