Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
The assigned story for this week in the narrative lectionary might be termed the Old Testament version of the Christmas story.
Similar to the birth of Jesus, the story moves from announcement (or “annunciation”) to consummation — from promise to fulfillment. As Walter Brueggemann has commented, “In 21:1-18, we have the central fulfillment within the Abraham tradition. The birth of the child is the fulfillment of all the promises, the resolution of all the anguish.”1
The point is to recognize in this story not just a story. Not just a good story. And not even just a good a story about God. Rather, the point is to recognize this story as characteristic of the nature of God.
The fulfillment scene in chapter 21 shows God in action. . . being God. Here we see God’s very character being revealed in God’s actions, as God keeps promises, turns darkness into light, changes mourning into dancing, transforms weeping into joy. Here we are afforded a glimpse of God’s very heart — as God transforms Sarah’s mocking laughter of disbelief into a joyous laughter of faith.
Scenes from Previous Episodes
We join the story of Abraham and Sarah mid-point — or maybe we should say “mid-promise.” The preacher will probably need to spend some time filling in listeners about what has happened “in previous episodes.” Particularly, the preacher might want to remind listeners of the history of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah. It is a good bet that many or most listeners will not have an over-arching sense of the story of God, Abraham and Sarah — and of the torturous years of waiting and disappointment that the childless, old couple endured.
Preachers will note this material well, but just to underscore of a few of the key scenes from the unfolding, made-for-television miniseries:
Week 1 (Genesis 12) — God makes an initial promise to a man named Abram — whose wife, Sarai, we are told “was barren; she had no child” (11:30). God made a three-fold promise to Abram: 1) he would have a land; 2) he would become a “great nation” (that is, have many descendants); and 3) he would be blessed to be a blessing: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3).
For our purposes here, notice that without the birth of a child (the promise hidden behind door #2), neither of the other two promises really matter. But the years went by. Sarai remained barren. She and Abraham had no child. And they grew old.
Week 2 (Genesis 15) — Sometime later (we aren’t told how long, but a good many events happened in between), God spoke to Abram again in order to renew the promise. God took Abram outside on a starry, starry night and declared, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. . . . So shall your descendants be” (15:6). But you can’t have a sky-full of descendants when you don’t have even one child. And Sarai remained barren. She and Abram had no child. And they grew older still.
Week 3 (Genesis 16) — Sarai was tired of waiting for the promised child. She suggested that Abram try to have a child with her slave, Hagar. “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (16:2). And finally, Abram got his child — a son named Ishmael. Abraham was 86.
But this left Sarai out of the promise! What of her? Wasn’t she part of the covenant? God wasn’t done with them yet.
Week 4 (Genesis 17) — God appeared again to Abram to repeat the promise yet another time. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, “for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (verse 5). And God made it clear that Sarai was part of the covenant, too: “Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her” (verse 16).
Abraham’s reaction was two-fold. First, he fell on his face and laughed (verse 17). Second, he asked God not to keep this particular promise. His son by Hagar was enough for him: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” was Abraham’s prayer.
Scene 1: The Promise (Genesis 18)
As has been made clear already, the promise that Abraham hears — and Sarah overhears — in Genesis 18 was not a new promise, which surely made it even harder to believe. What kind of promise is harder to believe than a promise that has been repeatedly not kept? What kind of promise-maker is harder to believe than one who has continually not kept a promise?
So when God yet again repeated the promise — “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” — one can hardly blame her for laughing (just as Abraham laughed in Genesis 17). According to 18:12: “Sarah laughed to herself.” The phrase translated as “to herself” (beqirbah) is interesting. More woodenly, the term might be translated “inside of herself” or “in her guts.”
The phrase suggests less that Sarah laughed quietly, and more than she had a great, big belly laugh at God and the promise that God keeps making — and keeps on not keeping. But there is also a subtle reminder of Sarah’s empty womb. The term qereb is not a synonym for womb, but it does refer to a person’s abdomen — and thus it is hard not to feel in Sarah’s belly laugh the painful laugh of one who has hoped for a child, but grown too old now to conceive.
Sarah also does not put too subtle of a point on both her age and Abraham’s age. The text says that it had “ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” — meaning that she was no longer menstruating and ovulating. And Sarah refers to both herself and Abraham as old (zaqen).
As an aside, commentators have also stressed the role of hospitality in the story. Abraham and Sarah show hospitality to strangers. Without overstating the matter, one may say that in the biblical world, hospitality was one of — if not the — chief social virtue. Hospitality was far more than a matter of being polite — it was a moral expectation, a “sacred duty,” according to Lawrence Stager and Philip King.2
This duty can be summarized by saying that the law of hospitality required that a person treat everyone like family (at least for a day and a night). Hebrews 13:2 exhorts the faithful to “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Hebrews is likely referring to Genesis 18. But the message of both Hebrews 13 and Genesis 18 is not that “because” Abraham and Sarah showed hospitality, “therefore” God renewed and kept the promise. Rather, the message is that hospitality is the sacred duty and delight of all people who belong to God. Because we belong to God, when we encounter strangers we receive them as people who already belong to us and we welcome them as also belonging to God.
The passage in Genesis 18 ends on a stranger note: Sarah laughs. She is berated for laughing. She denies having laughed. And the messenger says, “O yes, you did laugh.” Why? What is the point of the exchange? The text is not clear. Abraham was not similarly berated in chapter 17.
So why does Sarah get chewed out? One cannot say. But one can say this: The exchange emphasizes the world laughter (Hebrew: tsachaq). The word occurs in various forms four different times within just a few verses (verses 12-15). This emphasis sets the scene for the surprising turn of fortunes in chapter 21.
But the most important phrase in the exchange between the messenger and Sarah is the messenger’s question back to Sarah. Sarah scoffs a question: “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” The messenger asks a question in return: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Sarah, made cynical by the passing years, exhausted by God’s unkept promises, afraid to start to hope again, clearly thinks that there are plenty of things too wonderful for the Lord.
The Lord must have smiled.
Scene 2: The Fulfillment (Genesis 21)
The second scene in this week’s assigned passage brings the fulfillment of the whole series of promises — the promises made in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 18. It marks the initial fulfillment of the covenantal promises to Abraham and Sarah.
The child Isaac is born — the child whose very name means Laughter. When God renewed the promise to Abraham in chapter 17, the old man laughed. When God renewed the promise yet again in chapter 18, the old woman laughed, too. So when the child was born, God had the last laugh. The child was named laughter and Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (verse 6). It is especially important here to note that the text emphasizes God’s faithful to Sarah. Genesis 21 begins, “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.”
Often times, interpreters focus on Abraham. Notice above how even the open-minded and egalitarian Walter Brueggemann, quoted above, refers to this story as the culmination of the “Abraham tradition.”
But notice that the text specifically mentions not Abraham, but Sarah. And remember that way back in chapter 16, Abraham had a son by Hagar. And if one reads ahead to Genesis 25:1-6, the text describes that after Sarah died, Abraham married again and had six more children by his second wife.
So who is the story of God’s faithfulness in Genesis 16-21 primarily about? Abraham? Or Sarah?
It seems to this interpreter that the emphasis is on Sarah. And a modern interpreter can hardly emphasize for a modern audience how counter-cultural this emphasis would have been in an ancient, patriarchal society. God’s promises were not just for Abraham, but for Sarah, too. The Lord’s covenant was big enough not just for the old man, but for the old woman, too.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
1Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 180.
2Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 61.