Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 1-27.
 Copyright © 1991 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.


WTJ 53 (1991) 1-27








THE patriarchal narratives of Genesis contain three accounts of a pa-

triarch passing his wife off as his sister out of fear for his own life (Gen

12:10-20; 20:1-18; and 26:1-11). For the source critic, this is a classic ex-

ample of multiple versions of the same original story, demonstrating a

multiplicity of sources underlying our present book of Genesis.1 For the OT

form critic, they provide a rare opportunity to compare three parallel

accounts and postulate an origin and development in the oral and literary

tradition.2 For the redaction critic, they present a challenge to explain how

the accounts function in their present contexts; i.e., not as variant versions

of one event, but as different episodes in the lives of Abraham and Isaac.3


     1 G. Spurrell, Notes on the Text of the Book of Genesis (London: Clarendon, 1896) xvi; J.

Skinner, Genesis (ICC; New York: Scribner, 1910) vi-vii, 315; J. Barton, Reading the Old Testa-

ment: Method in Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 46.

     2 The work of K. Koch (The Growth of the Biblical Tradition: The Form Critical Method [New

York: Scribner, 1969] 115-28) will be described as an example, though his methods and

conclusions have been criticized by other form critics. In particular, the view that the three

incidents came to their present form due to changes in one prototype in the process of oral

transmission has been challenged by others who see clear evidence of literary dependence.

E.g., T. Alexander ("The Wife/Sister Incidents of Genesis: Oral Variants?" IBS 11 [1989]

2-22), building on the more detailed work of P. Weimar (Untersuchungen zur Redaktionsgeschichte

des Pentateuch [Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1977] 4-111), on J. Van Seters (Abraham

in History and Tradition [New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1975] 167-91), and others,

concluded, "Unfortunately, in the past, many scholars have jumped too quickly to the as-

sumption that the wife/sister episodes must all relate to one original incident, and that the

differences between them are due to the process of oral transmission. . . . The task of recon-

structing the oral and redactional history of these accounts is much more involved than is

generally acknowledged" (p. 19). For other form critical approaches and bibliographies, see

C. Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985) 159-68; G.

Coates, Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983)

109-13; 149-52; 188-92; D. L. Petersen, "A Thrice-Told Tale: Genre, Theme, and Motif," BR

18 (1973) 30-43.

     3 Methods bearing some resemblance to those of redaction criticism can be seen in the

works of defenders of the unity of authorship of the book of Genesis. Perhaps the most detailed

and comprehensive of these (at least in English) is W. Green, The Unity of the Book of Genesis

(New York: Scribner, 1897) 182-85, 250-62, 322-28. Both Van Seters (Abraham, 183-91) and

Weimar (Redaktionsgeschichte, 43-55, 75-78, 95-102) discuss the relation of the episodes to their

contexts, but their acceptance of the multiple-source hypothesis prevents them from trying to



For ease of reference, K. Koch's annotation will be followed, so that the

three accounts will be A, B, and C, referring to the first, second, and third,

respectively, in the order in which they appear in Genesis. The names

Abraham and Sarah will be used throughout, even when referring to pas-

sages prior to their name change (Genesis 17).


    I. Conclusions of Source Criticism


     Numerous apparent inconsistencies with the respective narrative con-

texts, as well as the seeming redundancy of the accounts, are explained by

source critics as due to the redaction of three sources containing variants of

one story during the formation of the book of Genesis. Thus in A, where

Sarah's beauty puts Abraham in fear of his life in Egypt-a plausible theme

in the story itself-the overall chronology imposed makes the whole episode

incongruous; for we learn from comparing Gen 17:17 and 12:4 that Sarah

had to have been at least 65 years old! There is a similar chronological

problem in C, where, though we do not know Rebekah's age, she must have

been married for at least 35 years,4 and therefore presumably not one who

would be looked at as a great marriage prospect. Furthermore, the same

chronology indicates that Jacob and Esau were already born,5 so how could

the parents feign brother and sister for "a long time"? Worse yet, we have

the same king Abimelech and his general Phicol, who appear also in B, at

least 76 years earlier!6 The most serious difficulties, however, occur in B.

There, not only does the context require Sarah to be 89 years old (17:11,

17), compounding the same problem as in A and C, but two chapters earlier

Sarah has described herself in terms that are clearly incompatible with the

situation presumed in B. Did she not laugh, saying, "After I have become

old, shall I have pleasure ['ahare beloti hayeta li cedna], my lord being old

also?" (Gen 18: 12)?7 Is it plausible then, that Abraham should fear for his


solve the apparent contradictions with respect to those contexts. E.g., Van Seters rules out the

possibility that three such episodes as we are considering here could come from one author

(Abraham, 154-55).

     4 C takes place after the death of Abraham (26: 18), who died at the age of 175 (25:7). Isaac

married Rebekah when Abraham was 140 (25:20; 21:5), making their marriage 35 years old

when Abraham died, thus a minimum of 35 years old when C takes place.

     5 The twins were born when Abraham was 160 (Gen 25:26; cf. n. 4).

     6 Abraham would still have been 99 years old in B (17: I; 21:5), and he died 76 years later

(n. 4). It is not plausible to suggest that B is a chronological regression, since it is closely linked

with chap. 21 (20:15; 21:22) and is explicitly linked to the chapters before it (v. 1).

     7 Most interpreters view v. 12 as indicating that sexual intimacy was out of the question,

understanding cedna (a hapax) as sexual pleasure. In my opinion, this needs to be reexamined.

For one thing, it seems to make the connection between Sarah's words and the Lord's rep-

etition of them a bit remote (v. 13 quotes her as scoffing, "shall I give birth?"). A. Millard ("The

Etymology of Eden," VT 24 [1984] 103-6), arguing for the possibility of a West Semitic origin

for ceden, from a root with "the common idea of 'pleasure, luxury' " (p. 104) as opposed to an

Akkadian derivation with the idea of "steppe, plain," which he finds problematic, cites a

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         3


life because of this old woman, or that the king would want to marry her?

Furthermore, only a few months may be allowed between chap. 18 and the

end of B, or else Sarah would be visibly pregnant with Isaac. But 20:18

seems to require an extended period of time to elapse within B itself in order

to notice the infertility of Abimelech's household since the time he took


     Unfortunately for source analysis, the three accounts cannot be assigned

to the three sources of classical Wellhausenism. While B is assigned to E (on

the basis of its use of Elohim; vv. 3, 6, 11, 13, 17 [twice]; Yhwh in v. 18 is

ascribed to the redactor), and indeed is said to be the first extended nar-

rative of that source,8 both A and C are assigned to separate J sources. C.

Westermann summarizes the earlier views on whether A or C was the older

of the two, and concludes, "the question can now be considered as settled:

Gen. 12 is the earliest of the three variants."9


II. Conclusions of Form Criticism


     Form critics accept that the difficulties mentioned above are due to the

redaction of different source documents; the casting of individual narratives

into contexts originally foreign to them. They concentrate their study on

the content and history of the stories themselves, studying the episodes in

relation to each other, more than in relation to their respective contexts.

Since the focus of this paper is on redaction criticism, I will outline the

approach only of Koch as representative.

     Koch discusses "The Ancestress of Israel in Danger" under the headings,

"Defining the Unit," "Determination of the Literary Type," "Transmission

History," "Setting in Life," and "Redaction History." He concludes that

they were all originally independent narratives based on the relation to

their present contexts. For example, A is felt to be an intrusion on its

context, since it is "odd" that Abraham would leave the promised land right

after receiving the promise of the land.10 Gen 13:2 is really a continuation

of 12:9, with 13:1 being added to compensate for the intrusion. Gen 12:10


mid-ninth-century BC bilingual inscription where the Aramaic uses a verbal form of cdn, which

corresponds to the Akkadian mutahhidu, "to enrich, make abundant." This idea of abundance

would give a closer parallel to giving birth than would sexual pleasure, since offspring are

associated with "fruitfulness" (Gen 1:28, etc.). M. Jastrow cites a later Hebrew verbal usage

of the root with the idea of rejuvenation, which would thus provide an opposite to blh, and

would have interesting implications for the thesis of this paper (A Dictionary of the Targumim,

the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, [2 vols.; Brooklyn: Shalom, 1967]

2.1045). Such a usage, however, might seem just as remote from "give birth" as is the concept

of sexual pleasure. The NIV ("will I now have this pleasure?") seems to refer the pleasure to

the giving birth just promised, i.e., the joys of motherhood.

     8 So E. Speiser, Genesis (AB 1; Garden City: Doubleday, 1964) 150; Skinner, Genesis, 315.

     9 Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 161. Alexander ("The Wife/Sister Incidents," 22 n. 31) lists

10 scholars who argue the opposite.

     10 K. Koch, Growth of Biblical Tradition. 116.



is satisfactory as an introduction to an independent unit, and vv. 19-20 are

a fitting conclusion since "the Hebrew often ends a tale with a speech which

is intended to abate the suspense, and a subsequent short narrative remark

on the future fate of the hero."11 Similar conclusions are reached for B and

C. The mention of famine was left out of B because "he did not want to

mention it too often."12 In the introduction of C, a later writer inserted

"beside the previous famine that was in the days of Abraham," as is evident

from the fact that it "has a clumsy ring to it in the Hebrew."13 What betrays

it as clumsy Koch does not tell us.

