Laughter From the Barren Places

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 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.”

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her 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 give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  Gen. 17: 1-7, 15-16.

In today’s Lectionary reading, we  continue with the notion of covenant from last week’s Old Testament reading about Noah.  Here, we encounter Abram as an old man.  Twenty-four years earlier, God had instructed Abram to move from his home in Haran. Abram left behind his home and his family; he left behind his past.  Although Abram’s very name meant “father of the multitudes”, deep into their old age he and his wife Sarai had no children.  Despite God’s promises that his descendants would number as many as the stars, Sarai remained barren.

When God re-named him Abraham (“the father of many nations”), it must’ve seemed like a bit of a cruel joke.  And when God re-named his wife Sarah (which means “princess”), that must have made her wince a bit.  And when God told him that  wife would be the mother of nations and kings would spring from her, the whole thing must have seemed….well, just not very likely.

In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham laughed at the whole idea.  Gen. 17:17.  And when Sarah heard the news, she couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Gen. 18:12.  God has a funny sense of humor, and the whole idea struck them as a bit absurd.  And yet, very late in their lives, laughter (which translates as “Yizhak” or “Isaac”) will spring from their marriage.  Their laughter at the absurdity of God’s promise will become laughter of joy.  But, I’m getting ahead of the story…

In those days, at that time, being childless meant a deep and fundamental kind of failure.  (Some folks still perceive infertility that way today, or at least as deeply heartbreaking.) God’s repeated promises seemed to mock the reality of Abram and Sarai’s long struggle with infertility.  So when God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) repeats his promise, Abram falls to the earth, and we can imagine him hoping desperately that somehow the Almighty can bring his dreams to fruition and bless him with an heir.

As happens so often in Scripture, the significance of this event is marked by a re-naming.  We’ve seen it happen to Simon (“Peter), to Jacob (“Israel”), and now to Abram (“Abraham”) and Sarai (“Sarah”).  In each instance, the assignment of a new name implies both a new understanding of mission and a re-making of God’s creation.  It connotes a change so thoroughgoing that the old name simply would no longer suffice.  In this passage, the Lord reveals also himself, using a new name (“El Shaddai”) for the first time.  The name reflects this new covenantal relationship, implying limitless capacity.

This reading offers us several important insights during this Lenten season.  God calls each of us into the covenant He established with Abraham and which was revealed most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  He wants to take the places in our lives which are broken and barren and create new life there.  He wants to turn our laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy.  Just like Abraham, God calls us to walk with Him, so that all our steps are taken with and toward God.  And mostly, He wants us to become living icons of this covenant, to trust in His vision for all of creation and its redemption.  And, I think, God wants us all to laugh, deeply and with great joy.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

16 responses to “Laughter From the Barren Places

  1. Thank you for this reminder, and thank you for visiting my blog. God bless.

  2. apocalypseicons

    Dear Brother,

    This is a particular favourite of mine and of my daughter, who is also called Sarah – though she is 19 and not in her nineties! My grandson is called Isaac too, and he is two this very day and I am about to go and take a fabulous robot dinosaur to delight him. Regarding names, Sarah had decided on Isaac early on in her pregnancy but towards the end wanted to change it and there was much agonising. So she told me she picked up the bible I had given her and opened it up and would pick whatever name was there. She saw immediately the verse, “And he shall be called Isaac.” As soon as he was born and we saw him the first thing she said, “How could he have been called anything else.” The girl in the next bed had also had a son and he was called Jacob. How incredible it seems, even for such ordinary people like us.

    • My dear sister,

      What a wonderful story! I know Isaac will love his robot dinosaur, and more importantly, that he will know he is dearly loved. Have a great day with your grandson.

      Pax et bonum,

      Br. James

  3. Dear Brother James,

    You have said on more than one occasion that we are tempted to think things will always be the way they are now and that the change we hope for will never come. Sometimes the bald facts seem not only to support that belief but even to prove that it is so. I’m sure that Abram and Sarai must have thought so, and many of us have been in similar situations. Thanks for the consistent reminder of what God can do in our lives.


    • Brother James

      Dear Ron,

      Mebbe I’m beginning to sound like a broken record a bit? Our faith teaches us that there are facts we cannot yet see.

      Your support and encouragement mean a lot to me.

      God watch over us both,

      Br. James

  4. Its amazing how God lets us know that irrespective of age he can change things and make possible what the many will call impossible

  5. I am fascinated by the re-namings in the Bible, and I often think about that white stone with a new name written on it that will be given to all who overcome.

    • Brother James


      Yes, the reoccuring theme of new names is a challenging and wonderful teaching, isn’t it?

      Peace to you,

      Br. James

  6. I can very much relate to Sarah and the thinking of the times that being barren was a failure. As a woman who has struggled with infertility and endometriosis for a number of years I can feel a special connection to Sarah and this scripture passage. I also feel like I have failed or that I am a failure since I haven’t been blessed with child yet. But who knows maybe my husband and I are called to adopt? I try to trust in God but sometimes its tough when I see others having kids left and right and some have this judgmental look like they’re thinking why don’t you have kids? God Bless.

    • Brother James


      I can imagine how painful that notion can be. But as a godfather of an adopted child, I can also assure you that they are a great blessing. The world would be a much colder place without my godchild, Taylor. And we all come into God’s family, as St. Paul observed, through adoption.

      I wish you great peace and many blessings,

      Br. James

  7. Two things struck me as I read this piece. First is that I have believed for many years that God must have a sense of humor; I love the image of His creating all the creatures and laughing in delight as He did. A little more seriously, I wonder if He were to rename me today, what it would be. I hope it would be a name that honors Him and shows my gratitude for the life he has given me. If I may add a note to your support for Teresa, I was blessed to be a mother and gave birth to three sons, but I have a sister who had a number of health issues that prevented her from being able to carry a child. A few years after that knowledge two wonderful girls came into her life – girls that needed a mother because there was a horrible situation in their home lives. The girls have long since that day regarded my sister as their mother, and I firmly believe that God placed them in her life because she was the exact person He needed for them. She recently attended the wedding of one, and was the mother of the bride for the service. You could never tell her that she doesn’t have daughters. I hope you come to peace with this; I will keep you in my prayes.

    • Brother James


      I do not know what God would re-name you, but I suspect it would have something to do with tenderness or gentleness. Or perhaps, generosity of spirit.

      I have always found you thus.


      Br. James

  8. I find it a peace that God’s first sentence……
    1“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.”
    is not a condition for the second…..
    “And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

    • Brother James


      Yes, we are all most fortunate that God offers a covenant rather than a contract.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

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