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WE CAN’T IMAGINE that anyone can believe God announcing a miracle. Most miracles are hilarious. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man one hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” It was Ishmael he was worried about, Hagar’s child playing by the water, not yet the father of twelve chieftains but the kid who made boats of bark and hid when he was called in to dinner.

Abram couldn’t have imagined Abraham. Abraham, in turn, couldn’t imagine Isaac. Not his own ambivalence, not the depths they’d fall into and never fully return from. The longest ride home in the history of the world, the ram left behind, ashes smoking on the altar.




Before she was Sarah, blessed, about to issue forth rulers and give rise to nations, back when she was still Sarai, somewhere in those middle decades, she found herself a bit lonely, her house occasionally visited by the shades of the children she did not have. Every so often they slipped around corners, laughing, climbed onto her lap, appeared at the table, then disappeared.

Mostly she missed Ado, her niece by marriage—they had kept each other company through Haran, Canaan, Egypt. They’d played with Ado’s babies and made up stories to delight them, the little girls dancing and quarreling in the courtyard. Sarai and Ado cooked in the great ovens, even sometimes practiced writing in secret. Silence haunted the house when Ado and her girls went home.

And after the younger generation moved to the East, Ado was always busy with Lot and the children. There was so much to do in Sodom—parties, museum walks, bondage-themed street festivals, mother-daughter yoga sessions—that Ado never seemed to have time to visit or be visited. “I’ll see her later,” said Sarai to herself, laughing with pleasure at the thought of the fun they could have in the future.




In the long days and years that still went by too quickly, Sarai danced, studied, prayed. She wore her beauty like a mask, protecting her secrets. She was scolded, of course, told that she would never really grow up if she didn’t have children, that she was selfish, not connected to the great stream of life, would never know the greatest love and happiness. She laughed in their faces, threw her mother’s pottery bowl at the door after they had gone, then tried to mend the pieces with bitumen and wet clay, weeping.

She was pretty sure she was too crazy to be a mother, and when the yearnings showed up, every few years, they now passed quickly.

Not to mention that she’d seen Ado and the other mothers scolded too, told that they could never do serious work, they’d be unable to concentrate, they were selfish if they even tried, monstrous if on some days they looked at their little miracles and whispered to Sarai that, though the children were the centers of their lives, if they had it all to do again, they would not have had them. She didn’t think they were lying, exactly: we all have our moods.




There was that time in Egypt. Abram saying, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Sarai burst out laughing, but it was no good.

Before she knew it, the courtiers told Pharaoh how hot she was, Abram wound up with sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels, and Sarai found herself married to Pharaoh until his house was beset with mighty plagues. When Pharaoh found out why, he sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife?” Then he threw them out.

That was another long ride home, if you like. She was afraid she was pregnant, for the first few weeks. Miraculously, not that time either.





Much later, holding Isaac, already named by God, Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She was wrong about this, as about so many other things in her 127 years. The whole thing with Hagar had been her idea, as Abraham reminded her, often.

But when it came down to it, she sent Hagar and Ishmael away, and they landed in the wilderness of Beersheba, where, after a bout of despair and Hagar turning her back on her baby because it was that or watch him die, they wound up right where they were supposed to be, exactly on time for their appointment with God. Here was the miraculous well, a skin full of water, and Ishmael’s destiny: all those chieftains, still to come.

No laughter is reported, and neither are the postcards that Sarah sent in regret—why did she have such a bad temper, why was she terrible at sharing, what had she been thinking, was Hagar okay? Please write back, Hagar. She didn’t ever know whether the postcards arrived.





Here it is, the moment they had not been waiting for: The messengers asked, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” And Abraham replied, “There, in the tent.” They said, a little loudly because they wanted her to hear, that they would be back next year and she would have a son. A threat.

She stood at the tent’s entrance, the heat of it behind her, the messengers imposing a final sentence on her old age. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

And she laughed again, saying, “Will there be diapers, tantrums, the repeated explanation of how and why we say thank you, the miracle of the baby picking up a Cheerio between his finger and thumb, and the miracle of watching him say ‘Oops’ (shaking his head regretfully), just before dumping the bowl on the floor? Will there be bullying in middle school and sullen teenage defiance, will there be endless nagging over homework, will he be hurt in ways I cannot imagine, in this world where anything can happen to a child? Does all of that lie ahead?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” By now, she couldn’t stop laughing, but when they taxed her with it, she lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But the Lord replied, “You did laugh.”

For thousands of years, those rabbis, who had never changed a diaper, cleaned the Cheerios off the floor, or spent a night in the emergency room, studied the mystery of her laughter.




The messengers set out from there and headed toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off.



Sarah Stone is the author or coauthor of three books, including the novel Hungry Ghost Theater (WTAW) and the craft book Deepening Fiction (Longman, with Ron Nyren). She teaches online for Stanford Continuing Studies and was a LABA East Bay Fellow.




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