Isaac's Divine Conception?
Why God and the Two Men / Angels Inquire about Sarah
After Abraham circumcises his household and himself, YHWH appears to him while he is sitting in his tent. As the story unfolds, Abraham sees three “men” standing near him. According to the straightforward reading of the text, it is YHWH plus two angels. After they eat, they inquire about the absent Sarah:
בראשית יח:ט וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֵׄלָׄ֔יׄוׄ אַיֵּ֖ה שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּ֥ה בָאֹֽהֶל׃
Gen 18:9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he replied, “There, in the tent.”
Oddly, even though this verse suggests that the men are looking for her, the story simply continues with the men speaking to Abraham:
יח:י וַיֹּאמֶר שׁ֣וֹב אָשׁ֤וּב אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־בֵ֖ן לְשָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וְשָׂרָ֥ה שֹׁמַ֛עַת פֶּ֥תַח הָאֹ֖הֶל וְה֥וּא אַחֲרָֽיו:
18:10 And he said, "I will return to you at the due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!" Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him.
Highlighting Sarah’s Modesty
The rabbis notice this problem, and offer some homiletical suggestions (b. Bava Metzia 87a):
ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך ויאמר הנה באהל - להודיע ששרה אמנו צנועה היתה. אמר רב יהודה אמר רב, ואיתימא רבי יצחק: יודעים היו מלאכי השרת ששרה אמנו באהל היתה, אלא מאי באהל - כדי לחבבה על בעלה
“They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he replied, “There, in the tent” – this comes to teach that our mother Sarah was modest. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav—and some say Rabbi Yitzhak—“The ministering angels knew that our mother, Sarah, was in the tent. So what was [the question leading to Abraham’s response] ‘in the tent’ for? In order to make her beloved to her husband.”
According to this answer, the angels were just trying to get Abraham to notice how modest Sarah was by calling his attention to the fact that she wasn’t there.
To Give Sarah “a Cup of Blessing”
The Talmud records yet another answer:
רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר: כדי לשגר לה כוס של ברכה
Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Chanina said: “To be able to pass her the cup of blessing.”
This interpretation suggests that the angels sent Sarah back the cup of wine that was blessed during the meal, a rabbinic custom familiar from the Talmud.
Although neither of these answers fit with the simple meaning of the text, they highlight the lacuna. Having asked where Sarah is, why does the story change course and simply continue with the visitors’ conversation with Abraham?
Did Someone Go in the Tent?
In the MT of v. 9, the word אליו has dots called punctia extraordinaria, which, according to the rabbis, communicate some sort of hesitation about the whether the word(s) or letter(s) really belong in the biblical text. Genesis Rabbah (48:9, Theodor-Albeck) interprets:
[ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך] איו נקוד ל' אינו נקוד,
“And they said to him: ‘Where is your wife Sarah’” (Gen 18:9) – The letters aleph, yod, vav have dots, the lamed has no dots.
...אמר ר' עזריה כשם שאמרו לאברהם איה שרה כך אמרו לשרה איו אברהם.
…R. Azariah says: “Just as they said to Abraham ‘where is she (איה),’ thus they said to Sarah ‘where is he’ (איו).”
R. Azariah here assumes that the dots communicate a missing scene, namely that the angels entered the tent and spoke with Sarah directly. The change of verb tense from the plural “they said” (וַיֹּאמְרוּ) in verse 9 to the singular “he said” (וַיֹּאמֶר) in v. 10 implies a change of scene. In the first scene, all three angels are speaking with Abraham, and the next scene, only one announces Sarah’s pregnancy and the future birth of Isaac. In between these two speeches, the angels entered the tent to be with Sarah.
Why does the text imply a scene with Sarah secluded with angels? Is it possible that this visit was not merely to announce that Sarah would become pregnant but is also explaining how Sarah, a menopausal woman, becomes miraculously pregnant?
וה' פקד את שרה: And YHWH Pakad-ed Sarah
Support for this possibility comes from the description of Isaac’s birth:
בראשית כא:א וַי-הוָה פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ יְ-הוָה לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.
Gen 21:1 YHWH visited Sarah as He had promised, and YHWH did for Sarah as He had spoken.
The verse is written with poetic parallelism. YHWH “pakad”s Sarah and he does what he promised. The root פ.ק.ד has a broad semantic range in the Bible. In this context, it can mean “remember,” “take care of,” or “visit.” The idea that God visited Sarah goes together with the verb “to do” (ע.ש.ה) which is used in the parallel hemistich.
When did this visit take place? Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that it must have occurred some time between the visit in chapter 18 when Sarah’s pregnancy was announced and when Sarah gave birth in ch. 21, since in that passage, God promises to return; otherwise the promise of a future visit is never fulfilled:
...הקב״ה אמר לו בכאן למועד אשוב אליך ובין במלאך או בהקב״ה לא מצינו ששב אליו למועדו אולי נכלל בלשון וי״י פקד את שרה כאשר אמר...
