God announced that she, a 90 year old woman past her childbearing years, would have a child same time next year, and she laughed.
She laughed at God.
To herself, of course. Not out loud. But God being God, God heard.
And then she claims, when called on it, that she did not laugh, because, the narrator says, she was afraid…
So many questions arise in this short scene, which strikes me as one of two episodes of holy chutzpah in this parasha: (The other is Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom.)
- Who WERE these men? Angels. God? Did Avraham and Sarah recognize God when God appeared?
- Whom or what was she afraid of?
- What does this short scene have to say about Sarah and Avraham’s marriage?
- Is God a good marriage counselor?
Sarah is such a complex figure – a woman of beauty, loyalty, fierceness, strength, courage… whose behavior is sometimes less than exemplary. She acts so often out of fear. And she has so much to be afraid of:
- Her husband moves her away from everything she knows to answer a call she may or may not hear. In fact, this small scene is the only time we know she and God are in conversation and plenty of commentary claims that God speaks only to Avraham, not to her.
- Her husband pimps her out for his own protection. God saves her both times. How safe would you feel around your husband?
- Then, after she does the conventional thing in response to her infertility (and imagine the pain of infertility back then)… by offering her maidservant. (Let’s not get into the ethics of that for now…) her maidservant displays some arrogance of her own…
My biblical history teacher, Prof. Marv Sweeney, made the point over and over that harem politics play into so many experiences of the women in the bible – what we might call now, oppressed people not able to express themselves directly and oppressing others… Where you stood (or lay?) was not always a secure place. Even if you had been the first wife, the only wife, the favored wife – all that could change with a birth, especially a birth of a son.
I can imagine Sarah scared, concerned, unused to such treatment from those around her, afraid of being pushed out in her old age or her son, the second son, being less loved than the first. It’s not ideal behavior, by any means, yet it is another example of what we do when we respond in fear. Understandable but truly an object lesson for us.
Imagine hearing that you will bear a child, after all those years of trying, after the way of women has ended for you, after you’ve given your husband a child by another woman! And, likely, given her inner thoughts – it’s been years since physical intimacy with your husband. Wouldn’t laughter escape? And the thought of some physical pleasure – how nice! A little laughter to yourself does not seem out of line.
Commentaries differ about this laughter… the word lits’khok rarely signifies simple laughter of joy. More often it contains some mockery, some derision, some truly bad behavior (we were said to tsakhok during our orgy around the Golden Calf for example). So commentators come back to Sarah and wonder – was Sarah expressing her joy, was she mocking God or was she afraid of being mocked herself?
She and Abraham already lived such a different life than their neighbors, a life apart, and she was likely wary of the additional stares she would get having a baby when she was 91.
I hear her laughter and then her cover-up, and I wonder about their marriage and what it says about marriage in general… how we communicate. Her laughter doesn’t raise God’s wrath. God reads her thoughts. God translates these thoughts to her husband. Left out: “and my lord is old…” let alone the part about pleasure.
But she denies the laughter – because, the text tells us, she is afraid. Of whom? God, her protector? Or Avraham, who seems rarely to understand her or take her into account, without God’s intervention?
Every time there is conflict in this first Jewish marriage, Avraham turns to God for help (how’s that for marriage counseling?). A little later in this parasha, when Sarah is at the point of sending Ishmael and Hagar away for a second time, Avraham turns back to God. And God’s response is: Shema b’kola – listen to her voice is the literal translation. The usual translation is – do as she says, obey her… but in this case, I think “listen to her voice” is the best marriage counseling, and had he really done so, the result might have been different. If he’d listened to her voice, he might have heard her fear, heard her anguish, heard her anger, heard HER. He might have thought to assuage her fears or take some active role beyond sending them away. It’s hard to imagine Avraham getting the fine details of relationships, but listening to her voice might have been a heavenly start.
May we laugh when joy strikes us, when good news comes our way, and may we listen to each other’s voices, really listen. Not just obey, but understand…