Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
Standing in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham suddenly sees three men standing in front of him.
Though he has no idea who they are, he bows deeply, and then modestly offers them basic travelers’ comforts—water to wash their feet, shade for rest, and a little bread before they head on their way again. His household becomes a flurry of activity: he himself selects the calf, gives it to the lad to prepare, and then tells Sarah to prepare a substantial quantity of bread.
This trio of Abraham’s household provides an interesting contrast to Abraham’s three visitors, who appear in such perfect concord that the narrative sometimes presents them as a single entity, the LORD himself (verses 1, 9-10); in fact, early Christian commentators treated the visitors as a type of the Holy Trinity. By contrast, the three figures in Abraham’s household occupy different positions in a hierarchy of command and obedience. Somewhat ambiguously, the boy is identified neither as a servant (?ebed) nor a son (ben) but a boy (na?ar), as both Ishmael and Isaac will be called in later narratives in which Abraham is called to give up each son in turn (21:12, 17, 20; 22:12). Whether as a servant or as the son who will eventually be displaced, the boy performs his assigned task—and then disappears from the story. Similarly, Sarah hastens to prepare a gargantuan quantity of bread, and, when Abraham presents the meal to the guests, he alone appears as the host with the narrator implying that he alone had prepared the food (verse 8). Sarah, too, has disappeared from the story.
When the guests have finished eating, they ask, “Where is Sarah?” and suddenly it becomes clear they are no ordinary strangers but divine beings who know the particulars of Abraham’s family life and are in a position to do something about it. One (the Lord?) promises to return in due season and Sarah will have a son.
Not even Sarah’s private musing is kept from these divine visitors. Overhearing their promise to Abraham, Sarah assesses it in light of her own reality and laughs: shall she have pleasure at her old age, with that old husband? What does her laughter mean? Even God does not know, and he asks Abraham, why has she laughed? does she doubt that the LORD can give her a child even at her advanced age? For the first time, Sarah enters the conversation, fearfully denying her laughter. And for the first and last time in the entire Abraham cycle, the LORD speaks directly to Sarah: “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Thus a story that begins with Abraham ends with Sarah, and the question is what we are to make of this unusual shift. This final episode is reminiscent of annunciation type scenes, in which a divine being or holy man promises a child to a barren woman.[i] In this story, Sarah is not only barren, she is well past the age of childbearing, and the fact of the couple’s advanced age underscores the miraculous nature of this particular birth (verse 13). The story departs from typical annunciation scenes in other ways as well. For one thing, the annunciation functions as the climax to the story of Abraham’s offer of hospitality to three strangers who turn out to be divine visitors. Such stories instill the value of maintaining a trusting and generous openness to strangers, about whom nothing is known, perhaps, except their need, and all can be feared. In these stories, blessings come to those who entertain angels unaware, while those who ignore the needs of strangers or turn them away are fiercely judged.[ii] The alternatives are clearly delineated in Genesis 18 and 19, as the three men appear first at Abraham’s tent and then go on to investigate the outcry against Sodom.
On its own, Abraham’s hospitality to strangers is well worth emphasizing in this era of tightened borders and heightened restrictions on strangers seeking asylum in countries not their own. But the story’s unusual combination of themes invites other kinds of theological reflection as well. Why three strangers, and not one? Why do the strangers ask about Sarah? And why does Abraham receive a promise that by narrative convention should be delivered to Sarah? All these questions suggest that if Abraham has passed the test of hospitality, he has come short in other ways.
When the strangers come to Abraham, the patriarch enlists his entire household in the work of receiving the visitors. At the same time, he appears to edge Sarah out of the story, since he alone stands to receive the guests, and then displaces Sarah as the one who receives the annunciation of the birth of a son. Yet Sarah has been present all along, and by baking the bread for the visitors, she has been an active agent from the beginning. The divine visitor pointedly calls attention not only to her absence but also to her relationship to Abraham: “Where is your wife Sarah?” Far from being a simple question of location, the inquiry points to Sarah’s existential situation. Elsewhere in Genesis, the narrator has used divine questions about location to raise similarly pointed questions about problematic relationships. When the man and woman hide themselves in the garden, YHWH asks, “Where are you?” When Cain kills Abel, YHWH asks, “where is your brother Abel?” When the angel comes upon Hagar in the wilderness, he asks, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (16:8). In no case is the deity’s question about location simply a matter of figuring out where people are.
Instead, the question always exposes problematic ruptures in relationships—in Eden, between YHWH and the human couple, in the story of Cain and Abel, between two brothers (with one now dead), and in the story about Hagar and Sarai, about two women vying for a place in Abram’s family. Perhaps a similar dynamic is reflected in Genesis 18. Abraham’s all too casual reply, “there in the tent,” would seem to keep Sarah in her place, if not also at arm’s length. This is, after all, the husband who has already passed his wife off as his sister, and will do so again even after this promise of a son. Meanwhile, Sarah’s private musing hints at a resignation to the distance between them, if not also a withering of expectations. Robert Alter points out that the term for pleasure, ?ednah, is a cognate for Eden. Since the noun may connote sexual moistness, he suggests that her question verges on a “conjugal complaint:” “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” (verse 12). For Abraham and Sarah, as for the first couple, the place—or rather the state—of conjugal fidelity has been lost.
Perhaps that is why it is Abraham who must receive the promise. The LORD tells him, “I will return to you and Sarah will have a child.” In the Hebrew, the prepositional phrase “to you” is masculine singular; in effect God promises to return to Abraham, and in that way, Sarah will have a child. The promise, as well as Sarah’s response to it, makes it clear that Isaac will come to Sarah and Abraham in the ordinary way that children come to human beings—through sexual pleasure. The promise is not simply a promise of a miraculous birth. Rather, the miracle is that this promise brings Sarah and Abraham back together again. It will take divine intervention to reverse the long history of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage, and Sarah laughs at the incongruity of it all. God’s own question in rejoinder acknowledges its incongruousness while affirming its possibility: is anything too wonderful for the LORD? As Sarah tries to deny her laughter, God affirms it once again: Yes, you did laugh. Once again, God acknowledges Sarah’s reality. It will take time, but Abraham and Sarah will not stay in this place. In due season, when Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah, Sarah will laugh again, this time with genuine joy.
- Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1996), 78.
- Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (trans. Mark E. Biddle; Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 192-193.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of promise, Abraham scoffed and Sarah laughed when they were told of your plans for them and their family. Yet you remained faithful to your promise, and gave them a son, Isaac. Help us to trust in your promises for our lives, and to live according to your will. Amen.
Lord, teach us how to pray aright ELW 745
Go, my children, with my blessing ELW 543, GG 547, NCH 82, TFF 161
Rejoice in the Lord Alway, Henry Purcell