The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham

The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham*

Reading: Genesis 17: 1-22

1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I [am] the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.

2 And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

3 And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,

4 As for me, behold, my covenant [is] with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.

5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.

6 And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

10 This [is] my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which [is] not of thy seed.

13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

15 And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah [shall] her name [be].

16 And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be [a mother] of nations; kings of people shall be of her.

17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall [a child] be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?

18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, [and] with his seed after him.

20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.

22 And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

The perception of being the children of Abraham is one that is central to the Jewish religious consciousness. Three times each day, the traditional liturgy begins with a passage that underscores our relationship with "Our God and the God of our fathers." Though the other Patriarchs are mentioned briefly in the prayer, the blessing culminates in words full of meaning: "Sovereign who helps, saves and protects--Blessed are you Lord God, the Shield of Abraham." Converts to Judaism are officially classified as "children of our father Abraham," in fulfilment of the divine pledge that he would become "the father of nations."

Nowhere in traditional Judaism is there an equivalent role assigned to Isaac, Jacob, or even Moses. It was through Abraham that the identity of Israel as a religious community was defined.

Generations of Jewish teachers have striven to identify that special quality of Abraham that made him worthy of initiating a special covenant with God. I wish to share with you here some of the insights that they have brought to bear on this question, along some of my own dubious contributions to it.

The Jewish mystical tradition sees the personalities of the Bible as embodiments of divine qualities and attributes. It is significant that the quality assigned to Abraham was hesedagapé. Indeed, among the many examples that can be adduced from Abraham's conduct, we might mention his urgently challenging God for the lives of the people of Sodom; his readiness to forego his territorial rights in the face of a dispute with Lot's shepherds; and his welcoming in of three strangers on a hot day, as he was convalescing from a painful circumcision.

From the fact that God chose Abraham for such a central task, we might be justified, at the very least, in surmising that selfless hesed is to be a decisive part of the religious personality that is to be associated with the legacy of Abraham.

This very theme was expressed by an ancient Rabbi as an interpretation of Moses' summary of the covenantal history in Deuteronomy 7:

The Lord did not set his love upon you nor choose you because ye were more in number.. But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he swore unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand...

Know therefore that the Lord thy God, He is God; the faithful God who keepeth the covenant and mercy with them that love him"


Rabbi Hiyya encapsulated the lessons of this passage in a comment that, we hope, goes beyond mere wishful thinking:

Israel possess three good qualities: They are shamefaced, they are compassionate and they perform acts of kindness (hesed).

But of course Abraham alone could not have produced a legacy for future generations. In this task he had a capable partner, Sarah. If I may again refer to the insights of the Jewish mystics, Sarah was viewed by them as a representative of the divine presence in the world, the Shekhinah, a concept closely akin to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.

For it is a crucial feature of Jewish piety that the spirit does not remove itself from the marketplace, nor should humans be striving to liberate themselves from involvement in the material world. On the contrary, our role is to bring the Divine down to the world so that the world will become imbued with the divine spirit. Traditional Jews see the performance of the commandments, the mitzvot, as the vehicle for imprinting the world with God's will. It was this facet of God's "worldliness," his direct involvement in the human condition that is represented in the personality of the Matriarch Sarah, whose solid realism frequently reins in the excesses of her husband's uncritical generosity.

It seems to me that these two personality types were meant to work in a careful balance. It is only through the combination of their qualities that the divine will could be transmitted to future generations of humanity. Furthermore, this is a mission that they could achieve only as parents. Although Jewish tradition has portrayed Abraham and Sarah as prototypical evangelists of God's message--a theme that reflected the Jewish missionary role in pagan antiquity, and was evoked by a typically midrashic reading of the reference in Genesis 12:5 to "the souls that they had gotten in Haran" -- there is nevertheless an overwhelming consciousness that no matter how many souls and disciples Abraham and Sarah might have amassed through their preaching and example, their covenantal mission could only be accomplished through the special relationship that exists within a biological family. The promise of offspring was the pivotal element in God's promise to them, and its delayed fulfilment was a source of profound sorrow to the aging couple.

It is therefore so fascinating to see how each of them responds to the announcement that after decades of childlessness, they are about to have the child for whom they have waited with such prolonged anguish.

On the surface, it seems that the reaction is similar: They laugh.

"Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'" (Gen. 17:17).

Sarah reacts similarly in the next chapter (Gen 18:12), when the mysterious visitor informs her of her imminent motherhood. "And Sarah laughed within herself, saying 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'"

The divine response to Sarah's laughter is different than it was to her husband's. God makes a point of calling it to Abraham's attention, and stubbornly rejects Sarah's attempt to deny her laughter.

