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Sarah’s Laughter

Sarai is one of Israel’s matriarchs who, along with Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, contributed to the birth of its people and the construction of its identity and memory. The patriarchal history as recounted in Genesis is not, as some would claim, merely the history of the patriarchs, rather of the matriarchs as well who are privileged recipients of the divine promise. The first time we hear of Sarai is as Abram’s wife listed in Terah’s genealogy, Terah being Abram’s father. Here we hear of the hardship that burdens her heart: “Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). In Israel, as in all cultures in antiquity, this was a humiliation and a sign of a woman’s being cursed. It gave the sensation of being rejected by society and one’s loved ones and even by God. Aware that she was unable to become a mother, the sterile woman was condemned to live out a daily nightmare. Prisoner in her own body and soul, she must continue to exist albeit wrapped up in an aura of death. Abram at the age of seventy-five and with a sterile wife after the call from God went from Ur of the Chaldeans and traveled toward an unknown land with his family and arrived after a long and arduous journey. Yet as this land was afflicted by famine, Abram decides to escape the drought and go to Egypt. He thus finds himself a stranger in a strange land and struck with fear for his own life asks his wife traveling with him to lie to the Egyptians and claim to be his sister. “Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake” (Genesis 12:13). Sarai neither reacts nor responds. The author leads us to believe that she is the victim of an egotistical husband who is concerned only with himself. Instead, Sarai makes a sacrifice for him and consents to the deceit, without thinking of herself and the danger to which she will be exposed. Indeed, she does not go unnoticed among the Egyptians and she is taken away and presented to the pharaoh. Abram’s problem is thereby solved, as he is showered with every kind of gift. But Sarai’s predicament remains and she ends up in the sovereign’s harem. At this point the Lord intervenes and displeased in all that has happened and above all in the cowardice displayed by Abram on his wife’s behalf ensures that the deceit is uncovered and Sarai freed. After this adventure the journey continues but Sarai presses forward bearing within herself the weight of her sterility, a burden that becomes evermore unbearable and humiliating. Even Abram in his own way suffers because of it and wishes the situation were different. One day, although without mentioning his wife by name, he complained to the Lord: “Oh Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless” (Genesis 15:1–2). Many promises have been made to him these past ten years, among them descendants as numerous as the grains of sand or stars in the sky, but it remained a fact that his first child had not yet come. Even Sarai is tired of waiting and laments before God. It is God who is guilty, he who has locked up her womb and seems to have lost the key that might have opened it. 

