Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast is a meditation on the prophecy of the birth of Isaac to Abraham, and a retelling of the story from Genesis 13-21.
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The story of Isaac’s miraculous birth spans twenty-five years, and eight chapters in Genesis. It’s also inextricably linked with God’s promise to Abraham that he would inherit the land which would ultimately become Israel, but God reveals His plan to Abraham in stages.
By Genesis 13, God has already called Abram (this was his name at first) to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. But it isn’t until after Abram and his nephew Lot separate that God specifically promises the childless Abram, then in his seventies, that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth. The word used here for descendants in Hebrew is zera, which means seed, or semen. This is significant because in Genesis 15, still childless, a heartsick Abram starts to wonder if the child will be from his own body after all, or whether perhaps it might be an adopted servant. God corrects him then, and tells him that yes, the child will be his biological son. He also gives Abram a new image to cling to: that of the stars in the heavens as a symbol of his numberless progeny. Now Abram could meditate on God’s promise to him day and night: both the dust of the ground and the stars in the heavens were a symbol of the promise. This is the first time that we’re told “Abram believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” later quoted in Romans 4:3 as an example for us all.
At the same time that God gives Abram this new word picture, He promises him the land for his possession. Abram asks God for a sign, which elsewhere in scripture indicates lack of faith—but since the writer of Genesis just got finished saying that “Abram believed God,” that can’t be what it was. Perhaps Abram was asking for something to cling to, like the image of the dust of the ground and the stars of the sky, to help him continue in faith for the land during the long years he expected to elapse between the promise and its fulfillment. In response, God tells Abram to gather animals and to cut them in half. Abram at once knows what this means: as we’re told in Jeremiah 34:18-19, this is the preparation for what the ancients called “cutting a covenant.” In this ritual, both parties walked between the pieces of the animals in a figure eight as they made their vows, in effect saying, “so be it done to me as it was done to these animals, if I break my end of this agreement!” Abram understands that God is going to make a covenant with him. But rather than God and Abram walking between the pieces, God puts Abram to sleep and gives him a vision of a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot passing between the pieces instead, as God tells him the terms of the covenant. This is significant, because Abram doesn’t have to do a thing—the covenant is between God and himself! Fire is often used as a symbol of the Lord throughout scripture. The flaming torch—the light—has been compared to the Word of God (“The word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” Psalm 119:105), and Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:1). One alternative interpretation I have heard is that the smoking fire pot is a furnace or crucible, and because the covenant God speaks includes the bondage of Abram’s descendants in slavery for 400 years, perhaps this is a symbol of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, and the fire pot is a symbol of their suffering (Deuteronomy 4:20). Regardless, Abram himself does not pass between the pieces, which means he does not have to do anything in order to bring about the promises. As far as he’s concerned, they’re automatic!
It’s also interesting to me that God includes both the blessing and the 400 years of slavery in this original covenant. Otherwise, the Israelites could have justly claimed that God had not kept up His end of the bargain when they found themselves in bondage—but He put it in the original contract, so to speak.
So much of Genesis 15. But God has not yet specified that the child of the promise will also be Sarah’s. This is why Sarai (as her name then was) suggests to Abram in Genesis 16 that he take her Egyptian servant Hagar as a wife, which is how Ishmael comes to be. Seems like Abram could have asked God for clarification at that point!
By Genesis 17, now 24 years have elapsed from the time of the original promise. God visits Abram again, and this is where he changes his name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. I’ve heard two explanations for this: one is that God added -ah to both of their names, taken from His own name: Jehov-ah. In Hebrew, ah means breath or spirit. God has breathed on them, and in the breath of God is life (which is how Adam and Eve came to be!) Another explanation is that Abram means ‘exalted father,’ while Abraham means ‘father of many nations.’ Likewise, Sarai means ‘my princess,’ whereas Sarah means ‘princess of a multitude.’ Again, God is bringing the promise front and center for them: now, every time they call one another, every time they hear someone speak their new name, they are hearing the promise. “God calls those things that be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17), and “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
In this same encounter, God gives Abram the first sign of the covenant in which he has a part to play: every male in his household must be circumcised. Covenants in the ancient world always involved the shedding of blood. This would be a permanent physical sign, though a personal one, that these men belong to God. Circumcision also occurs on the organ of reproduction, which may make it a symbol that their fruitfulness (spiritually speaking) would now come as a result of their partnership with God. Jesus later says, “The one who remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
One more very significant thing comes out of this encounter: finally, God tells Abraham that the child will be Sarah’s too. Sarah is the one who always gets the bad reputation of laughing when she hears the promise, but Abraham laughs too, and it’s the same word in Hebrew as when Sarah laughs! This might be why God says that his son will be called Isaac—which means laughter. Ouch. God doesn’t directly rebuke Abraham like he does Sarah, but maybe this is the rebuke.
