Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Who laughed?

My pre-Christmas teaching series, “Children of Promise” began with a look at the moment at which Abraham and Sarah learn that they will be parents. There are two versions of the story in the Book of Genesis. It is exactly this kind of thing- multiple versions of essentially the same story, with variations in detail and style, that over a century ago led Biblical scholars to the idea, now widely accepted, that the Old Testament is a compilation of material from several streams or traditions. (The question of why this is still ignored by many Christian teachers and preachers might be a blog for another day!) These stories were told in different ways by different people, and were likely passed along orally, like folk tales.

I was recently at a family gathering at which I heard three different versions told of a story from my childhood. I can’t tell you which is the “true” or “truest” version. I only know which one I remember hearing most often.

In Genesis chapter 17, Abram has a conversation with God, who invites him into a covenant relationship. God is not described in this story, which leaves me wondering if this is a dream or a vision, rather than a physical encounter.

God gives him a new name, and says that his wife will bear a son. This child will be the first in a long line of descendants, numerous enough to form a new nation. They will be given the whole land of Canaan in which to settle. As a sign of the covenant, Abraham, and all the males in his household, and all of his male descendants must submit to circumcision.

Abraham takes the prospect of circumcision in stride, but is incredulous that Sarai, now to be called Sarah, will bear a child. The story says, “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

Despite Abraham’s laughter, God reassures him that within the year, Sarah will bear a male child, and that God will be back to see that this promise has come true.

In the very next chapter of Genesis, the encounter with God is less dream-like. God appears as a trio of strangers, who are offered the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah’s encampment. (They already have their new names, but do not yet have knowledge of the upcoming birth.)

Abraham calls for water to be brought so that the strangers may wash their feet. He goes into his tent and instructs Sarah to get flour to bake bread. He then selects a tender calf from his herd for the servants to slaughter and cook. He fetches curds and milk to eat with the other food that will be prepared. Abraham fulfills the requirements of hospitality that were common to nomadic peoples in this region.  He would not eat until after his guests needs were met.

“While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.” (from Genesis 18)

In this version, Sarah is listening when God issues the promise of a child to Abraham. She laughs, which is what Abraham did in the first version of the story. (The name Isaac comes from Hebrew words for “she laughed”.) The figure speaking for God (one of the three strangers) asks why Sarah laughed, and echoes the promise made in the first version of the story, that within the year, God will return to them, and Sarah will have given birth to a son.

The promise is the same, but the manner in which it is delivered is quite different. I don’t really know what to make of all the differences, except that they support the existence of variant traditions of how the story was told, over the generations, before the stories were collected into the form we now have them in the Old Testament.

I do find it interesting that in the New Testament, Matthew’s Gospel describes Joseph being told that Mary would bear a son, and the news is delivered in a dream. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary who first receives the news, from an angel. I am also curious about the identity of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah- did they come from the East, like the Wise Men? Or were they angels, as suggested by the New Testament letter to the Hebrews:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)