The Slaughter of Isaac’ s (holy?) laughter

Much exegesis is nothing more than “axegesis,” a slaughter of the text. As an example, I shall examine  laughter in Genesis. Although Abraham didn’t ultimately slaughter Isaac (Hebrew for “he laughed”), “axegetes” go all the way: laughter lies slaughtered on the slab. (This post is a follow-on from “Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good is evil”).

In the rabbinic oral law we find the analysis of texts at multiple levels of which the surface level is the first and shallow level. Rabbi Barry Freundel explains:The revelatory character of the material in the Bible serves as a rationale and multiple-level analysis of these texts that one finds in the rabbinic literature called the oral law. The Bible represents miraculous information. As such, while it can and should be read on its most idiomatically understandable level (what we call peshat) other levels of interpretation are also available because of the very nature of the origin of the text. These other levels are called derash, or deeper analysis, remez, or hints, which includes such things as gematria (numerological parallels and notarikon (words whose deeper meaning is revealed by the abbreviations hidden behind the letters); and sod, or secret analysis, meaning esoteric or mystical interpretation.” When it comes to the written biblical text, it “should be read on its most idiomatically understandable level (what we call peshat) other levels of interpretation are also available because of the very nature of the origin of the text” (Rabbi Freundel above). The question is: how many different meanings does God intend to reveal to us through the words he “speaks”? There may indeed be several levels of meanings; from a Christian point of view, the whole notion of New Testament typology depends on the existence of at least two meanings. A typology (a type) is “the preordained representative relation which certain persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament bear to corresponding persons, events, and institutions in the New” (Terry 1890, 246. Christian Courier). For example, Succoth (feast of Tabernacles) commemorates Israel’s sojourn in the midbar wilderness (Leviticus 23:43). Succoth is the type that reminds us that we are merely sojourners on this earth (1 Peter 2:11): “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”

While we’re on our sojourn through the midbar of words, here is an interesting connection” “wilderness” midbar” could also be understood as midaber “wording, speaking,” or as m’devar/m’dibbur, “away from words, without a word, beyond words.” But, interesting as this excursion is, if we sojourn here, our discourse will certainly run off into the wilderness , which we must not do here. In “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning and Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good is evil, I touched on Rabbi Glazerson’s book “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995). Most of Glazerson’s book deals with the connection between the “deeper significance of the letters,” (the Gematria) and the surface text. What I’d like to discuss here is a rare chapter in his book – rare because it excludes the use of Gematria, and deals instead with the surface text. The way he deals with the surface text is what my subject is about. When we think of laughter in the Bible, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, often comes to mind: “Let’s examine, says a commentator, the bible record, and see how and when God’s people laughed. We immediately think of Sarah, who laughed when God told her she would have a Son in her old age. I admire Sarah for laughing. I wouldn’t find the news too amusing!” The above commentator is, in my view, on the right track; he understands the text. The next commentator, in contrast, has gone off the rails. The Bible commentator Kley Yakor/Keli Yakar/Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz ) discusses this miracle as follows:

 ”Sarah saw that a miracle happened to her against nature. She went back to her youth, when she was a girl. She felt that not for nothing did a miracle happen to her…She said, I who received back my time and period, it is because of my worthiness. Perhaps I will live much longer. But my husband’s youth did not return to him and he will not live much longer. Why then does he need a son in his old age? That is the reason that she laughed [Genesis 18:13].”

(Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –March 3rd 1619) was a rabbi, poet and Torah commentator, best known for his Torah commentary Keli Yakar  (“precious vessel” – an allusion to Proverbs 20:15) on the Torah which first appeared in Lublin in 1602. It still appears in many editions of the Torah).

Many have forgotten or are unaware that Abraham laughed as well, and first, that is, before Sarah. It could very well be that Sarah took her lead from Abraham. Laughter in the Bible appears for the first time in Genesis 17, and it was Abraham who had that first laugh:15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell face down and laughed …” Why was Abraham’s son, his “only son”יְחִידְךָ yechidkha, called Isaac Yitzchak “he laughed.”

What does “only son” mean in verse 17: 2 Genesis 22:1 And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ Ishmael was also a son, the elder son. “Only son” means that it was through Isaac that the nation of “Israel” (also called an “only son”), the son of the promise, was to be born. In Genesis 17:19, we read “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, [and] with his seed after him.”

