‘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. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 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. 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. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 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.’ Genesis 21: 15-19, NRSV
In German, we have the saying, ‘jemanden in die Wüste schicken’, which means, ‘to send someone off into the wilderness/desert’. Germans use this phrase when they are so annoyed with or fed up with somebody that they want to get them out of their lives and send them off, but not just any place, no: into the barren places of the wilderness, hopefully never to return.
Admittedly this is not a kind saying. But it needs to be said that Germans usually express their wish to send someone into the wilderness – it’s more about their emotion than about the follow-through. I don’t know how many times I would have liked to send someone off into the wilderness…
In the stories of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis, more than once people are quite literally sent into the wilderness. Those stories would provide great fodder for modern soap operas. There is intrigue and betrayal, love and hate, drama and cliffhangers, and plenty of rivalry and jealousy. One of the most colorful rivalries is between Sarah, wife of Abraham, and Hagar, her Egyptian maid.
Sarah and Abraham are up in age and are still childless, even though God has promised Abraham plenty of offspring. So Sarah gets impatient and convinces Abraham ‘to lie with’ Hagar and to sire a child by her. This child then would be born on Sarah’s, the mistress’, behalf and would be considered the mistress’ child, the rightful heir.
And so it happens. Hagar becomes pregnant, but that’s when the catfights begin: Hagar develops an attitude toward Sarah, who isn’t pleased about that. Sarah treats Hagar horribly and basically drives her out into the wilderness.
However, God intervenes, saves Hagar and her unborn child, and sends her back. Ishmael is born and becomes the heir apparent. But the rivalry between the two women continues.
After many years of waiting and more promises by God, Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. There is no need to keep Ishmael around anymore. Sarah manipulates Abraham into sending Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness (by the way, Abraham is not happy about this, but he relents in order to save the peace in the camp). This basically is a death sentence: the wilderness is called such for a reason. An unarmed woman with a child would be extremely vulnerable. They might be attacked by wild animals or humans. Even if they were unharmed, sooner or later they’d have to find water – and water sources in the desert were far and in between, and usually fiercely protected by the tribes who controlled them.
As Hagar runs out of the water Abraham has given her, she expects that she and the child will die. But God intervenes once more. God hears the cry of Hagar and the boy. After reassuring Hagar that Ishmael would become the father of a great people, God opens her eyes – and she finds that there is a well of water right where she is. This is nothing short of a miracle. Hagar and Ishmael survive – they even make the wilderness their home and thrive there.
The flipside of us sometimes wanting to send someone into the wilderness is that others sometimes are so fed up with us that they’d want to cast us out into barren places, never to return. And maybe we have even experienced how someone (figuratively speaking) sent us out into the wilderness, cutting us off from people or resources – maybe after a separation or divorce or after someone dies – and the surviving family members start an ugly fight.
We may find ourselves in wilderness times or places in our lives. But may we experience the miracle of an unexpected well in such times and places. May our eyes be opened to that, which sustains us and gives us new life. May we feel God’s presence in all the wilderness places of our lives – and experience that God provides us with living water, no matter, where we are.
This post is also available in: German