He Rejoiced


So in GD today we did lesson 9, which includes the story of the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. The teacher mentioned that where the KJV said Abraham laughed at the news he was about to become an aged father, the JST corrects that to “he rejoiced.” At first I didn’t give it a second thought, because I vaguely recalled that change. But then a woman sitting behind me said that the name Isaac actually means “he laughed,” and she asked me if I could confirm her understanding, which I did, pointing out that Isaac is an anglicized version of the Hebrew name  Yitzhak (or Itzhak), which comes from the verb “to laugh” (the Y represents an imperfect verb form). (The Lord directed Abraham to name his son Isaac in Genesis 17:19.) And then the teacher said something like “And now we know it also means ‘he rejoiced.'” And the lesson proceeded from there.

When I got home I got curious about this, and I looked at the footnotes to Genesis 17:17 in the LDS edition. Where it says that Abraham laughed, I saw the expected JST note saying that he rejoiced. But I also saw something else I wasn’t expecting: footnote 17A reads: “HEB (also) rejoiced.” I was expecting the JST suggestion. But an editor of the 1979 LDS edition of the KJV here is trying to make the case that “rejoiced” is a legitimate reading of the Hebrew verb in this context. And that really surprised me. I don’t find that to be a defensible position. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does that verb bear the meaning “to rejoice.”

The Hebrew verb “to laugh” is tsachaq, which is an onomatopoetic formation, meaning it is derived from the sound of laughter. Compare English barbarian, which comes from Greek barbaros, which is derived from Greeks not being able to understand the speech of foreigners, as if they were saying “bar bar bar bar.” Almost the same verbs meaning “to laugh” existed in Greek (kachazo) and Latin (cachinnor). The equivalent in English would perhaps be the sound “haha.”

The passage reads:

Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?

It seems obvious to me that contextually here the meaning has to be he laughed, not he rejoiced. The ultimate emotion would eventually be joy, true, but the immediate reaction was incredulity because of their advanced age. The whole idea seemed ridiculous. If you replace “laughed” here with “rejoiced,” it simply doesn’t work. The JST is anticipating the ultimate and final emotion of joy, but in verse 17 we’re not there yet. (This kind of collapsing of time \is a common type of emendation Joseph made in the JST.)

Genesis 18 is also relevant here. There the Lord tells Abraham Sarah will bear him a son, she overhears and laughs at such an absurd notion. The Lord being the Lord knows she laughed and is offended at her lack of faith. She then denies having laughed, but the Lord isn’t having it:

10 And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.

11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.

12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?

13 And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?

14 Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.

15 Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.

By making it so Abraham didn’t laugh in the previous chapter, Joseph is attempting to protect the great prophet from the censure the Lord gives Sarah here.





  1. D Christian Harrison says:

    I really wish that we’d give the JST a different name. Like “Joseph’s Marginalia” — then we could treat it for what it was: an unfinished (amazing) project that has hints of inspiration but has plenty of head-scratching moments.

  2. “to express mirth, pleasure, derision, or nervousness with an audible, vocal expulsion of air from the lungs that can range from a loud burst”

    Laughter itself has different meanings. It’s a exactly one of the kinds of “translations” that the JST gets at — understanding the deeper emotion behind the text.

    As you’ve demonstrated it’s possible for an academic to make a long argument about a single word, without saying much at all.

  3. “He laughed and said, ‘It’s totally unbelievable!’”

    Ask an actor to read those lines and he can act out a range of emotions from derision, to shock, to delight, to delerium, to rejoicing, to fear, to mirth….

    I like your looking into Hebrew to find out more, and it is interesting. However, I don’t think there is sufficient evidence in your thesis, which uses a rather limited definition of the emotions that can accompany laughter, to support your conclusion that laughter in this case, (accompanying Abraham’s questions), 1) can only indicate derision or frank disbelief on his part at the ridiculousness of an idea and that therefore 2) rejoiced” is meant to correct “laughed” and replace it with a completely different meaning and that therefore, 3) that supposed correction must have been motivated by Joseph Smith’s desire to protect Abraham.

