When I was a child, my mom got the attention of my brother one day. In speaking about another brother, he asked, “Why does he get everything?” My mom replied, “Well, he’s my favorite.” My brother’s jaw dropped. My mom was joking (sort of). But my brother’s response showed how he took for granted that it would be wrong for a parent to have a true favorite.
Many people reading the Bible have wondered the same thing about the way God is depicted. If God is Father, then how much more offensive would it be if God loved one child more than another, or especially if God loved one child exclusively? Yet we see in the Bible that God “chose” certain people, culminating especially in the people group of Israel. In Genesis, this choosing shows up directly at a few points, always in connection to actual brothers—God receives the sacrifice of Abel, but not of Cain; God chooses Isaac, not Ishmael, as the descendant through whom Abraham’s lineage will be traced; God declares that Jacob will rule over his brother Esau. Why the choosing?
The deeper theological problem people have, I imagine, is the potential flip-side: if God chooses one, does God reject the other?
My reading from Genesis this morning was ch. 21. I think that this chapter offers a different way of understanding the issue. In this chapter, readers see the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: he and Sarah give birth to Isaac. Then, in the course of the celebration, Sarah sends Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away, proclaiming that they “won’t share in the inheritance of my son Isaac” (v. 10, CEB). Abraham is troubled by this, but God speaks to him to let him know that God will care for Ishmael and, in fact, bless him, give him a big family, and provide for him.
After leaving, Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert, and find themselves on the brink of death. In fact, she puts the boy near a shrub and walks away, because she can’t stand to watch him die. But then the text says, “God heard the boy’s cries” (v. 17). God informs Hagar of what he had also said to Abraham: “I will make him a great nation.” Then God miraculously provided a well for them.
So here is a story that deals with one of the “rejected” children of Genesis. Ishmael is not the “child of promise,” the one through whom Abraham’s descendants will be traced. Yet God is moved by the cries of the boy, and God commits to bless him.
We could have a whole discussion about what chosen does, in fact, mean. But I would suggest that whatever it means, it certainly does not mean that God has rejected all others and does not care about anyone else. In Genesis, and throughout the Bible, God is intimately concerned with and involved in the lives of all people.