< June 15, 2008 >

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]

 

Last week we read about the wonderful promises God made to Abram (Gen 12:1-3). A major theme in the stories of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles in order to keep these promises.

Usually, Abraham is the obstacle that needs to be overcome:

1.In Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham and Sarah are on their way to Egypt when Abram decides his 65-year-old wife (though, with definite Miss World possibilities) will be so desirable that the Egyptians will kill him to possess her. When he has her lie and say she is his sister to save his own skin, she winds up in Pharaoh's harem. It is difficult to see how God can fulfill the promise of the birth of a son . . . unless Pharaoh grants Abram conjugal visiting rights, not likely, if Abram is Sarai's brother!

2.In Genesis 15:1-6, Abram, having grown impatient, suggests that Eliezer, his slave, might as well be his son if God can't make good on the promise (vv. 2-3).

God, of course, overcomes these obstacles and keeps the promises alive. This week the lectionary invites us to focus on Sarah.

Genesis 18:1-15
When Sarah overheard that she would have a son, "she laughed" (v. 12), as had Abraham when he heard the impossible news (17:16-17). But, why did she laugh? She may have thought, "Men! They just don't get it! I don't even menstruate ("the manner of women," v. 11) anymore!" Or, since the Hebrew word for "pleasure" (edenah) is related to the (Garden of) "Eden," her question, "Shall I have pleasure?" may be incredulous and mean "How can I become fertile/pregnant?" Whatever she meant, her "laughter" is both a pun on the name "Isaac" which means "he laughs" and a foreshadowing of the joyous birth. God's response, "Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?" reassures the reader (if not Sarah!) that God is about to fulfill the promise made so long ago.

Now we see that Sarah's previous infertility (11:30; 16:1) is not the problem. Neither is it Abraham's inability to father children. Later, he will produce at least six other children with his wife Keturah (25:1-4). These difficulties pale into insignificance in this text, where the obstacle to be overcome is clearly the utter impossibility of birth in the absence of eggs; a child being born to a woman who has ceased to menstruate. The fact that God does overcome this obstacle testifies to God's grace and the miraculous character of the fulfillment.

Genesis 21:1-7
The stories of Abraham's dealings with his nephew Lot stand between this passage about the fulfillment of God's promise in the birth of Isaac and the announcement of that birth in chapter 18. For twenty-five years God has been promising Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son. In Genesis 21:1-7 God makes good on that vow. In these brief verses the fulfillment of the promise in little Isaac is artfully presented. The three major events of a son's early life in Hebrew culture: birth, naming, and weaning at age three or four (2 Macc 7:27) are skillfully interwoven around the central religious ceremony of circumcision, as seen in the following schematic representation:

A Isaac is born (vv. 1-2)
B Isaac is named (v. 3)
X  Isaac is circumcised (vv. 4-5)
B' Isaac's name is explained (v. 6)
A' Isaac is weaned (vv. 7-8)


A number of insights immediately suggest themselves:

1.First of all, the prominent and unparalleled location of the circumcision in the heart of the narrative demonstrates Abraham's faithful obedience to God's command that fathers circumcise their sons on the eighth day (Gen 17:12). Not only is Isaac the fulfillment of the promise; as the first of Abraham's offspring to be circumcised on the eighth day he also serves as a forerunner of the covenant community, the people that God is here beginning to create.

2.Secondly, in the Old Testament, the names people are given frequently serve as a clue to their importance or character. This is already seen in chapter 17 where God renames Abram ("mighty ancestor," with only one son at age 99!), "Abraham," which sounds like "ancestor of a multitude" (v. 5). In the only instance of the renaming of a woman in the Bible, Sarai becomes "Sarah" or "princess" (v. 15) to indicate her role. When Abraham and Sarah name their son "he laughs" we are invited to recall the somewhat cynical "laughter" of them both at the time of God's promise (17:17; 18:12). But there is no cynicism here, because this time "God has brought laughter" (21:6)

3.Thirdly, Abraham's one hundred years of age, to say nothing of Sarah's ninety, makes it very clear that this child of the promise comes completely as a gracious gift from God, totally apart from human achievement.

4.Finally, and closely related this, the very birth of Isaac against all the odds testifies to God's determination to keep the promises made earlier to Abraham and Sarah despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Neither Sarah's infertility (16:1), nor her being taken from Abraham and placed in the harems of an Egyptian Pharaoh (12:15) and the King of Gerar (20:2), nor Abraham's impatience and laughing disbelief (15:3; 17:17), nor Sarah's laughter (18:12), nor their advanced age (17:17), have been able to thwart God's purposes.

The big buildup that dominated the announcement of Isaac's birth, and the tension strategically placed in the ensuing narrative, seem at odds with this surprisingly simple presentation of the fulfillment. Perhaps the text is more interested in telling us that God was faithful to the promise. Three times we hear that Isaac's birth took place as God had "said" (21:1a), "promised" (21:1b), or "spoken" (21:2). Not only was Isaac born . . . he was born just as God had promised.