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Genesis 17:

15God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17Abraham fell facedown; he laughed

Abraham laughed at God's promise to get Sarai pregnant with a son.

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?” 18And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.

Graciously, God reassured Abraham that Sarah would get pregnant.

A chapter later, three men visited Abraham in Genesis 18:

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

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10Then 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. 11Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

This time, Sarah laughed at the promise.

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

This time, God rebuked Sarah for laughing.

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

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Why did God react to these two instances of laughter so differently?

3
  • 1
    Why did internal hidden laughter interest YHVH more than external visible laughter? ** Do our thoughts not matter more than actions? Sep 2, 2021 at 15:24
  • 1
    God pointed out that Sarah lied about laughing. Abraham did not lie.
    – Robert
    Sep 2, 2021 at 16:06
  • christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/33355/… On CSE same question
    – Kris
    Sep 3, 2021 at 1:06

5 Answers 5

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Preliminary Note: The verb צְחַק (tsachaq = laugh) occurs 13 times in the OT, 12 times in Genesis and 7 times in the story of Abraham and Sarah.

The human response of laughter can be due to one or more of several reactions to situations such as:

  • disbelief - the completely incongruous and incredible nature of some suggestion
  • relief, having been removed from some great peril
  • joy at a a truly overwhelming a happy occasion

(This is not an exhaustive list.) Judging from the response of the LORD to both Abraham's (Gen 17:17) and Sarah's laughter (Gen 18:10-15), we may surmise that perhaps Abraham's laughter was of joy and Sarah's laughter was of disbelief. There is some support for this idea in Rom 4:20 -

Yet he did not waver through disbelief in the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God

This also appears to be the solution suggested by ancient Jewish interpreters and many modern commentators as well.

Ellicott upon Gen 17:17:

(17) Abraham . . . laughed.—The Jewish interpreters regard Abraham’s laugh as one of joy, and Sarah’s (Genesis 18:12) as one of unbelief. We may, however, well doubt whether there really was this difference between them; but our Lord confirms the View that joy was uppermost in Abraham’s heart (John 8:56). Still with belief there was surprise, and the feeling that what was promised was so strange as to be well-nigh incredible. One who was ready to sacrifice his only son at God’s word (Hebrews 11:19) would not be staggered by this strangeness, and yet the thought of Sarah’s bearing a child at the age of ninety might easily present itself to his mind in a ludicrous aspect. As for Sarah, there is no proof that at the time when she laughed she knew or even suspected that the three travellers were more than men. She overheard their conversation, and laughed, imagining perhaps that they did not know how old she was. Really, the idea brought out by this double laughter is that Isaac’s birth was contrary to nature.

Benson:

Genesis 17:17. Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed — It was a laughter of delight, not of distrust. Now it was that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day; now he saw it and was glad; (John 8:56;) for as he saw heaven in the promise of Canaan, so he saw Christ in the promise of Isaac, and said, Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? — He doth not here speak of it as at all doubtful, for we are sure he staggered not at the promise, (Romans 4:20,) but as wonderful, and that which could not be effected but by the almighty power of God.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary:

  1. Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed—It was not the sneer of unbelief, but a smile of delight at the improbability of the event (Ro 4:20).

Matthew Poole:

He laughed, through admiration and holy rejoicing at so great a blessing, not through unbelief, as Sarah did, Genesis 18:12,13, as appears from Romans 4:19,20. And though the outward act was the same in both, yet God discerned their differing dispositions and intentions therein.

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Less than an answer, I suppose, but more of a parallel passage that underscores the difference between naked unbelief and perplexity.

Naked unbelief:

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18 NIV).

Perplexity:

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NIV)

Clearly, there is a contrast between "How can I be sure?" and "How will this be?"

In light of Zechariah's punishment, the logical conclusion is that Zechariah had doubts about the promise. He wanted assurances that neither the angel nor the Lord wanted to give him. God loves to be taken at his word (and angels, too, love their message-receivers to take God at his word.

