Before this story turns tragically dark in telling of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, it is uproariously funny. When Abram and Sarai are told the news they will bear a son that will create an endless family God will call “my people,” they can’t help themselves and fall down in irrepressible laughter. The preposterous angelic news is so outlandish they can’t hold it back. Those divine messengers are real cut-ups, don’t you know!
Normally, I wouldn’t say the Bible is widely known for its sense of humor, but if you read this story closely, you realize just how ridiculously funny it is. Playing the straight man, the LORD wonders what’s so funny and asked why Sarah laughed. “I didn’t laugh,” she said giggling while stifling her laughter. It’s like in sketch comedy when comedians try to make each other melt down in uncontrollable laughter so they blow their lines. God interrupts the laughter and piously elevates the conversation: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” Such is the beautifully tender line God says to get them to take the promise seriously.
What would we do without laughter? Perhaps laughter is God’s best gift to us in creation. Sarah gets it, asking innocently, “Shall I bear a child, now that I am old?” The writer of Genesis delicately hints, “… it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Dark humor is so subtle.
The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament got it too. In describing faith through the faith-stories of a series of persons from Hebrew Scripture, this ancient scene is described by the Biblical comedian: “That’s how it happened that from one man’s dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.” I kid you not, it’s in the Bible. Don’t believe me? Look it up under the topic, “God’s Joke Book.”
God’s promise is not limited to a single fantastical miracle of family planning better told in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. This is a divine vision of the future where this family is counted in numbers beyond counting, “as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.”
And so, the comedy was framed in the humor of God choosing to bless the world through two ancients, a shriveled up old man and a wrinkly old woman. And when the boy was eventually born, the joke was still being celebrated as they named him “Laughter.” Perfect!
But let’s be honest. We love this kind of comedy … It’s a dark cynical humor that makes us smile knowingly. Comedians have long understood the connection between pain and comedy. Most comedians understand humor is based on anger and anguish. John Larroquette rightly observed, “… comedy and pain are inseparable (and) the best comedy comes from angst.”
Cynical humor is the key to understanding this text which spotlights the heartbreaking infertility of Sarai as opposed to the subservient fertility of Hagar, the common slave girl who bore Abraham’s first-born son. Hagar was given to Abraham in the despair of Sarah’s inability to conceive. That’s where the humor stops and the tragedy takes over.
In its simplest truth, Hagar was a slave girl and not a part of the family. She was the servant to Sarah and knew she had to do whatever was asked of her, even if asked to bear the Master’s child. It’s easy to lose track of the simple fact that Hagar was Sarah’s slave girl and forced to comply.
But the crisis in the story of Father Abraham and his two sons is complicated at best and the conflict represented by the two sons, half-brothers by different mothers, has been reenacted across the centuries until even today in the never ending Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.
This crisis of lineage and blessing keeps repeating itself in some endless loop of conflict gets its start here in Genesis 21 as Sarah clearly sees the problem of primogeniture (first-born son) as Ishmael is Abraham’s first-born son and consequently the inheritor of the family name and of the promise from God.
The juxtaposition of these stories helps us understand that the oppressor’s story is always understood differently than the stories of the oppressed, which are silent stories often ignored or suppressed. We ignore the pain and anguish of the oppressed in favor of the telling the official story, our story as the dominant culture. This is as it is and as it shall be evermore.
But we can explore Hagar’s painful story of banishment today as an interruption to the dominant story. It’s only in the spotlight for a brief while before turning back to the triumphal story of the sacred promise. But at least this much is ours to think about.
That’s why Phyllis Trible, professor of Hebrew Scriptures, includes this story in her book, Texts of Terror. Today, we call this kind of story liberation theology or feminist theology or womanist theology as Hagar was undoubtedly a woman of color. Some dismiss those perspectives in theology, but they are interpretations that have much to teach us.
God always sides with the oppressed. (Repeat for emphasis) God sides with those who bear the pain of the dominant story and God wants us to learn from the story in all its many truths.
Global estimates indicate there are 49.6 million people living in situations of modern slavery on any given day, either forced to work against their will or in a marriage that they were forced into.
Their slavery has taken many forms. For millions, especially women and girls, it is prostitution, forced marriage, or other sexual and reproductive exploitation. Others are forced into domestic work and agriculture, or construction and manufacturing. They are tricked, kidnapped, and/or sold for illegal adoption, forced begging, armed combat, forced crime, and even for harvesting their organs.
Families can be heartless in their judgment or they can be nurturing places of safety, forgiveness, and grace. This story in Genesis is harsh in its arbitrariness and unforgiving in its judgment rendered in order to protect the blessing.
At the close of the Civil War after being beaten down and defeated, the congregation of the socially upper-crust Episcopal Church of Richmond was back in the pews after the war had finally ceased. The soldiers had returned from the war. On a Sunday morning, the minister, prepared to administer Holy Communion and something wholly unexpected occurred that startled the congregation.
When the invitation to the table was issued, a tall well-dressed black man rose from his seat in the gallery, a section traditionally reserved for Negroes. He slowly strode toward the communion table and knelt at the kneeling bench squarely in front of the table. This had never happened before as the strict custom was that the white members received communion first and only then would the Negroes be served. But the war was over and this was a new day, and this proud black Christian wanted to know whether the war was worth the fight.
The minister was startled and immobilized from fatigue. For a long moment, no one moved, until at last a distinguished but gaunt-looking gentleman with snow-white hair and gray beard rose to his feet and made his way to the table. He gently stooped down to kneel beside the black man and prepared to receive Christ alongside his black brother. Only after watching General Robert E. Lee act in fellowship with his dark-skinned estranged brother did the rest of the church follow.
God is the God of all, from the top to the bottom, from the left to the right, from the oppressor to the oppressed. God is the God of us all and there’s room at God’s table of reconciliation for us all.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023
 Hebrews 11:12, The Message
 Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month that Saved America, Perennial, 2001, 362-363