     As for literary type, Koch assigns the narratives to Gunkel's category

"ethnological saga," in which


     The position of the nomadic Abraham and Isaac, including their strikingly beau-

     tiful women and their people, is contrasted with the soft, lascivious people of an

     established land. . . . In such sagas the predominant fact for the Israelite is that

     his God, the God of Israel, has influence on what happens between nations, and

     reveals himself as a divine leader.14


Various smaller component types are used, such as the simple command

from God (26:2-3a), a divine benediction (26:3b-5), divine communication

in a dream (20:3, 6-7), a lament of a king (20:4-5), etc.

     Under "Transmission History" Koch compares the content of the three

narratives and seeks to reconstruct the content of the original story. A is

thought to be the most archaic of the three. What happened to Sarah in

Pharaoh's palace is only hinted at (he assumes she was involved in adul-

tery); "the delicacy of the situation has been least noticed by the writer of

this version."15 In A, it is not a bad thing that Abraham should induce his

wife to lie. No explanation is given as to how Pharaoh knew the plagues

were because of Abraham's wife-Koch suggests that an account of Pha-

raoh divining the reason by a soothsayer consulting his gods was removed

later. Episode B is supposed to reflect views of a later period. In it, Abraham

is a chosen man of God, a Nabi. Here, he does not lie (thanks to an editor

who obviously inserted the explanation of the half truth in v. 12). The

account has been modified so that Sarah has not been defiled, since v. 9

("you have brought great sin on me") presumes that adultery took place; v.

6 of course is a clumsy later addition to remove the offense. The description

of Sarah's beauty has also been removed since it is contrary to the context.

The chief difference between A and B, however, is in the long conversations

in B. Episode C is scarcely even a story anymore, as it is broken up by


     11 Ibid.

     12 Ibid., 117.

     13 Ibid., 118.

     14. Ibid., 120. D. Petersen calls Koch's assertion that all three stories are the same type

"rather puzzling," and notes that Gunkel himself did not identify them with the "ethnological

 saga" type ("A Thrice-Told Tale," 30).


THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         5


speeches. There is nothing dangerous in the story, no direct threat from the

king, no need for divine intervention. "Everything points to a later stage in

the development of the saga, where the story has lost its original form."16

The blessing of vv. 3-5 was taken almost word for word from other J

passages. As to who the original characters were and the original setting,

the conclusion is that the less well known should be the original. Thus,

contrary to the rule, C, which is supposed to be the most modified and the

latest, retains the original characters and setting, while A, the most archaic,

which has no later additions, has undergone modification from Isaac and

Rebekah to Abraham and Sarah, and from Abimelech king of Gerar to

Pharaoh king of Egypt. The original version is reconstructed as follows:


     Because of famine Isaac travelled from the desert in southern Palestine to the

     nearby Canaanite city of Gerar, to live there as a 'sojourner', i.e. to keep within

     the pasturage rights on the ground belonging to the city. He told everyone that

     his wife was his sister so that his life would not be endangered by those who

     desired her. However, Rebekah's beauty could not pass unnoticed. The king of

     the city, Abimelech, took Rebekah into his harem, amply compensating Isaac. As

     a material sin was about to be committed, God struck the people of the palace

     with a mysterious illness. Through the medium of his gods, or a soothsayer,

     Abimelech recognized what had happened. Abimelech called Isaac to account:

     "What is this that you have done to me?" He then restored him his wife and sent

     him away, loaded with gifts.17


Comparing this reconstruction with the three versions in Genesis, Koch

then proposes a "history of the literary type of the ethnological saga." Four

points are observed: (1) narratives become elaborated by speeches; (2) moral

sensitivity becomes gradually stronger; (3) God's intervention is less tan-

gible in later versions; (4) there is a tendency to transfer the action of the

story to more familiar people and powers.18

     The setting in life of this original story is said to be the desert of Southern

Palestine before the conquest, told by those tracing their descent from Isaac.

"Such a story would perhaps have been related by men before the tents,

when it was evening, after the herds had been settled and the children

slept."19 These people felt themselves superior to those of the city, to whom

they sometimes had to turn for permission to graze in hard times. As the

story changed, the setting in life changed; Isaac was supplanted by Abra-

ham when the tribe of Judah was formed by the union of Isaac's people with


     16 Ibid., 124.

     17 Ibid., 126. This appears to contradict his earlier assumption that adultery did occur in

the most primitive version.

     18 Ibid., 126-27. R. Polzin (" 'The Ancestress of Israel in Danger' in Danger," Semeia 3

[1975] 82) says of Koch, "A particularly circular aspect of his analysis consists in describing the

evolutionary development of this particular 'ethnological saga' largely by means of general

assumptions about how such stories developed in Israel, . . . and then using this analysis as a

basis for tracing 'a history of the literary type of the ethnological saga.'"




Abraham's. Nomads became farmers (see 26:12). Narrative B is taken up

by prophetic circles, and becomes a "legend about the prophets."20


III. Redaction Criticism


1. The Redaction-Critical Procedure


     Though Koch's conclusions have been criticized by a number of scholars,

some of whom we have cited in the accompanying notes, they have in

common with him what seems to be an automatic assumption that the

object of study is to find out how the three episodes relate to each other,

more than to their differing contexts. Our disagreement is more funda-

mental. The only relationship that we positively know existed among the

three accounts is the one that now exists in the book of Genesis: a literary

one, where they are three different episodes in the lives of the patriarchs,

separated from each other by many years and considerable narration. Any

other relationship among them is, and can only be, hypothetical, and the

wide divergence of opinion as to such hypothetical relationships does not

give much confidence in the certainty of anyone position.21 We will attempt

to demonstrate here that the critical emphasis on studying the narratives

in relation to each other at the expense of their relevance to their respective

contexts and to the themes of the patriarchal narratives has obscured the

literary genius of the one responsible for giving us the patriarchal narratives

in their present form. Our procedure was well described by Van Seters, who

did not carry it out to its logical conclusion because of his acceptance of

source criticism:


     The stories about the patriarch's beautiful wife in a foreign land should not be

     treated in isolation from other episodes connected with the same dramatis per-

     sonae. The reason for many doing so in the past is the presupposition that the

     stories in Genesis are virtually all based directly on specific folktales and were put

     into their present form by narrators working quite independently of each other.

     Since such a proposition has been rejected in this study there is every reason why

     they should be treated together.22


     To begin, we will focus on some of the difficulties mentioned by source

critics and ask the question, "What would a reader presuming the unity and

integrity of Genesis 12-26 conclude?" One difficulty that has been ade-


     20 Ibid., 128.

     21 Alexander lists 24 different possibilities for the dependence (or lack thereof) among the

three narratives ("The Wife/Sister Incidents," 2-3), enough to keep scholars occupied for

several more centuries.

     22 Van Seters, Abraham, 183-84.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         7


quately dealt with in the past is the age of Sarah in A.23 She is at least 65

years old, yet she is so attractive that she is taken into the harem of Pharaoh

himself. This attractiveness is certainly remarkable-but why is it felt to be

problematic? Why should we exclude the possibility that the placement of

this account in its chronological framework is intended to convey mean-

ing-that from it we are to understand that Sarah, "our ancestress," was

indeed remarkable not only for her beauty, but for the prolonging of her

beauty? The lives of the patriarchs were long; would this fact not make

probable a delay in the aging process, a lengthening of the time of youthful

beauty? And such a prolongation of life would remind readers that God had

made provision for Adam and Eve to enjoy eternal youth. The same anal-

ysis pertains to the age of Rebekah in C.

     Another source of comment by critics in A are two things that appear to

be "left out." Much is made of the fact that there are two major, unan-

swered questions: (1) What happened to Sarah in Pharaoh's house-was

she defiled or not? (2) How did Pharaoh find out that the plagues came

upon him because Sarah was married to someone else?24 As for the first

question, the ancients affirmed that Sarah could not have been defiled

because righteous Abraham would not have taken her back.25 Most

moderns presume that she was defiled, supposing that this conclusion is the

natural implication and that we would have been told if it were otherwise.

This disagreement reveals the obvious: the text does not say. As for the

second question, we have already observed Koch's conclusion that the

method used to divine the reason for the plagues was left out because it

demonstrated efficacy of pagan methods of divination-thus revealing the

primitive character of the prototype of A. A much simpler reason was

suggested by H. Ewald: the author intended the reader to get the answer

to both of these questions from B.26 The paternalism of the notion that the

ancient Hebrews would not have cared (or even would have gloated at the

successful trick) whether or not the wife of Abraham was involved in adul-


     23 E.g., W. Green, Unity of Genesis, 166-67: "The only point of any consequence in this

discussion is not what modern critics may think of the probability or possibility of what is here

narrated, but whether the sacred historian credited it. On the hypothesis of the critics, R

believed it and recorded it. What possible ground can they have for assuming that J and E

had less faith than R in what is here told of the marvelous beauty and attractiveness of the

ancestress of the nation?"

     24 Alexander ("The Wife/Sister Incidents," 7) adds a third, "Did Abraham actually allow

Pharaoh to take Sarah without objecting?" But Abraham's own words in Gen 12:11-13 cer-

tainly imply that this was part of the plan.

     25 M. Weinfeld cites the Genesis Apocryphon, Philo, Josephus, and rabbinic literature to

this effect ("Sarah in Abimelech's Palace (Genesis 20)-Against the Background of Assyrian

Law and the Genesis Apocryphon," Tarbiz 52 [1982/83] 639-42; and in English in Melanges

bibliques et orientaux en l'honneur de Monsieur Mathias Delcor [ed. A. Caquot et al.; AOAT 215;

Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1985] 433-34).

