What’s So Funny?
It is in the very heat of the day, and Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent there by the oaks of Mamre. He looks up and sees three men standing out there in the sun.
Reflexively, he hurries out to the men, apparently recognizing in them a need to be served. “‘My lord,’ he said, ‘if it pleases you, stop here for a while’” (Gen. 18:3, NLT). It has been observed that this was the fifth time the Lord had paid a visit to Abraham since his removal to Canaan. And this may be why the patriarch’s “words My Lord suggest that he suspected the identity of the visitors, but perhaps he was not sure until later of the significance of the event.”1
Abraham’s reaction, however, was also certainly an expression of the hospitality of the cultures of the time. At the visitors’ acceptance, it was all hurried preparation. While they rested in the shade of those oaks, they were brought water to bathe their feet and refresh themselves.
Abraham hurried into the tent and excitedly told his wife, Sarah, and a servant to prepare bread and butter, and milk and meat for their guests’ nourishment. No effort was spared.
Then, after Abraham returned to the guests under the trees, while they were eating, they asked him, “‘Where is Sarah, your wife?’”
“‘There, in the tent,’ he said” (vs. 9, NIV).
And, at that singular moment out there in the heat of the desert day, the visitors commented that they would be returning that way in about a year and that, by that time, Sarah will have borne a son.
In a way, this news was not all that singular. It isn’t as if Abraham had not heard it all before, at least the essence of it. Years before, way back there in Ur, before Abram, as he was called then, had packed up all his possessions and set out for a new world. It was a world of promise—great and grandiose promise.
At the root of that promise was that Abraham would achieve greatness. “‘I will make you a great nation,’” God had said (12:2, NKJV). Implicit in this was that this greatness—this great nation—would develop from Abraham’s own genetic descendants. It would all begin with children from Abraham and wife Sarah.
Once, when God told Abraham that this would happen, Abraham was 99 years old. It is known that people in patriarchal times lived much longer than they do today. But, still, 99 years old was apparently well past the age at which children would have been expected. “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (17:17, NKJV). If he’d had access in those days to social media, he’d have likely posted “LOL!”—or maybe something even more colorful.
And now, here under the oaks of Mamre, the Lord was back, assuring Abraham that Sarah, his wife, would bear a child within a year. And this time, Sarah heard it herself. She “was listening at the entrance to the tent” and “laughed to herself” (18:10, 12, NIV).
It may be tempting to think that Sarah responded with laughter in nothing more than skepticism. “Yeah! Right!” But Sarah—and Abraham—were people of faith. They had utter confidence in God’s promises. “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11, NKJV). So her laughter must have surely come from a genuine sense of humor, from knowing the seeming incongruity of this one-year promise—at her age!
But somehow the Lord outside knew of Sarah’s response. “Why has your wife laughed?” he asked Abraham.
Sarah, fearfully trying to keep a straight face, denied her laughter.
“‘No, but you did laugh!’” the Lord said (vs. 15, NKJV).
In fact, the idea of humor was something that had come up before in God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah. In the earlier visit with Abraham, when the patriarch had fallen down laughing, God had told him that his future son’s name was to be Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
There was apparently some divinely ordained recognition in all this of a kind of humor even in God’s character. Even though these human beings that He’d created back there at the beginning had early strayed from the relationship with Him that He’d intended for them, there were still surely times when their behavior brought a smile to His face.
In fact, given that humor is often simply a human response to irony or incongruity, it would be difficult to imagine that there would not be occurrences of humor in the human experience. The great narrative of humankind on this earth—and its relationship with its Creator—is replete with irony, incongruity, and paradox.
As with many other issues of far greater theological import, there appears to be some variance in the interpretation of the nature of humor in the Abrahamic household. Some attribute Sarah’s laughter to cynicism; others like it as an expression of someone with a genuine sense of humor. It certainly doesn’t suggest that Abraham and Sarah sat around all day and exchanged riddles and jokes. But that the Mosaic report of these latter years of this aged couple, the original two ancestors of an entire race of monotheists that exist to this day, surely mention that they each had occasion to laugh—outwardly and inwardly—may suggest something about God’s own sense of humor.
Can anyone doubt, for example, Jesus’ humorous intent, or the snickers of those around Him, when He referred to James and John as “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17, NKJV) or when He exaggerated a point with the image of a great lumbering camel squeezing through the eye of a needle? (Mark 10:25).
There may indeed be solid doctrinal reasons for the sincere Christian to avoid frivolity. There is much scriptural support for this. But, as there may be a season for something more, Sarah’s own words may encourage a richer fulfillment in the balance of a Christian’s life: “‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me’” (Gen. 21:6, NRSV).
Some scholars and commentators have also noted a subtle humor in the scene of Adam naming the birds and animals. It’s almost like a parent gifting a child, but also this time with a kind of wink. There is an irony here that surely must have occurred to Adam in this process of naming all these creatures and noticing that, in their natural state, they were likely paired.
The author of Genesis clearly notices this apparent irony: “So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But,” writes the author, archly, “for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:20, NKJV). Could God have resisted closely watching Adam’s face as it surely must have dawned on the first man that he may have been lacking something that these animals had. “The text suggests, not without some humor, that during this encounter with the animals, Adam might have experienced some kind of identity crisis.”2
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, if you’re watching for it, there are occasional humorous settings. Consider the unequal showdown between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. With a great crowd standing by, after strenuous effort by the prophets of Baal, nothing had occurred. “At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27, NIV). Even in a situation as grim as this was, surely this must have caused a smile on some faces in the crowd. The climax to this confrontation, of course, is hardly something of trifling insignificance. Fire from heaven! But, still, there is that moment of comic relief.
A closer review of what is contained in the great story of Scripture, of God’s relationship with humanity through the ages, brings up occasional instances of humor. “To everything,” wrote Solomon, “there is a season, . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:1, 4, NKJV).
NOTES AND REFERENCES