In my retelling, I put the next encounter with the Lord ten days later in Genesis 18, because Abraham and the men of his household are recovering from circumcision, and this takes about ten days on average. It seems that God wasn’t even intending to talk to Abraham this time—the three men, one of whom was apparently the Lord and the other two presumably were angels, were on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham happened to see them passing by. God reiterates the promise, and now Sarah hears it. This is where she laughs, and the Lord rebukes her. But we know from Hebrews 11:11 that she eventually does come to believe the Lord’s promise, even though she’s eighty-nine years old at this point! And she must have come around pretty quickly too, because the promise is for “this time next year.” So she must have gotten on board in at least three months.
Then there’s this weird interlude that I didn’t put in my retelling. Once before, when Abram was seventy-five and Sarai was sixty-five, she was apparently so gorgeous that he told Pharaoh as they passed through Egypt that she was his sister, and not his wife—lest Pharaoh try to have him killed so that he could take Sarai into his harem. (This was sort of true: she was his half sister. They did that back then.) Then in Genesis 20, AFTER God had already given the promise that Isaac will be born within a year, Abraham does it again! As he passes through Gerar, he tells King Abimelech that Sarah (who is eighty-nine at this point) that she is his sister! Apparently she was still stunning, because Abimelech took her into his harem. How God responds to this is very interesting: he closes the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s household, and then tells him in a dream that Sarah is actually Abraham’s wife. Then, even though the fault is totally Abraham’s, because God made a covenant with Abraham, Abraham has to pray for Abimelech so that the curse is lifted. But this isn’t just any curse. It’s a curse of reproduction. Could it be that God was jealous of His promise, twenty-five years in the making, and now on a very tight deadline? At this point, it’s days to months at most from when Sarah is scheduled to conceive. I suspect God REALLY didn’t want anyone to think Sarah’s child was anyone’s other than Abraham’s.
And then in Chapter 21, at long, LONG last, Sarah is pregnant, and Isaac is born.
Why 25 years? Was all that really necessary? Is it possible that Abraham and Sarah could have shortened the wait, or was it always destined to be so long? No idea. But (despite his bizarre lapses here and there), I definitely think Abraham deserves the title, “Father of Faith.”
I’ve reimagined what these twenty-five years must have been like through Abraham’s eyes. I hope it helps you as it did me, to experience the story in a new way!
Now it was just us.
I shouldn’t feel lonely—I still had Sarai, and my herdsmen and servants, cattle and flocks. But with my nephew Lot gone, I was the only one of my blood kin in a land of strangers and giants. Lot chose the better land, the fertile Jordan Valley, but that did not matter. I came on this journey in the first place because I had a promise from the Lord. Several, actually, which I rehearsed to myself on a regular basis whenever I felt low, like I did right now.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And later, when He appeared to me upon entering Canaan, glowing and white, He said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Offspring, I thought, and my spirit sank. It wasn’t that I doubted what the Lord said—He was the Lord. Obviously He would know. It was just that the very promise stirred a longing in me that I had long buried in order to cope with my disappointment. I was now seventy-five years old, and my wife Sarai, stunningly beautiful though she still was, was sixty-five and barren. The Lord said there would be offspring… but He did not say when or how or by whom.
I jerked my head up, but there was no one there. Not this time. It was like the first time the Lord had spoken to me: I heard the voice only in my spirit, but I knew to my bones that it was Him.
“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”
I caught my breath, dropping my eyes from the land to the sand that had gotten trapped in my sandals and stuck between my toes. Then I gazed with new wonder at the dust of the ground.
So not just offspring, but—I will make of you a great nation, the Lord had said the first time I heard Him speak. A huge nation, apparently!
“Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you,” the Lord said to my spirit.