     26 H. Ewald, Die Komposition der Genesis kritisch untersucht (1823) 228f., quoted by Green, Unity

of Genesis, 257 n. 1.



tery may account for its popularity among moderns,27 but from a perspec-

tive of overall unity, it cannot survive comparison with chap. 20. There we

have an unambiguous answer in universal terms in God's words to Abime-

lech: "Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and

I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not allow you to

touch her. Now therefore restore the man's wife" (vv. 6- 7a). The same

circumstances prevailed in A, since Pharaoh, too, acted in ignorant integ-

rity. Should we not therefore conclude that God should have also kept

Pharaoh from touching her? The logic is compelling; the same Abraham

and Sarah, the same conditions, the same God.28 If the answer to this major

question in A is not to be found in B, then we must conclude that it is not

answered at all, and we would have no clue as to why such a major question

is left unanswered.29 Additionally, to assume that adultery was committed

in Pharaoh's palace would make the purpose of divine intervention in A

much different than in B, i.e., the purpose of God's intervention in A would

not have been to prevent Sarah from being defiled, as in B, but rather to

punish Pharaoh because she was defiled. Perhaps implied also from B, then,

is that Pharaoh found out the same way Abimelech did: in a dream. Why

narrative A should be dependent on B like this will be explained later.30


     27 S. Warner ("Primitive Saga Men," VT 29 [1979] 325-35) cites two works that demon-

strate Gunkel's dependence on anthropological views of his time (p. 325 n. 3) which Warner

summarizes as follows: "Modern man was not only different from primitive man, he was

superior. Compared to modern man, primitive man was a child. And, like a child, primitive

man was incapable of thinking complicated thoughts, of reasoning in any great depth, or of

developing any sophisticated moral awareness" (p. 326). He goes on to show that without this

view of "primitive" man, which no anthropologist holds today, "Gunkel's conception of the

oral transmission process, . . . has no meaning, and should be abandoned" (ibid.). He con-

cludes, "At present we see no reason to assume that the narratives of Genesis bear any close

resemblance to orally transmitted data at all" (p. 335). His comments are also applicable to

Koch's procedure.

     28 J. Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis (2 vols.; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1948) 1.363: "When he was in similar danger, (Gen. xx. I,) God did not suffer her

to be violated by the king of Gerar; shall we then suppose that she was now exposed to

Pharaoh's lust?" As discussed later, another reason for making it clear that adultery did not

occur in B concerns the legitimacy of Isaac's birth, which of course was not of concern in chap.

12. This does not make Calvin's reasoning any less valid, however.

     29 Van Seters (Abraham, 171-75) argues for a literary dependence of B on A, saying, "The

only way in which the cryptic character of v. 2 can be explained is that the other story [A] is

known and can be assumed, and therefore Abraham's plan and its execution need not be

recounted again in full" (p. 171). But methodologically it is equally compelling to argue that

A is literarily dependent on B because of the "cryptic character" of the former. This Van Seters

does not do. He assumes without discussion that adultery occurred in A (p. 169), whereas the

opposite is inferred from B.

     30 Polzin argues strongly for a synchronic study of the three accounts but is immediately led

astray by the assumption that adultery occurred in A, resulting in a moral improvement from

A to B and the blessing of God in B as opposed to A ("The Ancestress of Israel," 81-98). There

is a strange implication here: Abraham is rewarded in chap. 20 because God intervened before

the adultery occurred, whereas in chap. 12 he is punished because God did not intervene until

after the adultery.  Abraham's behavior was the same in both cases.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         9


The setting of B is more problematic. Here, Sarah is not 65, but 89 years

old. In principle, the objection of her age might be dealt with in the same

way as in A-that the preservation of Sarah's beauty is indeed even more

remarkable than as portrayed in A. And this is how other writers have

explained the problem.31 This resolution is excluded, however, by Sarah's

own comments in 18:12. When Yhwh announces the coming birth of her

son, Sarah scoffs, saying, "after I have become worn out [blh], shall I have

pleasure [cedna], my lord being old also?" Her use of blh suggests physical

deterioration, not just chronological advancement.32 The majority of uses

of the root blh, which occurs 11 times in the qal and 4 times in the piel, refer

to worn-out clothing, or something being compared to worn-out clothing,

with such parallels as cracked wineskins and moth-eaten garments (e.g.,

Josh 9: 13; Job 13:28; Isa 50:9). Her use of cedna suggests to most interpreters

that she considers herself too old for sexual intercourse (see n. 7). Either one

of these considerations precludes the situation suggested in B, that Abim-

elech would be attracted to Sarah and add her to his harem of beautiful

women. But actually, we notice that in B the author does not quite come

out and say anything about Sarah's beauty. Was it omitted, as Koch sug-

gests, because it was too ridiculous in this context? That does not solve the

problem, for no reason is given in its place. The redaction critic must ask

the same question that any reader would: "Why did Abraham pass off his

wife as his sister? What was he afraid of?" If we follow the previous estab-

lishment of dependence of A on B, in which we allowed B to provide

answers to questions raised in A, then perhaps we should now let A provide

the answer to this great, unanswered question in B. The answer from A

would have to be that Abraham feared for his life in Gerar because of the

surpassing beauty of Sarah, his 89-year-old wife fit to be a queen: "See now,

I know that you are a beautiful woman. . . . they will kill me, but will let

you live; so say that you are my sister, so that it may go well with me." As

in the former case, if we do not let A explain B, then we will have no answer

to our question. But how can such a conclusion be reconciled with Sarah's

own self description just two chapters previously? And why were the ac-

counts constructed so that neither is complete or can be understood without

the other?


2. The Naming of Isaac


     As everyone knows, Isaac got his name from his parents' laughter at the

pre-announcement of his birth (17:17; 18:12); but the reason for their

laughter is generally misunderstood. The apostles assure us that the reason


     31 E.g., Green, Unity of Genesis, 254.

     32 Cf. BDB, 115, "After I am worn out"; Speiser, Genesis, 128, "withered as I am, am I still

to know enjoyment?"



was not unbelief (Rom 4:19; Heb 11:11), but what else could it be but

unbelief, considering their words? Let us consider their respective cases of

laughter, one at a time. In Genesis 17, Abraham is currently laboring under

his third incorrect interpretation of who his heir is going to be. The identity

of this heir is important, since the promises of Gen 12: 1-3 require an heir

for their fulfillment. The first false candidate was Lot; and the separation

of Lot from Abraham indicated that he was not the promised heir. That he

is not the heir is shown in the timing of the repetition of the divine promise

to Abraham-"after Lot had separated from him" (13:14). That is, the

promise is unaffected by his departure; its fulfillment is elsewhere.33 The

next candidate is Eliezer of Damascus. When Abraham expresses this un-

derstanding to the Lord, Eliezer is excluded by the additional revelation

that Abraham will in fact have an heir "who shall come forth from your own

body" (15:4). The next chapter narrates the birth of Ishmael by Sarah's

servant girl Hagar. Ishmael would naturally be thought of as the fulfillment

of the promise of an heir from Abraham's own body in 15:4, especially since

the promise of innumerable offspring given to Abraham (Gen 13:16) is

applied to Ishmael (16:10). And as is clear from Sarah's own words

("perhaps I will be built from her"; 16:2) Ishmael was also considered

Sarah's son.34 When the vision of chap. 17 occurs, then, Abraham inter-

prets the promise there received in light of his incorrect interpretation that

Ishmael is the heir through whom the promises will be fulfilled. He would

interpret these promises as, "I will multiply you exceedingly [through Ish-

mael]" (v. 2), etc. In vv. 1-14 there is not the slightest hint that Ishmael is


     33 This is argued at greater length by L. Helyer, "The Separation of Abram and Lot: Its

Significance in the Patriarchal Narratives," JSOT 26 (1983) 77-88.

     34 T. L. Thompson (The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical

Abraham [Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974]) discusses Genesis 16, 21: 1-21, and

29:31-30:24 under the heading "Nuzi and the Patriarchal Narratives" (pp. 252-69). In the

course of his discussion he says: "contrary to the opinion of the commentators, the children that

are borne by the maids are not attributed to the wives. In Gen 30:20 Leah says: 'I have borne

him six (not eight) sons;' it is not until the birth of Joseph by Rachel herself that Rachel's

disgrace is removed (Gen 30:23), and the children of Rachel are the children she herself bore:

Joseph and Benjamin. In Gen 21:10f., Sarah could hardly be more explicit that she did not

consider Ishmael her son" (pp. 256-57). This conclusion, however, is based on a selective listing

of the evidence, since he does not provide an explanation for what Sarah meant when she said,

"Perhaps I will be built from her," and since Rachel's explicit statement at the birth of Dan

through the surrogate Bilhah ("God. . . has listened to my voice and given me a son"; 30:6) so

clearly establishes the fact that Rachel considered Dan to be her son. Nor does he explain in

what sense Rachel "prevailed" over Leah when Bilhah bore Naphtali (30:8), or why other

women would count Leah blessed because of the birth of Asher by Zilpah (30: 13). These

passages are meaningless unless we see that some type of vicarious participation in mother-

hood was recognized by the nonbearing wives in these situations. In this regard, Gen 21:10

constitutes a clear repudiation by Sarah of her former views. Additionally, there is the sub-

jective argument that a much more satisfying exegesis of Genesis 17 and 18 is arrived at by

postulating that Sarah did consider Ishmael her son-not exclusively hers, but at least to the

extent of remedying her barrenness. The validity of this inductive argument, of course, de-

depends on the persuasiveness of the exegesis presented in this essay.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         11


not the heir of promise that Abraham assumes him to be; thus he is being

further "hardened" in that interpretation. In v. 15, Sarah is mentioned for

the first time in any of the promises: she too will have a new name. Then

God says, "I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. I will

bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from

her" (v. 16). This promise of a son to be born to Sarah presents a challenge

to Abraham to abandon his current interpretation of God's promises which

identifies Ishmael as the promised heir. What is not clear in the translations,

however, is that the promise leaves some room for maneuvering, allowing

Abraham to cling to the interpretation to which he is already predisposed.

