Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:1-15 and Luke 10:38-42
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The eightenth chapter of the book of Genesis provides us with is a great story of a marvelous genesis! Everytime I hear this story it makes me laugh! I laugh and then I wonder, what are we supposed to do with a story like this? Are we supposed to believe it? Is it true? Is it history or is it myth? Is it an exaggeration or is it a fairytale? If were supposed to believe it, tell me how? I can just about believe that a 99 year old man could impregnate a woman, but I’m not likely to believe that a 90 year old woman could give birth to a child; not in the desert, not in a time when healthy young women died in childbirth; I mean its laughable really. And maybe that’s the whole point!
I’d ask all the women in the congregation who’ve successfully completed menopause to put up their hands, but I’m smarter than that. So, let me just ask the women in the congregation who’ve got all that behind them, what would you do if you overheard a bunch of men who claimed to be God suggesting that you were going to give birth. There’s precious little to do but laugh! I’m nowhere near 90 and I can tell you that I’d laugh so hard I’d be on the floor in hysterics! Hysterics please don’t pardon the pun; the pun is definitely intended; for hysterics comes from exactly the same Greek word that we get hysterectomy from; and there’s about as much chance of me believing that a 90-year-old woman could give birth as there is of me believing that a woman who has had a hysterectomy could give birth. So, obviously I’m not about to suggest that we should take this story literally.
When we reduce the stories of Genesis to the level of literal history, we tend to reduce the story to the ridiculous and we make them all the more unbelievable. Notice I said reduce the stories, because I really do think that we do the stories an injustice when we try to literalize or historicize them.Indeed, not only do we do the stories an injustice, but more importantly we do the story-tellers and injustice. For I am convinced that those ancient story-tellers told these stories they way they told them for very important reasons. I’m willing to conceed that there may indeed be a trace of history in this particular story, but that over the generations the storytellers embellished the history more than just a little. There are a great many biblical scholars who suggest that Abraham and Sarah weren’t really that old. They insist that Sarah was simply past the normal childbearing age. We know that the average childbearing age in the ancient near east began just after a young girl began menstruating at about twelve and ended sometime before the young woman died. The mortality rate for women in the ancient near east was high precisely because of the risks of childbirth, so most women didn’t make it out of their 20’s. A 30 or 40 year old woman was a rare creature indeed, so a 90 year old Sarah was positively miraculous. About as miraculous as a 99 year old Abraham. Men did live longer than women in Ancient times but not that much longer…40 was considered old, 50 was remarkable and 60 was amazing, so 99 would have been a miracle indeed.
So, if this is a case of exaggerating the facts, well then the Hebrew storytellers, were a lot like the Irish storytelling I grew up listening to: full of blarney. Every good exaggerator knows that if you are going to exaggerate, you will only get away with it if you exaggerate a little. Think of all the fishing stories you’ve ever heard, if the fish that got away is this big, your less likely to believe the story than if the fish is this big. This big you can get away with. A forty-year-old woman giving birth would have been something, but a 90-year-old woman giving birth well as they say in the south, that dog just ain’t gonna hunt. Continue reading