Yes, Lord, I said in my spirit, and hurried to obey. I told my servants to move our tents to Hebron, by the oaks of Mamre. I went to explore the land that was now mine by divine right—mine and my myriad offspring’s! As I walked, I imagined them. The dust under my feet was a picture of how many there would be. I pictured cities of the future, using what I had seen in Egypt as a guide for how they might look. And the people of my nation going about their lives: soldiers and tradesmen, shepherds and priests, women and children. I heard their laughter, their haggling, and at times their bickering.
When I returned to our tents at Hebron, my heart was full. I had seen the future, and the how was not my problem. God made the promise; He would see that it came to pass. There I built an altar to the Lord of smooth stones for sacrifice, just like I did the first time the Lord appeared and spoke to me. I did this because, after what I had seen and envisioned, my heart demanded a response. The Lord was so good to me.
Later, as the years slipped by with no sign of a promise fulfilled, I was grateful to have built the altar for another reason. The Lord had given me one sign, of the dust under my feet. Yet I saw the dust daily, and did not always think of my offspring to come when I did so. But for the altar, there might have been times when I would have been tempted to think I’d dreamed the whole thing. But it was there, real and unchanging, and I remembered when I looked at it how I’d felt when I constructed it. I tried to conjure those feelings of hope and gratitude again, but now they were tinged so heavily with disappointment and heartsickness that the positive emotions were hard to remember. I’d begun to convince myself that when the Lord spoke of my offspring, perhaps He had not meant my physical offspring. Perhaps he meant that one of my servants would inherit from me, and his offspring would be counted as mine. It would be his offspring that would populate the grand city of my imagination.
As I stood looking out over the land the Lord had given to me by promise as the sun went down, beside the oaks of Mamre, suddenly, the Lord came to me again. I knew He was not physically beside me this time, that it was a vision, but the glowing appearance of the man was the same.
“Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” He said.
Lovely words, and I did believe them, but they were so non-specific. So my reply came out of my wounded heart. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Suddenly—in my vision or in reality, I did not know—twilight slipped to darkness. The Lord led me out from beneath the spreading oaks, and pointed up to the heavens. Like every night, the magnificent deep blue sky was spangled with stars as far as the eye could see, and beyond.
“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.”
I looked, but I could no more number the stars than I could number the sand beneath my feet. Tears of gratitude leaked onto my now wrinkled cheeks. The Lord did not say in so many words that these offspring would be from my own body, but this was his reply when I voiced the concern that they would not be. I knew he meant that they would be mine. And when the promise was at last fulfilled, the years of waiting and heartache would not matter anymore. They would be forgotten in joy.
I do not know how long the vision went on. Perhaps I slept before the Lord, meditating on his great promise. When it was daytime, and I could again see the land before me, the Lord went on, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
Remembering the long, unchanging years since the last time the Lord had spoken this promise to me, I said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” I did not doubt that I would, but—like the stars in the heavens were a new sign of the promise of offspring, I wanted a new sign to cling to for the land. Something to combat the doubt, when it next came knocking.
The Lord said to me, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
The vision lifted. I was alone again, and went at once to my herdsmen to comply in excitement. I knew what this meant: the Lord planned to cut a covenant with me! When any two kings or landowners or great men wished to join in covenant, the strongest bond of fellowship there is, this was how it was done. If the Lord would do that, then surely there would be no more room for doubt!
I hurried back to the place where I had met with the Lord yesterday at nightfall, and slaughtered the sacrifices. Then I sawed all the animals except for the birds in half, separating them in the usual manner in preparation. And I waited for the Lord to appear.
He did not appear, for hours yet. I washed the blood from my hands. The sun rose high, and began to descend again. The birds of prey eventually spotted my sacrifice, and swooped down to investigate. I shooed them away. As I waited, since I could not yet see the stars, I looked at the sand. I closed my eyes and imagined the city I’d first envisioned all those years ago…
Sometime during the evening as the sun went down, my imaginings slipped into dreams. At first it was no dream at all, but deepest blackness, as if I’d fallen into an abyss where there was nothing but night. Then the Lord’s voice came to me in the dream.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
When the Lord finished speaking, I saw—dream or vision now? I was not sure—two objects appear before me: a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. I knew that the furnace represented the bondage of my offspring of which the Lord had just spoken, a symbol of oppression. Just as certainly, I knew that the flaming torch was the holiness of the Lord Himself. It was these two objects that passed between the pieces of my sacrifices. My throat constricted. The Lord had cut the covenant with Himself. Without my participation at all! That meant it was unconditional: there was nothing I could do to stop the promise from coming to pass. He would do it.
