So to get started this morning I have a really simple question for you — it’s something I want you to think about for a minute — the question is: What does it mean to laugh?
Laughter, laughing, when you laugh — what does that mean?
And well that’s actually a hard question because laughter could mean all kinds of things. Think for minute about the different kind of ways we could laugh:
- You could laugh for joy or you could laugh for meanness.
- You could laugh because you’re nice or you could laugh because you’re a jerk.
- You could laugh due to nerves or you could laugh due to romance
- You could do a short “haha” laugh or you could do this long, uncontrollable belly laugh.
- You could laugh with someone or you could laugh at someone —
There’s all kinds of laughter, and this matters because we see laughter today in Genesis 21 — that’s the chapter we’re looking at today.
And really, in the Book of Genesis as a whole, we see a lot of laughing. The word for “laughter” is not used a single other time in the first five books of the Bible, but it’s repeated 11 times in Genesis, and most of the time it’s pertaining to Isaac. “Isaac” the name actually means “he laughs” — and God told Abraham to name his son Isaac because laughter is a big part of his story, and we’re going to see that today.
But we’re going to end there. I want to start our time by giving you an overview of this chapter, but by working through it backwards. There are three big events that are happening in Genesis 21, and they are laid out for us neatly. In order they go like this:
- Isaac is born (verses 1–7)
- Ishmael is banished (verses 8–21)
- Abraham is in Beersheba (verses 22–34)
That’s the nutshell of the chapter, and I want us to walk through these three events backwards, starting with 3 and then 2, so that we can end with 1) which is the birth of Isaac, because that is the most important event of them all. You could actually say that the other two events are just extensions of the birth of Isaac, and all three of these events have a similar message. So I want to show you that, beginning with the end in Beersheba.
So let’s pray and then we can dig in.
Father, thank you for your Word. I ask that you would open our hearts now to receive what you have for us, by your Spirit, in Jesus’s name, amen.
1. Abraham is in Beersheba (vv. 22–34)
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
The chapter ends this way to remind us about the context Abraham is in: it’s that he is still a nomad.
Here is a man who has been promised amazing things by God, including a land — he was promised a geographical area for his many descendants to call home — but, after all these years, Abraham still living in tents. Obviously the biggest hurdle to God’s promise up to now has been the fact that Abraham and Sarah cannot have children. Sarah is barren, they’re old, and they’re only getting older; they need a son — and that’s the breakthrough in this chapter.
Isaac, the promised son, is born. That’s verses 1–7 (we’re going to get there). But I want us to see right away that the chapter ends with this note about Abraham sojourning, and the point is to say, “Hey, there’s more here. Don’t forget the land.”
Other parts of God’s promises have come true —Isaac is the main one — but also there is the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations, and that is what is going on here with Abimelech.
Abimelech is a Gentile king who recognized that God is with Abraham. That’s the first thing he says in verse 22. He says to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do” and then, basically, Abimelech wants to hitch his wagon to Abraham.
This is alludes back to God’s promise in Genesis 12:3 that God will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who dishonor Abraham. Abimelech wants to bless Abraham. He doesn’t want to cause any problems. He wants to have peace, and so they make a treaty. And part of that treaty has to do with a well that Abraham has dug in Beersheba.
Beersheba was the southern most part of the Promised Land, and it bordered the land of the Philistines. In fact, it might have been a little vague at this point where the land of the Philistines ended — which is why Abraham wants to get clear about the well. This well in Beersheba was Abraham’s well, and so this territory is Abraham’s territory. It is within the Promised Land. And Abraham’s treaty with Abimelech forced Abimelech to acknowledge that. And so after they make the treaty, Abimelech and his army, in verse 32, “returned to the land of the Philistines.” That’s important. They leave and go home.
And what does Abraham do?
He planted a tree and “called there on the name of the Lord” (verse 33). Abraham established a place of worship for YHWH, which is exactly what he did back in Genesis 12. Abraham is staking his claim on the land. He is still sojourning — the text says that — but he believes the promise of God. God has promised him this land, and so we see Abraham’s faith here. But also we see God’s faithfulness.
Here is Abraham — again, just a nomad; living in a tent — but he is blessed by God; the kings of the nations recognize him to be blessed by God; and he is himself is being a blessing the nations. This is God’s faithfulness once again put on display.
But then right before this, still going backwards, is when Ishmael is banished.
2. Ishmael is Banished (vv. 9–21)
This goes back to Chapter 16. Remember that Abraham and Sarah, back in Genesis 16, sort of put themselves in a pickle. They became impatient with God’s promise for a son and so they tried to contrive God’s promise through Sarah’s servant Hagar.
