Parashat Vayera: Is anything too hard for God?

Parashat Vayera 2013     “Is anything too hard for God?”

The narrative tells of an encounter in the desert between three travelling men and Abraham, who welcomes them into his tent and gives them hospitality. At the end of the story we read the following conversation: (Genesis 18) “And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” and he said “There, in the tent” and He said “I will certainly return to you when the season comes around, and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the doorway of the tent which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself saying, “After I have grown old shall I have pleasure? My husband being old also?” And God said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh, saying “Shall I really bear a child, who am old?” “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?”  (Which is generally translated as “Is anything too hard for God?) At the set time I will return to you when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son”.

Then Sarah denied saying “I laughed not” for she was afraid. And God said “No, but you did laugh” (Gen 18:9-15)

This announcement of the forthcoming birth of Isaac is, in biblical terms, a long and complicated piece. We begin with the placing of Abraham and Sarah, he outside, serving the three men/angels who are visiting, she inside the tent and hidden. Suddenly the person speaking changes from the plural to the singular, presumably from the men/angels to God, and the person being spoken to is no longer defined. From the three men/angels speaking to Abraham since the beginning of the sidra, we have God saying, with no room for doubt, that Sarah will produce a son. There is no response from Abraham to this, indeed we are not told that God is speaking to him or even that he hears the remark, but there is a response from Sarah. She hears, and her response is to laugh and to question in rather earthy terms both her and her husband’s ability to produce a child. But in between God’s statement and Sarah’s response the Torah interjects. We are told that both Abraham and Sarah are old, and specifically that Sarah is post menopausal.

Now God speaks, asking Abraham why Sarah had laughed, and quite kindly translating her doubt about both her and Abraham’s potency into a questioning only of herself. And then God speaks again, with a rhetorical question whose answer can only be in the negative, a technique found repeatedly within this sidra….”Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar? Is anything too hard for God?”

This question is then followed by a repetition that Sarah shall give birth, and the whole scene is concluded with a conversation between Sarah and God – she denies laughing and Torah tells us it is because she is afraid. God tells her, quite kindly I always feel, that her denial is untrue. She did laugh.  There is so much in this one interaction, but I should like to focus on God’s question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” 

It is a difficult question to translate and yet so critical to much theological thought. The root of the verb yipalei, peh.lamed.alef, is not really about something being too hard, more about being ‘hidden’, or ‘covered’, ‘beyond’, or even ‘separate’, although one commentator suggests that one could read it as ‘great’, so the question could be read as “is anything beyond God?” or “is anything hidden from God?” or “is anything separate or covered from God?” Or even “is anything greater than God?”

Rather like the meaning of this verbal root, the question asked by God is difficult, hard to unravel. For the God we have speaking here in Vayera is the same God who must ask themself only a few verses after this event whether to hide what is to be done to Sodom from Abraham, the same God to whom Abraham asks “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?”, the God who is losing the negotiation to save Sodom and walks away from Abraham. This God of the Hebrew bible is not yet the all powerful being for whom nothing is too difficult, but the Creator of all, the unifier of all, who is coming to terms with exactly what has been created, for made in the image of the Creator it is complex, adaptive, learning, curious; not something to be easily known.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b) – in other words human beings have freedom of will, and the freedom also to impact upon God, and so while I am happy to live with the understanding that God is unknowable, that we cannot encompass what God is, or what God can do, I do so on the understanding also that God responds and reacts to us, self-limits divine action with regard to strict justice in order for us to continue in the world, limits what is possible for God in order to be in relationship with us.

For us to have freedom of will, for us to make choices in our lives, then God has to cede power. It seems a reasonable exchange in order to have a relationship with us.

So back to the question – is anything hidden from God? Well probably not, if we believe in the Creator of all, then it is reasonable to consider that nothing is covered up and beyond the gaze of God. Is anything too hard for God – well, again, probably not, for the same reasons as above. But is anything impossible for God? This is where I part company from what is sometimes taught as traditional Judaism – given the relationship within which we operate, given the freedom of will given to us as to the choices we make, and the ceding of power from God in order to make the relationship between Creator and Creation, then God makes some things impossible for God, a willing and loving self-limitation, and it means that as a consequence we have to take up the slack.

If God cannot dictate good in the world, only teach and hope that we will bring it about, then we should stop blaming God for everything that goes wrong and live as best we can in our imperfect world, doing what we can to perfect it.

There is a view attributed to the 4th Century BCE Athenian Agathon, that God cannot change the past, what is done is done; But I would add to that view it is also not for God to create the present or the future. That is in our hands to do and is not for God.

Sarah laughed and then denied that laughter when God asked Abraham about it. Traditional texts tell us that she laughed at the news that she, past the age of fertility, would bear a child. But I wonder if her laughter was not something more – God asks Abraham the rhetorical question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” but he does not say it to Sarah. For Sarah may know the answer is not as some may like it to be, and if some things are off-limits for God to intervene in, then the consequences for us are frightening.

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