Saturday, August 01, 2009

Abraham, Sarah and a Good Laugh

Today, a bit of a diversion for The Seventh Sola. We're going to put a different twist on a well-known biblical incident — an incident that has always made me smile. And that's the different twist.

I'm talking about what arose between Abraham, Sarah and God before the birth of Isaac. You can find the story beginning in Genesis 18, then continuing in chapter 21. Here are the relevant excerpts, beginning in chapter 18 with the Lord promising the birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and Sarah . . .

He said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?' “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Next, the promise is fulfilled in chapter 21 . . .

Then the LORD took note of Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

This account has always intrigued and amused me. Yet when you hear most sermons or lessons on these passages (at least the ones I've heard), they're most often focused on the sins of unbelief and doubting God. They seem to fail to see this exchange for what I think it is -- a twinkle in the eye of our loving God and Father.

Think about how you'd react if you were very old and you were told to expect the stork to show up at your door. You'd probably laugh too. And of course, Sarah was initially afraid when the Lord brought up her laughter. I wish the computer would allow me to play tones of voice, because I could clearly illustrate what I mean. When the Lord said, "no, but you did laugh," I don't believe for a moment it was with a tone that was outraged and angry at not being believed. When I read the Lord's words, I hear a chuckle. It was if He had said, "Oh, yeah you did, Sarah! Fess up, now. You did too laugh! I caught ya!"

I think this is confirmed by chapter 21, when Isaac is born. Look again at Sarah's words . . . “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” In Hebrew, Isaac means "he laughs." This really became the ultimate "inside joke," but the word "joke" isn't adequate for what I mean. It's more serious than a joke, but a lighthearted, loving, thankful, joyful combination of tease and praise.

I know that's a bit of eisegesis on my part, and I'm sure I'll stand corrected if I am mistaken. Now, let's contrast that a bit with another account of someone not believing the Lord at His word. This time, I'm talking about Zacharias, a priest and husband of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. An angel had just foretold the birth of John to the elderly priest, whose reaction was not unlike that of Sarah, but Zacharias wasn't laughing by all appearances . . .

Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time" (Luke 1:18-20).

I see a difference in this account. Zacharias was a priest. Someone who is a priest and knows God's Word ought to know better than to doubt a direct promise of God. Second, this was the birth of John, who was to prepare the way for the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel. The very miracle of Zacharias being struck dumb until John's birth sent an important message about the momentousness of the coming events. One of the things Scripture tells us is that teachers incur a stricter judgment. One can quibble about whether a priest was a teacher per se, but the long and short of it is that priests were supposed to know the Word of God. Having seen how God kept his previous promises to Abraham and Sarah, not to mention the rest of the Tanach (Old Testament), God would certainly not fail in His promise now.

The common thread in both accounts is that God keeps His word. And I find that very, very comforting in these days of unsettling change.

Sola's Note: In the past few days, I had the privilege of having lunch with Pastor Caleb Kolstad, a graduate of The Master's Seminary in California. We ended up sitting there talking for more than two hours, and it was great fellowship. I ran this idea by him, and he had some excellent observations. He believed that my observation of the difference in God's reaction to Sarah and Zacharias was right, but kindly suggested caution in being too eisegetical about His milder reaction to Sarah. Unbelief -- doubting God -- is sin. Zacharias was a teacher and teachers are recipients of stricter judgment. I agree wholeheartedly, and I am thankful to Caleb for his correction and caution.


Ron said...

And it's what doesn't change that really matters....

Caleb Kolstad said...


Thanks for the post. It made me want to go back and reread the Genesis accounts (which i just did).

I think Sarah and Abraham showed their human side (unbelief) when God told them what His plan was. I can't say I would have responded much differently. Either way, what an amazing God we serve!

Cheryl said...

Perhaps Sarah never doubted God. Perhaps she only doubted Abraham's virility and her abilities to conceive at their ages. She did not ask for a sign. Zechariah did and he was given one.