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Tammi J. Schneider

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2021

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Sarah, Afraid of Abraham, Denies Laughing

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Tammi J. Schneider

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Sarah, Afraid of Abraham, Denies Laughing

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Sarah, Afraid of Abraham, Denies Laughing

When Sarah overhears that she and Abraham will have a baby, she laughs and when confronted, denies it for fear of Abraham’s reaction. After all, Abraham has consistently put her in jeopardy, neglected her, and was content with Ishmael, Hagar’s son, as his heir.

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Sarah, Afraid of Abraham, Denies Laughing

Abram's Counsel to Sarai, James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum

While Abraham is encamped at Mamre, YHWH appears to him (Gen 18:1), followed by a visit from three men (v. 2),[1] one of whom may actually be YHWH in disguise.[2]  Abraham prepares a feast for the men, instructing Sarah to make cakes (v. 6).  The men eat together outside the tent, but Sarah is not part of the meal. While the men are eating, they ask after Sarah and learn that she is in the tent (v. 9).

At this point, speaking together under the tree outside the tent, one of the men—the text never specifies which, but simply moves from masculine plural to masculine singular[3]—tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son next year, while Sarah is listening from inside the tent.

בראשׁית יח:י וַיֹּאמֶר שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וְהִנֵּה בֵן לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו.
Gen 18:10 Then he said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him.

The narrator next informs us that Abraham and Sarah are old and she has stopped menstruating (v. 11), clarifying to the reader that it would be miraculous for Sarah to become pregnant.

Sarah’s Laugh and YHWH’s Response

In response, Sarah laughs to herself:

בראשׁית יח:יב וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן.
Gen 18:12 Sarah laughed within herself saying, “After I am worn-out, there will be to me joy, and my husband old!”

The word עֶדְנָה means “joy, delight, or bliss,” and in the context of conceiving a child, carries a sexual connotation.[4] Sarah’s reference to being worn out suggests knowledge that she cannot conceive as other women do, which fits with the description of her husband as “old,” i.e., unable to perform. The idea of re-kindling the sexual relationship, and even having a baby, strikes Sarah as amazing, and likely exciting.

Outside the tent, YHWH—who either suddenly appears or is one of the guests in disguise—tells Abraham about Sarah’s reaction:

בראשׁית יח:יג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי. יח:יד הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְ־הוָה דָּבָר לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
Gen 18:13 Then YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’[5] 18:14 Is anything too wondrous for YHWH? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Someone, either one of the messengers who is YHWH or YHWH suddenly appearing in some form referring to himself in 3rd person, reiterates the promise.[6]

Sarah’s Denial and the Response

Though YHWH’s accusation was spoken to Abraham, Sarah responds. We do not know if she overheard some or all of YHWH’s speech, or if someone—Abraham? YHWH? A Messenger? All of them?—confronted her afterwards. All we know, is that she believes she has been accused of having laughed, and to this, she responds, this time, not to herself but out loud:

בראשׁית יח:טוa וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי כִּי יָרֵאָה
Gen 18:15a Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened.

The text does not give us the staging here. Are we to picture her blurting this out from inside the tent, or entering the presence of the feasting men? What the text does tell us is why she lies, namely, because she is frightened, but it doesn’t say of whom she is frightened.

In the final half verse of this story, someone responds to Sarah’s denial:

בראשׁית יח:טוb וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא כִּי צָחָקְתְּ.
Gen 18:15b But he replied, “You did laugh.”

The verb is in masculine singular, but who is the speaker?

YHWH Responds to Sarah?

YHWH is the last-named male speaker (v. 13), leading many interpreters to view YHWH as responding to Sarah. Thus, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translates Dominus autem… inquit, “but the LORD said,” and the NJPS translation uses the capital He.

