October 12, 2015 • Life for Leaders
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’”
NO, today’s title is not a typo. If you do much texting with your phone, or if you have children who do, chances are you recognize the two acronyms in the title. “Lol” is very common, standing in for “laughing out loud.” If somebody says something funny, you indicate your enjoyment by texting “lol” in response. But if something is really hilarious, then “rofl” is appropriate. It stands for “rolling on the floor laughing.”
In Genesis 17:17, Abraham was in fact lol and rofl, laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing. The verse says that he “fell on his face and laughed.” Why did he do this? His unusual behavior was in response to God’s promise that Sarah, Abraham’s ninety-year-old wife, would bear a son. Some commentators on this verse try to preserve Abraham’s faithfulness and dignity by suggesting that he fell on his face in worship and laughed with joy. But the context for these actions, combined with Abraham’s questions in the second part of verse 17 and his suggestion in verse 18 that God allow Ishmael to be his heir, show us that Abraham was not overcome with faithful, joyful worship. Rather, the most obvious sense of verse 17 is that Abraham laughed so loud that he fell down on his face because he found God’s promise to be comically unbelievable. There you have it: lol and rofl.
This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. Why? First of all, because it shows us once again the utter humanness of Abraham, the one whom God called to one of the most significant roles in all of human history. Abraham, the great man of faith, is also a great man of doubt. At times he trusts God in the most amazing ways. And at times he just cannot believe what God is telling him. I can relate to this kind of genuine faith. Can you? I am greatly encouraged that God would choose such a person for such important work because I am such a person. If God can do great things through Abraham, maybe he can through me, too.
The second reason I love Genesis 17:17 didn’t occur to me until I was taking Hebrew in graduate school. As I stumbled through this verse, I saw something I had never known before. The phrase “and laughed” in Hebrew is wayyitzchaq. It means “and laughed.” No surprise there. But it also means “and Isaac.” Now, you wouldn’t want to translate this verse as “Abraham fell on his face and Isaac,” but there is clearly some delicious irony here. We get what’s going on in verse 19, when we learn that Abraham’s son will be named “Isaac.” This name will be a reminder of the laughter that God brought to Abraham and Sarah, laughter that began in unbelief and ended up in pure joy (Gen 21:6).
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Have you ever laughed like Abraham did in Genesis 17? Have you ever found God’s promises to be so unbelievable that laughter seemed like the best response?
Why would God enshrine Abraham’s laughter (and later, that of Sarah) in the very name “Isaac”? What does this suggest about God?
Gracious God, once again I’m thankful for the frankness of your Word, for letting us see Abraham in his moment of doubting laughter. Thank you for the authenticity and honesty of the Bible.
Lord, you know how much I am like Abraham. Sometimes I trust you in ways that surprise even me. And sometimes I am filled with doubt. I don’t know if I’ve ever fallen down on the floor in laughter, but I have certainly struggled to accept your promises. Nevertheless, you have chosen me as one of your servants and have not abandoned me because of my unbelief. Thank you! Amen.
P.S. One of the most delightful and insightful “commentaries” on this verse comes from Michael Card. If you don’t know his song “They Called Him Laughter,” you owe it to yourself to listen. And if you do know it, another listen will bless you. You can listen here.
Photo Credit: A-maze-ing Laughter CC2.0 by Chris Huggins.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.