1 The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7 ESV)
Laughter. Sarah says she and her husband will become objects of … well, what exactly? Ridicule? That such old people have a baby of their own, one they made in what appears to be the conventional way? (Though they had some help; this family appears to need lots of divine help to conceive children.) Amazement? Pity?
Sarah isn’t clear why people people will laugh over her. She’s just clear they will.
She names their son Isaac, Yitzhaq יִצְחָֽק, which means “he laughs.” Sarah laughed at this promise several chapters ago, when the three men who appear to be The Lord visit. She denied laughing at what is clearly the promise of God, but God — before setting out to Sodom to deal with its brutal and murderous hospitality — hears and upbraids her. “You did laugh.”
And in the passage that immediately follows. Hagar — who Sarah has no love for — laughs. The occasion of that laughter is the weaning of Isaac, and the great feast held on that day. Again, we aren’t told why Hagar laughed, only that she did. And this is the cause for Sarah to well and truly expel Hagar and her 14-year-old son into the wilderness.
We laugh for many reasons. Joy. Amusement. Amazement. Pity. Derision. We laugh with and at people. Sarah says everyone who knows will “laugh over her” (כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי). Not with her, but over her1. She sees herself as an object of pity and derision, of amazement and amusement, of the “what were they thinking?” kind of judgement.
This is what it means sometimes to receive and bear the promise of God. Derision, perplexed amusement, a condescending pity. To be laughed at, and not with. Whatever Hagar meant with her laughter, Sarah took it the worst way possible. Because she herself took it the worst way possible.
Sometimes we are bad bearers of the promise. Reluctant, doubting, past our ability to bear the Good News of God with any goodwill, magnanimity, or joy.
But we bear the promise anyway. Because that promise is not ours, it’s God’s. And while we may be recipients, we also convey that promise to others. Abraham will never realize all the promises made to him — descendants more numerous than grains of sand, a home for those very descendants, being a blessing to the nations (peoples) of the world. He received them, but they weren’t for him.
We receive them. But they aren’t for us. That’s the strange reality of this promise for God. We receive them, trust them, believe them, and carry them on for others. Because they aren’t for us, even as they are.
We are all the bearers of a promise from God that is much bigger than we are.
- Though to be fair, the JPS Tanakh translates this passage as “with me,” as does the Christian Standard Bible. And that has a very different implication than the ESV’s “laugh over me.” Still, Sarah’s laugh is dismissive and even a little derisive, and that suggests she thinks others will laugh that way too. ↩︎