The Talmud Yerushalmi also understands the speaker as YHWH, and sees God’s direct response as a sign of respect for Sarah (j. Sotah 7:1):

ר' יוחנן בשם ר' אליעזר ב"ר שמעון אומר, לא מצינו שדבר הקב"ה עם אשה אלא עם שרה בלבד, שנאמר ויאמר לא כי צחקת
R. Yohanan in the name of R. Eliezer the son of R. Shimon says: “We do not find that the Holy One, praised be He, spoke with a woman other than Sarah alone,[7] as it says ‘and He said, ‘no, but you did laugh.’’”

Similarly, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan understands the speaker as YHWH’s angel (not YHWH himself), but suggests he is trying to conciliate her here:

ואמר מלאכא לא תידחלין ארום בקושטא גחכת.
The angel said: “Do not be afraid, though you really did laugh.”

These readings turn what is seemingly a rebuke into something positive. This reimagining, however, highlights the problematic nature of YHWH rebuking Sarah in this scene.

Abraham Also Laughed

In chapter 17,[8] God states categorically to Abram, now renamed Abraham, that Sarai, now renamed Sarah, will be the mother of the covenantal child:

בראשית יז:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ. יז:טז וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ.
Gen 17:15 And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. 17:16 I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” 

After God makes this announcement, Abraham’s response is to fall on his face and laugh out loud: 

בראשית יז:יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד.
Gen 17:17 Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

Here Abraham reacts similar to how Sarah will in the next chapter, but worse:

  • Abraham is in front of God; Sarah is by herself.
  • Abraham laughs out loud; Sarah laughs to herself.[9]

The reason both of them laugh is similar: each thinks that Abraham is too old to perform and Sarah too old to conceive. And yet, there is an important difference: Sarah expresses surprise at the prospect, as well as excitement; she does not express doubt about the possibility of this occurring. In contrast, Abraham’s phrasing expresses doubt. This is further implied in his next statement:

בראשית יז:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ.
Gen 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”

Ishmael is enough, Abraham says, no need to try for the impossible. God responds without an explicit rebuke, but does say that the child should be named after Abraham’s laugh:

בראשית יז:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן וְקָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִצְחָק וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו.
Gen 17:19 God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak/Isaac (“He Laughs”); and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.”

God then reiterates the promise and even says when it will happen, using the same words that will be used in the next chapter with Sarah:

בראשית יז:כא וְאֶת בְּרִיתִי אָקִים אֶת יִצְחָק אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד לְךָ שָׂרָה לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה בַּשָּׁנָה הָאַחֶרֶת.
Gen 17:21 But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.

Naturally, Abraham is not at all surprised when the messengers make their announcement, nor does he laugh, since he already knows about Sarah’s immanent pregnancy from the earlier revelation. Sarah’s reaction, however, shows that she is learning this for the first time. Abraham, apparently, never informs her of the earlier revelation,[10] yet further evidence that Abraham didn’t really believe the promise.

Was YHWH Really Criticizing Sarah?

In this context, we can reevaluate the scene of the promise and YHWH’s ostensible criticism of Sarah. When YHWH reveals Sarah’s reaction to him, Abraham could have responded: “I have not yet told Sarah about this promise, so she has now learned it for the first time. Remember, I also laughed when I first heard it.”

Yet, despite Abraham’s willingness to push back against God in other stories—his defense of Sodom (Gen 18:23–32), his complaint about his lack of children (Gen 15:2­–3), his doubts about whether he will really inherit the land (Gen 15:8)—here he says nothing to defend Sarah.

Moreover, Abraham could have understood YHWH’s criticism here to be aimed not at Sarah but at him: “Why is Sarah laughing? Didn’t you tell her already?” In fact, there would have been no need for this visit at all, had Abraham informed her YHWH’s promise. But Abraham does not apologize for not informing her.

Is Sarah Talking Back to YHWH?

In contrast to Abraham’s silence, Sarah responds by defending herself by denying having laughed. But why isn’t Sarah afraid to lie directly to YHWH?

