One day, God took with him two angels and went visiting, disguised as a wayfaring stranger. Abraham, obeying the ancient laws of hospitality ran out to welcome the weary travelers in. He ordered a lamb slaughtered and sent Sarah to bake bread. Seating the stranger in a place of honor, he offered him wine, dates, almonds and salty olives. God, pleased with Abraham’s kindness to strangers, promised that Sarah, who had been barren her whole long life, would soon bear a son. Sarah, eavesdropping on their conversation from within the folds of her tent laughed to herself at the idea. God heard her and asked Abraham why she laughed. Sarah, frightened, denied that she had. “Yes you did,” said God.
What a strange and wonderful story this is. I’ve read several interpretations of Sarah’s laughter – some describe it as a peal of joy, others as a snort of derision.
In the entire Bible Sarah is the only person who is described as laughing. Laughter is mentioned in a few other places and a couple of times groups of people laugh scornfully, but no other individual laughs. This is an old old story, repeated hundreds of times before it was written down more than six hundred years after it was first told. Why did this little detail of one woman’s quiet laughter survive?
I found a great article by Richard Restak on the psychology and physiology of laughter. Basically, laughter releases endorphins that make us feel good. It relieves stress, alleviates anxiety and lowers our blood pressure. Laughter also dispels nervousness, eases social situations and creates feelings of companionship and good will. Laughter can also be derogatory, self-deprecating or ironic.
Maybe God’s insistence that Sarah acknowledge her laughter was a way of underlining the importance of laughter. Maybe, it meant, “don’t undermine your own human nature.” Perhaps it serves to remind us to stay present and take ourselves less seriously. Consider how important the issue of reproduction was and still is to many women. Then and now, it bears directly on honor, shame, status, fulfillment, personal happiness and identity. Sarah had been living with the burden and shame of being barren for her whole life. Her reaction to Hagar and Ishmael indicates great defensiveness around the subject. Maybe the story tells us that relaxing our hard grip on the identities we create for ourselves opens an opportunity for change. Look how often women who try for years to become pregnant finally conceive after giving up and going on vacation or adopting a baby. There are many ways of being pregnant with things other than babies – dreams, projects, causes, art. For any of them to come to fruition we need to relax, breathe, and let go of outcome. We need to laugh.
Especially we need to laugh at ourselves and the absurd situation of being human. It difficult to be self-aware. Consciousness is both blessing and curse, it can heal but also cripple. Laughter, a phenomenon that even now scientists cannot entirely explain, explodes paradox and shifts our perspective. It breezes like a cleansing wind through our darkest passions and most twisted assumptions, if only we let it. The story tells us to remember, honor, and use this gift as an antidote to suffering.
In this collage we see Abraham relaxing together under the trees, drinking wine. Sarah, having heard her name spoken, leans against the tent pole eavesdropping on the conversation. Traditionally in those days, when a man and woman were depicted together in a work of art, particularly if they were “man and wife,” the woman would be drawn smaller than the man. Here I’ve reversed the tradition because it is Sarah’s story that interests us; her emotions drive the story and it is her laughter we remember.