Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
In this week’s passage, God makes an appearance to Abraham by the “Oaks of Mamre,” located in the city of Hebron (cf. Genesis 13:18).
This site is already significant as the place where Abraham built an altar after Lot’s departure. So it is not surprising when the Lord makes an appearance along with three men (Genesis 18:2). The sudden arrival obliges Abraham to provide hospitality for the guests. The text emphasizes Abraham’s generosity, both in terms of the quantity of three seahs (about 22 liters) of the “finest flour” as well as the quality of a fattened calf. As the household patriarch, Abraham then gives orders both to Sarah to knead and make cakes, and to the unnamed servant to prepare the fattened calf. Ironically, Abraham politely offers just a “little” bread, reminiscent of Italian and Korean grandparents everywhere disingenuously asking, “Just stay for a ‘little’ bite,” before bringing out a 5000 calorie meal. In addition, Abraham provides water and encourages the guests to wash and rest. These actions are central for establishing a relationship between the parties, thus the reason for his sense of urgency for Abraham to properly receive the guests.
But the guests are not there for Abraham, as they quickly ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” At this point, the men’s intentions are unclear. In earlier passages, Sarah is noted for both beauty as well as the object of lust (Genesis 12) to the point that Abraham resorts to lying in order protect her from sexual assault. Here in Genesis 18, the reader is left to wonder, although Sarah is advanced in age, is this question a precursor to another attempt at sexual violence. (Consider the intentions of the inquiry of Genesis 19:5, “Where are the men who came with you tonight?” or that of Genesis 38:21, “Where is the temple prostitute?”).
But the apprehension turns into relief in Genesis 18:10, which shows the benevolent intent of the visitors. One of the guests promises that Sarah will have a son, a reiteration of the earlier Abrahamic covenant. At that point, the activity moves from the Abraham to Sarah, who is listening in secret, an explicit view of her marginal place, as one who prepared the food, but is culturally restricted from participating in the conversation.
But Sarah doubts. She is already several decades past childbearing years. Those must have been painful years for her watching her peers raise children. I doubt that she forgot the promises of progeny to Abraham all of those years ago, but it appears from this passage that she kept the promises at arm’s length. Maybe she questioned the promise of progeny as symbolic? Maybe she thought that God revoked it. But Sarah denied that she would ever have children, even when spoken from the mouth of God. Do you blame her for her doubt?
Sarah’s denial dispenses against any “old lady” myth. She jokes, “Shall I have pleasure?” The phrase refers to sexual pleasure. Don’t let your discomfort with sexuality prevent you from making a picture in your mind (though, of course, use discretion when preaching!).
God responds, “Is anything too wonderful/amazing/awesome for the Lord?” Though Sarah jokes, God’s responds with a direct confrontation over Sarah’s doubt. In previous chapters, God indeed had promised children and the promise had remained unfulfilled. In fact, no good gift is too wonderful for the Lord. But God gently qualifies God’s answer in Genesis 18:14. God always fulfills God’s promise but it happens: “at the set time” and “at the time that comes to pass.” God fulfills promises that are wonderful/amazing/awesome. Nothing is beyond God, but it comes to us at an appointed time — a time that may make not sense to us, but perfect sense to God.
With the confrontation from God, Sarah’s doubt turns to fear as Genesis 18:15 states, “But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. Throughout the Abrahamic narratives, God is very immanent among humans, interacting with Abraham and Sarah. In the brief conversation, she is directly confronted by God, and she is caught in a lie. Would you not be afraid, too?
But God’s confrontation is gentle and sympathetic as God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh” (Genesis 18:15). God does not yell, nor punish. He does not revoke the promise. God’s grace abounds. The swift judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah in the following passage further highlights God’s grace to Sarah and Abraham.
The narrative continues with Genesis 21:1-7, where Isaac is born to Sarah. At this point, Sarah experiences a different type of laughter. This time, the laughter carries more joy and expresses incredulity. Sarah knows that women her age do not bear children, but her journey with God has nurtured a faith beyond her own cognition. She still has doubt at how she was able to bear Isaac at such an old age. But those doubts no longer trouble her, as she realizes “Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:7).
The word of God is fulfilled. Isaac is born. Later, Sarah dies and is buried in the cave near the oak of Mamre. She was not a perfect saint, nor wife. She was an old lady who doubted, feared, laughed … and God blessed her abundantly.
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.
Rejoice in the Lord Alway, Henry Purcell