Here we come to an important point, first made by Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, ca. 1194–1270), and expanded upon by R. Bahya ben Asher (1255–1340): Sarah does not know that YHWH is speaking. Unlike Abraham, Sarah has never spoken to YHWH before, nor can she see the speaker:

שרה אמנו שהיתה צדקת היאך אפשר שלא האמינה דברי המלאך והלא נביאה היתה.... ועוד לא די שלא האמינה אלא היתה מכחשת אחר שאמר לו המלאך למה זה צחקה שרה.
Our mother Sarah was a righteous woman, so how could it be that she didn’t believe the words of the angel. Was she not herself a prophetess?!... Furthermore, not only doesn’t she believe [the message], but she actually denies [laughing] after the angel said to Abraham “why did Sarah laugh”?
והתשובה בזה כי אברהם אבינו ידע שהיו אנשים והכיר בחכמתו בהם שהיו מלאכים... אבל ההכרה והידיעה הזאת לא היתה בשרה, והיתה סבורה שהיו אנשים כשאר אנשים ולא האמינה לדבריהם וע"כ צחקה.
The explanation for this is that our father Abraham knew who these men were, and recognized that they were angels… but Sarah did not have this knowledge and recognition, and she thought these were just regular people, like any other people, and didn’t believe what they said. Therefore, she laughed.

As noted above, in my reading Sarah is not expressing disbelief at all. But even in R. Bahya’s reading, Sarah’s belief or disbelief is beside the point. It is not that Sarah didn’t believe YHWH could do such a miracle, only that she didn’t know it was YHWH talking, did not know the guests were divine messengers, and the image of this elderly couple having a baby seemed comical to her. The idea also seemed comical to Abraham in chapter 17, but unlike Sarah, Abraham knew it was God talking.

Sarah Is Afraid of Abraham’s Reaction

Given that she does not know the men are divine messengers, why does Sarah deny laughing? The text says she was afraid, but why would she be afraid of random guests who will be leaving after the meal? The answer, R. Bahya notes, is that she fears Abraham’s reaction:

ומה שהיתה מכחשת שלא צחקה, עשתה כן מפני פחד אברהם,
The fact that she lied and said she did not laugh, she did this because she was afraid of Abraham.

Sarah has reason to fear her husband.

Abandoned by Abraham, Saved by YHWH

Abraham has repeatedly placed Sarah in unsafe and uncomfortable situations and will continue to do so after this chapter. When they go to Egypt, Abram asks her to pretend to be his sister, and she ends up being taken by Pharaoh. Instead of trying to save her, he takes the opportunity to amass wealth and gifts. YHWH intervenes by plaguing Pharaoh, who releases Sarai.

Later, after Sarai gives Abram her slave-woman Hagar to bear him a son, Abram looks on as Hagar treats Sarai with disrespect. Sarai rebukes him and calls on YHWH to support her:

בראשית טז:ה וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל אַבְרָם חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ יִשְׁפֹּט יְ־הוָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ.
Gen 16:5 And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. YHWH decide between you and me!”

Sarai trusts YHWH to be on her side when her husband is not.

Her fears seem to be confirmed when, after God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son, Abraham’s only response is to suggest Ishmael is good enough. After calming Abraham’s fears about Ishmael’s future, God reiterates that Isaac will be the covenantal child, but, as noted above, Abraham seems skeptical, and doesn’t even tell Sarah about the promise that she will have a son. This is what brings about the visit in chapter 18, but even after his visit, and the announcement that Sarah will give birth within the year (ch. 18), this negative pattern continues.

In Genesis 20, Abraham again pretends Sarah is his sister, and does not interfere when Abimelech marries her. His actions imply that he is not all that interested in her bearing him a son despite the divine promise. Again, God saves her, warning Abimelech in a dream that she is Abraham’s wife, and closing the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s household because of Sarah (Gen 20:18). 

