A Theological Phrasebook entry.
Let’s circle back to Moses’ ancestor Abraham for a moment. One day God, the great I Am, decides to visit Abraham (Genesis 18). Abraham is taking a nap in the midday heat when three men show up at his door. Abraham wakes from his drowsy stupor, sees who it is (somehow he seems to have some inkling that it’s God), and leaps up and starts rushing around, giving orders, getting bread baked and livestock slaughtered, before finally standing off to the side like an attentive innkeeper while his guests eat.
It is a funny scene. God, creator of the universe, sitting in the heat, while sweaty Abraham scurries around yelling at his wife and servants. It takes time to slaughter and cook a calf. Time to bake bread. What are the three guests talking about, as they sit in the shade of Abraham’s tent?
God eats his fill and then turns to Abraham and makes a promise: “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son.” God had already made this promise to Abraham the chapter before but he now commits himself to a timeline and makes sure Sarah can hear it. And Sarah, who is “old and advanced in years … past the age of childbearing” responds the same way Abraham did in chapter 17: she laughs.
In a post that talks about faith and Abraham, the expectation might be that I would focus on that other famous story about Abraham’s faith, one marked by fear and trembling – the one Kierkegaard obsessed over – God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). But, there is faith in this story too. It is a faith shadowed by incredulous laughter to be sure, but this sort of response is closer to my own experience of faith than heroic leaps across chasms in moments of existential crisis.
Back to God’s housecall: “The Lord said to Abraham, why did Sarah laugh … Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.’ Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh.'” So, there is fear in this story too, after the laughter. Although it is not quite clear what Sarah is afraid of. Is it simply that God has caught her laughing? Is she embarrassed? Or is it fear at the idea that God might actually follow through and deliver on his promise? Is it fear that truly nothing is too difficult for God?
Theologians are a serious group. They try and avoid mocking laughter as a general rule. Various conceptual cathedrals with intimidating facades have been built through the years to ensure (at least in part) that no one fails to recognize the seriousness of theology. But, what Sarah and Abraham receive is an impossible promise, an unbelievable promise. Is laughter such a bad response?
There is a temptation to soften the impossibility of God’s promises in such a way that they can be molded into something closer to our own imaginings of what God could (or should) do (so, in chapter 17, Abraham had offered up his other son, Ishmael, as a more realistic alternative for the fulfillment of God’s promise). We do not want God to be laughed at. More honestly,we do not want to be laughed at. But God does not fear our laughter (Abraham, laughing face down on the ground in chapter 17, passes without comment). God delivers the punchline of his promise and seems relatively unbothered by the response. He will laugh last, because he knows that his promise will be fulfilled.
Faith is a gift. Sarah’s laughter is a recognition of the enormity of God’s promise, of the absurdity of it. She does not try and whittle it down into a something that can be accepted with appropriate piety and solemnity. She takes the promise seriously and, taking it seriously, she bursts out laughing. God hears the laughter and keeps his promise anyway. Faith is believing that God will keep his promises, even the ones that are unbelievable.
- Genesis 17 and 18
- Andrei Rublev (15th century) painted a famous icon of this scene (and yes, “Three visitors, did you say?” has been a common comment from Christian readers throughout history … for reasons that will become clear later).
- You would not be alone in finding Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling tough going, and I’m not sure he laughed much (but he could be quite funny).
- This whole Phrasebook project draws inspiration from Frederick Buechner, but he was especially good on “faith shadowed by incredulous laughter” (my description, not his). His book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale is a good Buechner starting point.
- As I say above, my own faith has often been shadowed by laughter. I have sometimes felt this to be a problem. Sometimes it has been a problem for others. I am earnest in my desire to believe, and my laughter is born of that earnestness, of taking the promises of God seriously. All this to say, one way of reading this entry is an apology for my own idiosyncratic experience, in which case, proceed with caution.