Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
The story for this week is for those who think there is no humor in the Bible.
But first things first: We enter this week right into the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah. Due to the vagaries of the liturgical calendar, we have not heard in the last two weeks the other “semi-continuous” readings that lead up to this story. If Easter (and thus Pentecost and Holy Trinity) had come earlier, we would have heard last week the story of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. As it is, the preacher should fill in some of the “back story” before talking about this particular text.
The “back story,” of course, is this: God calls Abraham seemingly out of the blue in Genesis 12 to leave homeland and kin in order to go to a land he has never seen. And God makes a three-fold promise to Abraham, or Abram, as he’s called in chapter 12:
1) That Abraham will have many descendants; he’ll be a “great nation” (12:2).
2) That Abraham and his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan (12:7).
3) That they will be a blessing to the whole world (12:3).
There is one major problem with this scenario — Abraham and Sarah have no children. We don’t know much of anything about Abraham before chapter 12, but one thing we do know is this: his wife Sarai/Sarah is barren (Genesis 11:30).
It’s hard to be the ancestor of a “great nation” if you don’t have even one child. As one of my professors in graduate school was fond of saying in regards to this story: “Infertility is hereditary. If your parents didn’t have any children, you won’t either.”
Of course, by the time Genesis 18 rolls around, Abraham and Sarah have solved the problem. They have “given” Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, to Abraham as a concubine. She has borne a son to Abraham and they have named him Ishmael. Problem solved.
Or not. God is a little more specific with his promises in Genesis 17. “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (17:15-16).
That’s a wonderful promise. Except by this time, Sarah is 90 years old. At the thought of Sarah bearing a child in their golden years, Abraham falls on his face laughing (in Hebrew, tsahak) and reminds God that they’ve already solved this problem: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” (17:18).
God won’t have it: “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac,” (17:19), which, of course, means “he laughs” (yits-hak). And then God goes on to promise that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation, too, but God’s covenant will be with Isaac.
Which brings us to Genesis 18. It seems likely that Genesis 17 and 18 were originally two different stories told to explain Isaac’s name; but as we have them now, they function as “his” and “hers” equal-opportunity annunciations.
Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre, sees three men approaching in the heat of the day. And he seems to know that they are no ordinary strangers. Because, while hospitality is quite literally a matter of life and death in that semi-arid climate, Abraham goes above and beyond the call of duty in his hosting of these guests. He moves as fast as his 100-year-old legs will carry him. He runs to meet them, bows down to the ground, runs to the tent to tell Sarah to whip up a good dinner, and runs to the herd to rustle up some good veal. When he sets this hastily-prepared feast before the strangers, they eat and then ask after the missus — “Where is your wife Sarah?”
As it turns out, Sarah is eavesdropping on the conversation from inside the tent entrance. And when the visitor promises that she will bear a son in her post-menopausal years, Sarah, like Abraham before her, laughs (tsahak) and says to herself, ““After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
Then the LORD (in the guise of the strangers, as it turns out) says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”
[As an aside, the rabbis noted that the LORD didn’t quote Sarah exactly, having deleted her reference to Abraham being old, and surmised from this that it is acceptable to tell a small white lie in order not to hurt someone’s feelings.]
But then comes the crux of the matter, the question on which the whole story hinges: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Can God fulfill God’s promises, despite the facts on the ground? Sarah and Abraham don’t believe it. In fact, Sarah, forgetting that she’s not supposed to be listening to the conversation, says from behind the tent entrance, “I did not laugh.” And the LORD, with (I imagine) a twinkle in the eye and a chuckle at the divine absurdity of it all, says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
There is humor here, perhaps even comedy, but it is comedy in the classical sense, in the way that Dante’s great work was titled the Divine Comedy. This isn’t comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears — but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.”1
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Can God bring life even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention 100-year-old Abraham, he who was “as good as dead,” as the writer of Hebrews acerbically puts it (Hebrews 11:12)?
Another miraculous annunciation, this one to a young woman, answers the question: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
Abraham falls on his face in a fit of laughter. Sarah laughs behind the tent door. And the LORD (I believe) laughs with them at the divine, wonderful absurdity of it all. Given the humor of the scene under the oaks of Mamre, and the comedy of a God who acts in unexpected ways to fulfill God’s promises, it is entirely appropriate that the child of the promise should be named “Laughter.”
1. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 61.