With Isaac’s birth in chapter 21, YHWH fulfills the promise to Sarah,

בראשית כא:א וַי־הוָה פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ יְ־הוָה לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.
Gen 21:1 YHWH took note of Sarah as He had promised, and YHWH did for Sarah as He had spoken.

Sarah expresses her gratitude (Gen 21:6), צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים “Elohim has brought me laughter.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the relationship of Sarah with God.

Later, Sarah is afraid that Ishmael will inherit with Isaac and demands that Abraham kick Hagar and her son out of the house. When Abraham shows reluctance, Elohim states categorically (Gen 21:12), כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ “all that Sarah tells you to do, listen to her voice.” Finally, Abraham accepts God’s command to sacrifice this son without an argument, and is only stopped from carrying this out by a divine messenger.

In short, Sarah has ample reason to fear for her safety if Abraham gets angry with her. It thus seems clear that, while even if she is contradicting the messenger—who unbeknownst to her is YHWH—it is Abraham she is trying to convince. Such a reading leads to a reevaluation of the final half verse.

Who Rebuked Sarah?

Many interpreters, as noted above, assume it is YHWH (or YHWH’s messenger) that pushes back against Sarah’s denial, because YHWH was the last referenced (masc. sg.) speaker. And yet, as already observed, elsewhere this text jumps speakers (from plural to singular) without noting the shift. Abraham, therefore, could just as easily be the speaker, grammatically speaking, and such a reading also fits better with the overall narrative arc.

As discussed in the previous section, it would be uncharacteristic of YHWH to be hard on Sarah here, since throughout the Abraham and Sarah stories, YHWH is always on her side. Abraham, however, has an easy time abandoning Sarah when situations become tense. Thus, as noted by R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.), it seems more likely that the speaker is Abraham:

ויאמר – אברהם. לא – כמה שאת אומרת. כי צחקת – כי הקב"ה נאמן יותר ממך.
“And he said”—Abraham. “No”—it isn’t as you say. “For you laughed”—for the Holy One is more trustworthy than you.”[11]

A similar interpretation can be found in Nahmanides’ and R. Bahya’s readings, who assume that Sarah did not overhear YHWH’s message, but instead, Abraham went into the tent and confronted her (again I quote from R. Bahya):

וחשבה כי אברהם היה אומר כן בהכרת פניה, וכאשר נתחזק בדברו באמרו לא כי צחקת אז הוברר לה כי מאת הש"י ידע זה בנבואה ושתקה.
She thought that Abraham was only guessing because of the look on her face, but when he responded and said, “no you did laugh,” then she realized that it was from God that he knew this, through prophecy, and she was quiet.

In sum, while the staging is unclear, and the grammar is not definitive, reading Abraham as the speaker makes much more sense in the context of the biblical narrative.

When YHWH informs Abraham of Sarah’s laugh, he is not trying to rebuke Sarah; if anything, YHWH is rebuking Abraham.  Nevertheless, as was his pattern with Sarah from the beginning, Abraham turns on her to protect himself, and instead of using this as an opportunity to apologize for his own laughter, or to defend his wife as being as human as he was, he allows the ostensible criticism to stand.

When Sarah comes to defend herself, in fear of what Abraham will do if he believes the story, Abraham turns on her and repeats what he interprets to be YHWH’s criticism, expressing it as his own. Thus, a story that could have been redemptive ends unpleasantly, hinting to the reader that the problems between Abraham and Sarah are far from over.[12]

Published

October 20, 2021

|

Last Updated

December 2, 2022

Footnotes

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Prof. Tammi J. Schneider is Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She holds a Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania and her work draws together archaeology, Assyriology, biblical studies, and gender studies, in an effort to understand the interactions among various peoples in the ancient Near East. She is the author of Judges (Berit Olam, 2000), Sarah: Mother of Nations (Continuum, 2004), Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Baker, 2008), and An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Religion (Eerdmans, 2011).

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