Genesis 18:1-15 –“Oh yes, you did laugh!”
“Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.” -Walter Brueggemann
Lesson Focus: We sin because we fail to have proper faith in the sometimes-nonsensical ways of God.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lessons students should:
Recognize that faith sometimes means living in ways that may not make a whole lot of sense.
God works to fulfill his purposes for creation even when we do not have proper faith.
Catch up on the story: God has promised to make Abram a great nation, through whom all nations of the world would be blessed. Up to this point, we aren’t sure how this is going to happen because Abraham and Sarah are barren. Sarah, in an attempt to try and have children vicariously, gives her servant Hagar to Abraham. This situation only causes discord. Later, God performs a covenant ceremony with Abraham changing his name from Abram. God also gives him the sign of the covenant that is circumcision. Once again, God reasserts that he will make Abraham’s children a great nation that will bless all the nations.
The Text: Our text begins during the heat of the day. Abraham, who has just had all of the male members of his family circumcised as a mark of the covenant that God has made with him, is sitting at the entrance to his tent. He looks up, and the text tells us he sees “the LORD.” This first verse, however, may function as a heading to the section. Scholars are divided when it comes to the identity of the three men with whom Abraham interacts. What is important, at this point, is that God is reminding Abraham and Sarah of his promise to them.
Abraham, while sitting in the entrance to his tent, spies three men and runs to meet them. When he arrives at the three men he bows down and addresses them. The text is unclear about what Abraham knows about these three men. He may know that these men are different in some kind of way. Perhaps he knows that they are messengers from God. His immediate treatment of them gives us no clue as to his understanding.
Providing hospitality for those who were traveling was one of the most important, if not the most important, social rule of the day. To turn aside strangers or travelers, not offering them food, water, and shelter, would have been unthinkable. It would have also brought shame on the family. Abraham’s offer of hospitality will be contrasted with the hospitality (or lack of) that is offered to these men in the city of Sodom.
So, Abraham addresses the men as if he were their servant. His aim is to please these strangers. Abraham offers them the things that traveling men most want; water for drinking and washing, rest, and food. The men do not refuse Abraham’s offer. The narrative moves quickly as Abraham begins to instruct Sarah to make bread from the best flour and his servants to kill and prepare a tender calf. It would have taken some time for the food to be prepared but in the interest in moving the story along we cut straight to the shared meal.
Abraham brings the food to his visitors and they engage him in conversation. There is no small talk. The men want to know where Abraham’s wife is. Abraham responds that his wife is in the tent. Sarah, as almost certainly you and I would do in this type of situation, was listening to the conversation between her husband and the three strangers. I’m sure her ears perked up when the conversation turned to her.
The men offer a promise to Abraham and Sarah. To be sure this promise had been offered to them sometime before and now it seemed as if it would be impossible to fulfill. The men declare that in due season Sarah will give birth to a son. Let’s remind ourselves of what has taken place so far. God came to a barren couple, a couple for whom the possibility of life and future were non-existent. To be barren, in the biblical world, was to be already in a sense dead. There will be no one to carry on the name, no one to carry on the memory of the family. God comes to this barren couple and promises them a future filled with descendants that outnumber the stars in the sky.
Time passed and Abraham and Sarah still did not have any children. It was then that Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands. She would give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife. They would have a child through Hagar. It works, too. Hagar becomes pregnant and gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham is content now with what he has. After Ishmael is born God comes to Abraham and Sarah once more. Ishmael will not be the one through whom God blesses the world; he is not the fruit of God’s promise to Abraham. Sarah herself will have a son. Abraham’s response is one of laughter. How can this be? Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90! The promise that was originally offered will be kept. Sarah will have a son.
We aren’t told how much time has passed between God’s last conversation with Abraham and the three visitors. It is enough time, however, for the couple to doubt that God will keep his promise. Sarah hears the voice of the men proclaiming that she will have a son soon. Like Abraham, her response to this news is one of laughter. It is, however, not the laughter that is born from the joy of good news. It is the laughter that comes from disbelief.
It is the laughter that comes when a friend tells you that he is finally going to go and talk to that girl he has been admiring for such a long time, or the kind of laughter elicited when a Cardinals fan hears a Cubs fan say, “This is our year!” “Haha! I’ll believe that when I see it!” Even though both the NIV and the NRSV render the verse, “she laughed to herself,” the original text indicates that the laughter that Sarah produces is not just a polite little laugh or even a silent chuckle to herself. It is, rather, a full-out belly laugh produced by the absurdity of an old woman giving birth (Jacobson). Perhaps the laugh is also a way to cope with the reality that what Sarah has hoped for has not come to pass. Even now that these men say that it will happen, the wound is still sore; she believes it less now than she did before.