The verbs used in the series of promises concerning Sarah are uberakti. . .

natatti. . . uberaktiha wehayeta. . . yihyu (v. 16). We normally would expect the

imperfect to be used in such a series when the waw is not joined to the verb

(thus yihyu, not hayu at the end of the verse). But "I will give you a son by

her" is translated not from 'etten, but from natatti. This usage is really not

surprising, since the form natatti without waw has already been used with

a future sense in this chapter (v. 5; cf. v. 6, unetattika; also in Gen 15: 18;

23:11, 13). But one who is inclined to interpret divine revelation according

to a certain paradigm will try to fit any new revelation into that same old

paradigm. Thus Abraham could seize on the word natatti and force the

promise into fitting an "Ishmael interpretation": "I will bless her-indeed

I have already given you a son by her [Ishmael, who was her son, according

to their way of thinking], and I will bless her [the same way I will bless you,

by blessing Ishmael her son]" etc. That he recognizes there is another

interpretation is clear from his thoughts which are revealed in v. 17;

"Abraham fell on his face and laughed, thinking, 'Shall one be born to a 100

year old man? Or Sarah-shall a 90-year-old woman give birth?' " The

inertia of 13 years of misinterpretation, combined with the seeming im-

possibility of the latter interpretation, cause him to cling to his identifica-

tion of Ishmael as the heir of promise. Abraham's laughter should thus be

seen as a rejection of what he thought was just one possible (even if more

probable) interpretation; and his statement "May Ishmael indeed live be-

fore you" (v. 18) should be viewed not only as the expression of his choice

of interpretations, but also as a seeking of affirmation from God that his

interpretation is correct. Having succeeded in getting him to laugh, the

Lord then gives him the promise in a manner that cannot be misunder-

stood: "Sarah your wife is going to bear you a son, and you shall call his

name Isaac" (v. 19). This cannot be misinterpreted; only believed or dis-

believed. We can imagine Abraham feeling that he was "set up" to laugh.

If he had been told outright in the beginning of the vision that the promised

heir would be born by Sarah (literally), he would have believed-as in Gen

15:6. As it was, however, he was led into a trap by a promise that left some

room for his old interpretation, and he ended up laughing at God's an-

nounced intention. But perhaps the point is, Abraham set himself up for

this trap.  If he had not resorted to the Ishmael solution contrary to God's



standards for man and wife, set in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:24, a man

"shall cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh"), there would have

been no ambiguity in the promises of chap. 17, for there would not have

been any Ishmael to whom to refer them. They would have to refer to a son

yet to be born to Sarah. Abraham is thus being taught to interpret God's

promises according to God's nature, and not to laugh at their implications

in preference to interpretations derived from pagan cultural assumptions.

     Sarah learns the same lesson in chap. 18. She, like her husband, does not

see any conflict between her barrenness and God's promises. She has al-

ready "solved" that problem; she has a son, Ishmael. One day, three strang-

ers happen by, for whom Abraham and Sarah prepare a meal. The three

sit down to eat, with Sarah at the tent door behind them, so that they

cannot see her (v. 10). Then comes the set-up: "Where is Sarah your wife?"

This question does two things. First, the mention of her name ensures her

complete attention to what is about to be said. Second, the question con-

tinues the pretense of the visitors that they are mere human beings-were

they otherwise there would be no need to ask where Sarah was. After

Abraham points her out, the promise comes from one stranger: "I will

surely return to you at this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have

a son" (v. 10). Unlike the promise to her husband, the meaning of this

promise is not ambiguous. But she is not aware of the identity of the one

giving the promise-it's just a stranger who happened by, as far as she

knows. Predictably, she laughs; under such circumstances, who wouldn't?

As far as she is concerned, the promise of an heir for Abraham has been

fulfilled, for she already has a son. After 13 years, the correctness of the

Ishmaelite interpretation would seem to have been validated by her pro-

gression from barrenness to the post menstrual phase of her life. So if a man

comes by and gives a crazy promise, why shouldn't she laugh? Only after

she laughs does she learn that it was not a mere man who has just made this

promise. He knows she laughed, even though she did so silently, and he can

read her mind and tell her her thoughts (v. 13). And the one who can read

her mind asks, "Is anything too difficult for Yhwh?" (v. 14).35

     Sarah was set up to laugh in a manner different from her husband,

appropriate to her different position. Abraham the prophet received God's

word directly-thus he was set up to laugh directly at God's word. Sarah

received God's word indirectly, through a man, her husband. Consequently

she is made to laugh at the words of a mere man (apparently). The sug-

gestion is that she is just as much to blame for doing so, for not correctly

responding to her barren condition by patiently waiting for the fulfillment

of the promise. For if she had not resorted to the Ishmael solution, faith in


     35 The narrator likewise does not identify Yhwh as one of the three men until v. 13, when

he reveals himself to Sarah by reading her mind. The NIV translators, following their occa-

sional practice of inserting the subject's name when it is not in the original, undo this literary

device in v. 10.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         13


God would have led her to believe even a stranger who came by and

announced the impending and long-expected fulfillment of the promise.

There is a third group that receives the word of God: neither prophet

(Abraham), nor audience of a prophet (Sarah), but those who merely read

God's word handed down to them. They, too, will be caught laughing. The

set-up for this group occurs in our second wife/sister episode: "Abraham

said of Sarah his wife, 'She is my sister.' So Abimelech king of Gerar took

Sarah" (Gen 20:2). Can anything be more worthy of laughing at than the

thought of a king taking this withered old woman into his harem, to join

the most beautiful women of his realm? And so multitudes have laughed (or

scoffed) at this report down through the ages. But we should know better

by now not to be caught laughing. For a little reflection shows that the

reader who laughs at the idea of Sarah being desirable to Abimelech has

not laughed at anything different from what Abraham and Sarah laughed

at. Sarah said, "After I am old, shall I have pleasure?" for which she was

rebuked by Yhwh, who said, "Is anything too difficult for Yhwh?" And now

we see Abimelech anticipating the very thing Sarah laughed at. How dare

we laugh, too? The question not answered in B would be readily supplied

to the mind of the reader who read A: "See now, I know that you are a

beautiful woman; and it will come about that when [they] see you, they will

say, 'This is his wife'; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. So

say that you are my sister, so that. . . I may live on account of you" (Gen

12: 11-13). The paging back and forth between chap. 12 and chap. 20 which

is necessitated by the incompleteness of each episode leads us to conclude

that Sarah is the same in both cases. She is no longer the wrinkled old lady

of chap. 18, but rather the exceptionally beautiful Sarah of some 24 years

earlier when she entered the promised land. The reader of chap. 20 is to

refer back to chap. 18 not to see what Sarah is like, but to see what she has

been changed from. And he refers to chap. 12 and its description of her

beauty to see what she has been restored to. Rather than stating that fact

outright, the author has abruptly presented the reader with a seemingly

incongruous and impossible situation; the brief statement of v. 2 would

instantly let the reader remember the previous account and let it fill in the

details, causing him, after sitting in judgment on Abraham and Sarah for

their laughter, to join them in being caught laughing at the word of God.

Isaac is indeed well named! The implication should not escape us that the

author is teaching us to treat his written words as equivalent to God's words

spoken directly to Abraham. Abraham is taught not to laugh at the direct

pronouncements of God; Sarah at the word of God pronounced by man.

Then future generations are taught not to laugh at the written word of God.

From a redaction-critical perspective, then, the genre classifications of the

form critics, such as "Tale told to entertain" and "Legend," must be re-

jected. The one responsible for placing the accounts in their present context

wants us to treat them as the written oracle of God. And we would do well

to remember that there is no hard evidence that they ever existed in any

other form or context.



     Also highly dubious is the source-critical contention that Abraham's and

Sarah's laughter indicates two different sources' explanations for how Isaac

got his name. For the text has been clearly so set up that not only Abraham

and Sarah laugh, but multitudes down through the ages laugh as well.

At this point one might wonder whether such an important matter as the

rejuvenation of Sarah should be recognized without an explicit mention of

it in the text. Is there anything else in the context to support this inter-

pretation besides the mutually interdependent construction of A and B? At

least two lines of evidence support this interpretation. First is the case of

Abraham himself. In Gen 17:17 he regarded himself as too old to father a

child. For Isaac to be conceived, then, what happened to Abraham? Was

he given a one-time ability to generate offspring, or was his bodily state

rejuvenated, as I suggested Sarah's was? The answer to this is made clear

in Gen 25:1-2, where we read that after the death of Sarah, long after

describing himself as too old to father a child, he takes another wife and

fathers six more children!36 Rejuvenation is thus clear in the case of Abra-

ham, and this lends credence to the same conclusion for Sarah.

