Forms of the same Hebrew word, tzahaq, can mean laughing, playing, or even fondling, and often, all we have is context to tell us which meaning is meant.
Tzahaq is used only thirteen times in the Hebrew Bible. For the purpose of this study, I will also include the verb sahaq, which is used 36 times, and appears to be a later spelling variation of tzahaq. (The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon confirms this move.) For me, the key piece of evidence is Judges 16:25, where the Philistines call on Samson to “make sport” for them, a verse where both spellings of the word are used with the same meaning.
Let’s begin with tzahaq. The first five times it occurs in the Bible, it is used to describe what Abraham (Genesis 17:17) and Sarah (Genesis 18:12-15) do when they are told they will conceive a child together in their extreme old age: they “laugh.” The child they produce is named by the same verb: Yitzhaq = Isaac, “he laughs.” (The modern Israeli name Yitzhak is simply the Biblical name Isaac.)
The scene shifts temporarily in the next chapter to Sodom (Genesis 19:14), where Lot has received an evacuation order from his heavenly guests. When he tries to explain the order to the men who are engaged to marry his daughters, it says he seemed to them to be “joking,” another shade of the meaning of tzahaq: not laughing, not playing, but “making fun” of them, as it were.
After laughter from sheer disbelief, laughter continues for Abraham and Sarah as a form of joy mixed with disbelief in Genesis 21:6 as Isaac is born. Sarah declares that God has given her tzehoq (“laughter,” a noun form), and that all who hear the incredible news will “laugh” along with them.
But then the story takes a disturbing turn. In 21:9, Sarah sees her maid’s son Ishmael engaged in some kind of action, and it’s the same verb: tzahaq. Is he “laughing” (i.e. “mocking,” as the King James renders it)? Or could it be, as the Greek reads, that he is “playing with her son Isaac” (notice the addition of words in the Greek)? Or is he “molesting” Isaac? That third suggestion may sound wild, but our next few verses where this word is used may give some weight to this possibility. The fact that Sarah immediately compels Abraham to cast mother and son out into the desert becomes somewhat more understandable if this was the kind of play that can put one in jail for a long time when it is done today.
The next time we find this verb is in Genesis 26:8, where Isaac tells King Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister, but then the king later looks out his window and sees Isaac “playing” with Rebecca his wife. Our English translations have rendered this in all sorts of different ways: “sporting” (KJV), “caressing” (NAS, NIV-UK), “showing endearment” (NKJV, NIV-US), or “fondling” (RSV, NRSV). Whatever kind of “play” it was, what he saw led the king to immediately conclude that only a married couple would be doing that, not brother and sister! Keep this meaning in mind as we consider how to read Genesis 21:9 above, and as we consider the next two passages.
The next two times we find this verb are in Genesis 39, where Potiphar’s wife charges Joseph with attempting to compel her into sexual misconduct. In verse 14, she states to her household that her husband has brought in this Hebrew slave in order to “make fun of” or “mock” us (the household). In verse 17, she says to her husband himself that Joseph came in “to mock / make fun of me.” Considering the seriousness of the charge, “molest” would not be too strong a word for what she accuses Joseph of trying to do. Whether this nuance is what she actually intended is for you and me, the readers, to figure out for ourselves.
Other than where Samson is called on to “entertain” the Philistine crowd (i.e. make them laugh) in Judges 16:25, the final use of this spelling of the word in question is in Exodus 32:6, where when the Israelites hold a feast for the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai, it says that they sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to “play.” Again, what kind of “play” is this? Probably not bingo! It would appear to be very “adult” play, seeing that in verse 25, Moses sees that the people “had thrown off all restraint” (different verb here), “to their shame among their enemies.” The Latin version says they had “stripped off their clothes” (quod esset nudatus). This kind of play would have made the Canaanites and Egyptians blush. “Revelry” is how the NIV and NRSV choose to translate here.
See how laughing, making people laugh, playing, and more than just child’s play are all encompassed by this same Hebrew verb! Knowing this, I encourage you to read the above passages in light of these possibilities to see what fits best in your understanding of them.
The uses of the alternate spelling sahaq are often employed to speak of performing and dancing. Particularly famous are the verses where David “danced” before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:5, 21) and where the women sang “as they were making merry” that “Saul has slain his thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). In 1 Chronicles 15:29, the writer uses different words for David’s dancing and his unspecified “merry-making.” In 2 Samuel 2:14, two teams of soldiers “perform” with swords, ending in slaughter.
Seven of the nine times sahaq is used in Job, it means to “laugh.” Psalm 2:4 says, “The One who sits in heaven laughs.” God also laughs in Psalm 37:13 and 59:9, while in Proverbs 8:30-31, Wisdom “rejoices” before God and in God’s world Earth. The classic April Fool’s Bible verse is Proverbs 26:18-19: “Like a maniac who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the person who deceives their neighbor and says, I am only joking.”
There is a lot of merry-making, laughter, and mockery in the other places where this spelling of the verb is used, but no other examples that could be construed as molestation. The noun form sehoq usually means laughter (Psalm 126:2), but can also mean “laughingstock” (Jeremiah 20:7), or pleasure (Proverbs 10:23, where the wicked and the wise have two different ideas about what is “fun”).
Ecclesiastes 3:4 decrees that there is a time to “laugh.” Whoever said that God was a stuffed shirt?