Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve skipped over a lot of Abraham’s story to get to this point in the text: several reiterations of divine promises (chapter 13, 15 – which first uses the “covenant” terminology – and chapter 17, which explicitly includes Sarah, and the institution of circumcision, and the promise of Isaac, at which Abraham laughs), the complicated #MeToo story of chapter 16, and Abraham’s frenetic activity and lavish hospitality at the beginning of the episode related in chapter 18. When YHWH, in the form of three mysterious men [we all know these are angels] shows up as Abraham is camping by the Oaks of Mamre (which might be a person’s name, or might be a traditional holy site – it depends on whose comments one reads).
By this time Abraham and Sarah have been waiting since chapter 12, about 25 years, for the materialization of the promises made in 12:1-4 and repeated at various points. That is, a long time. Long enough to have given up on these promises being fulfilled in any ordinary way, and even to have tried to give them a hand by taking extraordinary measures.
Our portion of the text also skips over the part of the story that deals with Sodom (the rest of 18 and 19), and the episode of Abraham and Sarah in the court of Abimelech (chapter 20). We are being encouraged to focus on the part of the text that deals with Sarah, God’s communication with Sarah, and Sarah’s response to the miraculous event of Isaac’s conception and birth.
How we picture the passage of time and people’s ages between the beginning of chapter 21 and the beginning of chapter 23 seems to vary, again, by commentator. All told, the horrific events yet to come in chapters 21-23 are presented as taking place over 37 years.
CLOSER READING: From the perspective of action, Sarah is emphatically the focus of this part of the text; she is the subject of most of the sentences, does most of the action, and has two substantial speeches.
She manages to do this while being physically off stage, because she is “in the tent” – as would befit the modest wife of the Bronze Age patriarch. But engaged and well within earshot of the angel’s announcement in v10. The angel clearly makes the announcement for Sarah’s benefit, since Abraham already knows everything the angel says (from Genesis 17:15-21). It seems to come as a surprise to Sarah. Does this mean Abraham hasn’t told her what happened in the last chapter? Or, not yet? (Why not?)
The story in chapter 18 unfolds so perfectly, stage by stage, it’s a little gem of the storyteller’s art. The angel establishes Sarah’s presence, makes the announcement, Sarah was listening, and then the narrator reminds us in one sentence that goes from bad to worse to worst that the announcement is nonsense. At least on the basis of any practical experience or reasonable inference from that.
“So Sarah laughed to herself,” literally within herself, we might think silently – if we think that, it underscores the wondrous elements in the scene, because it would mean the angel/YHWH perceives what is hidden from the human observer.
We might notice that Sarah’s laughter is doubly hidden, in the tent and within herself.
Her speech to herself identifies “pleasure”, or “delight,” a word that seems to have the sense of something fine, luxury, first class – something good – as the import of the speech. She is literally “worn out” while her husband is “old.”
There’s an emphasis on the verb laugh, which now repeats three more times, and which provides an occasion for the speaker, now identified as YHWH, to repeat the announcement of the birth of a son.
The rabbis say that YHWH’s speech in v14 proves that household peace is worth a lot, because YHWH reports Sarah’s speech as saying “I am old” when she had said “my husband is old” – inference, if Abraham knew Sarah had said he was old there would be some tension. Although, for that matter, Abraham knows he’s old.
V14 poses a rhetorical question, because everyone knows nothing is “too wonderful” for YHWH.
What is happening in v15 is a little mysterious. Is Sarah speaking directly to YHWH? Through Abraham? Out loud, or silently? YHWH addresses her as “you”, so that seems pretty direct.
Her theory of mind, which we already know from v13 doesn’t work in this case, leads her astray, so she pointlessly denies her laughter, “because she was afraid” – a rare little piece of psychology, and we might ask ourselves, what is she afraid of? That now it won’t happen after all? That she jinxed it? Or something else?
Skipping ahead to 21, v1 presents YHWH’s actions of dealing and doing as concerning Sarah.
V3 is more dramatic in Hebrew: “And he called, Abraham, the name of his son, who was born to him, that she bore to him, Sarah, Isaac.” So that “Isaac” is as climactic here as he is in the narrative overall. Because Isaac is not Abraham’s only child. But he is Sarah’s only child, Abraham’s only child with Sarah.
Abraham gives Isaac his name (v3) and circumcises him (v4) according to instructions. And then Sarah has two speeches. More repetition of laughter, the play on words that links the name Isaac to this act of disbelief and joy and surprise and delight.
When she says (another rhetorical question) “Who would ever have said Sarah would nurse children?” she uses a rare, old word – maybe something like “who would ever have uttered such a thing” or “spake” such a thing … her speech is a song or a poem, a lyric, a dramatization of the moment.
THOUGHTS: There are not that many moments of pure happiness in this story. Let’s enjoy them while we can.