     A second line of evidence comes from proposing a test to the rejuvenation

hypothesis. If Sarah were made 24 years younger at the age of 89, then, all

other things being equal, she should live at least another 24 years after that

point to get back to the same place she was when she laughed. But if she

died just a few years after Isaac was born, that would cast doubt on the

whole rejuvenation hypothesis. But how can we apply this test, since Scrip-

ture does not indicate the life span of women? We know how long Adam

lived, but not Eve; Isaac, but not Rebekah; Moses and Aaron, but not

Miriam; etc. Never does the Bible give us the age at which a woman died.

With one exception, that is. Sarah just happens to be the only woman in the

Bible whose life span is recorded; she lived another 38 years after the events

of chap. 20 (Gen 23: 1). And because she is the only woman so treated, we

have a means of testing the rejuvenation hypothesis. Perhaps, then, that is

the reason we are told how long she lived. If one rejects this explanation,

then he should come up with some other one in its place for why Sarah's

life span is given, while no other woman's is.

     The suggestion that Sarah was rejuvenated was made by some of the

rabbis, according to M. Zlotowitz.37 It has also had at least two proponents

in modern times: J. Kurtz and G. Aalders.38 Neither offered any evidence


     36 Predictably, this has been taken as another contradiction indicating multiple sources

behind Genesis; see, e.g., Spurrell, Text of Genesis, xvi.

     37 "It may be that, as the Rabbis assert, . . . her youthfulness returned in preparation for

conception (Radak, Ramban; . . . ). . . . Cf. Bava etzia 87a: . . . her skin became smooth, her

wrinkles disappeared, and her former beauty was regained" (N. Scherman and M. Zlotowitz,

Bereishis / Genesis: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and

Rabbinic Sources, vol. 1(a) [The ArtScroll Tanach Series; Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1986] 722).

     38 J. Kurtz wrote, "The matter admits of ready explanation. Since the visit of the angels in

Mamre when Sarah was set apart to become mother, and through the creative agnecy of God

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         15


for the view, except that it seemed like an obvious way out of the difficulty.

Kurtz's view was rejected without explanation by Keil, who said that Abime-

lech wanted to marry Sarah not for her beauty, but in order to make a

marriage alliance to gain favor with the great prince (per Gen 23:6) Abra-

ham.39 But this view, which also goes back to the rabbis,40 is incredible,

since it ignores the fact that Abraham lied because he was afraid of some-

thing. Keil's view leads to the conclusion that he was afraid that Abimelech

would kill him to make an alliance with him to gain his favor, which of

course is ridiculous.

     Another support for this interpretation is that it dovetails with another

theme of promise-fulfillment in the Abraham cycle. In addition to the

promise of offspring, Abraham received the promise of land. The incon-

gruity of this promise is brought out in the juxtaposition of the situation and

the promise in Gen 12:6b-7a, "Now the Canaanite was then in the land.

And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give

this land.' " He had not been brought to inherit a vacant lot; this land was

already inhabited. In Gen 13:15 the promise of land is both "to you. . . and

to your offspring." In chap. 15 Abraham is again promised the land, "I am

Yhwh who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land

to possess it" (15:7). Does this mean that Abraham is personally going to

inherit the land, not just indirectly through his offspring? Since it seemed

quite unlikely for a single nomad, powerful though he was, to dispossess an

inhabited land, he asks, "how may I know that I will possess it?" (v. 8). He

is then instructed to bring some animals for sacrifice. What follows is a

covenant ceremony, with a solemn promise of the land as Yhwh passes a

flaming torch between the carcass pieces. The references to time of day

require some comment. The promise of v. 7 occurs while it is very dark,


rendered capable of it, her youth and beauty had returned: this new life would manifest itself in

her appearance, and lend it fresh beauty and new charms" (History of the Old Covenant [Ed-

inburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870] 250). Similarly, G. Aalders: "We believe that Sarah experienced

a physical miracle that enabled her to bear a child at an extremely advanced age. This miracle

of physical rejuvenation could well have caused Sarah also to retain or, if need be, to regain

her physical attractiveness to such an extent that she would draw the attention of Abimelech"

(Genesis [2 vols.; Bible Student's Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981] 2.27). J.

Quarry suggested, "perhaps this story is introduced to indicate that. . . she had acquired such

a renewal of the natural concomitant physical attributes, as would render her childbearing a

matter of less curiosity" (Genesis and its Authorship: Two Dissertations [London: Williams &

Norgate, 1866] 449 n. I). G. von Rad did not know the truth of what he wrote: "Obviously

the narrator imagines Sarah to be much younger" (Genesis: A Commentary [Philadelphia: West-

minster, 1964] 222).

    39 C. Keil and F: Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol. 1, The Pentateuch

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 239. Also note the bewildering statement by H. Leupold

(Exposition of Genesis [2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964] 2.583): "A kind of rejuvenation in

connection with the impending birth of a son could have made no appreciable difference."

     40 "According to Ran, Abimelech took Sarah, not because of her beauty, but because she was

Abraham's 'sister' and he wished to marry into so distinguished a family" (Zlotowitz, Bereishis,




since the stars can be seen well (v. 5). In v. 12, however, the sun has not yet

set, and in v. 17 it is dark again.41 What has happened, then, seems to be

that in the early morning darkness Abraham is given the promise, then told

to bring the animals. When he does so, nothing happens. He waits around

all day, and nothing happens except that some vultures try to get the

animals. Finally, the sun sets and he falls into a deep sleep. Then comes the

covenant ceremony and a revelation of the future. The rest of Abraham's

life will be spent just as this day has been; he will wait, and nothing will

happen as far as inheriting the land. Then he will fall asleep (die; v. 15).42

After 400 years of exile and oppression of his descendants, they will return

and inherit the land.

      First he is told he will inherit the land. Then when he asks how he can

know for sure, he is told he will die before it is inherited by his offspring.

So will Abraham inherit the land or not? Is the Lord less able to reward his

servants than the kings of that age, who in the style of Genesis 15 gave

grants of land to their faithful servants which were effective while they were

still living?43 Genesis 15 makes it clear that if Abraham is going to inherit

the land, it has to be in the resurrection. If he is not going to inherit it, then

what is God's promise worth to Abraham? To imply a resurrection from

Genesis 15 may seem like reading into the text, but some meaning must

attach to the fact that Abraham is made to wait all day, doing nothing, and

to the sequence of events in chap. 15. A source-critical explanation of sloppy

editing strikes us as the lazy way out.

     The two themes of son and land parallel each other. When Abraham and

Sarah entered the promised land with a promise of offspring they were

"alive" with respect to being able to have children. This is shown on the one

hand by Abraham later fathering Ishmael, and on the other by the fact that

Sarah, though barren, did not give up hope of giving birth until 16:2 (and

her youthful beauty surely gave her reason to hope). But while waiting for

the promise, they both "died" with respect to being able to have children

(17:17; 18:12). After they "died" they were "brought back to life" so that

Isaac could be born and the promise fulfilled. This sequence forms a par-

adigm of the promise of the land. They entered the land and received a

promise to inherit that land. Then they wait the rest of their lives, the

promise unfulfilled, and die without receiving it. It is only in the resurrec-

tion that they can receive it. Rejuvenation is thus a token, or type, of

resurrection. This link between the two was evidently on Paul's mind when

he penned Rom 4:17-19, "in the sight of Him whom [Abraham] believed,

even God, who gives life to the dead. . . he believed, in order that he might


     41 Not surprisingly, this is held to indicate a multiple-source background to the account. See

Speiser, Genesis, 114-15. Discrepancies in time of day are one factor which led him to say, "the

whole is clearly not of a piece, though now intricately blended,"

     42 G, Wenham also notes this symbolic meaning of Abraham's sleep (Genesis 1-15 [WBC 1;

Waco, TX: Word, 1987] 335).

     43 M. Weinfeld. "Covenant of Grant"  JAOS  90 (1970) 184-203.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         17


become a father. . . he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead, and

the deadness of Sarah's womb" (also see Heb 11:12-13).

     Paul seems to have been preceded as a witness to the rejuvenation in-

terpretation by Isaiah the prophet. In Isa 51:2-3, the only OT passage

outside of Genesis that refers to Sarah, the righteous remnant is exhorted

to consider the example of their ancestors:


     Look to Abraham your father,

     And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain;

     When he was one I called him,

     Then I blessed him, and multiplied him.

     Indeed the Lord will comfort Zion;

     He will comfort all her waste places.

     And her wilderness he will make like Eden,

     And her desert like the Garden of the LORD;

     Joy and gladness will be found in her,

     Thanksgiving and sound of a melody.


The example of Abraham and Sarah seems especially appropriate once we

recognize a rejuvenation, a physical transformation analogous to changing

a desert into a paradise. Rejoicing also followed that transformation (Gen

21:6). It is also appropriate to cite Eden [ceden], since Sarah had said, "Shall

I have cedna?"