Sarah wonders out loud how it is that someone of her age, who has stopped menstruating, can have a child. The question is then put to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh…Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Here is the crucial part of the text, this question, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” The question concerns Abraham and Sarah’s belief, or lack thereof, in God’s ability to fulfill the promise against all odds. It was nonsense to Sarah that at her age, and in her condition, that she would be able to have a baby.
The question is asked to us, and to the aged couple in a rhetorical manner, and it is asked with confidence. The question is left to linger in our minds. It is left to challenge our assumptions about the nature of our world and what is possible. Left up to us, a promise such as the one these men make to Sarah is very laughable. It just is not possible. For Israel, whose story this is, and for us too, it is meant to draw us into believing that the world in its broken state is not how the world should or ought to persist. Indeed, it calls us to begin to have faith, faith in the promise that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has tangibly changed things.
At the end of the day,
“The story is constructed to present the tension between this inscrutable speech of God (that comes as promise) and the resistance and mockery of Abraham and Sarah who doubt the word and cannot believe the promise. Israel stands before God’s word of promise but characteristically finds that word beyond reason and belief. Abraham, and especially Sarah, are not offered here as models of faith but as models of disbelief. For them, the powerful promise of God outdistances their ability to receive it (Brueggemann, 158).
What might be even more remarkable is that God keeps his promise despite their unbelief.
So What…? The narrative ends with this simple yet profound question hanging in the air. It moves on to a story about great evil in the world while Abraham and Sarah continue to wait for the fulfillment of the promise. The last words of the section, “Oh yes, you did laugh” should haunt us. How many times have we encountered a command of Jesus only to laugh at it because of its impracticality? We laugh in the face of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek when someone wrongs us. We laugh in the face of Jesus when he commands us to repay evil with love. We laugh in Jesus’ face when we pretend to serve God yet we are bound to making money. We laugh when Jesus tells us that in order to truly gain abundant life we must first give it all away.
No doubt, many of us will deny our laughter in the face of the foolishness (to us anyway) of the kingdom of God. We will say to ourselves and to others that, perhaps, Jesus did not mean those things literally. Our laughter is a sign of our disbelief, and that disbelief leads us into sin because we cannot fully trust the one who has the power to bring us from death to life.
Last week, during the first week of Lent, we confessed that our sin, our violence and wickedness causes God anguish and grief. This week, as we continue our walk toward the cross, let us confess our lack of imagination and faith in our God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17) Let us ask that we might have great, yet simple faith to follow in the path of Jesus.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
In this text, God continues to be faithful even when we are not. God, faced with the laughing disbelief of Abraham and Sarah, does not stop to find someone else who will do his will unquestioningly, but continues to remain faithful to his promise. While our disbelief doesn’t always disqualify us from a relationship with God, it does hinder us from fully enjoying and experiencing all of God’s life-giving ability.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Salvation looks likes God’s faithfulness in the midst of our unbelief. Even though we laugh at the way and plans of God, God still is working for us. This text does not directly show that there are consequences to our unbelief, but to be sure, there are. Even after we have proven ourselves unfaithful, or unwilling to be faithful, God ultimately provides us with chances to respond to his gift of salvation. Even though Abraham and Sarah have laughed in the face of God, God is still going to work redemptively through them.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
This story calls us to answer the question, “Is there anything too hard/wonderful for God?” The answer to this question can only be spoken after we have witnessed and heard of God’s mighty and saving deeds. As we engage the story of God’s redemption in the bible, and we listen to the stories of God’s people in our church who have experienced God’s loving-kindness, we are compelled to answer a resounding “No!” We should then walk forth in faith and obedience even when it makes no sense.
While our faith may falter, and we may not believe in God’s future for our world and our lives, God is still able to work through us. If in the past we have laughed at God’s plans because they seem inconceivable, there is still hope for us. God desires to work through and with us even at times when are not exactly willing.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Familiarize yourself with the story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12, 15-17). What are the promises God has made to Abraham (Abram)? How has God kept those promises so far in the story? How have Abraham and Sarah taken control of the situation for themselves?
The men repeat God’s promise to the couple that they will someday have a son. Why do you think God chooses to remind them instead of just making it happen?
Sarah laughs at the news. Put yourself in her situation (90 years old, barren for all these years, had ceased menstruation), how would you have responded to such news?
Sarah’s laughter is one of disbelief. The idea that she will have a child at her age and condition is just too absurd to believe. Yet, God chooses to use her anyway. Why do you think that God chooses to use us at times despite our disbelief?
The question asked at the end of the story is, “Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14). Why do you think this question was asked at this point in the story? How do you think Abraham and Sarah would have answered the question at the very end of their lives?
The question in verse 14 is meant for us as well. What might be some of the ways we respond to Jesus’ teaching like Sarah responded to the news of her approaching pregnancy, that is, with a lack of faith?
Are there times you just can’t see how God’s desires for the way we should live make any sense?
Works Cited: Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982).
Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7,” Working Preacher.org, accessed January 19, 2015, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1087.