The woman who laughed twice

Sometimes Advent takes too long—years and even decades, instead of a few weeks or months. This is when patience begins to wear thin and people are driven to acts of despair. And yet, there may be something to laugh about in the end. This is explained in a Bible classic.

This is the story of another child, long promised and supposed to influence the fate of the world. And it is the story of a woman—no longer a virgin, not even a young woman, but an old woman, worn out, as she herself said—hoping against hope to have children.

Sarah laughed. She was standing by the tent door, listening as the three men spoke with Abraham. What? She was to become pregnant within the year? At over 90! She laughed. Posterity will come to interpret her outburst as unbelief. But is that really fair?

Abroad and abandoned

This woman had proven to be incredibly patient. It all began when her cherished husband thought he had heard the voice of God. They left their beloved home to journey to a foreign country called Canaan, crossing many places in the process. Even the wife of a nomad would have needed nerves of steel.

Or when things became too dicey for Abraham on account of Sarah’s beauty. Certain rulers had designs on Sarah. Fearing that they might kill him to obtain her as their wife, he passed her off as his sister, left her to foreigners, and accepted rich gifts in exchange. In fact, this happened twice: first with the Pharaoh in Egypt and then with the king of Gerar.

Five promises and a plan B

And then there was the matter of the offspring. Five times, God had promised him countless descendants: first before leaving their homeland, then after the separation from Lot and after the encounter with Melchizedek, and finally at the time of the name change, and then here at the grove of Mamre. However, nothing happened.

This woman certainly had patience. But eventually her patience wore out, and she decided to take things into her own hands. She gave her servant Hagar to her husband so that he would finally get his offspring. As a plan B this was quite common at that time. The plan succeeded, but neither of the women were able to cope with the new situation: the one became arrogant, the other bitter. There was quarrelling humiliation, and flight.

God has made me laugh

Admittedly, the promises became more and more concrete: at the penultimate time God even mentioned the child’s name, and then in Mamre something akin to a date of birth. Nevertheless, Sara laughed. She was not thinking so much about the fact that she was long past menopause. She said to herself: Now that I am balah (which is Hebrew for worn-out and old) I am to have ednah, which means as much as “pleasure”, “sensual pleasures”. She said, “My lord is also old.”

Was it really disbelief when Sara laughed? Or was it more a mixture of astonishment, dismay, and happy surprise, in which Abraham also prostrated himself before God shortly before concluding his covenant with God. Perhaps this is the reason why Sara denied having laughed when the three men pointed it out, because by now she had also recognised God in them.

Sara had certainly exercised considerable patience—and lost patience. But now she was guided by the thought: Could such a miracle really be impossible for God? In the end, she was able to laugh again. It was God who made her laugh. And all those who heard it laughed with her—because an old woman was nursing a child. Were they laughing about her or with her? She didn’t care, because her Advent had reached its Christmas. And the child had been given a corresponding name: Isaac, which means “he laughs”.

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Andreas Rother