The Laughter of Abraham and the Joy of Jesus
by Warren Gage
In giving the covenant of circumcision, God confirmed the promise to Abraham that long-barren Sarah would bear a son. Abraham expressed his faith in laughter (Gen. 17:17), a gesture of joy that contrasted sharply with Sarah’s lapse of faith in a
different kind of laughter (Gen. 18:12–15). Nonetheless God was true, and to memorialize Abraham’s faith, his son by Sarah was named “Isaac,” meaning “laughter” (Gen. 21:3).
The apostle Paul understood Abraham’s laughter to preview the joy of the Gospel according to Isaiah’s prophecy that the sufferings of Christ (Isa. 52:13–53:12) would result in long-barren Zion singing like Sarah for the multitudes of her begotten (Isa. 54:1–3). Paul took Isaiah’s prophecy to correspond to the ingathering of the nations as the reproach of Israel’s barrenness was removed (Gal. 4:26–27). The church of the nations had become the new “Isaac” (Gal. 4:28), causing “laughter” in heaven. But why does Paul consider laughter to be so remarkably prophetic of the gospel age?
Aristotle observed that poetry imitates the actions of life and that there are four poetic genres corresponding to the native gestures of the soul. Remarkably, Aristotle’s four genres track both the cycle of nature in the seasons and the history of grace in Genesis 1:1–3:15. Epic is “cosmopoesis,” or the making of worlds or the founding of cities. It corresponds to the springtime blossoms of new beginnings. Lyric is life in the pleasant garden. It is unspoiled, reveling in the summer sun. Tragedy is the great fall of a heroic house; its emblem is autumn’s ebbing of life. Comedy, however, is the seed asleep under the snow, the hope of life’s renewal that defies the frozen night of winter.
Dramatic theorists since Aristotle have noted that tragedy is marked by its power to evoke fear and pity. But comedy, it appears, is marked by laughter. Classical tragedy, like the fall of Adam, ends in death. Classical comedy, by contrast, overcomes impossible odds to end in a wedding procession, the promise of renewed fertility. The poet Dante was certainly correct to observe that the trajectory of redemption is comedic. The tragedy of Adam, who turned a garden into a grave, is reversed in the comedy of the last Adam, who makes His grave into a garden, and leads redemptive history, as depicted in Revelation, on to the Lamb’s victory over the dragon and to the celebration of His wedding supper
(Rev. 12:9 and 19:7).
Revelation, in fact, is arguably the most comedic book in the Bible. It is designed to reveal its secrets only to comedic imaginations. The greatest gospel laughter comes to those who understand why John has the whore of Babylon arrayed in scarlet (Rev. 17:4) and dwelling in a city that has had a visit from two witnesses (Rev 11:3), a great city whose fall comes after a shout at the sounding of the last of seven trumpets
(Rev. 11:15, 14:8).
Eugene Peterson observed that Genesis was the book of the ancient church and Augustine, that Solomon’s Song was the book of the medieval mystics, and that Romans was the book of Luther and the Reformation. He suggests that a new Reformation is asleep in the book of Revelation. That Reformation will come through a new Luther whose comedic imagination is robust enough to recognize who Babylon’s whore truly is, and who, like Abraham, can delight in God who makes all things possible. The next Reformation will recover and deepen the joy of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. It will rediscover a biblical understanding of grace so radical that many will condemn it as blasphemy. But it will sweep the world once again with the laughter of the Gospel based upon an even greater understanding of just how amazing grace truly is.
Abraham’s laughter at the promise of
a son for Sarah is classically comedic. God had long promised a son, but his wife was both barren and beyond the years of childbearing. God overcame Sarah’s natural impediments and restored fertility to a couple “as good as dead” (Heb. 11:11–12). Comedy is the imagination of faith. It is Abraham’s recognition that literally nothing is impossible with God.
Comedy is the genre most capable of characterizing redemption because, unlike tragedy, which begins high and ends low, comedy begins low and ends high. It traces the optimistic trajectory of biblical time, which moves from the darkness of night to the dawn of day (Gen. 1:5), and assures us that though sorrow may endure for an evening, joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5). It dares to believe that a son can be born of a dead womb, that though a man die he can yet live again. It confesses a faith that God will turn cursing into blessing (Num. 24:10), that suffering will at last become glory (Luke 24:26), and that death itself will culminate in resurrection life (Rev. 1:18).
Paul tells us that Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). The apostle certainly has in mind the Wisdom of God who was with the Creator when He marked the foundation of the earth (see Prov. 8:29). Read in this way, Jesus announces that He was with God as a master workman, and was “daily his delight, rejoicing always before him” (Prov. 8:30). The Hebrew word for “rejoicing” is the same as “Isaac.” Jesus is the true “Isaac,” and His joy is the eternal delight of His Father. Through Christ’s Gospel we too have been rescued and, against impossible odds, made to share in heaven’s laughter!