The Lord spoke again the promise He had given me before, only this time it was an unconditional covenant: “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
I awoke the next morning so filled with hope and joy that it was as if the last ten years of disappointment had never happened. I’d never yet told Sarai of the Lord’s promise for descendants, as her barrenness was a very sensitive subject. I had hoped I would not have to tell her, and she might simply conceive one day without my having to say a word. But today I could not hold it in. I told her everything, from the original picture of the sand from the Lord, the vision of the land when we first arrived, to the vision and dream from the last twenty-four hours, of the stars in the sky and the Lord’s unconditional covenant. After all, the Lord had cut the covenant with himself! We had nothing to do with it!
But Sarai was not excited, like I was. In fact, she grew very quiet as I spoke, and withdrew from me. I frowned, and asked her, “What is wrong?”
“The Lord has promised you offspring,” she said at last. “You. Not me.”
I blinked at her, confused. This had never occurred to me until this moment. I had simply assumed that if the offspring were from my own body and not an adopted servant, then they would be Sarai’s as well. She was my only wife, after all. But, now that I thought of it, the Lord had not specified this, had He?
Sarai sucked in a breath, and straightened her spine. Then she fixed me with a steely gaze that I knew hid great pain.
“Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children,” she said. “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
I considered. I could tell from Sarai’s expression that she did not actually wish me to do this, but if the Lord had blessed my body and not hers, what other option was there? Besides, the practice was not unheard of. Hagar belonged to Sarai; therefore, children she bore would also be counted as hers. It was rational. I therefore did as Sarai suggested, and took Hagar as a second wife.
Hagar conceived quickly, and confirmed this to us within a few months. I should have been overjoyed—this was the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise!—and yet. Strife had come into my home. Hagar, who had always been submissive and pleasant to Sarai in the past, now paraded about as if she were a queen, and spoke to Sarai with contempt. Sarai hid her bitter tears from me as best she could, but I caught her weeping several times when she thought she was alone. I tried to comfort her, but I knew Sarai blamed me as well as Hagar: she was jealous of my relationship with her, as well as of the child on the way. It did not matter that it had been her idea now: the pain was too poignant for reason. When I forced her to speak to me, she lashed out.
“May the wrong done to me be on you!” she cried. “I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between me and you!”
I had never learned in all our years of marriage how to control my wife when she was in a fit of temper like this. My default was to placate as best I could, which I did now. “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.”
Sarai narrowed her eyes at me. “I most certainly will.” Drying her tears, she straightened and stalked away from me. I let out a heavy sigh, grateful the confrontation was over at least.
The next day, word from my other servants came that Hagar had fled into the wilderness. Perhaps I should have felt protective—after all, she too was my wife now, and she was carrying my child. The child of God’s promise: the very one upon whom all my hopes for offspring hinged. I should have gone after her. But I kept envisioning that hard, hurt look in Sarai’s eyes. She was a difficult woman at times, but I loved her. I never wished to cause that look again.
So I did not pursue Hagar; but she returned to us anyway, and approached me with an amazing story.
“An angel came to me and told me to return to my mistress and submit to her,” she told me in private, “and also told me that the Lord would multiply my offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude!”
I exhaled sharply as she spoke. Again, I should have been excited, since this coincided so exactly with what the Lord had said to me. And yet, I felt disappointed instead. Sarai had been right. The child of God’s promise to me would come from Hagar, not from her, the wife I loved.
Hagar went on, “And the angel said that I would bear a son, and that I should call his name Ishmael, because the Lord had listened to my affliction. He said that he would be ‘a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.’ This was at the spring that lies between Kadesh and Bered!”
I forced a smile. “Then we shall call that spring, Beer-lahai-roi,” I said, which meant The Well of the Vision of Life. Hagar beamed back at me, now so filled with joy that she even did as the angel commanded, and submitted to Sarai again.
In the fullness of time, Hagar bore a son, just as the angel had said. We called his name Ishmael. I was eighty-six years old.