     There is therefore no problem in viewing chap. 20 as properly following

chaps. 18 and 19. Likewise, there are two features of chap. 21 which are

incomprehensible without chap. 20. The first of these is the emphasis with

which Isaac is said to be the son of Abraham in Gen 21:2-5 (four times using

the verb yld with the preposition le; three times using the possessive suffix

with ben). Zlotowitz explained this redundancy as follows: "The repeated

emphasis on born to 'him' testifies against the scoffers that the child was born

of Abraham's seed and none other."44 The "other" would obviously be Abim-

elech, since Sarah had just been in his harem. Zlotowitz cites Rashi to this

effect in the latter's commentary on Gen 25:19: "Cynics of Abraham's

generation had been saying that Sarah, who had lived so long with Abra-

ham without bearing a child, must have become pregnant by Abime-

lech."45 This leads to the second feature of chap. 21 explained by chap. 20.

It was clearly not "cynics" in general asserting Isaac's illegitimacy, but

Ishmael, as is clear from the following context, where we find Ishmael

mocking Isaac with some taunt not mentioned, but which deeply offends

Sarah and is so serious an offense that Ishmael is disinherited by divine


     44 Zlotowitz, Bereishis, 747.

     45 Ibid., 1044. The citation reads, "Tanchuma; Rashi as explained by Mizrachi." Cf. A. Lev-

ene, trans., The Early Syrian Fathers on Genesis (London: Taylor's Foreign Press, 1951) 92-93:

"But in the case of Abimelech, he mentions explicitly that he did not draw near unto her,

because as she was already pregnant with Isaac, it should not be thought that it was from

another and not from Abraham."



decree. What could offend Sarah more than to assert that Isaac was Abim-

elech's son? Ishmael's interest (also Hagar's) in asserting such a claim would

be obvious, since it would involve a denial of Isaac's legitimate inheritance

rights in favor of his own, contrary to God's revealed will. The punishment

imposed (loss of his own inheritance) is quite appropriate to the offense.46

     The more trivial contextual "discrepancies" of B can now be dealt with.

Some critics cite the implausibility of Abraham twice falling into the same

error. But in whose opinion is it implausible? Certainly not the author's; to

maintain that he was merely in the business of collecting variant traditions

would contradict the "evidence" cited by critics to indicate that the re-

dactor has edited the material precisely to present the accounts as two

different episodes in the life of Abraham. Besides, we should know by now

that we should not label what we read as "implausible," lest we be caught

laughing again.

     This is not to say that no conclusions should be drawn from the fact that

Abraham erred in this way twice. Though outwardly the offense appears

the same in both cases, several considerations indicate that the second lapse

was much more blameworthy than the first. It was suggested earlier that in

A the promise of the heir could have been considered as being fulfilled

through Lot, so that it did not depend on Abraham's continued existence.

Likewise no mention had been made of Sarah's involvement in the promise.

These factors mitigate Abraham's actions somewhat; he failed to do what

is right no matter the consequences, which could have been death. In B,

however, the same error indicates flat unbelief in God's explicit promise; he

had by now received the promise that he would die "in peace" (15:15), yet

he fears that he will be murdered. And God had just told him that in a

year's time Sarah will bear him a son. Finally, the experience of God's

intervention in plaguing Pharaoh's house on his behalf in a similar situation

gives him even less excuse for unbelief. Even if he just proceeded in the same

way because he knew God would rescue him again, then he was guilty of

testing God. These considerations make very dubious Polzin's view that the

situation in B is transformed into a morally better situation than A (see n. 30;

his reason for this is the erroneous assumption that adultery occurred in A).

     Another objection was that it must have taken quite some time to dis-

cover that "the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of

Abimelech" (v. 18), whereas only a few months could conceivably be in-

volved in chap. 20, according to the chronological framework. But those

who presume that a period of years was involved run into trouble in the

story itself. We are told that Abimelech had not approached Sarah (v. 4);

but that was obviously the purpose for which he had taken her. Would he


     46 As my wife Linda pointed out to me, John 8:41 might be a NT counterpart to this, if it

is in fact a slur on the legitimacy of the birth of Isaac.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         19


wait years to do so? The more likely explanation is that, as in A, there were

"plagues"; here Green suggested some kind of physical affiiction preventing

intercourse, requiring healing.47

     We have shown how A and B are interdependent, and this militates

against Koch's treatment of them as independent units. But an even greater

dependence on the Exodus narrative can be shown for A. It was well known

to the ancients that Gen 12:10-20 is typologically related to the account of

the Exodus, a fact that has not been dealt with by most moderns. If Abra-

ham went down to Egypt because of famine; the sons of Israel went down

to Egypt because of famine, where they became the nation of Israel. Abra-

ham prospered in Egypt; Israel prospered in Egypt. Abraham feared that

he would be killed, while Sarah would be spared; Pharaoh commanded

that the Hebrew male children be killed, while the females should be

spared. Yhwh sent plagues on Pharaoh because of Sarah; Yhwh sent

plagues on Pharaoh because of his treatment of Israel. Pharaoh sent away

Abraham and Sarah with much property; Pharaoh sent away Israel with

much property. Abraham and Sarah returned to Canaan; Israel returned

to Canaan. Additionally, though he let Abraham go to Egypt, God told

Isaac not to go (Gen 26:2); likewise Israel was told not to return to Egypt

(Deut 17:16), thus involving C in the typology as well. It is evident, then,

that virtually every detail of A has a typological connection with the Exodus

narrative. That being the case, one has to wonder what is the justification

for and the value in studying it primarily as an independent unit, as the

form critics do. It is thoroughly dependent on the Exodus narrative and

interdependent with Genesis 20, and its unique features are explained at

least in part by these dependencies.

     So far little has been said about C. It certainly lacks the drama of the

other two passages, since no one tries to take Rebekah away from Isaac, and

there is no divine intervention to save her. It does look like it could be

another version of B, since Abimelech (and Phicol immediately following)

reappears here, over 76 years after B. And the line of reasoning that says

Abraham would not make the same mistake twice, concludes likewise that

Isaac would not make the same mistake as his father.


     47 Green, Unity of Genesis, 257. He says such a plague is implied in the fact that Abimelech

required healing as well as his wife and servant girls (20:17).

     48 U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Jerusalem:

Magnes, 1961) 78-83. R. Pratt has rediscovered this "parallelism" without calling the con-

nection typological ("Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors in Old Testament Exegesis," WTJ 45

[1983] 156-67). Wenham notes the typological connection, and suggests it is the basis for the

typology of Matt 2:15 (Genesis, 291-92). Cf. Gen. Rab. 40.6.1. Weimar (Redaktionsgeschichte, 18

n. 56) mentions R. Kilian as opposing the view that Gen 12:10-20 forms a parallel with the

Exodus narrative (Die vorpriesterlichen Abrahams-Oberlieferungen: Literarkritisch und traditionsge-

schichtlich Untersucht [BBB; Bonn: Hanstein, 1966] 212-13). But Kilian's reason for denying such

a typological connection is solely that he views the three accounts as arising from one basic




     Let us begin a redaction-critical approach by agreeing that it is indeed

a remarkable thing that this Abimelech should have such a long reign. The

difficulty cannot be avoided by supposing that "Abimelech" is a dynastic

title such as "Pharaoh" (appealing to Psalm 34, title), or that it is the same

name given to a son or grandson. While such a solution might be plausible

for the king himself, the same could not be maintained for his general

Phicol, who is with the king after both accounts. The question to ask is,

what would account for such a remarkably long reign?

     Here we can again profit from a comparison of the three accounts. In A,

Pharaoh expelled Abraham from his country. The gifts given to Abraham

were because of his (supposed) relation to Sarah, not because of his relation

to the Lord. Abimelech, however, gave gifts to Abraham after God inter-

vened for him, and he told Abraham to settle wherever he wanted in his

land (Gen 20:14-15). In the next chapter, Abimelech and Phicol say to

Abraham, "God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me

by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with

my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you

shall show to me" (21:22b-23). Recall that God had said to Abraham, "I

will bless those who bless you" (12:3). Would it be surprising to find re-

corded the fulfillment of that promise? Abimelech and Phicol certainly fit

the category of those who blessed Abraham. And in chap. 26, we find it was

not only Abraham who honored the request "according to the kindness that

I have shown to you, you shall show to me," but God honored it as well,

blessing them with very long lives and reigns. This is just another example

of God exercising his sovereignty and creative power over the aging process.

Clearly the Abimelech of C has changed since the one of B, inconsistent

with the notion of duplicate versions. The Abimelech of B is a harem-

building king eager to acquire Sarah. But in C, where the whole town is

stirred over the beauty of Rebekah, Abimelech is not interested. He seems

to spend his time peeping through windows (v. 8), consistent with the idea

of a much older man. The title "king of the Philistines" rather than "king

of Gerar" may indicate some blessing of a greater kingdom as well.

Another objection has been that C presumes that Isaac and Rebekah are

childless-for how could they pretend to be brother and sister with their

two boys there? Yet the chronology places the event after the death of

Abraham (26:18), making Jacob and Esau at least 16 years old. But this

objection assumes what is plainly false-that only the family of four entered

town, so that the boys would have appeared conspicuously without parents.

Like his father, Isaac had many-perhaps hundreds-of men working for

him and travelling with him (26:14-15, 19; see 14: 14), some no doubt with

families of their own. Surely we can credit Isaac with enough intelligence

to figure out a way to pass off his sons (who may have been fully grown

anyway) as someone else's. Bible scholars likewise ought to be able to figure

it out.