…The Holy One, blessed be He, said here (Gen 18:14) “I will return to you at the time,” and whether this refers to an angel or God, we do not find that he ever returned at some time. Perhaps, this is referred to in the words (Gen 21:1): “God visited Sarah as he had promised…”
Nevertheless, Gen 21:1 could also be referring to the very visit recorded in ch. 18 (both texts are attributed to J in source critical scholarship). According to this, the verse is telling us that when YHWH visited Sarah he caused her to conceive. YHWH further communicates this fact when says that he would return in the future and Sarah would already be with child (Gen 18:14). In other words, the verse affirms what God did for Sarah then, i.e., that he caused her to become pregnant during that visit.
Either way, the cryptic allusion to God’s visit to Sarah implies that contact with, or proximity to, the divine was necessary for her to conceive. This need not be understood as something sexual in the style of a god seducing a human woman like we find in Greek myths. In fact, nothing in the Isaac story implies lust on the part of the divine being, but only grace towards an elderly barren woman, married to one of YHWH’s faithful worshipper’s.
The birth of Isaac is not the only place in the Bible in which a divine or angelic conception is implied.
- When Eve names Cain (Gen 4:1), she explains his name by saying “I have created a man with YHWH” (קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת יְ-הוָה).
- The children of God (בני אלוהים) are said to have propagated with women and produced giants (Gen 6:1-4).
- The Second Temple works, 1 Enoch (106) and Genesis Apocryphon (col. 2) both describe how Noah’s father, Lamech, was worried that Noah was the product of a divine being and not his own son.
- Samson seems to be the product of a union between Manoach’s wife and a visiting angel.
Unlike the children of God account, nothing carnal is implied in the Isaac story, only that Sarah needed to be in physical proximity to the deity in order for the miraculous conception to take effect.
Philo’s “Mystery of Isaac”
Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE-50CE), the most influential Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, explicitly read the account of Isaac’s birth as referring to divine conception. He believed that an important philosophical “mystery” inhered in the story of Isaac’s birth. Isaac represents joy (his name means “laughter”), because he is one with the power behind the universe. This is because Isaac is actually God’s son and not Abraham’s:
[W]hen happiness, that is Isaac, was born, she says, in the pious exaltation, "The Lord has caused me laughter, and whoever shall hear of it shall rejoice with Me." Open your ears, therefore, O ye initiated, and receive the most sacred mysteries. Laughter is joy; and the expression, "has caused," is equivalent to "has begotten." So that what is here said has some such meaning as this, "The Lord has begotten Isaac." (Allegorical Laws, 3:219, Yonge trans.)
And I will bring forward as a competent witness in proof of what I have said, the most holy Moses. For he introduces Sarah as conceiving a son when God beheld her by himself; but he represents her as bringing forth her son, not to him who beheld her then, but to him who was eager to attain to wisdom, and his name is called Abraham. (On the Cherubs, 45, Yonge trans.)
In one passage (On the Change of Names, 131), Philo even calls Isaac “God’s son” (υἱὸς θεοῦ). Howard Schwartz, a scholar of Bible and Jewish thought, explains Philo’s exegesis:
How does Philo arrive at this explanation? He interprets Sarah’s comment that “God has caused me laughter” (Gen. 21:6) to mean that the Lord has begotten Isaac. He interprets “has caused” to mean “begotten,” and he substitutes Isaac for “laughter,” since “Isaac” means “laughter,” referring to Sarah’s laughter in Genesis 18:12, when the angel said that she would have a child even though Sarah was 90 years old.
Although Philo is more interested in the philosophical implications of this divine conception, he is basing it on a reading of the text similar to the one suggested above.
From Philo to Paul
Paul of Tarsus (c. 5-67 C.E.) appears to have shared this idea. His letter to the Galatians states:
4:22 …It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 4:23 One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise.
In explaining Paul’s exegesis, Daniel Boyarin writes:
It should be noted that in the biblical text, it is not stated that Abraham “knew Sarah his wife” after the “annunciation.” There may have even been, then, a tradition that the conception of Isaac was entirely by means of the promise… The point would be that Hagar had sex with a man in order to conceive, but Sarah did not!
Paul was likely influenced by Philo’s thinking here, whether directly (Philo was an older contemporary of Paul) or because Philo’s allegories were “in the air” among Hellenistic Jews reading the Pentateuch.
Purging Divine Conception from Judaism
Ironically, Paul’s adoption of Philo’s reading, and his application of the concept to Jesus, likely sealed its fate among Jewish interpreters. The New Testament traditions of Jesus’ birth through the holy spirit (Math 1:18, Luke, 1:35) rendered any such idea anathema, even as applied to Isaac and even without the connotations of divinity familiar from Christian theology. Jewish tradition thus permanently rejected Philo’s “mystery of Isaac,” nevertheless, certain clues in the text point to the possibility that Philo was reading the Torah correctly all along.
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October 31, 2018
November 17, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser is Rabbi Emeritus of the Elmont Jewish Center and retired Adjunct Associate Professor at Hofstra University, NY. He earned his Smicha at Yeshiva University and his PhD in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University, NY.
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