    But then, perhaps your understanding of JST notes is different from mine. I view them as attempts at clarifcation, not correction of mistranslations. As a clarification, and with a more comprehesive understanding of the mutlple roles that laughter can play in a statement, “rejoiced” as a footnote works fine.

    Finally, you interpret the Lord’s subsequent question to Abraham as censure of Sarah. I interpret it as a continuation of the conversation between them. Questions about “why” are not automatically censure. (Unless you had a mom who, whenever she was mad at you, asked you “why did you do that?????”). Why questions can be rhetorical, or openings to discussion, or invitations to dialogue or an opportunity to understand and then find ways to comfort or any number of things. Sarah’s reaction of denial is an indication of her fear of being condemned…a feeling of insecurity that is common when someone asks why you were doing something and you are not feeling confident…but even though she subsequently says that she didn’t laugh (which would be a lie) she is not condemned by the Lord for laughing or for lying either in the subsequent verses. He makes no condemning remarks. In fact his comments (vs 14) are easily read as simply reassuring that He can do things that seem hard to believe, that He will return, and that Sarah will indeed have that which she has longed for so long.

    I think it is easy to jump to the conclusion that because Sarah felt the need to deny that she had laughed, that her laughter was condemned by the Lord. But he doesn’t condemn her. This story can just as easily be used, instead, to illustrate the fact that feeling insecure about what you did is not an indication that the Lord condemns you, and that sometimes the best message, when someone you love feels insecure about their initial reaction to something, is to note the absence of condemnation and to reassure that the Lord is capable of keeping his promises.

  4. (Though He does point out that she did laugh when she says she didn’t. He is a stickler for truth.)

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s true that in general to laugh and to rejoice can be in the same register or ballpark, depending on the context. I argue that the context here doesn’t support rejoice in lieu of laugh. The narrative doesn’t make any sense if you read Abraham as immediately rejoicing. But for me that’s not a criticism of the JST, it’s a criticism of our limited reading of the JST as in every event representing an original reading. I see this not as a restoration of an original reading, but as a midrashic commentary, giving Abraham’s ultimate rather than immediate response, and also interacting with the dialogue in the next chapter about the Lord’s pique at Sarah laughing. I don’t view this as an attack on the JST, but as trying to see it for what it is, which I view as a good thing.

  6. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I lack the Hebrew (or Greek) chops necessary to access this kind of insight on my own, so I’m indebted to those of you that have studied ancient languages enough to do this level of analysis. I like the idea of an Abraham that is willing to laugh at God.

  7. For what it’s worth, when I took Biblical Hebrew from Prof. Ricks at BYU and we learned the verb “to laugh,” he supported that position that the verb could also mean “rejoice.” I don’t remember if he provided a basis; perhaps he even set his scholar hat aside and took Joseph Smith’s word for it. But I just thought I’d throw that out there. I agree that the narrative appears to contradict this second meaning.

    My understanding is that Yitzhak is the future tense, singular masculine conjugation: “he will laugh” (so I’ve long been confused why Isaac is usually defined in baby name books as “he laughs”). I admit I’m a bit biased toward believing in the dual meaning because I named my son Isaac and have already told him my beliefs on the dual meaning of his name, and I don’t want to look bad to my son. :)

  8. For what it’s worth, when I took Biblical Hebrew from Prof. Ricks at BYU, he supported the dual meaning. I don’t remember if he provided a basis for his belief; maybe he just took Joseph Smith’s word for it. But I named my son Isaac and told him it has both meanings.

    I’ve never understood “imperfect” and the like; I just remember conjugating simple past, present, and future. Yitzhak is the form I learned for future, masculine singular: “He will laugh.”

    I posted a similar comment earlier and for some reason it didn’t take. So if both show up eventually….

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Laurel, I believe the imperfect can be translated either as a future or a present tense, depending on context.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s the NET Bible comment on “laughed” in Genesis 17:17:

    The Hebrew verb used here provides the basis for the naming of Isaac: “And he laughed” is וַיִּצְחָק (vayyitskhaq); the name “Isaac” is יִצְחָק (yitskhaq), “he laughs.” Abraham’s (and Sarah’s, see 18:12) laughter signals disbelief, but when the boy is born, the laughter signals surprise and joy.

