The Laughing Mother
Please read Genesis 18:1-15 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
I can’t believe I’ve never preached on this passage before! A mom who laughs at the idea of becoming a mom for the first time at age 90 is a top ten story, especially for Mother’s Day. Inspired by Sarah’s reaction to the birth announcement God delivered personally, I turned to the Internet for some stories of moms with a sense of humor. It took a while, but here are a couple to get us started in the right frame of mind.
Mrs. McEvoy’s little Olivia asked her to write a note to get her out of P.E. To Olivia’s surprise Mom scribbled a quick note, folded it up, and handed it to her daughter with instructions to give it to her P.E. teacher right away.
Here’s what the note said:
“Dear Mr. Whittle,
Olivia has requested I write her a note for P.E. Here it is...
Olivia is perfectly fit and well and able to take part in her P.E. lesson today. The only thing she’s suffering with is a severe case of Bone-idle-itus! Olivia’s complaint is, it’s too cold to participate.
Might I suggest a few extra laps to warm her up??
Please return to Olivia after reading.
Regards, Mrs. McEvoy.”
I doubt Olivia asked her for any other notes for teachers! Another example of a laughing mom was one lady who asked her son what he wanted for his birthday.
“Cash would be great!” he replied.
His mother agreed to this reluctantly, but decided later writing a check would be just too easy. Instead, she emptied out a package of Tootsie Rolls, removing the candy from the wrappers. Then she rolled up 100 one dollar bills and covered them with the empty candy wrappers, returning the whole thing to the bag. Imagine the look on her son’s face when she handed him a bag of Tootsie Rolls and said, “Happy Birthday!” There’s a creative mom who got the last laugh.
God confirmed His covenant with Abraham with the promise of a son for Sarah.
CONTEXT – V. 1 says, The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. The word AGAIN references ch. 17 where God appeared to Abram to make a covenant with him. As a consequence of this covenant, Abram was renamed Abraham and his wife Sarai was renamed Sarah. Mamre was an Amorite chief who befriended Abraham in ch. 14.
Sometime later, Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground. It’s possible the sudden appearance of the three visitors implies they are of divine origin. I’m thinking about how the resurrected Jesus often appeared suddenly amid His disciples. The detail HOTTEST PART OF THE DAY should not be ignored, as this adds to the need for hospitality: relief from the heat.
1. Abraham showed hospitality to his visitors. (3-9)
Abraham offered many acts of hospitality. We cannot over-emphasize the difference between our view of hospitality (which is fairly selfish) and the view of hospitality (a necessity) in Abraham’s culture.
- Respect. BOWING LOW TO THE GROUND (2) and referring to them with the title LORD (3) are both means of welcoming his visitors in a hospitable way.
- Rest in the shade (4) is perfectly understandable given it was the HOTTEST PART OF THE DAY, according to verse 1.
- Water to wash their feet (4) is, as we learn in John’s Gospel, when Jesus .
- The Food (5) Abraham served included ROASTED MEAT (8) from a TENDER CALF (7) was surely an extravagance. (This reminds me of the “fatted calf” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.) Bread made from their BEST FLOUR and from such a large amount (one-half bushel) is also a sign of extravagance. Water and yogurt (or better, “butter), were more typical fare that completed the meal.
- Company. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees. (9) This means that Abraham continued to serve them in the sense of a waiter waiting on them. We should also note that in this culture, covenants were sealed with a meal. God’s covenant with Abraham was announced in chapter seventeen, then confirmed with a meal in chapter eighteen.
I wonder if Abraham knew his visitors were divine messengers and the LORD Himself? The text is inconclusive. We can’t judge by the high quality of the feast Abraham served them; this would’ve been a typical kind of generosity, what they would’ve expected from a tribal chieftain greeting important visitors. Again, in this culture, hospitality was a necessity and a virtue.
But maybe. Abraham addressed the men as LORD, which is what you’d expect him to call God, but the term was a general term of respect. The text (vs. 1, 13-15) refer to THE LORD, which leads us to believe one of the three visitors was God Himself. The implication of the singular article is for the benefit of the reader and does not appear on the lips of Abraham. Personally, I think Abraham may’ve suspected it, and his suspicions were confirmed when the visitors brought for the same promise Abraham had received at the end of the previous chapter.
2. Abraham’s visitors delivered a delightful message. (10-15)
After the meal, it was time to get down to business. In verse nine, the visitors asked “Where is Sarah, your wife?” “She’s inside the tent,” Abraham replied.
