Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sarah Laughed

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Sarah Laughed

Article excerpt

"NOW ABRAHAM AND SARAH WERE OLD, WELL ON in years, and Sarah had ceased to have her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, `Now that I am past the age of childbearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again?'" (Gen. 18:10-12)

There's not a lot of laughter in the Bible. Or sex, for that matter. But with Sarah, we get both. Thank God.

Abraham is sitting at the opening of his tent during the hottest part of the day. All of a sudden, three travelers stop to rest and Abraham runs to greet them. They're glad to see him; he offers them refreshment and shade. He's glad to see them; they offer him news of the world and someone new to talk to. Abraham tells Sarah to bake some bread, and he grabs a tender calf from the herd and tells a servant to prepare it. Then, with milk and cream, he sets the meal before his visitors.

"Where is Sarah?" the visitors ask. "She's in the tent," Abraham replies. At this point in the story, there's one of those odd quirks that occur from time to time in the Bible. The writer has set the scene of the three men meeting and visiting with Abraham, but then, without so much as a by-your-leave, it's a much different conversation.

Suddenly, it's God talking directly to Abraham.

For a modern reader, it's difficult to picture what happens. How would this look in a movie or on television? Is God one of the three travelers, an average-looking guy who, in a moment's transformation, takes on or reveals the gravity, dignity, and awesomeness of a god? Or are the three men stand-ins who, somehow, just fade away as God appears in their place before Abraham?

Part of the art of this story is the way it jars the reader when, without warning, it switches from the three travelers to the one God. It communicates the jolt that Abraham feels. The reader doesn't understand how this transformation occurs, but then, neither does Abraham. The details are unimportant compared to the simple fact of the transformation--and the message that the Lord has for the old man.

And what a message. The first thing God says to Abraham is that, come spring, his wife, old withered Sarah, will have a baby--a son.

Was Abraham stunned? Did he sit there with his mouth hanging open in amazement? Or did he play it cool and keep a straight face, meanwhile jumping for joy inside his head at the thought of having a child with Sarah? It's not clear for a couple reasons.

First, Abraham may have already known the good news. Immediately before this story of the three travelers, there is a story of God appearing to Abraham. This was when Abraham was known as Abram and Sarah as Sarai. Essentially, God makes a deal with Abram, a covenant. Abram and Sarai, childless so far, will be the parents of a great people. In return, they and their descendants will worship, honor, respect, fear, and follow God. As a sign of this covenant, God tells Abram that he and his wife have new names.

That's all fine with the newly minted Abraham, except that he thinks God's a little confused. Even as he's bowing to the ground listening to the word that Sarah will give birth to a son, Abraham's laughing to himself, thinking, "Yeah, right. I'm 100. She's 90. We're going to have a son? I don't think so." So he decides to set God straight. He says, "Oh, you mean my son Ishmael by the slave woman Hagar will be the start of your chosen people."

Wrong. "Your wife Sarah," God explains with what, one imagines, was an edge of irritation, "shall bear you a son whom you are to name Isaac. With him I will establish my covenant, a covenant in perpetuity, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him."

Oh. So, at the time the three travelers come to Abraham's tent, he knows that he and Sarah are going to have a baby. Or maybe he doesn't. The thing is, on more than a few occasions in the Bible, the same story is told twice. Creation is an example. …

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