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In Genesis 18:12, Sarah says the following (NKJV, emphasis added):

“After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

What does Sarah mean by having pleasure? Most directly, her question is connected to her ability to bear a son, but I've also heard this verse interpreted to reference the sexual union itself that would result in the child. Which, if either, of these interpretations is correct?

What is the "pleasure" whose possibility Sarah is laughing about? If it references the sexual union, does the verse imply that couples unable to have children would not have engaged in intercourse?

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The whole story of Isaac's birth is wrapped in the theme of joy. His very name is related to laughter and Sarah's question about 'pleasure' fits with this theme. It may indeed be the case that Sarah and Abraham no longer engaged in sexual union at the time, but this was not a requirement of Jewish law or earlier Hebrew tradition (as far as we know). If they were not having sex, it would be because they no longer found it enjoyable, or were simply incapable of it without God's intervention.

It's helpful to know that many translators prefer "worn out" to "grown old" in this verse. This translation leans a little more toward the idea that the couple was no longer having sex rather than simply that they could not longer conceive. Indeed, one rabbinical commentary makes this explicit, saying that she has Sarah by no means begun menstruating again and also:

She knows from her personal experience that her husband has not experienced such symptoms [of male rejuvenation]... She considered him impotent. [Chizkuni, Genesis 18:12:4]

Personally I like the idea that Sarah, by renewing sexual relations with Abraham, restored the lack of faith she showed by laughing at the possibility of conception. But this is not clear from the text. Sarah certainly laughed because she considered herself too old to conceive and probably thought this of Abraham as well. But whether her renewed "pleasure" refers to the fact that they had stopped having sex altogether is simply not revealed.

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  • Thank you for your response. So far, I see this as the best answer! Do you have a source confirming that sexual unions past the point of childbearing were permissible in Jewish law? Or is it that Jewish law neither explicitly permitted nor prohibited the practice?
    – The Editor
    Aug 2, 2023 at 17:40
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    @TheEditor The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 1:8), based on the Talmud, rules that one is obligated to get married--a sexual union--even past the point child-bearing. And the Talmud (Kesubot 61b) and Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 76) are clear that a man has an obligation to pleasure his wife sexually on a regular basis--unconnected to the obligation to have children. Aug 3, 2023 at 22:13
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    @conceptualinertia Ah, thanks for the sources! Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 76) even references Exodus 21:10, which shows a wife has conjugal rights. I hadn't seen that verse before. Thanks!
    – The Editor
    Aug 4, 2023 at 1:16
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Simply, the fortune of having a child, as NLT:

So she laughed silently to herself and said, "How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master-- my husband-- is also so old?"

The next verse also explicates or clarifies that the point is of bearing a child:

[Gen 18:12-13 RV] And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?

LXX Brenton:

And Sarrha laughed in herself, saying, The thing has not as yet happened to me, even until now, and my lord is old.

Other views, NET notes:

It has been suggested that this word should be translated “conception,” not “pleasure.” See A. A. McIntosh, “A Third Root ‘adah in Biblical Hebrew,” VT 24 (1974): 454-73.

Geneva Bible "shall I haue lust?", ISV "am I going to have sex?"

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In Genesis 18:12, the term "pleasure" is often interpreted to mean sexual pleasure or the joy of bearing a child, or both. The verse reads as follows in the New King James Version (NKJV):

“After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

The interpretation of "pleasure" in this verse largely depends on the translation and the context. The Hebrew term used here is "ednah," which can also be translated as "delight" or "enjoyment." In the context of Sarah's advanced age and her disbelief at the prospect of having a child, "pleasure" could be interpreted to refer to the joy of motherhood.

However, given that the conception of a child necessarily involves sexual activity, it's also possible that Sarah is referring to sexual pleasure. In her old age, she may have thought that her sexual life was behind her, which is why the prospect of conceiving a child seemed absurd to her.

As for the question of whether the verse implies that couples unable to have children would not have engaged in intercourse, it's important to remember that cultural norms around sexuality and procreation have varied greatly throughout history and across different societies. In many ancient cultures, the primary purpose of sex was often seen as procreation, but this doesn't mean that infertile or older couples would not have had sex. Sexuality is a complex aspect of human behavior and relationship, with physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual dimensions, and it can serve multiple purposes beyond procreation.

So, in summary, the "pleasure" that Sarah is laughing about could refer to both the joy of motherhood and sexual pleasure, and it's not necessarily implying that infertile or older couples wouldn't have engaged in intercourse.

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