In the following years, Sarai’s monthly flow ceased, and with them died my hopes that the promised child from the Lord would come from her. My attachment to and love for Ishmael increased after that, as I resigned myself to the idea that he must be the child of promise. Hagar and Sarai were civil to one another, but never more than that; as for Ishmael, Sarai could hardly stand to look at the boy. I tried not to let this bother me, as I understood it was more about Sarai than about him. I explained this to him too, once he was old enough to understand and mind that she despised him.
Sarai and I were scarcely more than civil with one another either in subsequent years, truth be told. I was saddened by this, as I loved my wife still, and wished she would let me comfort her. But again, I understood that she was angry with the Lord, and not with me. After all, it was my seed whom He had blessed, and at her expense. Every day, she had to watch my child of God’s promise by another woman grow strong in her sight.
Then, when I was ninety-nine years of age, everything changed.
While I surveyed the land the Lord had given to my offspring, the Lord appeared before me once more, so blindingly white that I could scarcely look at him. At first I was too stunned to move. The Lord said then, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” The paralysis left me, and I fell on my face before the Lord. He continued, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
The Lord continued to speak, as I digested this. Most of what He had said had been said before—all this I knew, except that my name had now changed. Abram, which meant Exalted Father, had now become Abraham, Father of a Multitude. The previous word from the Lord had been that I was to be a great nation. Would I now be a multitude of nations?
“As for you,” the Lord continued, I still on the ground, “you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
As the Lord spoke about this most unusual sign of the covenant, I pictured gathering the hundreds of men in my household and explaining to them what the Lord had told me. They trusted and obeyed me implicitly, and yet—if anything might stretch that trust to the breaking point, it was this. Last time the Lord had cut a covenant with me, it had been unconditional. Now, I had a part to play. I would obey, whether I understood or not. Of course I would obey. He was the Lord.
God continued to speak: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
I looked up at the Lord now, so shocked that I laughed aloud, incredulous. I was wise enough to hold my tongue, but I could not help thinking, Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah—for so she is now—who is ninety years old, bear a child? Yet I could not miss the significance of the Lord changing her name as well as mine: from Sarai, meaning my princess—as indeed she had always been to me—to Sarah, meaning princess of a multitude.
My thoughts then went to Ishmael, the boy whom I’d resigned myself would be the child of the Lord’s prophecy for the last thirteen years. So convinced had I been of this that I had ceased to believe or look for another, and I had learned to love him, despite all the strife he had caused in my household. It was hard to reverse the direction of my dominant thought all at once. So when I spoke at last, what I said was, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” Did I mean instead of a child by Sarah? Lord forgive me; I suspect I did.
God replied, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” I winced inwardly—the name Isaac meant laughter. The child himself would be an everlasting reminder of my first reaction to God’s word. “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”
My heart eased at this—for if the Lord did indeed give me a child by Sarah, I shuddered to think how she might take retribution upon Ishmael for the years of misery he unknowingly caused her. Even if he was not the child of promise after all, I still cared deeply for the boy, and did not wish for him to be cast out in the cold. None of this was his fault.
The Lord added, “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
This last and most remarkable pronouncement took my breath away. This time next year. The Lord had first spoken to me about this child of the promise twenty-four years ago. I waited a decade after that until Ishmael’s birth. When Sarah’s monthly flow ceased, my heart sickened, and it had been thirteen more years since then. Was it really so? No more waiting?
The Lord God ascended to heaven then, leaving me still lying prostrate on the ground. When I recovered myself, I stood, brushed off my robes, and went to assemble the men of my household. I had a job to do. I explained the relevant part of the Lord’s visitation to me, and it was a credit to the men that despite their dismay, to a man they submitted willingly to my knife. I personally circumcised every one of them until the sun went down that day. The cries of pain throughout the household drew dismayed stares from every female servant as well, but I had no time to stop and explain to them. Hagar attempted to intervene on behalf of Ishmael, but I put her off, and so did Ishmael. “This is man’s business!” he said to his mother, and I was proud of him.
Last of all, I gritted my teeth and circumcised myself. None of the men upon whom I had performed the procedure were in any condition to do it for me, and I did not wish to call upon even Sarah to perform such a task.
Ten days later, when I was recovering at the door of my tent beside the oaks of Mamre, I looked up and saw not one, but three glowing men walking together. One was clearly the Lord, but who were the other two? Were they all three the Lord, somehow, or were two the Lord’s angels? Regardless, when I saw them, I leapt up and ran, heedless of the slight lingering ache in my groin, and bowed before them.
