The Last Laugh? - Reflections on Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
by Dr. John Holbert on Wednesday, June 14, 2023
The Last Laugh?
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Today’s text is a delightful one in several ways. It describes superb Middle Eastern hospitality, something one may still experience in the modern Middle East, at least in rural areas. But, of course, the chief delight is in the playful and delicious repartee that YHWH, Sarah, and Abraham engage in over the fantastic possibility that the prune-faced couple might be somehow able to have a child. And in typical Hebrew fashion, the birth of the child rests squarely on a linguistic pun, a word that evokes from the reader precisely what the word suggests, namely laughter.
As the story opens, it is a hot day in the desert of Mamre, and Abraham is sitting idly at the entrance to his tent, pitched under the welcome shade of a grove of oak trees. (The Hebrew word used for “oaks” can also mean “terebinths,” idols, as one can see if Gen.31 is read. But here, as the rest of this story makes plain, the word refers to trees.) In the anvil-like desert, eyes are lidded to protect against sand gusts, and the intense heat brings on a kind of torpor that assumes nothing much is going to happen as long as the roasting sun is high. 18:2 shatters the lull of the day, as Abraham raises his eyes and looks up. “What do you know, three men were standing near him.” The phrase “what do you know” is the modern equivalent of the Hebrew change of scene marker, hineh, often translated as “behold”. The word assumes something unexpected has occurred; these three men have appeared to Abraham as if by magic. Immediately, the languid man turns into a man of action; “when he saw them, he ran to meet them, and fell on his face to the ground.” This latter action is the classic way to honor a guest, or in many cases in the Bible a divine figure. Though Abraham cannot yet know that one of these persons is in reality YHWH, he greets them with complete respect, as ancient hospitality demands.
And the expected hospitality continues. Asking no questions of the strangers, Abraham exclaims, “If I have found favor in your eyes, let a little water be brought to wash your feet; you may then rest under the tree. Let me then bring a morsel of bread, so that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may leave—since you have come to your servant” (Gen.18:4-5). Abraham is the perfect host here; he calls himself “servant,” he asks them to wait and rest, while he brings “a little” water, and “a morsel” of bread. Only after they have refreshed themselves, they may leave his humble abode.
But then the action speeds up noticeably. Abraham now “hastens” to the tent and asks Sarah to “make ready quickly three seahs of choice flour, out of which she is to make succulent cakes, while Abraham “runs” to the stall to bring out the finest calf, the “most tender one,” which he gives to the servant to prepare for the strangers a sumptuous meal. In addition, he takes “curds and milk” to complete the huge repast, and “sets it before them,” as he stands by, silent, under the tree while they eat. So much for the “tiny bit of water” and the “morsel of bread”! This is a feast, and a proper host will provide one.
But now the second delight begins with a lovely surprise. “Where is Sarah, you wife,” all three say in chorus (Gen.18:9)? How do they know that fact? It is now obvious that these strangers are not strangers at all. “In the tent there,” replies the perhaps wary Abraham. Just who are these people? And now the three become one, the obvious leader of the group. “I will without doubt return to you at the time of life (NRSV “in due season”), and your wife Sarah will have a son” (Gen.18:10). My reading, “time of life,” is quite literal, but I admit to liking the NRSV with its rich irony of “due,” since Sarah will find herself “due” at a certain time in the future. The future expectant mother is dubious, and is listening behind the flap of the tent. The storyteller tells us in Gen.18:11 that there is an obvious impediment to this promise of a birth. “Abraham and Sarah were old, living with days (an idiom meaning something like “advanced in age” NRSV); Sarah was no longer menstruating.” That of course is a modern reading of the more subtle and literal “it had stopped being for Sarah the way of women.”
So, the aged crone laughed to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I find pleasure” (Gen.18:12)? I have long loved that line that Sarah speaks to herself. She does not merely say, “Can I give birth,” but instead recalls the pleasurable sexual tumbles she has had with her man, and suggests that those days are long past. The word translated “pleasure,” is in fact the word “eden”. And now, for the first time since 18:1, it is clearly YHWH who speaks to Abraham in the story. “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I really bear a child, now that I am old’” (Gen.18:13)? Of course, Abraham has not heard his wife, since she spoke to herself, but YHWH has heard her. “Is anything too wonderful for YHWH?” the God says, thus offering to the reader the great power of God to act in ways beyond human imagination. YHWH immediately reiterates the amazing earlier promise: “At the established time, I will return to you, just at the time of life, and Sarah will have a son” (Gen.18:14).
But the fun of the tale is not quite over. “But Sarah lied, ‘I did not laugh,’ because she was terrified. And God said, ‘O, yes you did’” (Gen.18:15)! And, as Gen.21:1-7 makes plain, the tale turns on the word “laughter,” because the amazing birth of the promised son leads his name to be, in fact, “laughter,” Isaac. That name recalls the laughter of Abraham, too, as he chortled at the absurd promise of God that the aged Sarah would give birth (Gen.17:17). It is said that “the one who laughs last, laughs best.” It might be best to say that it is YHWH who laughs last, though both Sarah and Abraham join God in the laughter of old-age parenting, that in effect continues the line of God’s promise to Israel, made to Abraham and Sarah so many decades earlier. Is anything too wonderful for YHWH? Not in this hilarious tale, that’s for sure.