Sarah's Laughter

Author: Nuria Calduch-Benages

Sarah's Laughter

Nuria Calduch-Benages*

Sarai is one of Israel’s matriarchs who, along with Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, contributed to the birth of its people and the construction of its identity and memory. The patriarchal history as recounted in Genesis is not, as some would claim, merely the history of the patriarchs, but also of the matriarchs, the privileged beneficiaries of the divine promise. The first information we have of Sarai is in the genealogy of Terah, the father of her husband, Abram. There we come to know of the tragedy that troubles her heart: “Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Gen 11:30). In Israel, as in all cultures in antiquity, barrenness was a humiliation and a sign of a curse for a woman, who felt rejected by society, by her loved ones and even by God. Aware of her inability to become a mother, a sterile woman was condemned to live out a nightmare day after day. A prisoner in her own body and soul, she continued to exist enveloped in an aura of death.

After receiving God’s call, Abram — at the age of 75 and with a sterile wife — went from Haran and traveled with his whole family toward an unknown land, where they arrived after a long and arduous journey. Yet as this land was afflicted by famine, Abram decided to go to Egypt to escape the drought. Finding himself in a strange land and fearing for his life, he asks his wife traveling with him to lie to the Egyptians and claim to be his sister. “Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account” (Gen 12:13). Sarai neither reacts nor responds. The author leads us to believe that she is the victim of an egotistical husband who is concerned only with himself. Instead, Sarai sacrifices herself for him and consents to the deceit, without thinking of herself and the danger to which she is exposed. Indeed, she does not go unnoticed among the Egyptians, who take her and present her to the pharaoh. The problem is thus resolved for Abram — who is even showered with every kind of gift — but this is obviously not the case for Sarai, who ends up in the sovereign’s harem. At this point the Lord intervenes, and — displeased with what has happened and above all with the cowardice that Abram shows his wife — ensures that the deceit is discovered and Sarai is freed.

After this ordeal the journey continues but Sarai presses forward bearing within herself the weight of her barrenness, a burden that becomes evermore unbearable and demoralizing. Even Abram in his own way suffers because of the situation and wishes it were different. One day, although without mentioning his wife’s name, he complains to the Lord: “what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless” (Gen 15:1-2). Many promises have been made to him these past 10 years, among them a line of descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars of heaven, but it remained a fact that his first child had not yet come. Sarai too is tired of waiting and laments before God. It is God who. is at fault, it is he who has locked up her womb and seems to have lost the key that might have opened it. Worse yet, perhaps for some reason unbeknownst to her, he has the key but does not want to use it. Nevertheless, Sarai does not resign herself to being an “incomplete” woman and instead takes the initiative.

She decides to resolve the matter and since, in her opinion, God has turned his back on her, Sarai looks to her husband for help. “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Sarai’s supplication expresses her unsatisfied desire for motherhood and Abram, without saying a word, consents without hesitation to placate his wife, even if it means bringing another woman into their conjugal relationship. Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, expressed the same desire. Like Sarai, Rachel begged her husband: “Give me children or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1). And like Sarai, Rachel convinces her husband to consort with one of her slaves through whom she might become a mother. According to Mesopotamian law a barren spouse could present her husband with a slave and acknowledge the children of this union as her own. Even if it is not possible to demonstrate, as some would claim, that this was common practice in Israel, the author presents it as a solution for female barrenness. In this way a barren woman was able to have legitimate children even though they were not biologically hers.

The fact is that Hagar, Sarai’s slave, conceives and instead of being a reason to rejoice, her pregnancy becomes a source of suffering for Sarai, who cannot bear the slave’s arrogance toward her: “And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen 16:4). From that moment the rivalry between the two women grew and household life became a living hell. Hagar now boasts of bearing Abram’s child in her womb and Sarai does not cease to mistreat her. Terrorized by her mistress, Hagar finally decides to flee into the desert. There she encounters the Lord who listens to her distress and convinces her to return. Although a slave, she too has an important mission to fulfil. When Abram is 86, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God listens” (cf. Gen 16:15-16).