Abraham had a son with Hagar named Ishmael — and Abraham actually just wanted God to fulfill his offspring promise through Ishmael. Abraham basically said: God, I don’t need another son. Don’t worry about the promise. Just use Ishmael.
But God insisted that he would give Abraham and Sarah a son together, and that this son, who was to be named Isaac, would be Abraham’s heir (that’s Chapter 17).
And we know from Chapter 16 that this whole “Hagar Plan” caused a lot of tension between Sarah and Hagar.
Hagar dishonored Sarah — she looked at her with contempt (16:4–5).
And Sarah didn’t like Hagar, and so she was harsh with her.
And it was so bad in Chapter 16 that Hagar ran away (16:6). But then God came to Hagar and told her he would take care of her and Ishmael and for her to go back to Sarah and submit to her, and so Hagar did. And, as far as we know, things smoothed out for a little while between Sarah and Hagar . . . until we get here in Chapter 21 when Isaac is born.
This is the scene that happens: Abraham throws a party for Isaac after he was weaned. So he’s a young boy here, probably a toddler. And during this party, while everyone is having a good time, Sarah looks out and she sees that Ishmael, who is a teenager, is “laughing.” That’s all the text says. And we don’t know exactly what that means.
The verb here for “laughing” is the same verb used for laughter all throughout Genesis, but here it’s in the intensive form. So, going by the context, it is understood as a bad thing in this use.
It’s kind of funny how Hebrew dictionaries define the word. Context always make the difference. But when this same word for “laughing” is used in Chapter 26 with Isaac and Rebecca, one Hebrew dictionary defines laughing as “conjugal caressing.” But that’s not what is happening here in Chapter 21.
The kind of laughing here, at this part of Chapter 21, is understood as mocking or jesting or making sport of. The context suggests that.
And so when Sarah sees the “son of Hagar the Egyptian … laughing [like this]” she’s had enough. In someway, by his laughing, Ishmael is mistreating Isaac, and so Sarah kicks out Hagar and Ishmael. (And we can be pretty confident that Ishmael is doing a bad kind of laughing here because that’s the way the apostle Paul interprets it in Galatians 4:29. Paul says there that Ishmael persecuted Isaac).
And so with Hagar gone we see almost a repeat of Chapter 16. But now, instead of Hagar fleeing with Ishmael because of Sarah, they are banished by Sarah. And they’re alone in the wild, and they run out of provisions, but then God comes to Hagar and tells her that he’s going to take care of her. He sustains her and Ishmael, and the story skips ahead and tells us that Ishmael grows up fine. God was with him, and so he becomes a skilled hunter, and Hagar finds a wife for him back in her homeland of Egypt. And there you go. That’s Ishmael’s story.
Now there are two reasons this story is included. First, we’re supposed to see that the drama over Abraham’s heir is resolved. Because that has been the drama. Now that Isaac is here, you’ve got two potential heirs. The older is Ishmael, and younger is Isaac, but God says the heir is the younger. Isaac is the offspring of promise. And to make that clear, God says to get the older out of the picture. It was Ishmael and Isaac. But now it’s just Isaac.
Second, and I think mainly, we’re supposed to see God’s faithfulness here. God keeps his promise both about Isaac as the heir and about taking care of Ishmael. God is with Ishmael. And that’s because back in Chapter 16 God promised Hagar that he would be. And God aways does what he says he will do.
That’s the best explanation of God’s faithfulness I can think of. That’s the way we explain it to the kids. At night when I tuck the kids in bed and pray with them and thank God for being faithful, we say, “Thank you God that you always do what you say you’ll do.” Because he does.
And that’s the main point of Chapter 21. We see that in Beersheba; we see that with Ishmael, and then we see that especially in the birth of Isaac.
3. Isaac is born (vv. 1–7)
And so we’ve worked backwards — 3, 2, 1 — and here we are now, verses 1–7. And this is the Featured Presentation. The other parts were just the credits compared to this.
Remember now that when we come to Chapter 21, verse 1, we’ve not heard anything about Abraham’s promised son for three whole chapters.
The promise of a son has been so central in Abraham’s story, but the last time anything was mentioned about him was when God told Abraham back in Genesis 17:21, “I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
Then there’s a three-chapter intermission. We see God’s judgment in Sodom; see his mercy on Lot; we see Abraham’s sister-wife trickery; we see how he intercedes for Abimelech — and then finally we are back to the story of this promised son in Genesis 21:1. We’re finally here. After all this time we have now come to the moment. After days that turned into months that turned into years stacked upon years, the time has come. Are you ready for this?
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
And whatever the different kinds of laughter there may be, this is the most beautiful kind of all. And, God, I want to laugh like this.
Because you know what she’s laughing about, right? You know why she’s laughing!
