We don’t usually associate laughter with the people of the Bible. Abram and Sarai were like any of us, however. They reacted to a real life situation with unvarnished emotion. Their laughter in response to the Lord’s prophetic announcement reveals their character and spiritual maturity. Not all laughter, however, is synonymous with mirth.
Abram was ninety-nine years old when the Lord again appeared to him revealing short and long-term prophecies that would powerfully impact the course of history to the present day.
GENESIS 17:5-8, 15-22
“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”
Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.”
Three aspects of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men are worth noting in this paramount encounter.
- Revealing Himself as El Shaddai (God Almighty), the Lord declared that He is the all-sufficient and all-powerful One who alone is responsible for fulfilling His covenantal promises, even when the prospect seems impossible from a human perspective, (17:1).
- Changing Abram’s name of “exalted father” to the “father of multitudes,” unveiled God’s plan and purposes for the future nation of Israel through the patriarch, Abraham. God gave Abraham the responsibility of modifying his wife’s name from Sarai (my princess) to Sarah (princess of many) signifying her role as wife and matriarch. The couple’s new names reflected the reaffirmation of God’s promises and the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.
- Guaranteeing the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the land and more specifically for a covenantal heir through Sarah, God revealed further details embedded in the Abrahamic Covenant. As the Sovereign of the universe, God took full responsibility for the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham.
Much had transpired since Abraham’s last interview with the Lord some fourteen years earlier (Gen. 15). In that conversation, Abram had mentioned, “the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus (15:2). The Lord corrected:
“‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (vv. 4-5).
We can’t help but wonder about the next statement, “And he [Abram] believed in the Lord, and He [God] accounted it to him for righteousness” (v. 6). Subsequently, at the insistence of his wife Sarai, Abram fathered a surrogate son through their Egyptian maidservant, Hagar.
Almost predictably, the maid’s pregnancy fueled contempt for her mistress that was no doubt transferred to her son, Ishmael as later documented (21:9). Abram also obliquely hinted that Ishmael did not live in the presence of the Lord (17:18 CJB).
Sarah is generally blamed for the unfortunate developments following Ishmael’s birth. Up to this point, God had only revealed that the covenantal heir would be fathered by Abram (15:4). It wasn’t until fourteen years later that the Lord specifically named Sarah as the mother of the covenantal son, Isaac (17:15-16).
Then Abraham Fell on His Face and Laughed
Imagine the range of emotion when Abraham heard the Lord’s prophecy. Shock. Joy. And then, a quick analysis of possible outcomes—all on display as he fell on his face and laughed! (17:17). Under normal conditions, he and his 90-year old wife could never expect to conceive a son at this stage in their lives. Abraham’s laughter was neither derisive nor skeptical, but rather an expression of pure joy.
The Word is clear. Abraham believed God (15:6). And, there was no mistaking the identity of the son of the covenant. God named the promised heir “Isaac” (Hebrew: laughter) a full year before his birth to Abraham and Sarah. Obviously, God has a sense of humor in giving Isaac a name reflecting the laughter of his parents.
Ishmael, the son born through Abram’s well-intentioned relationship with Hagar, was never a covenantal heir.
In the context of the prophesied heir through Sarah, God revealed the sign that would perpetually be associated with the Abrahamic Covenant. Abraham exercised extreme faith in embracing the covenant when he and all the males of his household were circumcised on that same day. Circumcision is the physical sign of the eternal covenant between God and Abraham.
And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (17:9-13).
Today, the ceremony is known as the Brit Milah and takes place on the eighth day after the birth of Jewish males. The logistics of having every male in Abraham’s household undergo the procedure and the inconvenience of all of the male servants incapacitated during recovery are staggering.
The intention of faith that we often verbalize is not the same as the tangible faith Abraham demonstrated through action. In plain English, saying you have faith is not the same as showing your faith. Here’s your homework. Read James 2:14-26.
God promised Abraham He would do the impossible, and Abraham believed God. God prescribed circumcision as an act of faith. And, Abraham obeyed. The people group prophesied by the Lord Himself were destined to be a reality.
Why Did You Laugh?
There is a strong tradition that as he recuperated from circumcision, Abraham looked out of the tent door and saw three visitors approaching. Perceiving that they were not mere men, Abraham ran toward them, bowed to the ground and urged them to rest in the shade of his terebinth tree while a “morsel of bread” was prepared for their refreshment (Gen. 18:5). The Lord accompanied by two angelic beings—all in human form—had dropped in for a visit.