“O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
They stopped walking, and lingered under the oaks of Mamre. “Do as you have said,” one said to me.
I ran back to my tent to Sarah. “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and make cakes.”
“Three seahs?” Sarah ejaculated. I knew she was reacting to the amount—enough to feed an army. But I would far prefer to offer the Lord too much than too little. I did not stop to reply to her, but hastened on to my herd. I selected a young, spotless calf, and guided it to one of the young herdsmen.
“Quick! Slaughter and prepare the meat for our distinguished guests!”
The young herdsman asked no questions, but did as he was told. Conscious of how long my guests were forced to wait, I prepared the curds myself, and squeezed fresh milk. When all was at last finished, a feast for a kingdom, I brought it before the bright visitors, watching anxiously as they tasted the food. Was it good enough? Was it fit for a king?
Sarah had withdrawn to give me privacy with our guests, but she was inside the tent. I knew she too was listening with curiosity and awe, and perhaps a little skepticism. This was the first time that the Lord had appeared to me in close enough proximity that she too could hear. After I’d circumcised myself and the hundreds of men in my household, I had explained to her some of what the Lord had said to me. I told her that circumcision was a sign of the Lord’s covenant. I also told her that the Lord had changed my name and hers, but I did not yet tell her why. Since she too knew the meanings of the new names, though, I hoped she had been able to guess, or at least suspect. That would make it so much easier when at last, I did tell her the rest.
As it turned out, though, I did not have to. When the three men finished eating, one of them said to me, “Where is Sarah your wife?”
This did not surprise me—this was the Lord, after all, who had been the one to change her name little more than a week ago in the first place. But I knew it would startle Sarah, that they knew her name. Especially her new name.
“She is in the tent,” I said. Clearly that meant she could hear every word.
The one who was the Lord replied, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
Inside the tent, all four of us heard a sharp female laugh. I sucked in a breath, and looked back at our visitors. All of them frowned, and the Lord said, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
There was silence for a long moment. Sarah had said no such thing aloud, but I knew that the Lord had verbalized her innermost thoughts. At last, Sarah’s tentative voice called from inside the tent, “I did not laugh.”
“No, but you did laugh,” was the Lord’s disapproving reply. Then the three men rose to go, on their way to the Jordan Valley, toward Sodom, the land my nephew Lot had chosen. I went with them, leaving Sarah behind me to meditate on what she had heard.
Months passed, and apparently, nothing had changed. Sarah had no monthly flow to begin with, so she had not even that to indicate that she had conceived. But as time passed, and Sarah got used to saying my new name, and got used to hearing her own, I saw the change in her. The hardness around her heart began to soften, and the sharpness of her tongue grew tentatively kind. She seemed shy in her hope mixed with fear. I took her outside to show her the stars of the heavens—now a promise for her as well as for me. I pointed out the sand in her sandals and all around us, another symbol of the land that would belong to our descendants. She cried when I showed her these things, and for the first time since Ishmael’s birth, I felt again that she was fully mine, body and soul. Those precious months were like a second honeymoon for us. She still had moments of doubt and fear; so did I. But we strengthened each other with our visions of the future. We spoke of Isaac as if he already were. We made plans.
And then, about six months after the Lord had visited, we noticed the first signs of Isaac in Sarah’s belly. She beamed when she showed me, but she did not cry, because by then she was not surprised. It was merely the confirmation of what she had already known.
A year to the day from when the Lord had first appeared to me and told me of the covenant of circumcision and given me the promise of Isaac, Sarah brought him into the world—our child of laughter. He was born when I was one hundred, and Sarah ninety years old. Both his parents had laughed when we heard of his coming, but now Sarah declared at his christening, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” She was the happiest I had ever seen her, nor could I recall any time in my life when my heart was so overflowing. Isaac was the culmination of twenty-five years of heartache, yet those years were now forgotten in joy.
I circumcised Isaac on the eighth day, this child who symbolized God’s covenant. From him would come nations and kings, the Lord said, and through him, somehow, all the nations of the world would be blessed. He was literally the promise made flesh: impossible in every way, yet here he was, sleeping in my arms.
The Lord was faithful, all the time.
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