Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Isaac: A Life of Bitter Laughter

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Isaac: A Life of Bitter Laughter

Article excerpt


Isaac's birth comes late in his parent's marriage. Twenty-five years following God's promise that from Abraham, and presumably through Sarah his wife, would spring a great nation (Gen. 12:2), finally Sarah conceives. Their child is the long-awaited heir. This is more than just a momentous event. It is a time filled with miraculous joy: Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac [lit. he will laugh] (Gen. 21:3). This was the name God directed Abraham to call his son (Gen. 17:19).

Isaac, in Hebrew Yitzhak, from the root letters tzadi-het-kuf [tz-h-k] in this long-hoped-for context clearly refers to celebratory laughter. (1) There are numerous references and word plays in the Genesis birth narrative associated with the root letters tz-h-k. These occur in the announcement that Isaac would be born (Gen. 17:17), in Sarah's comments both at the promise of his future birth (Gen. 18:12-15) and her remarks following his birth (Gen. 21:6), and in the circumstances that take place some time after his weaning (Gen. 21:9).

Isaac's name connotes laughter. He will know periods of happiness, in particular when he marries Rebekah. More often however, ironically, it is bitter laughter that dominates his life.


In chapter 17, God asks Abraham to circumcise himself and his household as a sign of the covenant between them. As a part of this dialogue, God explains that Abraham is to change his wife's name from Sarai to Sarah, and that she will bear a son. Abraham is incredulous. He doubles over with laughter [va-yippol ... vayitzhak (verse 17)]. (2) In his doubt and disbelief he questions God's statement. (3) With seemingly incredulous laughter, Abraham in effect says to God, "Now, at this advanced age, after all these years, now we are going to become parents?" God not only affirms that Sarah will give birth at this season in a year's time, but that the child will be named Isaac. Further, God will continue the covenantal relationship through Isaac.

The next episode linking Isaac and the root letters tz-h-k appears in Genesis 18. That chapter features the three strangers who unexpectedly visit Abraham and Sarah's encampment. They ask about Sarah's whereabouts. Then one of the visitors announces to Abraham, 'Next year ... your wife Sarah will have a son!' According to the biblical text, Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent ... Sarah laughed [va-titzhak] to herself (Gen. 18:10, 12). In this instance, Sarah is the one who is incredulous. She knows that she is postmenopausal. Now it is too late; this simply cannot happen. Her sour laughter reflects the fact that she considers Abraham (who is 99) an old person, as she is herself (at age 89). (4) Due to the bitterness of her response, God chides Sarah. The Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh? [tzahakah] ... Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?' Sarah overhears this question. She is embarrassed. She denies the fact that she laughed. She says, 'I did not laugh [lo tzahakti]'; for she was frightened. But He replied, 'You did laugh [tzahakt]' (Gen. 18:13-15). (5) God's response to Sarah's remark should be seen as a gentle rebuke. (6)


When Sarah finally gives birth, Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac [lit. he will laugh] (Gen. 21:3). Sarah now laughs again. Sarah said, 'God has brought me laughter [tzehok].' Sarah then continues, 'Everyone who hears will laugh [yitzhak] with me' (Gen. 21:6). Alternatively, she may have thought that "everyone will laugh at me."

According to rabbinic tradition, many did mock her. People had heard that Abraham and Sarah had spent time in Gerar. There were those who claimed that Isaac was really Abimelech's son, not Abraham's child. (7) Others suggested that Sarah had never gotten pregnant, that the child was a foundling that the aged couple had discovered on the road. …

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