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         21


     Having shown that C suitably fits its context, we still need to ask what

contribution it makes to the development of the great themes of Genesis. If

the only purpose were to show God's blessing on those who bless Abraham

it could have been omitted, since Abimelech and Phicol are mentioned in

the following narrative. Perhaps a clue to the importance of the story can

be obtained from the critics' observation about the son repeating the mis-

take of his father. Certainly any reader of C would instantly realize that

Isaac is following in his father's footsteps, and the narrative itself points

back to A in v. 1: "there was a famine in the land, besides the previous

famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham," referring back to 12:10.

But the references to Abraham's life do not stop with C. Through the rest

of chap. 26 we see Isaac doing what his father did. "Isaac dug again the

wells of water which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, . . .

and he gave them the same names which his father had given them" (v. 18);

"The Lord appeared to him the same night and said, 'I am the God of your

father Abraham' " (v. 24). Also like his father he grew wealthy (vv. 12-14),

and made a covenant with Abimelech and Phicol at Beersheba (vv. 26-33).

"Like father, like son" is an obvious inference, and the inclusion of the

wife/sister motif lets us know that Isaac is like his father in every respect,

including his failings.49

     The significance of this duplication can be seen in considering the de-

velopment of the promises of the new Adam in the book of Genesis. The

reason for the new Adam, of course, is the failure of the first Adam. The

commission given to Adam was to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and

subdue it as man in the image of God. The result of Adam's sin was that

instead the earth was filled with wickedness and then destroyed (6:11-13).

After the flood, the commission is given anew to Noah (9:1-7), leading us

to think of him as another Adam, the father of the race that will fulfill God's

purpose in creation. Disappointment soon comes, however, as the sin of

Ham, the cursing of Canaan, and the tower of Babel incidents are narrated.

It seems that things are going to turn out just as the first time; that Noah

is not the new Adam after all. Then the commission of Adam is given to

Abraham in the form of a promise (the aspects of fruitfulness and dominion

can both be seen in 17:2, 4, 6). Here there is not a command for men to

fulfill, but God's declaration of his intention to make Abraham the new

Adam, the father of the righteous seed (which is why Paul said that Abra-

ham received a promise that he would inherit the world; Rom 4:13). But

here again there is disappointment: Abraham the father of the righteous

fathered Ishmael the wicked, who is expelled from the family and his in-

heritance because of his persecution of Isaac, who inherits the promise of

Abraham. If Abraham is not the new Adam, then maybe Isaac is. That

would certainly explain all the attention given to him: his conception from


     49 Green (Unity of Genesis, 325) also noted, "Isaac's life was to such an extent an imitation

of his father's that no surprise need be felt at his even copying his faults." But the significance

of the repetition requires explanation.



his rejuvenated parents, the stress on the covenant passing to Isaac, not

Ishmael (17:19-21), and the expulsion of Ishmael for mocking his younger

brother (21:9-12; see p. 17 for a suggestion as to the content of this mock-

ing). Will the promise of the new Adam then be fulfilled through the

miracle son, Isaac? Will he be what his father was not? The phrase "she is

my sister" (26:7) is enough to dispel that notion, along with the previous

narrative of Jacob and Esau, another Isaac and Ishmael pair. "Like father,

like son" thus has an important function in the development of the mes-

sianic promise. It continues the cycle of expectation/disappointment which

points the faithful reader toward a future fulfillment, the coming of the true

new Adam who will be greater than Abraham and Isaac, who only sym-

bolically represented him. This cycle of expectation/disappointment is en-

capsulated within C itself, which records the giving of the messianic

promise to Isaac (vv. 3-5), followed immediately by Isaac's moral lapse (vv.

6- 7). Note also the irony of juxtaposing v. 5, "because Abraham obeyed me

and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws," with

vv. 6-7, "so Isaac. . . said 'she is my sister,' for he was afraid" (the full irony

of this would not be present without the knowledge that Abraham who

"obeyed me" had lapsed as Isaac did). Likewise the first lapse of Abraham

in A occurred right after the giving of the promise (12:7).50

     The interpretation of these accounts as showing that Abraham and Isaac

were really like the first Adam, though spoken of as the new Adam, is

corroborated by W. Berg, who calls A "The Fall of Abraham," pointing

back to Genesis 3.51 Among other clues is the recurrent question, "What is

this you have done?" in 3:13 (God to Eve), 12:18 (Pharaoh to Abraham),

and 26: 10 (Abimelech to Isaac). Berg's essay on A followed an earlier anal-

ysis of Genesis 16 with similar conclusions.52 In both cases, Abraham's lapse

is a violation of the Edenic ordinance of marriage. Such an analogy with

the fall of Adam in Genesis 3 would make the lapse in B even more sig-

nificant, since in that case Abraham and Sarah had been restored to

"Eden" (Isa 51:3), yet fell again. The point to observe is that their reju-

venation did not undo the effects of the fall of Adam, and so they just grew

old again and died. It is also noteworthy that the "Fall of David" (perhaps

another "new Adam," for the promise of fruitfulness and dominion given to

Abraham are also found in 2 Samuel 7) is ironically reminiscent of B (as P.

Miscall has noted),53 since king David did to the foreigner Uriah what


     50 As noted above, Koch felt that it was "odd" that this sequence would occur. It has a

theological, not form-critical, explanation.

     51 W. Berg, "Nochmals: Ein Sundenfall Abrahams-der erste-in Gen 12,10-20," Biblische

Notizen 21 (1983) 7-15.

52 W. Berg, "Der Sundenfall Abrahams und Saras nach Gen 16,1-6," Biblische Notizen 19

(1982) 7-14.

53 P. Miscall, "Literary Unity in Old Testament Narrative," Semeia 15 (1979) 27-44. "What

the patriarch, the elect, fears of the foreigners because of his wife is just what David, the elect,

the Israelite king, does to Uriah the Hittite because of his wife" (p. 39).

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         23


Abraham was afraid the foreign king Abimelech would do to him (2 Sa-

muel 11). The irony is not only in the role reversal, but that Abraham's

fears were unfounded. Abimelech the pagan protested his innocence and

rebuked Abraham for exposing him to God's wrath by his subterfuge;

Abraham responded that he did it because he was sure there was no fear

of God in that (pagan) place (20:9-11). What does that say when such a

thing actually did happen in Israel, under its greatest king, the one after

God's own heart, the one who did more to fulfill the Adamic commission

than Abraham or Isaac? Such a series of lapses in the "new Adams" would

certainly create a realization that a "greater" new Adam was required to

fill the role. When the true new Adam came, instead of exposing his bride

to defilement to save his own life, he "gave himself up for her to make her

holy" (Eph 5:25-26).

    When Paul goes on to say, "This is a profound mystery" (Eph 5:32),

perhaps he means for us to make this comparison with the patriarchs. John

4, following John the Baptist's designation of Jesus as the bridegroom (John

3:25-30), certainly provides the basis for such a comparison, since a man

meeting a woman at a well is the classic OT courtship scene (see Genesis

24; 29; Exodus 2). The most detailed of these accounts, Genesis 24, finds a

number of striking parallels in John 4. (1) A man is by a well when a woman

comes along to draw water, and he asks her for a drink (Gen 24:33; John

4:7). (2) The woman runs back and tells her family (Gen 24:28), or her

townspeople (John 4:28-29). (3) The man is met and invited to the home

(Gen 24:29-32), or the town (John 4:30, 39-40). (4) The man refuses to eat

(Gen 24:33; John 4:27, 31-32). (5) The man stays overnight (= 2 days; Gen

24:54; John 4:40). The overall theme, brought out in the conversation be-

tween the man and woman, may also be compared: in Genesis 24 a father

is seeking a virtuous bride for his son; in John 4 the Father seeks true

worshipers (v. 23).54

     Once the parallels are accepted, the contrasts between the two brides are

equally striking. Rebekah was from a good family, not a Canaanite; a

Samaritan woman would be off-limits as a bride for a Jew. Rebekah was a

virgin; her NT counterpart had been married five times, and was currently

living with a man to whom she was not married. Rebekah was in every way

the model bride, but Isaac compromised her virtue, "because I thought I

might lose my life on account of her" (Gen 26:9), reflecting a value system

he learned from his father. The one greater than Isaac willingly gave up his

life for his most unworthy bride.


      54 A detailed comparison between the two accounts might yield further parallels, as might

analysis of the other OT courtship scenes. For example, J. H. Bernard notes a "striking

parallel" with Josephus' account of Moses at the well, where Josephus specifies the time as

noon, as in John 4:6 (J. H. Bernard, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According

St. John [2 vols.; ICC; New York:  Scribner, 1929] 1.136).



3. Confirmation from Another "Contradiction"


     Examination of another apparent contradiction in Genesis, while not

directly related to the wife/sister episodes, will aid the thesis presented here

by showing that apparent contradiction is a means of bringing out recur-

ring themes of the patriarchal promises. The apparent contradiction deals

with the scene of Isaac's blessing of Jacob. In Isaac's instructions to Esau of

Gen 27:1-4, he made it clear that he considered his death to be imminent

(as did Rebekah and Esau; Gen 27:41-45). Yet the patriarchal chronology

indicates that Isaac did not die soon after, but lived at least 40 more years.55

Before rushing to the conclusion that this is a contradiction, perhaps we

should first try the assumption that the apparent contradiction is simply

meant to cause us to inquire as to what happened that gave Isaac a new

lease on life. Once we ask such a question, the answer is not far away.