Mary, on the other hand, was questioning the means of the pregnancy and birth, since she was a virgin and had never "known" a man. She was not guilty of unbelief. She was perplexed, initially, that the angel seemed to assume she would become pregnant in the usual way, and in so doing would be committing fornication. No wonder she simply asked "How," not "How can I be sure."

Similarly, Abraham's laughter was sparked, I imagine, from the risible nature of the promise: A 100-year-old husband and a sterile, 90-year-old wife having a kid? Hence, Abraham's laugh.

Sarah, on the other hand, was questioning the ability of God to pull off such a miracle. Her laugh was more like a sneer that was followed by a laugh. God rebuked her for her underestimation of his power in performing the miracle. Evidently, however, her unbelief was not naked unbelief, as was Zechariah's, but the kind of unbelief that warranted God's rebuke, not a punishment, as did Zechariah, who was struck mute for a time.

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  • +1 for a fine analysis. Though in this instance I think Abraham may have simply found the idea of having a child this late in life laughable and would rather God just choose Isaac whom Abraham loved instead.
    – Austin
    Oct 9, 2021 at 22:22
  • @Austin: Thanks for your encouragement, Austin. Don Oct 10, 2021 at 1:27
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Why did God react to Abraham and Sarah's laughter concerning the promised son so differently?

This at first does seem to be an unusual reaction in both instances. The Insight on the Scriptures entry for "Laughter" gives the explanation:

Both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the angelic announcements that they would have a son in their old age. Abraham was not reproved for laughing but Sarah was, and she even tried to deny her laughter. It therefore appears that Abraham’s laughter was the result of joy at the amazing prospect of having a son by Sarah in his old age. But Sarah’s laughter evidently was because the same amazing prospect struck her as somewhat humorous; the thought of a woman of her age, till now sterile, having a child apparently brought a somewhat incongruous picture to her mind. (Ge 17:17; 18:9-15) In neither case, however, did the laughter represent scorn or deliberate mocking, and both are recorded as demonstrating faith in God’s promise. (Ro 4:18-22; Heb 11:1, 8-12) When this son was born, the parents were no doubt delighted, for this had been their hearts’ desire for years. Abraham named their son, after which Sarah said: “God has prepared laughter for me: everybody hearing of it will laugh at me.” (Ge 21:1-7) Others were undoubtedly amazed and delighted on hearing of the good news of Abraham and Sarah’s blessing at the hand of Jehovah.

The July, 1, 1989 Watchtower article "Abraham–An Example for All Who Seek God's Friendship" provides additional evidence to Abraham's reaction:

Abraham (and later Sarah) laughed at the thought because both his and Sarah’s powers of reproduction had ceased. (Genesis 17:17; 18:9-15) But this was not the laughter of faithless disbelief. As the Bible explains: “He did not grow weak in faith . . . But because of the promise of God he . . . became powerful by his faith, giving God glory and being fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do.” (Romans 4:18-21) [bold mine]

The Insight entry for "Sarah" speaks about her reaction:

Not long thereafter, at Mamre, one of three angelic visitors reaffirmed that Sarah would give birth to a son. Overhearing this, “Sarah began to laugh inside herself, saying: ‘After I am worn out, shall I really have pleasure, my lord being old besides?’” Reproved for laughing, Sarah fearfully denied having done so. (Ge 18:1-15; Ro 9:9) Since Sarah is cited at Hebrews 11:11 as an example of faith, evidently her laughter was not an expression of complete unbelief but merely indicated that the thought of having a son in her old age apparently struck her as somewhat humorous. Sarah’s acknowledgment (inside herself) of Abraham as her lord was indicative of her obedience and subjection to her husbandly head, and her example is recommended to Christian wives.​—1Pe 3:5, 6. [bold mine]

The Watchtower No. 5 2017 issue contains an article "God Called Her 'Princess'" that asks an important question about her laughter:

Was Sarah’s laughter evidence that she lacked faith? Not at all. The Bible says: “By faith also Sarah received power to conceive offspring, even when she was past the age, since she considered Him faithful who made the promise.” (Hebrews 11:11) Sarah knew Jehovah; she knew that he could fulfill any promise that he made. Who of us does not need more faith of that kind? We do well to get to know the God of the Bible better. As we do, we will see that Sarah was right to have the faith that she did. Jehovah truly is faithful and carries out his every promise​—at times, he might even do so in ways that surprise us into amazed or incredulous laughter!

