This Sunday’s Old Testament reading is about as unfunny as they come. It's the story, found in Genesis 21, of Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian handmaid (aka "slave"), who, after having been made to bed with Abraham to produce a child on barren Sarah’s behalf, is thrown out of the tent when her teen-age son is found having fun with Sarah’s finally-born toddler. Given but meager supplies for a destination-less journey into the harsh Judean wilderness, Hagar and her young son, named Ishmael, soon find themselves with no more water or food. At the end of her rope, Hagar puts Ishmael under a nearby bush and implores God to spare her from having to watch her son die. God responds with the miraculous appearance of a well and a reminder that He will see to it that they not only survive but thrive, with an innumerable number of descendants.
What could possibly be funny about Hagar and her plight? She’s a foreigner of no status who is constantly treated cruelly and dismissively, and by people we otherwise mostly see as spiritual giants who should certainly have known better. It all does nothing but make the earnest reader wince.
Nevertheless, when putting on the comic lenses, some interesting possibilities do come into focus.
For one thing, the story does have a happy ending. As earlier discussed, one of the earmarks of classical comedy is that its stories end with a wedding and/or birth, with the promise that in spite of everything, life will continue. In this case, life is going to continue plus plus plus! Not just one or even a few, but a gadjillion offspring from Hagar/Ishmael’s line are on their way, comprising what will come to be known as the nation of Islam. Make that two gadjillion offspring! You might say this story, classically speaking, has a ridiculously happy ending.
For another thing, this story hinges on laughter! Sarah gets most upset when she sees Ishmael “playing” with her young son; that's why she wants Hagar and Ishmael gone post haste. The word here translated in the NRSV Bible as “playing” has, in Hebrew, many meanings. The one many scholars for the present instance vote as correct refers to laughing playfully, having fun, experiencing the kind of joyful ebullience that was the reason Sarah gave her son the name Isaac (which means “he will laugh”) in the first place.
There’s something really funny (or at least dryly ironic) when witnessing someone who can’t see the joke’s on them. It makes Sarah look especially foolish that she's okay with her son laughing... but apparently only at what she finds funny, and whatever her rival's son is doing, even if hilarious to a 5 year-old, is an absolute anathema. We take her hissy fit to Abraham less seriously as a result, especially because God then tells the hesitant and hen-pecked Abraham not to worry, He’s going to more than care for Hagar and Ishmael once they go.
Finally, I find it interesting the phrase Hagar uses when at the end of her rope out in the desert: “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” It suggests she has come to assume God cannot, will not help. While we can understand why she would feel this way especially considering the traumatic situation and state that she and her son are in, I can’t help but think about the many times during the Exodus that God gets SUPER mad and “grave consequence”-happy when the people, even Moses, don’t put their first and utmost faith in Him to provide no matter what. It’s rather surprising that God doesn’t use her pessimistic plea as fodder for Divine punishment, especially because back in Genesis 16:10 He told her the good news of her and her son’s effulgent future.
Rather, God responds to her despair with great compassion and care. And, according to the Bible, the development of “laughter” in God’s world continues: with Isaac, "the one who laughs," and with Ishmael, apparently the one who makes ‘em laugh. Perhaps this is all way more important than the snuffing out of laughter due to Divine Wrath, whether justifiable or no.
It’s crazy, what comic lenses can bring! Next stop, er, view: The Sacrifice of Isaac….