Did Abraham laugh God off in unbelief? It’s a great question, and it comes to us from Jessica, who lives in the Netherlands. “Dear Pastor John, hello! In Genesis we read of Abraham going along with Sarah’s plan with Hagar to make Ishmael his heir (Genesis 16:1–16). Later, when God tells him he and Sarah will bear a child at a hundred and ninety years old, respectively, he seems to laugh it off in unbelief (Genesis 17:17). Therefore, how is it that Romans 4 celebrates Abraham’s unwavering faith? Does it tell us anything about how God views our own wavering faith in the end?”
This is a good example of how careful we should be not to read into a text something from our own experience that makes an interpretation seem likely, but rather let the context decide whether it’s likely or not. So, the question is this: Did Abraham’s laughter in Genesis 17:17 signify the kind of weakened faith or unbelieving doubt (wavering, as she calls it, because that’s the way it’s translated in Romans 4:20) that Paul said Abraham did not have? Is Genesis 17:17 in conflict with what Paul says?
Faith Against All Hope
The Old Testament context goes like this:
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. [Now this is at 90 years old for her, and she has been barren all her life, and is now post-menopausal according to 18:11.] 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.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:15–17)
“Paul sees Abraham’s faith as strong and exemplary for us, even though it’s not perfect.”
Now, here’s what Paul says about Abraham’s faith at that time. And the reason this matters for us is that Paul makes clear in Romans 4:23 that these words were not spoken just for Abraham but for us also, so that the righteousness that was imputed to him might be imputed to us through faith alone as well. This is not a merely marginal illustration for Paul; this is central to our own faith. So, here’s Paul’s description of Abraham’s response to God at that time. God says to Abraham,
“I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed [referring back to Genesis 15:6], who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver [literally, he did not doubt in unbelief] concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong [literally, he was strengthened (passive voice)] in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:17–22)
Now, that’s the end of Paul’s assessment of Abraham’s faith there in Genesis 17. Six times, Paul affirms Abraham’s faith in response to God’s promise that he would have an heir from his own one-hundred-year-old body and from Sarah’s ninety-year-old barren body. He says,
- “the presence of the God in whom he believed,”
- “in hope he believed against hope,”
- “he did not weaken in faith,”
- “he did not doubt in unbelief,”
- “he was strengthened in faith,” and
- he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
That’s amazing. I think it’s really clear. You know what Paul thinks, anyway, about Abraham’s faith from Genesis 17:17.
Glimpse of Gladness
Now, here’s an interesting possible confirmation, before we turn to the Old Testament context for a minute. Here’s an interesting confirmation from Jesus in John 8:56: Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” What does gladness refer to when Jesus says, “Abraham saw the day of Christ and was glad”?
Could it be the laughter of Genesis 17:17? God gave Abraham a glimpse of Christ in the sense that Genesis 17:1–19 says repeatedly, six times, that Abraham would have offspring of his own who would be the heir of the promise. And we know that Paul in Galatians saw that offspring as Christ (Galatians 3:16).
I just can’t help but wonder when Jesus said, “He saw my day and was glad,” whether he might have had in mind, “He saw my day in the promises of Genesis 17, and he laughed aloud with gladness.” Well, I can’t prove that, but what is clear is that Paul sees Abraham’s faith as strong and exemplary for us, even though it’s not perfect.
What Paul Saw in Abraham
So, the question is whether the clues in Genesis are sufficient to say that Paul got this right. I mean, that is what Jessica is asking because when she reads Genesis 17:17, it sounds to her like Abraham is just blowing it off, like he’s laughing it out of court. That can’t be because it sounds like a wavering of faith — a weakening, a doubting of faith.
“Faith itself is a work of God, so that in the end God gets all the glory.”
Let me just give a list of clues that I think Paul got it right. In other words, if I ask myself, What did Paul see in the context? This is what I think he saw.
1. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham looked at the stars, listened to God, and believed the promise that his descendants would be like that. It says so: “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
2. Abraham asks God what evidence God would give him that the covenant would be kept, and amazingly in Genesis 15:18, God acts out a kind of covenant ceremony in which animals are cut in half, and God passes between them as if to say, “May I be cut in pieces if I don’t keep my half of this covenant to make your seed nations.”
3. God renews the promise in Genesis 17:4 that Abraham would father many nations, and he changes Abraham’s name from Abram to Abraham to show how certain this is. This is as good as done. You have a name. And Abraham embraces that.
4. In verse 17, it doesn’t just say that Abraham laughed. This is really significant, I think. It says he fell on his face. (It had already said that once in Genesis 17:3.) He fell on his face and laughed. And falling on your face before Yahweh is a sign of reverence and respect and awe and fear. It’s not the posture you would assume if you were cynically laughing off the possibility of what God just said.
5. Finally, as soon as the encounter with God is over in chapter 17, Abraham immediately obeys the terms of the covenant and has all the males circumcised.
Work of God
So, it seems to me that we have good reason, not only from the New Testament, but also from the context of the Old Testament, that Abraham’s faith really was astonishing. And when Paul said in Romans 4:20 that Abraham was strengthened (passive voice) in his faith, giving glory to God, that passive voice is intended to draw our attention to the fact that this amazing work of faith in Abraham was not just his doing; it was the work of God in him.
And that probably is the central lesson for us. Paul is trying to make clear that sinners like us come into a right relationship with God by trusting him, believing, having faith — not by working for him. And even more pointedly, Paul is showing us that this faith itself is a work of God, so that in the end God gets all the glory — not just because of our faith calling attention to his total trustworthiness and all-sufficiency, but also because the faith itself is a mighty work of God.