Abraham’s understated invitation actually resulted in a substantial feast. The household quickly became a flurry of activity. Sarah made fine bread and a servant prepared veal, while Abraham collected dairy products that included yogurt and butter. The menu was not kosher since the laws of Kashrut were not observed until after the giving of the Law some 400 years later (v. 8).
Conversation following the meal revealed the reason for the Lord’s visit.
“Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?”
So he said, “Here, in the tent.”
And He [the Lord] said, ‘I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’
(Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’
And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son’” But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid.
And He said, ‘No, but you did laugh!’” (18:9-15).
The announcement was no surprise to Abraham. He had heard it only a few days earlier. The message was repeated for Sarah. Abraham had surely explained God’s promise of a son in relation to the circumcision of all the males in his household. And, thrilled by the prospect of a son with Sarah, he had undoubtedly shared the prophecies with her as well.
You will remember that Abraham laughed with shock, joy and expectation at God’s word. Sarah also laughed when she heard the news, but with disbelief and incredulity. Apparently, because Sarah needed reassurance, God personally communicated with her.
She saw only the facts of life. Abraham was almost 100-years old. She was nearly 90 and well beyond menopause. The idea of physical intimacy at such an advanced age seemed improbable (v. 12).
The Lord gently reprimanded Sarah and underscored the certainty of His word through repetition. At the set time, Sarah would give birth to Isaac, the covenantal son. The Lord prophesied that with His rejuvenation of her aged body, she would indeed be the mother of a baby boy (v. 10).
Using a rhetorical question, God forced Sarah to recognize His awesome power. He asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord” (v. 14)? The word translated “hard” comes from the Hebrew root pala meaning wonderful, awesome, exceptional or extraordinary. In other words, is there anything so wonderful, so awesome, so exceptional or so extraordinary that God is unable to do it? No!
When the Lord questioned Abraham why she had laughed, Sarah must have quickly realized the folly of her skepticism. Nothing is too hard for God. Nothing is outside His realm of ability. She could choose to trust the Lord’s promises even though life’s circumstances made them seem impossible.
The Lord knowingly replied, “you did laugh!” putting an end to the embarrassing situation (v. 15). This was the crux of the issue. Her need for increased faith is reflected in the Lord’s gentle and humorous rebuke.
A year later with baby Isaac in her arms, Sarah said,
“’God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.’ She also said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age’” (21:6-7).
The Lord gave Sarah the assurance that He would provide the strength and stamina for her to bring a child into the world. Sarah’s suggestion that her joy would be shared by all who heard about the supernatural birth of Isaac says much about the character and faith of Israel’s matriarch.
What Kind of Laughter Characterizes Your Faith Experience?
The extreme faith of Abraham and Sarah is a stellar example for 21st century Christians that is underscored in New Testament teaching and transcends four millennia. The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, commonly called the great faith chapter, calls attention to their extreme faith.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:8-11).
As evidenced in the life of Abraham and Sarah, acting with extreme faith always brings blessing. The way we respond to that reward of blessing is indicative of the quality of our faith.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:1-2, 6).
Like Israel’s patriarch and matriarch, we may be called upon to say, “No,” to choices that are outside of God’s will. Abraham and Sarah obeyed God in recognizing Isaac as the son of promise rather than stubbornly clinging to Eliezer or Ishmael. Obedience is imperative in the life of faith.
When was the last time, you reacted to God’s blessing with the laughter of unbridled joy like Abraham? Because of the nature of the Almighty God we serve, the quality of our faith not only impacts our destiny, but that of successive generations.
You may be given a glimpse of the future or be required to make sacrifices without a clear view of the outcome. For those willing to exercise extreme faith, be assured that God is at work in your life. Is there anything too hard for the Lord?
1) God Renews His Promises to Abraham. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By James Tissot/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) God’s Promises to Abram. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By James Tissot/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) Abraham and the Three Angels (circa 1896-1902). (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By James Tissot [Public domain]/The Jewish Museum/New York/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
4) Sarah Denies Laughing. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By the Providence Lithograph Company/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
5) Abraham Counsels Sarah. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By James Tissot/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
6) Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord? (Photo credit: Background image, Pixabay/[Rights free]/Digital composition, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.