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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  • I take issue with from your "Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2. "Not long thereafter, at Mamre, one of three angelic visitors reaffirmed that Sarah would give birth to a son. " At Genesis 18:1 it says, "Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre." At vs14, "Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son." Vs33, And as soon as He/the LORD finished speaking the LORD departed." Genesis 19:1, "Now the two angels came to Sodom etc, There were not 3 angels, only two, who was the third person?
    – Mr. Bond
    Sep 2, 2021 at 20:38
  • @Mr.Bond Let me understand you correctly, you have an issue with the Insight book because it quotes from the Bible and there is a difference in what Moses, the writer of Genesis, from one chapter to the next?
    – agarza
    Sep 2, 2021 at 20:46
  • Read the entire context of Genesis 18. Because the Insight on the Scriptures says there are three angelic visitors that visited Abraham. Yet Genesis 18:1 says "Now the LORD appeared to him/Abraham. This means that there were only 2 angelic visitors, not 3. At vs14 it says specifically that the LORD will return at this time next year, not an angelic being. From Genesis 18:14-33 the LORD has a dialogue with Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah. When the LORD is done, vs33, "He departs from Abraham. Then at Genesis 19:1, two angels go to Sodom, not three because the third person is the LORD.
    – Mr. Bond
    Sep 2, 2021 at 21:03
  • What I have always understood is that Abraham saw three individuals and recognized them as angels. He addresses them, as one in the plural sense, as representatives of Jehovah God. As an example, Exodus ch. 3 says "Jehovah's angel" but the 'voice' speaks as if it is Jehovah himself. This would be my understanding of what is written in the Insight books.
    – agarza
    Sep 2, 2021 at 21:28
  • No, Abraham did not recognize them as three angels. Vs 2, "And when he/Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him;" The text does not say angels. In fact look at vs16, "The the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom;" At vs 17, "And the Lord said etc. At vs 19, (the Lord is talking), For I have chosen him, in order he may command his children etc. Vs20, And the Lord said. The word angel or angels is not mentioned until Genesis 19:1 where the Lord sends 2 angels to destroy Sodom. I can address Exodus 3 but not here, how about chat?
    – Mr. Bond
    Sep 2, 2021 at 22:13
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The case with Sarah

Gen. 18:12 -"Sarah laughted to herself" - וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ

Gen. 18:13-15 - God heard her thoughts:

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? (ESV)

Gen. 18:15 - Sarah acted guilty of doubt.

Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.” (ESV)

She did not laugh aloud, in her mind, and God heard her mind.

 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Gen. 3:8, ESV)

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20–21, ESV)

The case with Abraham

Abraham's laugh was out loud. His doubts started out to himself, but he expressed to to God directly.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Gen. 17:17–18, ESV)

The difference

The main difference was how Abraham and Sarah responded to their doubt as much as how God responded. Abraham aired his doubts directly to God for God to explain.

19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. (Gen. 17:19, ESV)

Sarah hid her doubts. So, God addressed her doubts from that standpoint.

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? (Gen. 18:13–14, ESV)

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A very interesting question that concerns also the somewhat tricky matter of the so-called ‘Bible contradictions’, as we will see soon.

I will not give here a full answer, since the arguments of Dottard and Rhetorician seems to me well sounded and convincing.

