- On Laughter and Re-membering
"and she laughs unto the end of days"(Prov. 31:25)
In the opening scene of Parashat Vayera (Gen. 18:9-15), Sarah first hears that she will finally, at the age of ninety, bear a child. The passage is a classic example of a literary convention that Robert Alter has dubbed "the Annunciation Scene"1 —part of a pattern that begins with the plight of barrenness. The woman, after many years of suffering without conception (exacerbated, in some instances, by the presence of a fertile though less-loved rival wife), is finally visited by a man of God or an angel who announces that she is to have a child. The annunciation may follow the formula, "at this very season next year, so-and-so will have a son ..." The news is followed almost immediately by the conception and birth of this promised child, "often with the invocation of the verb pakod or zakhor—to call to mind or pay mind to—to indicate God's manifest mindfulness of His promise."2
Yet, oddly, Sarah, who sets the precedent for this privilege of bearing "the chosen son," is almost completely occluded from the revelation. The news is first conveyed to Abraham alone, in a private encounter with God, just before he initiates himself into the covenant through circumcision. When he is told of the prospective birth of the chosen son, he falls on his face and laughs, saying, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" (Gen. 17:21) In the following scene, at the Oaks of Mamre, we are privy to a replay. After the divine messengers verify Sarah's presence in the tent, the prophecy is relayed again for her sake, while she is presumed to be eavesdropping. However, she is never addressed directly in the course of the reiteration of the promise. She, too, responds by laughing (inwardly), and she says, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?" (Gen.18:12) For this she is rebuked, but only indirectly, through [End Page 230] Abraham. Yet how could the angel have known she laughed? There had been no face-to-face encounter. She, eavesdropping, is eavesdropped upon! Even the scolding she only overhears as a conversation between her "old man" and the messenger. As Alter puts it, "Sarah is not allowed to command her annunciation scene."3
In this essay, I'd like to explore the relationship between Sarah's response and the oblique nature of the annunciation. Sarah is never punished for laughing, despite the rebuke. I argue that the repartee around laughter realigns the relations between the matriarch and God, calling for a direct encounter, which in turn enables her to conceive. In the end, the transformation of her aged body—withered, without pleasure—into that of a voluptuous nursing mother confirms the divine promise.
Why is Sarah rebuked for having laughed, when Abraham responds similarly with impunity? Before comparing the nature of their laughter, we must examine the staging of the scene, how the Director positions each player, who speaks to whom (and who speaks in soliloquy), and what their cues are:
9. And they said to him, "Where is Sarah your wife?" And he said, "Here, in the tent." 10. And he said, "I will certainly return to you at this season; and lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent opening, which was behind him. 11. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and advanced in age; and it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?" 13. And the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' 14. Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah shall have a son." 15. Then Sarah denied, saying, "I did...