The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
This opens like the beginning of a film. It’s hot; Abraham is sitting at the opening of his tent in the shade of the oaks. We can imagine the quiet noises in the drowsy part of the day. Suddenly, Abraham looks up and sees three men. Where have they come from? Surely their arrival should have been spotted long before they reach Abraham.
The passage says that the Lord appeared but did Abraham recognise these visitors as from God, God himself or what? His greeting doesn’t really help; Abraham is showing the Middle Eastern reaction to visitors which is to treat them as honoured guests. What is perhaps surprising is that Abraham has a huge amount of servants, but the greeting and arrangements are made by him.
In the custom of the time, the offer of water and a little bread very much underplays what actually happens. The three measures of flour would make bread to feed a huge amount of guests and there would be plenty of meat on the calf. I wonder if Sarah’s reaction was the same as many other women’s would be- he’s telling me my job again!
Much has been made about the Christian echoes of the trinity of guests and the food prepared, particularly since the famous icon by Andrei Rublev, painted in the 15th century, has gained so much fame. The clothes of the three angels, or visitors, are painted in colours to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Abraham and Sarah have no part. This is, I think, to take the whole point of the story and to turn it into a side issue.
Sarah is the dutiful wife. She prepares the food which Abraham serves and she, like any woman of the time keeps out of sight. It is not her place to appear before the guests, but she is a real woman- she listens in to the conversation. And what she hears takes her aback. She is to have a baby. She is old, the accepted age is ninety, and is long past the menopause. No wonder she laughs. Whether it is amusement, bitterness or disbelief, we don’t know, but we have no difficulty in believing she does.
Some theologians suggest that God is angry when Sarah laughs. I don’t see this at all. The whole point is that God can do incredible things and Sarah, despite her laughter, for whatever reason, finds this out and in the most wonderful way when her son is born. It may not be in such miraculous ways for us, but we can trust that God can do anything- and often does, even now.
We often fail to recognise your presence
and the signs you send us.
We often lack the faith to trust in you and your promises.
We thank you that we are not alone
and that we have examples like Sarah and Abraham
who show that you do not desert us
even when we find the good news too good to be true.
Help us to keep our trust in you and forgive us when we fail.
Chris Eddowes is a Lay Preacher and member of St. George’s URC in Hartlepool.