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eTeacherBiblical Official Newsletter
Issue #123 - 03/13
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Eli Dahan

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The meaning of laughter in Abraham's time

Some research that I've been reading in the last month deals with the subject of laughter in modern times. The conclusions of this research suggest that we laugh a lot when we are young and old, but we don’t laugh much when we are teenagers and adults. Today we are going to look at the meaning of laughter in Abraham's time. Four different characters will share with us their laughter – tschokצְחוֹק.

The first time that we meet laughter in Abraham’s time it is accompanied by the pain of circumcision. When God changed the name of Sarai to Sarah, He said:

"I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother ofnations; kings of peoples will come from her.”Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”(Genesis 17:15-16)

"וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ, וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן; וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם, מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ. וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל-פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק; וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה-שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם-שָׂרָה הֲבַת-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד."

 

Abraham with the three angels

 What is the meaning of the laughter here? There are two possible answers: Abraham must have been happy, as most commentaries suggest. On the other hand, perhaps he may have been confused, or some might say embarrassed, from the mere suggestion an elderly couple could bear a child. Ridiculous, right?

The next episode in which we encounter laughter is when Sarah hears that she's going to be a mother. From the text we can't be sure if she heard about it directly or when her husband and the messenger had a conversation about her. In any case, she says:

"Sarah laughedto herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”(Genesis 18:12)

"וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן."

 Sarah's laughter is more questionable, since her response is logical- how can she suddenly be young and healthy enough to give birth when she's in her nineties? Furthermore, she also speaks about her husband being an old man; even if God makes her womb fertile enough to get pregnant, her husband might not have the virility needed to “complete the job.”

The commentaries about this laughter bring two other questions to mind: Perhaps Sarah didn’t believe the angel. If God had said this directly to her, she certainly wouldn’t have questioned it! Another possibility is that she was mocking the words of the angel.

We next see laughter in Sodom, and this laughter most certainly came out of disbelief. When Lot heard that the city would be destroyed, he approached his sons-in-law:

Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting."(Genesis 19:14)

"וַיֵּצֵא לוֹט וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-חֲתָנָיו לֹקְחֵי בְנֹתָיו וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי-מַשְׁחִית יְהוָה, אֶת-הָעִיר; וַיְהִי כִמְצַחֵק בְּעֵינֵי חֲתָנָיו"

 In order to clearly illustrate the sins of Sodom, it wasn't enough for the author to simply discuss the Sodomites behavior. For that reason, two people who were supposed to be saved weren't, along with Lot's wife. When she turned her eyes back upon the city, she mocked God's commandment, resulting in her fate of being turned into a pillar of salt.The last laugh for us today belongs to Hagar's son, Ishmael, whose name does not appear in Genesis 21, only his status. Hagar’s son was mocking Sarah's son, as written:

"The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.”(Genesis 21:8-10)

"וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל; וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת-יִצְחָקוַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק. וַתֹּאמֶר, לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ:  כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן-הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם-בְּנִי עִם-יִצְחָק."

 

Ishmael and Hagar after the mocking

 Once you start discussing an inheritance, there’s no room for laughter. As such, Sarah decided to punish her maid. When Isaac was born, she could laugh and sing about the fact that that she had finally given birth to a child. As happens to many first-time parents, Sarah was very over protective. For that reason, when Ishmael was mocking Isaac, Sarah had the last laugh as we say in Hebrew - צוחק מי שצוחק אחרון .-the last is the one who should be laughing 

On our journey today, we have seen how laughter can symbolize happiness, disbelief, mocking, a lack of logic, and so much more. I hope that when you read these words you'll remember that laughter is also the best medicine for the inhabitants of this complicated planet.

  

 
Main phrases of the post + transcription + translation

 

English

Transliteration

Hebrew

laughter

tsəchôq

צְחוֹק

The maid

Hā'āmāh

הָאָמָה

Isaac

yitschāq

יִצְחָק

Sarah

śārāh

שָׂרָה

He Mocked

Lā'ag

לָעַג

Disbelief

'i-'ēmûn

אִי-אֵמוּן

Abraham

'avrāhām

אַבְרָהָם

 

 
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