[I should add parenthetically a delightful observation made here by the Talmudic rabbis. If you carefully compare what Sarah actually said to God, with what God reported her to Abraham as saying, you will notice a small discrepancy. Sarah was incredulous at the announcement because she was old "and my lord [i.e., Abraham] being old also" --However when God paraphrases this to Abraham, he leaves out the part about Abraham's being old! --so as to avoid any possibility of Abraham's taking offence at what might have been a sensitive issue in their household!

The sages derive from this a valuable lesson: In the interests of maintaining harmonious relations between a husband and wife, even God did not hesitate to bend the truth a little...]

The classical Jewish commentators were understandably troubled by this apparent double standard, in which God seems to flare up impatiently at Sarah's momentary loss of control --when Abraham's ostensibly identical reaction earlier was passed over in silence. Most of them tried to resolve the inconsistency by proposing subtle conceptual differences in the motives and the quality of the laughter in the respective cases: Abraham's laughter was an expression of trusting joy, while Sarah's was giving vent to her doubts and skepticism in the face of a divine assurance. --This distinction was incorporated into the "Targum," the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah.

With all due respect to those great sages of the past, I would like to propose a somewhat different reading of the story. Somehow, I do not see God's exchange with Sarah as an angry or confrontational one. Quite the contrary-- The Almighty is trying to point out to her the importance of her utterly human response to the news. Sarah herself fears that it was inappropriate and disrespectful for her to laugh, as it were, in the face of God. It was a detail that she would be likely to omit from her memoirs. Unlike Abraham, who laughed out loud for all to see, Sarah laughed "within herself," embarrassed to give public expression to her feelings.

To paraphrase a later Jewish teacher: "Wheresoever this story shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her" --God seems determined to remind all concerned that the laughter was integral to his plan, and to the covenantal mission. The memory of the laughter is so inseparable from the story of Sarah's pregnancy that God has already commanded Abraham that the child shall be named in honour of that very laughter "Yitzhak": meaning "He shall laugh"!

I would be the last to ignore the many weighty ideals and spiritual values that are involved in the divine covenant--maybe we could discuss this on some other occasion. At the present moment, however, it strikes me as supremely important that the laughter of Abraham and Sarah should be appreciated in all its profound importance, for somehow it plays a decisive role in that grand design. The first fruit of that covenant was named "Isaac" for laughter, and there is an implication that people who are incapable of a spontaneous chuckle, even in the presence of the Almighty, are not considered worthy of participating in the covenant.

A longstanding Jewish tradition sees the career of Abraham as a sequence of trials, commencing with his call to leave his homeland for an unidentified destination, and culminating in the command to sacrifice his son. Perhaps we are justified in seeing the present episode as a trial of a different sort: Had Abraham and Sarah not reacted to God's promise with irrepressible laughter, then they would have failed the test! They would have been declared unworthy bearers of God's covenant.

Think of it: Neither the loving compassion of Abraham, nor Sarah's representation of God's presence in our world, could be achieved by people who did not know how to laugh. I am sure that we are all familiar with some of those dour ideologists --and fanatics-- who can sincerely declare "I love humanity, it's just people I can't stand" and who are ready to sacrifice people for an exalted principle! Evidently, these are not the kind of people that God had in mind. The Rabbis, as usual, have expressed this succinctly: "The Torah was not given to the Ministering angels."

Maybe this explains why it was so important for God's plan that the covenant be transmitted from parents to children. For all the pleasure that I derive from my students, it is clear there is something so fundamental to the sheer joy of parenthood, the experience of a baby's giggles, that leads me to suspect that all other forms of laughter and humour derive from this root experience. Until one has experienced it --and been deflated by it-- one is not fully human. In this respect, I find a telling difference between the traditional Jewish attitudes and our contemporary Western ones, --that the Hebrew abstract noun derived from the word for "womb" (rehem) means "compassion"; whereas its etymological counterpart in European languages is "hysteria."

Sarah laughed at the prospect that at the age of ninety she would be enjoying the pleasures of motherhood. There is some satisfaction in noting that her good humour was in fact inherited by her son. When Isaac grew up and followed his parents' example in trying to present his wife Rebecca as his sister (Gen. 26), what gave them away was that he was spotted "sporting [employing the same Hebrew word that is translated in our passage is "laughing"] with Rebecca."

I don't know exactly what it was that they were doing, but since it was enough to prove that they were not siblings, then I would guess that they weren't just playing Scrabble®. Evidently, they were were involved in a public display of affection; or in other words: (if you'll pardon the expression) making out! and having a good time of it. What a delightful statement this makes about the natural quality and good humour of their married life!

And doesn't this also teach us something about Isaac's and Rebecca's suitability to be the continuers of the covenant?

If you found that what I have said is laughable, than I will consider that the highest of compliments.

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*Guest sermon delivered at St. Laurence Anglican Church, Calgary, February 23 1997