Here’s the second installment of my new weekly Bible-story-retelling:
Genesis 11-23 (NRSV [Link CJB])
Oh yes, I did laugh. I sat behind the curtain, while the men ate and said ridiculous things like, “I will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son,” and of course I laughed.
“After I have grown old,” I laughed, for I was old even then—ninety years, “and my husband is old,” for he was nearly one hundred, “shall I have pleasure?”
I guess I laughed a little too loudly, for the man (if he really were a man) heard me. “Why did Sarah laugh?” he asked Abraham. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
It was then that I wondered if he were really a man, and I was afraid, and I wanted to hide my doubts. “I did not laugh,” I said from inside the tent.
“Oh yes, you did laugh,” he replied, and he was right about that, too.
Maybe I laughed in my doubt. But maybe I doubted because I had to. Maybe ninety years is too many for a woman to wait for a child, while her husband wrenches her from the land and the people she knows, on the trail of a God she can’t see. Maybe it’s too long to wait while this God teases her husband with promises that he will father a great nation, and her husband teases her with hopes that she’ll mother it. Maybe, after ninety years, when this God promises such a thing in a voice even she can hear, she laughs, because to believe is to hope, and another dashed hope might kill her—after ninety years.
I didn’t even bear a child in Egypt. I was Sarai then, and I was younger then, and Abram, the coward, reckoned they would kill him because of me. Well, I was beautiful. Abram said, “Say you’re my sister.” He still says that, when he thinks he needs to. It is something like true, so I said it, and then I was whisked to the palace, and the Pharaoh installed me as one of his wives.
Those were the days I deluded myself with the grand thought that Abraham would be the father of a nation in name, but I would be the mother in fact, and the blood of Egyptian princes would run in the veins of my children. But no such thing happened—only a plague on the Egyptians for taking me, and we were sent away at once. It was a humiliation, compounded with the humiliation of my life—that I could not have a child—and the only things I had to show for it were some trinkets and a slave-girl named Hagar.
It was after Abram told me that God had said, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir,” that I thought of Hagar. It was another hope dashed when I realized with certainty that, after all, I would only mother this nation in name, but Abram would father it in fact. But who am I to halt the purposes of God? I should only further them.
So I said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
I covered my ears when they coupled, and pretended it was all a matter of course. After all, Abram had seemed not to mind much when the king of Egypt had me. But that thought only made it worse. And worst of all was when the girl conceived. Then it was sure that the fault of our childlessness was mine, and I was humiliated even in the eyes of my servant. She walked about with mincing steps, the baby showing soon in her long, lithe body, and she gloated over me with her eyes.
“May the wrong done to me be on you!” I shouted at my oh-so-dutiful husband. He would do anything to make this God’s promises come true—even to abandoning his own wife. He could have said no. “I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
Submissive as ever, Abram said, “Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”
So I did, and she ran away. But the desert was harsher than I was, I guess, for she came back soon enough.
Then one day Abram started calling me Sarah, and himself Abraham. He said God told him I was to be the mother of nations after all. But it was too much to promise an old woman like me, and even when I heard God say it myself, all I could do was laugh.
I laughed again when it came true, and we named him Isaac, in memory of our laughter. Now it was not the laughter of doubt, but of joy, and I cried out, “God has brought laughter to me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Suddenly, the joy and the honour were greater than Hagar’s, and greater than the humiliation. Anyone could bear a child in their youth; most women did. But God had granted me the special one, the son of my gray hair. Did He know it would be like that?
More joy and more sorrow came after the boy than any I had known before. After he came, I knew him and loved him; before he was only a dream. So when the slave-girl’s boy got too close, I sent him and his mother away for good, and when God nearly called Isaac back Himself, I could have sent myself away in grief. But God gave him back again, my only son, and I saw him grown to a man—a man who would father nations. That knowledge is a shoutable secret, and it makes me want to laugh.