The 13th Wednesday in Ordinary Time
(Gn 21:5, 8-20a, Mt 8:28-34)
How literally should we read Scripture? The two readings we have just listened to pose problems for those who advocate for reading the Bible too literally. In our first reading we heard about Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael. It said, “Early the next morning Abraham got some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. Then, placing the child on her back, he sent them away.” That all makes perfect sense if the child is one or two, but what if he is 15? Would you place him on his mother’s back and have her cart him through the desert on an arduous journey? No wonder the water ran out so quickly! The passage continues, “As she roamed aimlessly in the wilderness of Beer sheba, the water in the skin was used up. So she put the child down under a shrub.” Not only was she lugging a 15-year-old boy, but water, provisions, and all their belongings too, which, granted, probably wasn’t all that much.
So, how old was Ishmael at the time? Let’s do a little math. Our reading this morning was from chapter 21 of Genesis. Earlier, in chapter 16, it says, “Abraham was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.” The opening verse of our reading this morning was, “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” Okay, 100 minus 86 equals 14. Then, we are told in today’s reading, it is at the time of his weaning that Abraham held a great feast and that’s when Sarah noticed Ishmael playing with Isaac and demanded of Abraham, “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!” Let’s say Isaac was one year old when he was weaned. 14 plus 1 equals 15. Certainly, it would make more sense for a 15-year-old boy to walk rather than be carried by his mother.
We mustn’t think of all the sacred writers of the Bible taking dictation from an angel. The human element has to be taken into consideration. What is recorded in Genesis was oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was written down by the final redactor. This sacred writer had such reverence and respect for the various strands of tradition that he chose to weave them together rather than reconcile them. Scholars detect four main strands, represented by the letters J, E, P, D. These represent four traditions: Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist. Picture it like a braided rope. As you’re looking at the rope from one side you see one strand come around and disappear, then another, then another, then the first one again. The tradition that would make Ishmael one or two at the time is different than the one that would make him 15.
Okay, that was the Old Testament. Surely there are no discrepancies in the New Testament. Well, in today’s gospel reading, we hear of TWO demoniacs. That’s Matthew’s version of the herd of swine stampeding into the sea and drowning. Mark and Luke have only one demoniac. You can’t say these were two different events because all the details are way too similar. Also, it has been difficult for scholars to pinpoint the location of this story since the town no longer exists. In Matthew, it is in the territory of the Gadarenes. In Mark and Luke, it is the territory of the Gerasenes. The most likely location is something like 12 miles from the Sea of Galilee. I remember Raymond Brown making the comment in the old Jerome Biblical Commentary that the pigs would have died from overheating before completing their 12-mile charge because they don’t have sweat glands.
Well, if we can’t trust Scripture, what can we trust?! I’m limited in my explanation because of time. This may have gone over 5 minutes already and Fr. Isaac will write me a note letting me know. The short answer is the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy. The Second Vatican Council stated, “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
Were there two demoniacs or only one? Does it really matter? How old was Ishmael when Abraham sent Hagar away? Is it necessary for our salvation? Those details are on the surface, on the periphery. The heart of the message in the two stories is guaranteed to be without error and completely trustworthy. Discrepancies in the Bible should not cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater.