Today we get one of my favorite stories in scripture – Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise. The story is perfectly crafted. The story with a flurry of activity. Abraham is sitting in his tent in the heat of the day when three guests suddenly appear. As soon as Abraham sees them, he runs to greet them, begging them to stay. Then Abraham sends the entire household into a tizzy. He barks orders about baking cakes, grabs a calf and commands the calf be prepared for the guests. He gets curds and milk and rushes to plate the feast for the guests. We can almost imagine Abraham panting as he finally delivers the meals to the guests.
But then the story comes to a screeching halt, with a question that tells us what is really important. “Where is your wife, Sarah?” And slowly, the promise of a child to a barren, post-menopausal woman unfolds. Abraham and Sarah were promised long ago to be the parents of a great nation. But Sarah had given up on that dream. She had already asked Abraham to go to her slave-girl and have a child with Hagar as a representative child for her. Her action with Hagar had been a desperate move, but what else could she have done? So when this guest, or God, as the text later tells us, says that Sarah will conceive herself, after years of longing, hoping, feeling devastated and powerless, Sarah does what we all might do. She laughs. She laughs at the prospect of pleasure in her marriage when she and Abraham are so advanced in age. She laughs at the impossibility that their pleasure might lead to progeny. She laughs at the promise because believing the promise would mean opening herself up to unfilled dreams yet again.
Sarah’s laughter has long been used as a criticism for a lack of faith in God. When God asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” and when Sarah quickly denies her laughter, countless readers have wagged their fingers at Sarah as if to say, “Oh ye of little faith.” And I can see how we get there. The exchange between Sarah and God – the laughter that bubbles out from years of hurt and disappointment, the scolding by God, the attempt to lie to cover up embarrassment, and the scolding yet again when God calls Sarah on her dishonesty – is all too familiar to us. What the accusation of lacking faith forgets is how terribly vulnerable and resigned Sarah is. I cannot tell you the number of people I have counseled who at the end of second marriage have begun to doubt God’s presence. I cannot tell you the number of people I have sat with after receiving a bad diagnosis for themselves or their loved one who has begun to whether God has abandoned them. I cannot tell you the number of people have received yet another rejection letter who have begun to question God’s call on their life. When Sarah laughs, I do not feel justification for judgment against her level of faith. When Sarah laughs, I hear the ache of countless believers who know how ludicrous God’s promises can be.
What gets me about the judgment of Sarah is the short memory of scripture readers. In the chapter before what we heard today, Abraham is given the same promise that Sarah hears – a child by Sarah. And his reaction? He does not simply laugh quietly to himself as Sarah does in that tent. He falls on his face and laughs full-bodied at God. The only difference in laughter between Abraham and Sarah is that Abraham laughs in front of God where Sarah tries to hide her laughter. Both are an acknowledgement of doubt about what God can do. Both take all their disappointment, pain, and hurt, and dissolve into laughter because, quite frankly, sometimes God is laughable. Sometimes God makes no sense at all, and laughing is the only release and protection from more hurt. Humans questioning God is a natural part of a genuine God-human conversation, a conventional motif we see throughout the Old Testament.[i]
This week, I stumbled on an Old Testament scholar, Kathryn Shifferdecker, who suggests that God may not be a God of judgment in this passage. In fact, she sees God as fully understanding the comedy of the situation. She sees a God with a sense of humor, who when God says, “Oh yes you did laugh,” says so with a twinkle in his eye.[ii] The theory totally shifted the reading for me. Suddenly the pieces all fit together. Instead of an angry or disappointed God, who judges disbelief, our God is a God who understands that God’s promises are sometimes laughable – even if they are true. Why else would God tell Abraham to name his son Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” in Hebrew?[iii] As Schifferdecker explains, “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.’”[iv]
The image of the three of them laughing – Sarah, Abraham, and God, makes a lot of sense once we hear the final words of Sarah. In chapter 21, Sarah, perhaps initially embarrassed or doubtful of God, now says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” This story is not a story of shame for those of us who struggle with doubt, anger, or frustration with God. This is not a story of an unfaithful follower of God. This is a story about a woman and a man who look at the absurdity of God’s promise with the fullness of their humanity and laugh – hard, belly-shaking, on-the-floor laughter that only comes when the divine finally breaks through our disappointment, shame, and anger, and brings us to laughter.
I love this story even more as I think about the trinity of Abraham, Sarah, and God laughing. Their laughter affirms our own incredulous walks with God. Their laughter takes those moments when we no long trust God’s promises, and transforms them. No longer do we need to hide away our deepest doubts, but instead we honor them. We share them. And we create communities of laughter with them. Amen.
[i] Leander E. Keck, ed., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. I (Abingdon Press, 1994), 465.
[ii] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7],” June 18, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3301 on June 14, 2017.
[iii] Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, (Women of Reform Judaism URJ Press, 2008), 97.