She’s laughing for joy at the faithfulness of God. She’s laughing because God has indeed done what he said he would do, and we know he has because we read it three times in two verses:
- “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said”
- “the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised”
- “[it all happened] at the time of which God had spoken”
She’s laughing because the impossible has become reality. She’s laughing because faith has become sight, and now she is holding it in her arms. And what else do you do when that happens?
What else do you do when you wanted something so badly, and you asked God to do it, and you hoped that he would do it but you were never really sure until now, in this moment, when you can feel the heartbeat of your prayer, and you can look him in the face?
Sarah is laughing, see, because the invisible has become visible, and her emptiness is overcome with abundance — she can’t hold this in! — her heartache has been healed, her mourning is now mirth. Sadness is turned to singing. Gloom has changed to gladness. Pain is replaced by pleasure. Joy has won the day because God has come. God has visited her. Her boy is asleep on her chest, and for a moment this giant outhouse of a world is transformed to be heaven here and now — and so she laughs.
And she is laughing enough to make others laugh too. She laughs so hard at such a silly providence of God that she figures anybody else who hears this story is going to be laughing with her. So she says: “God has made laughter for me” and when this news spreads, my neighbors “will laugh over me.” (And maybe they will laugh with her, or maybe they will laugh at her; she doesn’t care — she’s laughing.)
She’s laughing like all the bad things have come untrue, and all the promised things have become truer than the bad things ever were. She’s laughing like all her waiting was nothing, and that for however long it might have been, it was every bit worth it now. She’s laughing like that best vision she had in her mind turned out to be a faint echo of the actual joy itself. There are no gaps left to be filled. God’s goodness is spilling over. She’s laughing because her dreams were not too big, they were too small, and because she was nearly a fool to listen to those voices who told her to move on and stop bothering God — and so she is really laughing now.
She laughing in her wrinkled skin, laughing under her white hair. She laughing as a spectacle that only the God who created the heavens and the earth could cause. She’s laughing.
And she’s still laughing. She hasn’t stopped laughing. How could she stop? God told her to name the boy, “He laughs.” That’s his name, and she says it everyday, hundreds of times a day. She whispers it and sings it, and how can she say “he laughs” without herself laughing? How can she not rock Isaac to sleep without isaacing the whole time?
“He laughs” — again, that’s his name — and who is doing the laughing in his name we’re not sure. It might be Abraham, because Abraham did laugh, or it might be Isaac himself because sometimes babies can cackle, or it might be those neighbors again who are hearing the news — or it might be God himself.
It might be God himself because he is the one who made the promise, and since God delights to show mercy, he has bound himself to take pleasure in miracles like this, and so maybe while Sarah is laughing, God is laughing too.
And maybe he’s laughing not just because Isaac is here, but maybe he’s laughing because he knows this whole thing is going to end in laughter.
And I don’t mean “this whole thing” as in just Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but I’m taking about this whole thing as in the whole history of the world.
See, God knows the end from the beginning, and maybe he’s laughing right here with Sarah because he knows this laugh is only the foretaste of an even greater laughter yet to come.
Because in Jeremiah 32:41, God looks to a future day and says of his people, “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
And then in Zephaniah 3:17 he tells us, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
And I don’t know about you, but I hear laughter in that.
When Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he told them about this future day when he would drink wine with them again. It was a day yet to come, “in my Father’s kingdom,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:29). And that day, no doubt, is part of the “joy that was set before him” mentioned in Hebrews 12. It’s because on that future day, during that drink, in that kingdom, all that God has said will be done.
Heaven and earth will be brand new. Every tear will be wiped away. Death will be no more. And so on that day, Jesus, with his Father and his church, is going to laugh. And we’re going to laugh with him.
And that is what Isaac is really about. There is a greater laughter yet to come.
“Then our mouths will be filled laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they will say among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Psalm 126:2–3)
And right now God’s welcome to this Table is a welcome to that gladness — God welcomes into that laughter.
Jesus has given us this Communion meal to remember his death in our place and to anticipate the joy waiting for us in his presence, and so when we take the bread and the cup we are enacting again our union with Jesus by faith. We’re saying that his cross is our hope and his joy is our home, and that’s where it’s all headed. This world, as broken and empty as it is, and us, as broken and needy as we may be, in Christ, we are headed for the happiness of God. And if you are trusting in Jesus for that this morning, then we invite you to eat and drink with us.
Father, you indeed do everything that you say you will do. And in that place, in your presence, in the joy of your faithfulness, we are satisfied. Our deepest longings find their fullness in you. Our emptiness overflows with your abundance. We long for that day, Father, and we thank you for it, even now. We thank you for Jesus who is our all. And in this moment we proclaim his death until he comes. Amen.