It may seem a little odd to me that they would ask for Sarah then not speak to her directly, but that is no doubt proper, according to the custom of the times. A dutiful Oriental wife would not insert herself into a conversation with men. As the text tells us Abraham served the meal (surely unusual), may not have appeared to the visitors at all. This understanding certainly explains the question and Abraham’s answer.
This may’ve been a cultural thing. We’re familiar with how women are to be inconspicuous, even in some cultures in our own time. Or, it may’ve been an Abraham thing. Remember, Abraham had twice tried to pass his wife off as his sister. He did that because he was afraid someone would kill him and take his wife away. Somehow, he thought he had more leverage with a sister than a wife. Abraham may’ve kept Sarah out of sight during the meal because he was afraid a similar situation might result.
In any case, the visitors were content to have her within earshot. They went ahead and delivered the divine message, repeating the promise made in chapter seventeen.
Verse ten: a fantastic promise was made. Then one of them said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!” Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent.
The promise was so fantastic, it was a little hard for Sarah to believe. (11-15) From a human perspective, this was understandable. After all, Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. (11) This is no exaggeration: 17:17 has Abraham referring to himself as being 100 years old and Sarah 90 years old.
We laugh for lots of reasons – joy, surprise, embarrassment, disbelief. In this situation, I believe Sarah laughed out of surprise and disbelief. The text gives us six clues to support this interpretation.
- First, her reaction was meant to be in secret: she laughed silently to herself. Had she known this visitor was God, Sarah may have been more careful. Otherwise, she thought the tent kept her out of sight.
- Second, she gave a reason why its sounded impossible to her: “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” The Hebrew text specifies that the PLEASURE to which Sarah referred was the sex act required to have a child. It may seem funny to our ears to hear a 90 year old lady’s thoughts go there FIRST, but this comment is an example of the unapologetic honesty by which the Bible writers recorded the events of history. If this sounds a little saucy, so what? That’s the way it happened.
- Third, the Lord confronted her about it: Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’” Remember, Sarah laughed SILENTLY. There was no human way for the visitors to have heard that. We might assume her comment was made quietly, in a whisper difficult to hear. The fact that she was heard is evidence that the visitor whom the writer helpfully identifies as THE LORD is demonstrating His omniscience.
- Fourth, the Lord corrected her theology: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” We need to pay some attention to that word HARD. It can also be translated as “impossible, wonderful, marvelous, surpassing.” The LORD Himself is correcting Sarah because she has given Him too little credit. We use the expression, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” With our God, nothing is “too good to be true.” Nothing is beyond His power.
- Fifth, when confronted, she tried to cover it up: Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord said, “No, you did laugh.” Unable to contain herself, this is when Sarah popped out of the tent and defied social convention, inserting herself in the men’s conversation. She protested an innocence that she did not possess. If she’d known these visitors were from heaven, I don’t think she would have reacted the way she did. She was not rebuked for this breach of etiquette, but instead, for trying to cover up her disbelief.
- Sixth, in 17:15-16, Abraham had received this same promise. In 17:17 he LAUGHED TO HIMSELF IN DISBELIEF, but he received no reproof for doing so. I explain the difference by assuming God saw a difference in their hearts and needed to correct Sarah. Also, as the woman having the baby, she needed to be onboard in a way not required of Abraham.
I wonder if Abraham told Sarah about this previous encounter with God and the promise of a baby. On the one hand, you’d think so, the news was so exciting. On the other hand, husbands are often accused of not saying things.
God confirmed His covenant with Abraham with the promise of a son for Sarah.
We need to note how unusual it is for God to appear in person. Much later, during the time of Moses, God declared a death penalty for anyone who beheld him face to face. So, for God to appear, with a couple angels, all taking on very human form, is noteworthy.
Whatever we may think about Sarah laughing, the important thing is that Isaac, the child of promise, was born. The fact that he was born assures us that Sarah had faith and believed the promise she overheard on that day. She came to believe that nothing was too hard for the Lord to accomplish. Her faith received an honoring mention in the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11:11-12.
It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed that God would keep his promise. And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.
Back in ch. 16, Abram and Sarai had tried to take matters into their own hands. Abraham sired a son, Ishmael, by means of Sarai’s maid. Ishmael, however, was not the son of promise. Abram and Sarai needed to wait a bit longer to see God Himself keep His own promise by doing a miracle. As Paul made clear in Romans 4:18-19, both Abraham and Sarah – the laughing parents – are great examples of faith in the face of hope deferred.
Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.
Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, The Pentateuch, 1983, C.F. Keil and F. Delitzch.
The Daily Study Bible Series, Genesis, Vol. 2, 1982, John C.L. Gibson.