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Vayeira(Genesis 18-22)

Affronts to confronts

SARAH'S DISBELIEF AND GOD'S CRITICISM

How can we put Sarah and disbelief in the same sentence? Sarah - the initial Matriarch of the Jewish People - did not believe or trust in God? Yet, the Torah seems quite clear on the subject. It is truly a daunting task to attempt to analyze seeming misdeeds of one of our Matriarchs. But we must if we are to take the study of Torah seriously. Let us read this shocking story of the birth of Isaac:

The angels said to Abraham: 'Where is Sarah, your wife?' He said, 'Behold, she is in the tent'. The angel said, 'I will surely return to you at this time next year and there will be a life, a son for Sarah, your wife!' Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent which was behind the angel. Sarah and Abraham were old; Sarah had reached menopause. Sarah laughed inside saying, 'After I have withered, will I again have my menstrual cycle?' God said to Abraham, 'Why has Sarah laughed saying, "Can it be true that I will give birth; I am old!" Is anything beyond God? At this time next year I will return to you, there will be a life and Sarah will have a son!' Sarah refuted saying, 'I did not laugh', for she was afraid, but Abraham said, 'But you did laugh!' (Genesis 18: 9-16)

The questions abound:

  1. Why did God have Sarah overhear the news of Isaac's birth? Why not tell Sarah directly?

  2. Why would Sarah laugh? Did she think the angel was being sarcastic? And if she truly did not believe that God could make her body youthful again, why would she lie about it later and say that she did not laugh? Even out of fear, a righteous person would not say outright lies.

We are in a quandary. We know that Sarah was an extremely devout and righteous woman. It is impossible to understand that she did not believe in God's omnipotence and power. She knew that God can do anything, including making an old woman pregnant. On the other hand, we also must trust God's assessment that Sarah's laughter showed disbelief. And to make matters worse, when presented with the evidence of God's assessment, Sarah denies it!

It would seem that making a compromise solution is the only way to answer this Biblical puzzle. We must find an explanation for Sarah's reaction to which Sarah would not think is denial of God's powers, but God, in His profound awareness of a person's nature, would know that indeed it is.

We would suggest, therefore, that Sarah was saying, "Abraham and I are old. We cannot naturally have a child. Sure, God is all-powerful and could allow us to have children in our old age, but God does not run His world this way. It must not be true what I just heard. God will not change nature to such a great extent."

Sarah laughs, but she does not deny God's omnipotence.

God, though, does not see it this way. He sees Sarah's reaction and views it as denial of His control of the world. He understands that Sarah is not limiting His power in theory, but her suggestion that there are rules of nature that God does not wish to break even at limited times is a denial of God's direct participation in the world. True, God made nature and its characteristics, but when God wants, He steps in and changes all nature according to His desires. He is not bound by even the natural laws of the world that He Himself arranged.

So Sarah does not really laugh in denial, but in God's ultimate assessment, she does.

God had known that Sarah would have a difficult time with all this because of her mode of thinking, and arranged that she shouldn't be confronted with His criticism directly. She would overhear the fact of Isaac's birth and how God will change nature when He chooses. God does the same when He has Abraham tell Sarah of His displeasure. He wishes not to encounter her directly, for her benefit.

Have you ever been corrected by a friend for behavior that he/she felt was unbecoming of you? When your friend 'gave it to you', did you 'give it right back'? It's a natural reaction. It is quite difficult to accept 'mussar' - rebuke when you are directly confronted with it. We should be accepting of it but we often fail this spiritual challenge.

Have you ever overheard someone else being critical of something that you realize applies to you sometimes? In such situations, it is much easier to accept the rebuke and improve because you get a chance to truly and honestly think without too many personal power struggles ("I'm not going to let him tell me that!") getting in the way.

We often have our own critiques of people's ideas or actions. Avoid the direct confrontation. It is then that we will have acted in the Imatatio Dei mode that we learn from God's treatment of Sarah.

Published: October 27, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Susan, November 1, 2012 12:02 PM

I appreciate your effort in attempting to clear up a most puzzling piece of our Torah. I am still troubled. As you assess: "Sarah laughs, but she does not deny God's omnipotence. God, though, does not see it this way. He sees Sarah's reaction and views it as denial of His control of the world" How can this be? God knows what is in the heart of Man. He would not misunderstand Sarah. But I don't see any other way out of it either ;-). Thank you.

(7) Yehudith Shraga, October 29, 2012 4:56 AM

Very useful insight

Thank you very much for sharing useful insights from Torah study.

(6) Miriam, November 15, 2008 12:07 PM

The Covenant was between Abraham and G-d..

HaShem speaks directly to each one of us - in this case He goes straight to Abraham because is the head of the household and it is the "seed" of Abraham, and the son of the Covenenant, that is discussed here.Sarah was not going to be involved in the Covenant, so the announcement of Isaac's birth needed to be told directly to his father.Sarah acted as a normal woman her age - at that point she did not know about G-d's plans yet - so I do not think that unbelief was a part of her reaction.

(5) carolyn muldoon, November 14, 2008 11:08 PM

Audacity

I remember reading this story as a child and feeling shock at the audacity of Sarah's laugh and outrage at her nerve to offend God to his face. oy vey, I still feel that way as an adult.

(4) Harise, November 10, 2008 10:55 AM

She laughed because

She was a living breathing human woman who had a good sense of the absurd, even if it turned out to be divine. What would have been a stranger occurrence, would have been for her to have immediately accepted the news without any reservation.

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