Worse still, perhaps for some reason unbeknownst to her he possesses the key but wishes not to use it. Nevertheless, Sarai does not resign herself to become an “incomplete” woman and instead takes the initiative. She decides to resolve the matter and seeing as God has turned his back on her, Sarai looks to her husband for help. “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). Sarai’s supplication expresses her unanswered desire for maternity and Abram without saying a word consents without hesitation to placate his wife, even if it means bringing another woman into their conjugal relationship. Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, expressed the same desire. Like Sarai, Rachel begged her husband: “Give me children or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1). And like Sarai, Rachel convinced him to visit one of her slaves that she might through this union become a mother. According to Mesopotamian law a sterile spouse could present her husband with a slave and acknowledge the children of this union as her own. Even if it is not possible to demonstrate, as some would claim, that this was common practice in Israel, the author presents this as a solution for female sterility. In this way a sterile woman was able to have legitimate children even though they were not hers biologically. The fact is that Hagar, Sarai’s slave, becomes pregnant and instead of being a reason for rejoicing her pregnancy becomes a source of suffering for Sarai who cannot not bear the arrogance of the slave in her regard: “And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Genesis 16:4). Beginning in that moment the rivalry between the two women grew and household life became a kind of living hell. Hagar now boasts of bearing Abram’s child in her womb and Sarai does not cease to abuse her. Terrorized by her mistress, Hagar finally decides to flee into the desert. There she confronts God who listens to her affliction and convinces her to return. Although a slave, she too has an important mission to accomplish. When Abram is eighty-six, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God listens” (Genesis 16:15). Thirteen years go by after the birth of his first child and then the Lord establishes an alliance with Abram, and from that moment onward his name becomes Abraham, a name that is the promise of fruitfulness: “Father of a great numbered people.” Sarai’s name is also changed. From Sarai she becomes Sarah, which is Hebrew means princess. Change of name not only means change in destiny but also the attitude toward life and the future. Opening themselves to the divine plan, the two spouses are disposed to begin a new chapter in their lives. Yet more important than the change of name is the promise the Lord renders to Abraham: Sarah will bear him a child (cfr. Genesis 17:16). A hundred year old Abraham cannot contain his laughter at these words. Sarah has the same reaction when she hears the unknown guest announce her pregnancy: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Sarah laughs knowing her opportunity to have children is long since past: “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have my pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12). The guest disapproves of her incredulous and ironic laughter and challenges her: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). It is only upon hearing these words that Sarah discovers the true identity of her guest. The conversation begins as one between the three guests and Abraham, all of them male, and before the end it becomes a conversation between the Lord and Sara, the bearer of the promise. At first glance it may seem that the Lord’s insistence on the fact that Sarah laughed (“No, but you did laugh” Genesis 18:15) is meant as a reprimand against her. Nonetheless, Sarah’s laughter is a foreshadowing of the name of the child who is to come. He will be named Isaac, which means “child of laughter.” After giving birth to her much desired son, Sarah explains her experience with God in a play on words: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. […] Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age’” (Genesis 21:6–7). At last, the Lord opened her womb and Sarah laughed in joy, a true and deep joy because, incredibly, her dream becomes real. The impossible has been accomplished. She has become a mother and so finally a complete and fulfilled woman who is no longer ashamed. Sarah is restored to life. Isaac’s birth is the crowning of a long and burdensome wait, one lived out in doubt and bitterness along a lengthy and arduous journey that has certainly worn the feet of these parents but also their hearts. Everything points to a happy ending of this story, yet unfortunately it is not meant to be. On this earth happiness is never complete. Life goes on and problems persist. Sarah’s joy is immediately disturbed after weaning Isaac on account of his closeness to Ishmael, son of Hagar. During the great celebration Abraham gives in honor of his son’s mother, Sarah, she sees that Isaac “laughs” with Ishmael and immediately realizes that her son would not be the principal heir. Ishmael knows his is the first born and this leads him to feel superior to his brother in every respect. According to the laws governing the status of the first born, inheritance belongs to the first born even if as in this case he is not the son of the beloved wife (cfr. Deuteronomy 21:17). Seized with jealousy, Sarah demands that Abraham send “this slave and her son away” as if to say Ishmael is no longer his son. These are her last words. She does not pronounce their names and she wishes never to see them again, nevermore to speak with them. They disappear forever from her life in order that Isaac might become the single heir. Abraham does not like his wife’s request but in following the Lord’s counsel he consents. Sara thus succeeds in casting out Ishmael and Hagar a second time. Whereas in the first instance she caused Hagar to flee while the latter still carried the child in her womb, now she throws them out openly and without scruple. Mother and son are abandoned in the desert of Beersheba and so condemned to die. The water skin Abraham gives to Hagar runs dry and the child reaches the point of death and his mother cries out in her desperation. The Lord hears her cries in thirst and has compassion. He leads them to drink and says to Hagar, “Arise! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 21:18). Ishmael is not the promised heir yet the Lord will provide for him too. At this point Sarah disappears from the scene. We do not know how she lived out this distance from Ishmael or if she ever repented of her actions in his regard, or if she ever went out to search for her son. These are all suppositions. The last we hear of her is at her death at Hebron when she was one hundred and twenty-seven years old. Abraham mourned her and wept (Genesis 23: 1–2). These meager account seems sufficient to the author and he tells of how Abraham buried his wife “in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 23:19). It is significant, then, that the first acquisition of land falling under the ownership of Abraham in this region is precisely the tomb of Sarah. In this same place Rachel and Leah (Genesis 49:31) are also laid to rest. Sarah, the first of the matriarchs and the most noted in the New Testament, was a woman of strength who struggled and suffered to be a bearer of life in a nearly impossible situation. She did not cower when faced with difficulty, even though her manner of overcoming it was not always most fitting. She was a woman who when in darkness doubted God but in the right moments recognized his authority. One might say she was a woman caught between light and darkness, as are we all, who belongs in history as the bearer of the promise.

Nuria Calduch-Benages was born in Barcelona in 1957 and has been living in Rome since 1985. She graduated from the Università Autonoma di Bellaterra and continued her studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Pontifico Istituto Biblico) in Rome where she obtained her doctorate in Sacred Scripture. She is currently a professor of the Old Testament in the School of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and an active collaborator with the Catholic Biblical Federation and member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. She has been published in many technical journals and has attended conferences around the world. 




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 22, 2019