Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
The question the messengers put to Sarah reverberates throughout Scripture. At each turning point in redemptive history, the people of God faced roadblocks and challenges that were seemingly impossible to overcome—slavery in Egypt, landlessness, the threat of enemy nations, exile in a foreign country, rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple after the exile, and the very birth of God’s son through a young maiden.
At each point, the message regarding the Lord is the same, “Is anything too wonderful?” or in the Common English Bible, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (verse 18). Watch, look, trust—for the Lord will do wonderful things among you.
In Genesis 18, the whole narrative hastens toward this point. Abraham sees three visitors approaching and convinces them to linger for a while over a meal. As far as Abraham knows, the visitors are simply strangers passing through the area. As was common in the ancient world, Abraham extends hospitality to them. Unlike today where hospitality is about scheduling dinner parties and entertaining guests when we have time, in the ancient near East, hospitality was part of the moral fabric of daily life, a practice by which travelers had their basic needs tended to in a time before the advent of restaurants and inns. It was also a way of sizing people up who wandered close to one’s dwelling to determine if they were friend or foe. In sharing a meal, potential threats could be turned into allies.
The three that show up in Abraham’s neck of the woods, however, are no ordinary guests. And while the reader is aware of this—being told at the beginning of the narrative that “The Lord appeared to Abraham”—it is not clear that Abraham knows the identity of his guests. Throughout, dramatic irony serves to heighten the reader’s anticipation and excitement for the disclosure that is to come. Note, for instance, that when the guests ask about Abraham’s wife, they refer to her by name (verse 9), as if they know her. And in verse 10, one of them reiterates the promise God gave to Abraham in the previous chapter, again suggesting some inside knowledge. Finally, in verse 13, the strangers reveal that they have mysteriously “overheard” Sarah laughing to herself from inside the tent, even though from where they are standing, this would be humanly impossible.
But it is not until verse 14 with the comment, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” that whatever suspicions Abraham may have had about the identity of his guests are fully confirmed. These guests don’t operate by the rules of the natural world. What is humanly impossible, given Sarah’s stage in life, is possible with God. “At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son (Genesis 18:14).” The long-awaited, promised son of the covenant would be born within the year. Sarah would be a mother. Abraham would have progeny. God’s plan to redeem the world through Abraham and his family would continue.
The occasion should elicit a response of delight, excitement, gratitude, and joy. But instead of rejoicing, the announcement is followed by a puzzling interaction between Sarah and the guests. Sarah laughs with incredulity. How could she, an old woman, have a child? When confronted, Sarah’s sense of embarrassment and shame gets the better of her and she denies laughing.
The conversation is awkward, not just for Sarah, but for readers. Why would the narrator bother to recount what looks like a moment of doubt or questioning? Why present Sarah so badly, especially when in Genesis 17, Abraham also laughed. Two possibilities come to mind.
First, Robert Alter has noted that annunciations in the Old Testament, announcements of the birth of a child, follow the pattern of a type-scene that includes initial barrenness, divine announcement, and the birth of a son. We see this pattern in the stories of Rebekah (Genesis 25:21-26), the wife of Manoah (Judges 13:2-24), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1). What stands out about this annunciation is that, while the other announcements are made to the women directly, this announcement is made to Abraham. Sarah is hiding in the tent, out of sight. But Sarah properly belongs in the scene, not just literarily but also theologically. God makes clear in Genesis 17 that the promised child would not come only from Abraham, but from Sarah as well. Sarah is a key player in God’s plan to raise up a nation through whom God would realize his redemptive purposes. The addition of this short, awkward scene at the end of this annunciation brings Sarah back into the story and provides the occasion to reiterate the announcement of the promised child to Sarah herself, highlighting her presence and key role as the bearer of the promised child.
Second, while Sarah’s incredulity and resulting embarrassment come across as a lack of faith, her posture in this narrative toward the announcement of the stranger is strikingly human. She had been waiting for 25 years for the promise of a child to be fulfilled. It had been 13 years of living with the assumption that Ishmael was that child. Sarah had long ago given up the hope of having a child on her own. Given all of this, Sarah’s response is quite reasonable, reflecting the incredulity and awe we all have in the face of God’s power and divine activity.
God had rocked her world, defying the laws of nature, upending everything she knew to be true. This was no small thing. That it took Sarah some time to process and even test what she had heard reflects a normal human reaction to the marvelous deeds of God. For just as Sarah laughs, we also laugh. We laugh with incredulity every time a child is born healthy. We laugh when someone battles and survives cancer. We laugh when an infertile couple announces they are pregnant. We laugh when crocuses poke up through the lawn. We laugh when we see movement toward reconciliation between two people that have a long history of hurt and hatred. We laugh whenever we see moments of redemption and healing that we know taste of such goodness and sweetness, they can only come from the hand of God. And in those moments, we might puzzle and wonder and question and doubt. Can such a thing really be? The answer in these moments is “yes.” For there is nothing too wonderful for God.