Let’s read Glazerson’s explanation of (what he calls) the “real” meaning of Isaac’s name (laughter) and see what he does with this laughter. We read in Genesis 17:17:Abraham fell face down and laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” In his chapter, “Isaac and the Philistines” (pp. 99-100), Glazerson contrasts what he calls Isaac’s pure holy Torah laughter with the Philistines’ mocking laughter at Torah:We can, says Glazerson, see some of his titanic strength in his name יִצְחָק “Isaac.” Coming from the root צחק “to laugh,” this name signals his lofty perception of the physical world: a passing shadow only worth laughing at. Someone whose world-view was so very much the opposite of the Philistines’ had nothing to fear from them. This is why Isaac acquiesced so easily in the test of the Akeidah [binding of Isaac], his Binding as a sacrifice. For Abraham it was a severe trial to slay his son, but for Isaac it was not at all hard to give up a world that was worth nothing in his eyes.”

Here is the relevant verse: Genesis 22:10 -Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter לִשְׁחֹט lishkhot his son – my square brackets]. Where did the laughter on Abraham’s and Sarah’s face go? According to Glazerson, it went no place; it’s still where it always was: deep in the heart of Isaac. But wasn’t it Abraham and Sarah who laughed? Doesn’t the surface text (which is not the same as “superficial” text) say so very clearly? Isaac’s name was a typical biblical example of naming a child after what the parent/s experienced at the time of the child’s birth. Here are some other examples: Gen 35:17-18 “And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her [Jacob’s wife’s Rachel], Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni (son of my sorrow): but his father called him Benjamin (son of my right hand).” Another example: In Gershom, the sojourner: the sound of one monkey chewing I wrote about my brother Gerald (Gershom). Gershom was one of Moses’ sons. How did Gershom get his name? “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land’ ” (Exodus, 2:16-22).] To return to Glazerson: when Abraham was about to slaughter his son on the altar, Isaac burst forth into holy laughter, for his life (on earth), says Glazerson, was worth nothing in his eyes. For Isaac, was there no terror of death? How terribly unlike King David, and the typical Israelite. (Abraham’s attitude in the “sacrifice” of Isaac was an exception). If Hebrew (in translation) has any meaning, there is one thing we can be absolutely certain about in the texts we are discussing; “laughter” and “slaughter” have only five things in common: l-a-u-g-h. When you’re on a journey and take what you think is the right turn on yourmap, but which, in fact, is the wrong turn on themap, you’re quite happy until you discover you’ve made a faux pas. Sometimes you never discover the mistake. The confusion may – indeed often does – lead to all kinds of interesting discoveries.

For example, Jacques Derrida, the “rebbe” of deconstruction, in his “The Tower of Babel,” mistakes the etymology of “Babel” as “Father God,” when in fact Babel means “Gate of God.” That confusion took him and the reader of his text on a very interesting detour (of Babel). (See my Babel: Can Derrida’s Tour (Surprisingly) Translate Us Anywhere?). Derrida was not into mythologising history. When Derrida dug deep into the sedimentations of a text, what interested him were not the mythological, but the historical sedimentations. The surface text had more than an imaginative relationship to the layers underneath. In many rabbinical commentaries on the Tanakh, I see more imaginative excursions than fidelity to the surface text. Without a solid surface, both the archaeologist and the biblical exegete are in danger of falling down holes and getting hurt. In the exegete’s case, not even a holy hole will stop the fall. Where does Glazerson take Isaac’s “holy laughter to?” To Purim, out of which he concocts an antidote to the Philistine’s unholy laughter:This kind of holy laughter is revealed on the supremely holy day of Purim. By dressing up in costume, we are saying that as Jews, we know that all externals, everything material, is only a disguise, and that the truth is hidden underneath, in the spiritual realm.”Isaac’s laughter is the antidote to the Philistines’ unclean, mocking laughter at out values and the the truths of Torah. Only by strengthening our understanding of those values will we rise above our enemies scorn.” There’s nothing wrong with the English translation of Glazerson’s Hebrew text, nor with the organisation of ideas. The question is, though, what has all this got to do with Isaac. Once when I was lecturing in English at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa), the Head of English came storming into my office with a student exam essay that I had marked – and failed. “What’s wrong with this paper. It’s perfectly good English!” “Yes, I replied, the English is good, but the essay is off topic.” And that’s what’s wrong with Glazerson, and with many rabbinical interpretations of scripture. So, far I’ve been pulling and tearing at Glazerson’s “syntactic joints and semantic flesh,” which only deconstructionists should have the right to do. What I would like to do now is present my interpretation – which I would think is the normal and correct way – of the “laughter” passages under discussion. Here are the relevant Torah sections in Genesis of the Isaac story (Genesis 17-18). I italicize sections related to laughter.