In fact, Dottard well pointed the different kinds of ‘laughter’ and added the keen comments reported by a number of Bible scholars. For his part, Rhetorician well explained how the different God’s reaction to the ‘laughter’ of some of his servants helps us to distinguish the above mentioned kinds of ‘laughter’ (disbelief [any degree], or other kind of feelings).

Moreover, the arguments focusing on the comparison between Rom 4:19-20 and the story of Abraham & Sarah seems forceful to me. Of the same import it seems to me the chronological sequence of the events described in the 17th and 18th chapters of Genesis.

Though the verses 22-27 of Genesis 17 do not directly report Abraham doing that, surely he told his wife the promise God had sworn to him, which concerned also her (Gen 17:2 [“I will multiply you…”]; 17:5-6 [“I will make you a father of many nations…”]; 17:7-10 [“…your offspring…”]; 17:16, 19, 21 [“I will give you a son by her…”]. So, the visit of some God’s representatives at Mamre (Gen 18) was not an entirely unexpected event for the couple.

Moreover, Abraham – in some manner – recognized that the ‘men’ (Gen 18:2) were not simple humans asking for shelter. In fact, he recognized from the start that the ‘men’ were special representatives of God sent by Him.

Here, a lot of Bible translations – in Gen 18:3 – have “Lord” instead of “Yahweh”. But, we have to remember – I’ve yet mentioned this data elsewhere - that this passage is the first of the 134 changes the Sopherim (ancient [Hebrew] Bible scribes) operated (see Christian David Ginsburg, in The Massorah, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1975 [reprint], vol. I, pages 25-26, § 115; IV, page 28, § 115).

Besides that, the context itself (Gen 18:13, 14, 17, and so on) indicates us that the “Lord” of Gen 18:3 was – vicariously – Yahweh (“the Judge of all the earth”, Gen 18:25). Then, we can conclude that the Sarah’s ‘laughter’ did not depend on the fact the she did not recognized the men as special representatives of Yahweh.

As regards Agarza, I well see his trouble. On the one hand, he understand - according me - that the reaction of the man/angel to the ‘laughter’ of Sarah (“And the LORD [יהוה] said unto Abraham ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD [יהוה]. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.’” - Gen 18:13-14 [JPS]) demonstrates without any doubt a degree of lack of faith by Sarah herself.

On the other hand, Agarza is worried because the inspired words of Paul in Hebrew 11:11 seem to exclude also a minimum degree of disbelief from Sarah’s part.

Really – instead – there’s no reason to consider these two Bible texts in contradiction each other. Why?

The Paul’s talk about the faith demonstrated by a number of God’s servants (Heb 11:4 – 12:1) speaks about the final judgement of God about them. In other words, Yahweh (“the Judge of all the earth”, Gen 18:25) taking into account every aspect of the life of those servants of Him decided they were “witnesses” [μαρτύρων] (Heb 12:1), being approved by Him (Heb 11:39-40).

But, this does not means – necessarily - that in every moment of their life those servants had faith, or that they did not always waver from their faith. This is not a speculation, but a Bible teaching.

In Heb 11:24, 27, 28 Paul spoke about Moses and the faith he demonstrated (see how Paul applied three times the expression “by faith” to Moses behaviour). This means Moses did cannot – necessarily – have, never, a wavering of his faith?

Please, read Num 20:12 (bold is mine): “Jehovah later said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you did not show faith in me and sanctify me before the eyes of the sons of Israel, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I will give them.” (NWT[2013])

In conclusion, though Moses – in one occasion – had no (enough) faith in God, and this fact did cost him the entrance in the Good Land, the final judgement of God was that Moses was considered deserving to be numbered among the “witnesses” [μαρτύρων] (Heb 12:1) of faith.

In a similar way, Sarah…

So, not only this explanation proves that there is not contradiction in the Bible passages we are discussing on, but also it emphasizes the Yahweh God’s splendid quality king David expressed in a Psalm (103:10): “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (ESV)

Allelujah!

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