That was always the problem – she thought she owned me. And I suppose, in a sense, she did. When Pharoah realized he’d been duped, lied to by Avram the Mesopotamian, I was a human part of the settlement he made to get him and his wife out of town. So I was “given” to Sarai, as a slave to do her bidding.
But I had an advantage. I was young, and fair, and I was fertile. So when my new mistress had given up all hope of a child from her own aging body, she traded me to her husband – traded for the son they both knew Avram needed if the God he had so recently adopted as his own was to be trusted.
And so I conceived; and as I felt the life grow within me I realized Sarai owned me no longer – I had something she would never have no matter how badly she wanted it and that made me bold indeed. She knew it; she saw it. And it made her crazy with jealousy.
She slapped me, once. She cursed me, often. She even forced me to do heavy labor. And where was the father of my child – where was Avram? Hiding behind his cowardice, passive and complacent: “She’s YOUR slave girl – do what you want with her.” Did he care so little for his own legacy, his own child? Did he care so little for the promises of his god?
So when I could stand the abuse no longer I ran away. Into the wilderness – better to die there than face the indignities of their home. It was by a spring in the desert, on the way to Shur, that I saw the presence and heard the voice calling my name. “Go home, and submit to your mistress.”
“What’s in it for me?” (Well, I had to ask!)
“I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
Then I knew who this was, this presence. God had seen me, this god of theirs, and had allowed himself to be seen. I had seen God and lived to tell about it. So I gave this God a name: “the god who sees”.
So back I went, back to the abuse, back to the passive father-not-my-husband and his cruel wife; and in the fullness of time I gave birth to my “wild ass” child, a child who was all mine. Years passed and as time went on it turns out that he did not belong to my mistress as she planned; he would never be her son.
That made her crazy, too.
Then one day three visitors came. They must have been walking for miles across the desert, but it seemed they just appeared out of nowhere. Boy, did things get busy then! My mistress was making cakes, my fellow slaves were slaughtering and roasting a calf, and the party started. They talked with Avram while they ate, and I saw Sarah listening from inside the tent; but I was listening too, where she couldn’t see me. A child – really? A child, at her age. No wonder she laughed. I laughed too. They needed no child, deserved no child. My son was more than enough to fulfill God’s promises to Avram: descendants as many as the grains of sand in the desert, as many as the stars in the sky. My son would be their father, and they would know “the God who sees”.But in time Sarah’s child was conceived, and the child was born. Isaac, she named him – Yitzak, “laughter”. My Ishmael loved his little half-brother, loved to play with him, care for him. Loved him too much, perhaps. Until the day my mistress caught him them playing together, and once again her jealousy took over. So I was given food and water and told to take my son, my only son, whom I loved, and leave them for good. Avram was sending us away. Once more into the wilderness, the place I had wandered before, with only a day’s worth of water and a little bread between the two of us.
And now the water is gone, and we have nothing; and this time there is no spring in the desert; only the water of my tears. I wait to hear the voice of “God who sees”, but I despair. I’ve put Ishmael away from me, in the shade of a bush, not far away but far enough, while I wash the dry sand with my weeping. I cannot bear to watch him die.