    The point I’m trying to make is that the text has a transition from disbelief (as reflected in the rhetorical questions of the poetic doublet in v. 17b about how Abraham and Sarah are way too old to bear children) to the joy at the reality of Isaac’s birth. I’m suggesting the JST is consolidating those two separate emotions into the final one.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    This is really great, Kevin. Thanks.

  12. Stephen Hardy says:

    Question: whatever Hebrew verb this is (to laugh or rejoice). Is it the same word in ancient Hebrew fir both Abraham and Sarah? If so then why didn’t they both rejoice?

  13. Kevin, I like your resolution to this seeming conflict between the KJV and JST. It’s much more plausible and contextual than just saying laughed also means rejoiced. We could all use a dose of mercy and generosity in how our knee jerk reactions are regarded when all is said and done, as the JST does here for Abraham.

  14. Thanks for this interesting write-up. It demonstrates the reason I’ve never been a big fan of the JST — too often it seems to rub down the rough edges of the scriptures or tie up something that seems weird in too tidy a bow. But personally, I really like the weirdness!

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Stephen, good question. The same verb is used both for Abraham and Sarah, so why no tweak to the Sarah account? It may be that the Sarah story is too long and would have required more significant surgery, whereas the Abraham occurrence just used the verb once and so it would be easier to tweak in that case. Or Joseph may have been more concerned with protecting how the text deals with Abraham than with how it deals with Sarah. I’m not really sure, to be honest.

  16. Kristine says:

    Do we really believe that God could not appreciate the humor of the situation? I like a God who laughs along when he plays a joke like sending a baby to a nonagenerian.

  17. “Or Joseph may have been more concerned with protecting how the text deals with Abraham than with how it deals with Sarah.”

    I’d say that pretty well sums it up.

  18. Gjkkjhkkkjj says:

    Or the Lord inspired Joseph to change one story one story and inspired him to leave the other alone…
    All in a bid to help sift the wheat from the tares.

    My only question, is Kevin… How many people will you drag out of the church with you?

    Seriously, why couldn’t you at least admit that it’s a possibility that Joseph was a prophet, and you aren’t?

  19. My only question is how many people Kevin has kept in the church with him because of his thoughtful posts over the years. (I am one of them.)

  20. I am another. And you know what they say about the worth of souls, yadda, yadda, yadda ….

  21. Gosh, where did the trolls come from in this thread ?

  22. Thanks, Kevin. Although “he laughed” and “Sarah laughed” make so much sense and are so much my mental image that it didn’t occur to me to look further, even to a footnote. In that way the JST does illuminate—Midrashian style—whether or not I’m ready to substitute words.

    So how about another word? For the process of making a chosen set of prophets and saints into paragons? Mormons do it, with all the scriptures and our own 200-year history as well. But not first and probably not best. It’s gone on for a long time so there’s probably a word. “Veneration” maybe?

    I prefer my patriarchs three-dimensional. More important, I find that there’s a divide between me, a 3D sort, and Sunday School teachers (and BCC commentators??) who subscribe to the veneration school.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Gjk, your comment illustrates the problem with widespread assumptions in the Church that every JST revision reflects an original reading. No serious Church scholar, even professors of Ancient Scripture at BYU, believes that, but as an institution we have not done a good job of articulating to our membership the other kinds of things going on in the JST project. You may find this post illuminating on this subject:


    Under that paradigm I would tentatively characterize this change as a midrashic commentary on the text.

    I don’t view understanding any particular JST revision as something other than a restoration of original text as adversely affecting Joseph’s status as a prophet.

  24. Eric Facer says:

    Gjk, further to Kevin’s point, it is worth remembering that, with the exception of the Book of Moses and Matthew 24, none of Joseph’s retranslation of the Bible has been canonized. And for good reason.

  25. stephenchardy says:

    Shouldn’t Gjkkjhkkkjj’s comment be edited? Doesn’t it go against our policy of attack a person rather than addressing an idea?

  26. stephenchardy says:

    I’m sorry that I’m so unclear. Isn’t it BCC policy to support the robust discussion of ideas, but not to support the faith and good will of the posters and commenters?

  27. stephenchardy says:

    yeesh forever: …but not to attack the faith and good will of the posters and commenters…

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