[“syntactic joints and semantic flesh” – Johnson, Barbara. 1985. Taking Fidelity Philosophically. In: Difference in Translation In: Graham, J.F. (ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press].

Genesis 17

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell face down and laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Here is the Hebrew of verse 17 “Abraham fell face down and laughed…” וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל־פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק vayipol (and fell) avraham (Abraham) al-panav (on his face) vayitzkhak (and he laughed). “Isaac” is the English for yitzkhak (he laughed). One can laugh for umpteen reasons: amusement, happiness, poke fun, embarrassment the unexpected (for example, the many sudden reversals found in the Tanakh such as the Purim story, where Haman is hanged on the gallows that he prepared for Mordecai), the absurd, friendliness, mischief, compassion, rejoicing; or one can just laugh as a pick-me-up. Why was Abraham laughing? There can’t be that many one-hundred-year-old men and ninety-year-old women still able to have children; well, Abraham, at least, seems to think so. And that’s why he’s cracking up under his own rhetorical question: “Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?’ And Sarah?Incredulity, there certainly was, but also – from what we learn from the Apostle Paul (and Rashi) – joy. Here are two good commentaries on Abraham’s laughter:

Matthew Henry

Abraham’s joyful, thankful, entertainment of this gracious promise, Genesis 17:17. Upon this occasion he expressed, 1. Great humility: He fell on his face. Note, The more honours and favours God confers upon us the lower we should be in our own eyes, and the more reverent and submissive before God. 2. Great joy: He laughed. It was a laughter of delight, not of distrust. Note, Even the promises of a holy God, as well as his performances, are the joys of holy souls there is the joy of faith as well as the joy of fruition. Now it was that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day. Now he saw it and was glad (John 8:56) for, as he saw heaven in the promise of Canaan, so he saw Christ in the promise of Isaac. 3. Great admiration: Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? He does not here speak of it as at all doubtful (for we are sure that he staggered not at the promise, Romans 4:20), but as very wonderful and that which could not be effected but by the almighty power of God, and as very kind, and a favour which was the more affecting and obliging for this, that it was extremely surprising, Psalm 126:1,2.

Lewis Johnson

Now Abraham’s response is incredulous reaction and I can certainly understand. Abraham fell on his face. That was what he did more than once you know. That’s not bad. Perhaps he had some marks on his face from sudden falls, but we read in verse 3 “and Abram fell on his face” and here again in verse 17. That’s not a bad place for the godly to be; on their face before the Lord. So he fell on his face before the Lord and as he did, he said within his heart, well he laughed first. He laughed. Now there are some kinds of laughter that are the laughter of joy. That is the laughter of joy. For example, when an extra point is kicked, that means the game, or when a field goal is missed by the opponent, that means the game. Lot of good laughter takes place then, hearty laughter. This was laughter and I think in this case, it was the laugher of faith. Now later in the next chapter, Sarah will laugh too, but her laughter happens to be the laughter of unbelief. But his I believe is probably the laughter of belief although there are some things that could be said otherwise, but since God does not reprove Abraham, I am rather inclined to think that it was incredulous reaction, but believing in its essence.

And Sarah:

Genesis 18– 1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground… 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh צָחֲקָה and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?

[צָחֲקָה tzokh’kah from the same verb root as yitzkhak he laughed”, namely, צחק tsakhaq.Yitzkhakis the masculine verb form of “Abraham laughed”].

14 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.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Let’s jump to the next relevant passage: 21:3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac “he laughed.” The literal meaning of “Isaac” is not “she (Sarah) laughed,” but “he (Abraham laughed). But this has no interest for Glazerson at all, because it’s not Abraham’s laughter or Sarah’s laughter that he sees; it’s Isaac’s laughter – laughing his way into this life and into the next. But, for Glazerson, Isaac’s laughter is not the unholy befuddled laughter of Abraham and Sarah; it’s a holy pure laughter. Is there any record that Isaac laughed at all? Yes there is. “Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing/sporting [מְצַחֵקm’tzakheik] with Rebekah his wife. So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?”” (Genesis 26:8-9). But Isaac’s laughter was certainly not Glazerson’s “holy” laughter or Isaac laughing at the the vanity of the things of this world such as conjugal bliss.


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