I’m quite sure few people consider the Bible to be funny. It’s certainly not one of the first characteristics popping to mind when we think about Scripture. But every once in a while the Bible throws in a little comedy. My focus today on the birth of Isaac is one such story. As is often the case with translations, the story loses some of its humor and wit in English, so I will try my best to convey those aspects of the story to you.
The birth of Isaac is introduced in Genesis 17:16, with God promising Abraham not only a son through his aged and infertile wife, Sarah, but a son who would become great, the father of many kings. Abraham responds to God by falling on his face and laughing at God. Let’s be honest, we might do the same if God made this promise to us when our spouse is 90 years old (actually, I think I would weep and beg for God to change his mind, but that’s beside the point). But as I mentioned, some of the humor in this story is “lost in translation” (Bill Murray’s worst movie, by the way), so let me translate Genesis 17:17 slightly differently: “Then Abraham fell on his face and Isaaced, 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?’”
You can see this is quite a strange “translation,” but I do this because the name Isaac in Hebrew means, “he laughs.” So literally, in the Hebrew, Abraham falls down on his face and calls out his son, Isaac’s name (without knowing that yet, of course). In English, you just do not get the same sense. The only other way you could fully comprehend the significance in English would be to say Abraham named his son “he laughs.” In either case, what is happening in this story is clear. Abraham laughs at God’s promise in chapter 17. Sarah laughs at Him in chapter 18. And in chapter 21, God has the last laugh when Isaac is born of the senior citizen, Sarah, and serves as a reminder to his parents–by his very name–that they laughed off God’s promise.
Besides teaching us that God can overcome nature, and that we should put our trust in His promises rather than laughing at them, this birth story of Isaac highlights several other systematic biblical concepts. I will mention some of them here only briefly, as they are related to the issue of Isaac’s naming, and the idea that God gets the last laugh.
The birth of Isaac shows the blessing of God comes through God’s promises, not through human planning and acquisition. The story of Isaac is clearly contrasted to the story of Ishmael. Ishmael was the product of Abraham and Sarah devising their own scheme, in order to give Abraham a child for the blessing God had promised him (to become a father of many nations). In that story (Genesis 16), the Bible clearly mentions (in its own, modest way) that Abraham and Hagar had a sexual relationship to bear Ishmael. In the case of Isaac, there is no mention of Abraham and Sarah having a sexual relationship. Certainly, it is implied, but the Bible presents the story so that Isaac, in a sense, proceeds out of the mouth of God, a fulfillment of God’s promise. Accordingly, when Paul mentions this story in Galatians 4:21-31, he mentions in vs. 28 how we are children of Abraham according to Isaac (i.e. the promise God made to Abraham).
Similarly, the story of Isaac sets a precedent throughout the Bible, with God consistently choosing for His covenant to continue through one of the younger siblings rather than through the elder son. This process shows that God will not be limited by normal human convention. If He wills to do something, He is not bound by the limitations, ideals, or basic concepts of humanity. In this case specifically, if God wishes for His covenant to continue through the younger son, Isaac, rather than the older son, Ishmael, it is God’s business. Functionally, God behaves this way so no one can ever say His plan continues through human wisdom and strength. Choosing the younger, the weaker, the poorer, etc., shows that God’s plan continues only by Divine Providence and not through the normal ordering of the world.
Or, as today’s blog title says, God gets the last laugh.