Genesis 18:1-15 - link to the NRSV text
“Where is Sarah?”
It is at this point the story of Abraham and the three visitors turns. Up to this point, Abraham has been the actor, the one who is doing things. Abraham runs to greet them, he bows, he implores them to accept his hospitality, he hastens to the tent to ask Sarah to bake bread, he runs to the herd and gives it to the servant-boy, he takes curd and milk and he serves the strangers. Even as they wait, he “waited on them under the tree” (Gen 18:8 NJPS).
Abraham was active; he was active in provide hospitality for these strangers who are latter revealed to be messengers from God. Abraham meets God through his hospitality to these strangers, even when he wasn’t expecting it. And I have heard many a sermon and devotional that make this the main point of the story: through Abraham’s hospitality to the strangers, Abraham actually served God. Thus, we too should show hospitality and care to strangers in our midst because in doing so we also serve God. Jesus hinted at this idea in his parable of the sheep and the goats: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).
And that’s not a bad concept, in fact its one that we need to hear. But to reduce this story to that point is to take away from the narrative flow itself. For eight verses Abraham is the actor, showing hospitality, but this hospitality is not anything groundbreaking. In reality, all Abraham is doing is what was culturally expected of him. Abraham didn’t do it because he thought that he might be serving God in doing so, he did it because it was what you did.
In fact, Thomas Bolin has argued that by showing hospitality, the host showed dominance over the guest in order to assimilate them peacefully into the community. The guest played their part in accepting the hospitality in order to defuse the possibility of violent conflict. Yet, as Bolin points out, the function of this host-guest relationship is subverted in tales when the guest takes the form of the ‘divine visitor.’ The dominant role of the host is subverted by the divine nature of the guest, which leads to a moment of theophany, a revelation of the divine nature of this encounter (see Bolin, Thomas M. “The Role of Exchange in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and Its Implications for Reading Genesis 18-19," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2004, 44-46).
The truth is that Abraham was playing his cultural role, a role that was snatched away and turned on its head. The reader of the text senses the moment of dramatic irony when the guest opens their mouth in verse 9; the supposed host Abraham is shown to truly be the guest when the messenger asks, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Sarah’s name is never given to the strangers earlier in the story, hinting at the deeper insight that these strangers have.
This insight is compounded just verses later when the text tells us that, having overhead one of the strangers promise that she will bear a son within a year, “Sarah laughed to herself,” or literally “Sarah laughed in her middle/belly.” This could potentially even be translated “laughed in her womb” (cf. Gen 25:22). Yet somehow the stranger knows that she laughed even though everything indicates this was a private moment within Sarah herself. The strangers are revealed to be something other, something more than mere travelers. They are revealed to be emissaries of God, representatives of the divine, word-bringers entering into the life of Abraham and Sarah and bearing witness to God’s promise on their behalf.
All of this: Abraham’s actions as host, the strangers’ promise to Abraham and Sarah that a child will be born, Sarah’s disbelief and doubt all build up to the climax of this story, found in verse 14: “Is anything too wondrous for the LORD?” This is the crux of the story, the moment where the human and the divine meet. It’s the primal question of God’s people, the question that echoes in all our places of doubt and disbelief when we wonder at the promises of God.
In this story we have a powerful example of where humanity often finds itself when it sits in the presence of God: we are in a place of laughter. Not the laughter of joy and happiness, but the laughter of disbelief and astonishment. “Why did Sarah laugh?” Because it is what we humans do when faced with the possibility of more than what our limited minds can grasp. We often know no other way to be in those circumstances; we are incredulous in our laughter, unwilling or unable to accept the idea that God might actually accomplish what God has promised.
And I believe God respects that. I look here in the text and see God, not chastising Sarah for her laughter, but acknowledging her disbelief while at the same time proclaiming the promise and the hope. And God would not let her shrink from the honest emotion of disbelief, seeing through her lie of “I did not laugh” with the simple rebuttal, “Yes, you did laugh.” In a way, maybe what God was saying to Sarah was that, “I know it’s hard to believe what I have promised. Everything about this seems topsy-turvy to the ways of the world. You did laugh, but that’s okay. You’re not the first, nor the last, to laugh at what seems impossible. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
What are the things we find ourselves laughing at? What promises of God do we find ourselves incredulous about possibly being true? What gets a wry chuckle of disbelief when we read the hopes for this world expressed in the Scriptures? Or, put another way, where are the promises of God at work, and in what ways, that we do not allow ourselves to believe or even to hope for?