Thirteen years after the birth of Abram’s first child, the Lord establishes a covenant with him, and from that moment onward he is called Abraham, a name that is the promise of fruitfulness: “Father of a multitude of nations”. Sarai’s name is also changed. From Sarai she becomes Sarah, which in Hebrew means princess. The name change not only means a change of destiny but also of the attitude toward life and the future. Opening themselves to the divine plan, the two spouses are willing to begin a new chapter in their lives. Yet more important than name change is the promise the Lord renews to Abraham: Sarah will bear him a child (cf. Gen 17:16). Abraham, who is 100 years old, cannot contain his laughter at these words. Sarah has the same reaction when she hears the unknown guest announce her pregnancy: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10). Sarah laughs knowing her opportunity to have children is long since past: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen 18:12). The guest is displeased by her incredulous and ironic laughter and challenges her: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14). It is only upon hearing these words that Sarah discovers the identity of the guest. The conversation which begins as one between the three guests and Abraham, all of them male, in the end becomes a conversation between the Lord and Sarah, the bearer of the promise.

At first glance it may seem that the Lord’s rumination on the fact that Sarah laughed (“No, but you did laugh” Gen 18:15) is meant to reprimand her. Nonetheless, Sarah’s laughter is in fact a foreshadowing of the name of the son who is to come. He will be named Isaac, which means “child of laughter”. After giving birth to her much desired son, Sarah explains with a play on words her experience with God: “God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me. [...] Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen 21:6-7). At last, the Lord opened her womb and Sarah laughed with joy, a true and profound joy because, incredibly, her dream has become real. The impossible has happened. She has become a mother and thus now she is a complete and fulfilled woman who is no longer ashamed in front of anyone. Sarah is restored to life.

Isaac’s birth is the crowning of a long and burdensome wait, one lived out in doubt and bitterness along a long and arduous journey that has worn out the feet but especially the hearts of these two parents. Everything seems to point to a happy ending of this story, but unfortunately it is not meant to be. Happiness is never complete on this earth. Life goes on and problems persist. Sarah’s joy is crushed immediately after Isaac is weaned, on account of his closeness to Ishmael, the son of Hagar. During the great celebration Abraham gives in honour of his son’s mother, Sarah, seeing Isaac “laughing” with Ishmael, she immediately realizes that her son will not be the principal heir. Ishmael knows he is the first born and this makes him feel superior to his brother in every respect. According to the laws of primogeniture, inheritance belongs to the firstborn even if, as in this case, he is not the son of the beloved wife (cf. Deut 21:17). Seized with jealousy, Sarah demands that Abraham send “this slave and her son away” as if to say that Ishmael is no longer his son. These are her final words. She does not even pronounce their names, she never wants to see them again, nor speak with them again. They disappear forever from her life, thus enabling Isaac to become the single heir. Abraham is not pleased with his wife’s request, but in following the Lord’s counsel he consents. Sarah thus succeeds in casting out Hagar and Ishmael for the second time.

Whereas in the first instance she caused Hagar to flee with the child still in her womb, Sarah now throws them out openly and without scruples. Mother and son are abandoned in the wilderness of Beersheba and thus destined to die. The water in the skin that Abraham gives to Hagar is gone, the child is on the verge of death and his mother cries out in desperation. The Lord hears her cries of thirst and has compassion. He leads them to drink and says to Hagar, “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation” (Gen 21:18). Ishmael is not the promised heir yet for him too the Lord will provide. At this point Sarah disappears from the scene. We do not know how she lived out being distanced from Ishmael or if she even repented of her actions, or if she ever went out to search for her son. These are all suppositions. The last mention made of her is at her death at Hebron when she was 127 years old. Abraham mourned her and wept for her (Gen 23: 1-2).

This meagre account seems sufficient to the author, who tells of how Abraham legally acquired from the Hittites a cave and a field as a burial place for Sarah. Upon closing the transaction, which is of great importance for future land rights, Abraham buried his wife “in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan” (Gen 23:19). It is significant, then, that the first plot of land that Abraham owns in this region is precisely the tomb of Sarah. In this same place Rachel and Leah (Gen 49:31) are also laid to rest. Sarah, the first of the matriarchs and the most noted in the New Testament, was a woman of strength who struggled and suffered to be the bearer of life in a nearly impossible situation. She did not cower when faced with difficulties, even if her manner of overcoming them was not always the most appropriate. She was a woman who doubted God when in darkness, but recognized his authority at the opportune moment. One might say she was a woman caught between light and darkness, as are we all, who has gone down in history as the bearer of the promise.

*Professor of Old Testament at the Pontifical Gregorian University

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 February 2016, page 15

For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano