The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. -- Genesis 18:1-16
Hospitality was one of the hallmarks of desert living in the days of Abraham. Even if your worst enemy showed up at your tent flap, it was beholden of you to take him in, treat him royally for three days and then see him on his way in peace. Abraham found three strangers showed up at Mamre and Abraham practiced the tradition of hospitality as his culture had taught him. He had no idea that these strangers were key to his future.
Sarah, of course, was behind a nearby tent wall. It would be unthinkable for her to take part in the conversation or the meal with strangers, even with Abraham present, but that didn't mean she couldn't hear everything that was said. Her ears must have pricked up when one of the strangers mentioned her by name and asked where she was. Abraham told them and suddenly everything changed for her. This stranger was actually saying he would be back and that she, Sarah the barren, would become pregnant. She and Abraham had tried for years to have a child, in vitro fertilization was several millennia in the future, and Sarah could remember when her menses ended quite a long time ago, so how was this going to happen? She had Hagar's son by Abraham through adoption, but actually bearing a child herself at her age? She did what any reasonable person would do when hearing something totally outrageous, unbelievable, incomprehensible and ridiculous -- she laughed.
The words "laugh" or "laughter" are mentioned a number of times in the Bible; add in "laughingstock" and it comes out to more than 60 times (per my Bible software), including 4 times in just this passage. In almost every mention of the word, the laugh/laughter context is that of scorn or derision. Even God laughs, but always at those who were due for punishment, unbelieving, at enmity with the chosen people, sinning or the like. Abraham laughed when, in the previous chapter, God told him that that he would be the father of of a son at 100 years of age. Is it any wonder Sarah laughed as well? Was it the laughter of derision or scorn, or the laugh of disbelief in the promise of something too incredible to be believed?
I think about how I use laughter. I know I laugh when there is a funny joke or story (although I do have standards as to what I feel is funny). I laugh when I'm embarrassed, when I meet a friend unexpectedly, or to communicate the idea that what I am saying or just said were not meant to be taken personally or seriously. If I'm honest, though, I have to remember that I also laugh at the discomfiture of others when they say, write or do something that is clumsy, ridiculous (to my mind, anyway), or inane. I'm not always kind with my laughter, and I don't like it when people laugh at me for the same reasons I may laugh at them. If God showed up at my front door and told me I would become pregnant at my age, or that I'd won Publisher's Clearing House or written a book that had won a Pulitzer or become best-seller of the year, I'd probably do more than give a quiet giggle or ladylike snort. Still, there would be a modicum of hope that this time, jut this time, there might be truth in the announcement. I have a feeling Sarah had a similar feeling.
There's an old joke that states, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans." The intimation is that God will be highly amused but somewhat derisive or scornful of the feeble ideas I have for myself, my duties and my future. But what if I get it right and the laughter of God is of delight and encouragement? I wonder.
Sarah had her baby, a son she named Isaac ("laughter"), and rejoiced that others around her would laugh with her. The laughter of disbelief had become the laughter of delight, like the winning of the Clearinghouse and the Pulitzer and more all at once.
Perhaps I should remember the other positive mentions of laughter in the Bible, "...a time to weep and a time to laugh," (Eccl. 3:4) and " Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (Luke 6:21c). No derision or scorn there, just encouragement to see beyond the immediate and the promise of joy to come. And the reminder that nothing is too great for God, whether it is an elder woman bearing a live child (which is more and more common today), or winning a prize.
Next time when someone tells me something that seems too improbable, maybe I should check for barely discernible wings before I laugh too loudly?
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, January 28, 2012, under the title "Laughter".