Third Sunday after Pentecost

This text has been used to gloss over the experience of infertility

June 18, 2023

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]

In the lectionary, this text follows the original calling of Abram, now Abraham, to follow God to a new country and home, with the accompanying promise of making him a great nation (Genesis 12). This text jumps straight to the promise of a male heir to Abraham through Sarah, six chapters later (Genesis 18), and her conception of Isaac another three chapters after that (Genesis 21). In the span of one week in the lectionary readings, we go from the story of God calling Abram, to God promising that Sarah will bear Abraham a son, to the birth of Isaac from Sarah. 

Missing, of course, are the intervening chapters of stress and angst about how this “great nation” will come about if Sarah cannot bear Abraham a son. God has promised Abraham many descendants three more times in the intervening chapters (13:16, 15:5, 17:5-6), and Abraham has complained to God that he has no heir (15:2-3). 

Notably, in chapter 16, Abraham’s wife Sarah tells Abraham to conceive a child with the enslaved woman Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael. Hagar will receive more attention next week in the lectionary, when we read about the second time she escapes her captivity. 

For now, to understand this lectionary selection from chapters 18 and 21, it is important to remember that it is only after Hagar bears Ishmael that God informs Abraham that his heir will be born to Sarah (17:16), at which point Abraham laughs (17:17).

I highlight this larger context because traditionally, this story of Sarah laughing and the way the text presents her as disbelieving and untrusting, sets her up as the character foil to the faithful Abraham. But in Sarah’s defense, there are several reasons why this is an unfair reading:

First, there have been many intervening years between God promising Abraham a great nation and when Sarah conceives Isaac, giving her plenty of time to wonder how God will accomplish this feat. Infertility was seen as a woman’s problem, and the text suggests this by describing God “opening the womb” of the woman. When these strangers say to Abraham that Sarah will conceive a child, perhaps it is her own self-image as a “problem” that leads her to doubt this miraculous possibility.

Secondly, Abraham himself laughed (17:17) at the idea of Sarah bearing him a child in her old age, but his laughter was not called out as was Sarah’s. Why is Sarah’s laughter seemingly a bad thing, but Abraham gets to laugh and no one mentions it? This points to the double-standard the text often has for men and women. Abraham can push his wife off as his sister to Pharaoh and foreign kings, but Sarah laughs and gets in trouble.

But the greatest sense of injustice comes from the way this text has been used to gloss over the experience of infertility experienced by many couples in our congregations. 

If this text is simply one stop on the ultimate route to Abraham’s heir, then we miss the larger story connecting it to the countless women and men whose stories also include infertility, whether or not their story ends with a child. Plenty of couples today struggle to conceive, and even with the availability of infertility treatments and assistive reproductive technologies, these families may still walk away without a child and thousands of dollars poorer. 

How does the church address these experiences? Mostly by remaining silent. For a chapter in The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis, I interviewed a friend of mine from college who struggled with infertility and who also struggled with the church’s silence on the issue. This is a painful struggle in which a couple may get their hopes up time and time again, only to have those hopes go down the drain. My friend pointed me to a resource available from the National Infertility Association entitled RESOLVE, available online.1 This resource gives tips for family and friends for how to support their loved ones experiencing infertility. 

It is important for the church to not shy away from conversations deemed uncomfortable; the people in our pews may need our support. While the lectionary goes quickly over this fraught period in the life of Abraham and Sarah, it is important that the church not make the same mistake. Talk about the struggles of infertility in the pulpit; name it as an experience of suffering seen and known by God. Help couples to experience the presence of God with them in their struggle.

Sometimes, this means preaching a more gracious God than what we may read about in this text. Whereas God in these stories seems to disregard Sarah’s feelings, preachers need to proclaim that indeed God does care about the feelings of women experiencing infertility. As my co-author Suzie Song-Mi Park writes: “Infertility, in the biblical text, therefore, can feel, at points less like a real problem that these female characters face and more like a theological conundrum, easily resolved when God intercedes and miraculously ‘opens’ these women’s wombs. This vision of infertility as mainly a women’s problem, which is easily fixed as soon as God intervenes…sets a rather problematic precedent for modern readers of the Bible, especially women who struggle with similar problems today.”2 

What kind of image of God will you paint with your words as you preach from this text? Will you try to squelch the laughter of Sarah and minimize her sufferings? Or will you sympathize with her situation and that of others like her? Let this be a Sunday in which the stories and experiences of those who live with the pain of infertility feel their stories are heard and honored.


2. Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park, The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), p. 59.