A memorable excerpt from the chapter “Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 16:1-18:15)” in our newest resource, Eden and Afterward: A Mockingbird Guide to Genesis, by Will McDavid, which is available here.
God appears to Abram again, thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth, to reaffirm his covenant, albeit with a couple of new twists. First, he receives a new name, Abraham, meaning “the Father is exalted” and “father of a multitude,” a name not based on Abram himself, but rather his identity as chosen, as recipient of the God’s promise. Likewise, Sarai becomes “Sarah,” or “princess,” which also points to God’s promise.
The latter, however, is a bit ironic—renaming an extremely old woman “princess” feels a bit like a cruel joke. Sarah’s bitter, acidic laughter when God tells her that she’ll have a son is completely understandable. There is a tension here between God’s calling Abraham a father of a multitude and the fact that he is, unfortunately, not one. And the same applies to our eighty-six year-old princess. The tension is absurd, in strictly human terms. Later, however, once Isaac is born, he is named “laughter,” not in the sense of bitterness but of joy. Since the story here links Sarah’s two different types of laughter, how those two moments of laughter relate to each other is worth considering.
For the first, bitter laughter, imagine an eighty year-old Des Moines city councilman who is promised by an over-energetic pastor that God will one day make him President. His laughter would be a mockery of that hope, laughing at it because it is absurd and unthinkable. On the off-chance he becomes President, he may look back at the strange sequence of events that led to such an improbable outcome and laugh to himself—“No idea how that happened.” Both laughters occur in the face of an absurdity. The first is resigned to the impossibility of something good happening, and the second, retrospectively, wonders at how an impossible blessing actually did come to pass.
Laughter is an elusive human gesture. It is difficult to figure out when and how and why it happens, so that is probably the most we can say, for now, concerning Sarah’s reaction. But the transition from resigned laughter to laughter at one’s implausible good fortune points toward God’s presence in the impossible and absurd. Additionally, some interpret the name “Isaac” as meaning “he laughs,” in which case his very name expresses God’s presence in impossibility, presence within both the pain of doubting a promise and the joy over its improbable fulfillment. This idea of hoping in the midst of hopelessness will reach a climax when God later asks Abraham to sacrifice his son.