Something indeed did happen which would explain such a lengthening of

life. We are told that of his two sons, Isaac favored Esau, which was to the

detriment of Jacob, whom God favored (Gen 25:23, 28). The Lord said to

Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you, but the one who curses you I

will curse" (Gen 12:5). The same thing is spoken to Isaac himself, then later

to Jacob. While Isaac certainly does not fit into the category of a wicked

man, persecuting Jacob, it is reasonable to infer that his favoring of (the

rejected) Esau over Jacob would not be without penalty. And what would

be a suitable penalty for Isaac treating Jacob like he should have treated

Esau, and vice versa? Would it not be for God to treat Isaac as Ishmael?

That is in fact what he did, for the patriarchal chronology indicates that

Isaac was about 137 years old when this incident took place (see n. 55). His

older brother Ishmael had died at the age of 137 (Gen 25:17), and it looked

as if Isaac would do the same. Since Isaac treated Jacob like he should have

treated Esau, God was treating Isaac like he treated Ishmael in terms of life

span. He was going to die "young." And we would not know that unless

Ishmael's life span were given, contrary to the pattern of Genesis, where as

a rule only men in the line from Adam to Joseph have their life span given.

As we saw earlier, Sarah is an exception to this pattern, and there was a

definite reason for that. Likewise in the case of Ishmael some explanation

seems to be called for as to why his life span should be given. The expla-

nation offered here is that it shows how and why Isaac's life was going to

be cut short. Isaac said to Jacob, thinking he was speaking to Esau, "Cursed

be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you" (Gen 27:29).

How ironic that he himself was under penalty for blessing the wrong one up


55 Jacob went to Egypt when he was 130 years old, when Joseph was about 39 (compare

Gen 45:11 and 41:46; assuming that the years of plenty began immediately after Pharaoh's

dreams). Thus Jacob was about 91 when Joseph was born, and this was about 14 years after

he was blessed by Isaac (Gen 29:18, 30, 30:25), making Jacob about 77 years old when he left

home. This would make Isaac 137 years old at the time (Gen 25:26), give or take a few years,

and he lived to be 180 (Gen 35:28).

THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         25


to this point. Ironic also that the physical degradation he experienced (his

blindness) was what prevented him from recognizing that he was blessing

the "wrong" (actually right) son. It is only now when he comes to under-

stand that it is God's will to bless Jacob, and he willingly does so (Gen 28:3),

that he is released from this penalty and given an extension of life. In this

episode, then, we have reinforced several themes dealt with earlier. First,

as already mentioned, we see the use of apparent contradiction to cause the

reader to ask certain questions. Then, we see the answer to that contra-

diction in terms of God's exercising control over the aging process in ful-

filling the patriarchal promises. In connection with this, we also see the

deliberate departure from a general pattern in terms of giving life spans to

assist in the elucidation of the theme. All of this reinforces the conclusions

reached earlier.


4. Structural Considerations


     G. Rendsburg has recently shown56 how our three narratives fit into the

framework of the "Abraham cycle" and the "Jacob cycle." In the former he

builds on the work of U. Cassuto, who identified ten trials of Abraham that

are in a basically chiastic order of five pairs. Rendsburg combined two pairs

into one in order to form a more perfect chiasm, then included the gene-

alogies at the beginning and end as framing the cycle. The structure is as



     A Genealogy of Terah (11:27-32)

     B Start of Abraham's Spiritual Odyssey (12: 1-9)

     C Sarai in foreign palace; ordeal ends in peace and success;

         Abram and Lot part (12:10-13:18)

     D Abram comes to the rescue of Sodom and Lot (14:1-24)

     E Covenant with Abraham; Annunciation of Ishmael (15:1-16:16)

     E' Covenant with Abraham; Annunciation of Isaac (17: 1-18: 15)

     D' Abraham comes to the rescue of Sodom and Lot (18:16-19:38)

     C' Sarah in foreign palace; ordeal ends in peace and success;

         Abraham and Ishmael part (20:1-21:34)

     B' Climax of Abraham's Spiritual Odyssey (22:1-19)

     A' Genealogy of Nahor (22:20-24)57


This does not leave chap. 26 as an orphan, for that is part of the Jacob cycle,

for which Rendsburg essentially reproduces M. Fishbane's work.58 Again,

there is a multimember chiasm, in which chap. 26 ("Interlude: Rebekah in


     56 G. Rendsburg, The Redaction of Genesis (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1986).

     57 Ibid., 28-29. For other chiastic arrangements of the Abraham cycle, see I. Kikawada and

A. Quinn, Before Abraham Was (Nashville: Press, 1985) 96 (based on E. Bullinger, Companion

Bible [part 1; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911] 18); and C. Westermann, The Promise to

the Fathers (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 58.

     58 M. Fishbane, Text and Texture (New York:  Schocken, 1979) 40-62.




foreign palace, pact with foreigners") corresponds to chap. 34 ("Interlude:

Dinah in foreign palace, pact with foreigners").59

      While not wanting to minimize the importance of this type of analysis,

which suggests solutions to a number of important critical problems, it

seems to me that it is quite incorrect to conclude from it, as Rendsburg does

(quoting Cassuto): "all this shows clearly how out of the material selected

from the store of ancient tradition concerning Abraham a homogeneous

narrative was created in the text before us, integrated and harmoniously

arranged in all its parts and details."60 This seems to presume that if a

narrative can be fit into a chiasm, then it is "harmonious." But it is clear

that the chiasm does not solve the chronological problems identified at the

beginning of this paper, problems which gave credence to the multiple

source hypothesis. Such a statement also seems to imply that an ancient

Hebrew reader would tolerate the most blatant contextual discrepancies as

long as they were due to a chiastic order being followed. In fact, instead of

concluding that the redactor was a genius for constructing this chiasm, we

might rather conclude that he was so superficial, driven only by a desire to

arrange his material into a chiasm, that he would tolerate the most illogical

and incongruous chronological sequences. In short, the structural analysis

and the thematic analysis must complement each other.

     Two other points should be made about Rendsburg's analysis of the

Abraham cycle. First, the consistent chiasm is achieved only by combining

sections which seem to be thematically distinct, but which taken separately

would not follow the chiastic order (C/C' has three parts and E/E' has two

parts, where the inverse order is not followed where it "should" be). This

departure from chiasm is somewhat masked by combining the elements

under one head, though Rendsburg does discuss the reasons for the varying

orders. Perhaps the structure departs from chiasm precisely because Lot

and Ishmael depart! Second, such a structural analysis puts the emphasis

on finding parallels between members. But as we saw, a key to understand-

ing the relationship between chaps. 12 and 20 is that one left out what is

found in the other. Rendsburg is interested in what is common to both, i.e.,

their redundancy. Overzealousness for parallels can perhaps also be seen in

the title, "Rebekah in foreign palace"; Rebekah was not in a foreign palace.

As suggested by T. Longman,61 perhaps the "parallelism" of chiasm should

be understood along the lines suggested by Kugel for poetic writings: the A

and B lines are not parallel in the sense of equivalent, but complementary,

supplementary, etc.

     The structure revealed by Rendsburg tends to support the thematic

development of this paper in one important respect. I.argued that the


     59 Rendsburg, The Redaction of Genesis, 56.

     60 Ibid., 45.

     61 The suggestion was made in a "Critical Methodologies" class at Westminster Seminary,

for which this paper was originally written.


THE NAMING OF ISAAC                                         27


rejuvenation of the patriarchs was due to a connection between the themes

of the promise of Isaac and the promise of the land. Both depend on a kind

of resurrection for their fulfillment, and the rejuvenation resulting in the

birth of Isaac is therefore a token or type of the resurrection in which the

land will be inherited. Significantly, in Rendsburg's analysis, the counter-

part to the birth of Isaac is not the birth of Ishmael, but the promise of the



IV. Conclusion


     The three wife/sister narratives fit in their contexts and play a significant

role in the development of the themes of the patriarchal narratives. Ap-

parent contradictions, instead of leading to an exegesis that despairs of

trying to make sense out of the narratives as they are, have been shown to

bring out these themes. Acceptance of the source and form-critical expla-

nations for these data tend to prevent discovery of their true role. We seem

to have reached the point feared by the orthodox redaction critic (one who

accepts the results of source criticism as the basis for his work). As J. Barton

noted, if redaction criticism is too "successful," it can undermine its own



     The more impressive the critic makes the redactor's work appear, the more he

     succeeds in showing that the redactor has, by subtle and delicate artistry, pro-

     duced a simple and coherent text out of the diverse materials before him; the

     more he also reduces the evidence on which the existence of those sources was

     established in the first place. No conjurer is required for this trick: the redaction

     critic himself causes his protege to disappear. . . . if redaction criticism plays its

     hand too confidently, we end up with a piece of writing so coherent that no

     division into sources is warranted any longer, and the sources and the redactor

     vanish together in a puff of smoke, leaving a single, freely composed narrative

     with, no doubt, a single author.63


    In the present case, if our understanding of the laughter in connection

with the birth of Isaac is correct, we have done more than simply uncover

coherency amid apparent chaos; we have uncovered an author who has

played a highly successful joke on readers and scholars down through the


                                      115 West Sixth Street

                                        Lansdale, Pennsylvania 19446


     62 Rendsburg, The Redaction of Genesis, 37-38.

     63 Barton, Reading the Old Testament, 57.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Westminster Theological Seminary
       2960 W. Church Rd.
      Glenside , PA 19038
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu