< July 21, 2013 >

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a

 

When I was a child, one of my family’s common dinner prayers was, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed.”

(My sisters and I liked its brevity and the sing-song nature of the rhyme.) I understood it to be essentially a dinner blessing, so it was not until many years later that I realized the boldness of the first part of the prayer: asking Jesus to come and be our guest. What would that mean to prepare space at our table, in our home, in our lives, into which Jesus could come? What would it mean to receive him with hospitality and generosity?

Receiving God as a guest is a primary point of this lectionary selection because of the division of the verses. One could, of course, focus on the Triune God because Abraham is visited by the (one) Lord, as three separate people. Indeed, as Abraham speaks to “the three men” (18:2), he alternates between referring to them in the singular (verse 3) and plural (verses 4-5). Verse 9 has all of them speaking to Abraham (“and they said”), but then verse 10 switches to a single subject (“and he said”).

Some have explained that though there are three, Abraham occasionally addresses the leader, who is the one stating the promise in verse 10. But Andrei Rublev’s beautifully composed fifteenth century icon based on this text is sometimes referred to as “The Icon of the Holy Trinity,” so this text certainly has an important place in reception history about the Trinity.

Yet an alternate title for Rublev’s icon on Genesis 18 is “The Hospitality of Abraham.” That title points to the effort Abraham puts, in this text, into welcoming God. In the heat of the day, Abraham runs to meet these men though, admittedly, if they are standing over him then that journey might not be too far (Genesis 18:2). His haste continues until the visitors are under the tree eating the food: he hurries to the tent to tell Sarah to make the bread, runs to the herd, and his servant hurries to prepare the meat (verses 6-7).

It is striking that Abraham’s description of what he will provide in verses 4-5 does not match up with what he ultimately serves. He told his visitors that he would fetch “a little water,” and a “morsel of bread.” Instead, he gives them a tender good calf from his herd, curds and milk, and cakes made from fine flour. Obviously, milk and curds (or butter; perhaps something like yogurt or buttermilk) is better than just water -- in Deut 32:14, the curds and milk signify the abundance of God’s provision.

And the Hebrew word for the type of flour Sarah uses is solet, a word that appears in 1 Kings 4:22 (Hebrew 1 Kings 5:2) to describe the type of flour for the wealthy Solomon, and describes the choice food with which God feeds Jerusalem in Ezek 16:13 and 19. This is no mere morsel or dry crust!

It might seem there is something dishonest about telling the visitors they will only receive a little water and a bit of bread, when something far more lavish is what he has in mind. This could be explained away under the rubric of humility, that Abraham did not want to be arrogant about his ability to provide. Or, perhaps Abraham wanted to pleasantly surprise his visitors by not getting their expectations up. One ancient rabbi explained that this story illustrates how those who are righteous speak little, but do a lot.

The sequence of events may tempt readers to turn this text into something transactional: Abraham and Sarah are generous to God, then they are told that they will have a child. If we do our best for God, then God will respond and give us what we desire. If we are hospitable to God, then God will be gracious to us. A closer reading of the entire story helps mitigate such an interpretation. In the previous chapter, when Abraham wondered if Ishmael could be the child of promise, God told Abraham it would be Sarah’s son with whom God would establish God’s everlasting covenant (17:19). At that point, Abraham and Sarah had not welcomed God, nor had they provided food and rest for God.

Another detail that helps prevent us from understanding this text as a message that God will bless if (only) we give our best is found in Abraham’s first words to his visitor(s), “If I have found grace in your eyes…” (18:3). That same language is found in Exodus 33 when Moses asks God to show him God’s ways, and to go with the Israelites on their way (33: 13, 16).[1] Here, the request is a bit less bold than that of Moses; Abraham asks that the visitors do not pass by, but sit and rest. But Abraham’s “if” -- indeed, any of our “ifs” -- must be met with God’s “of course.”

Of course God’s grace is there, of course God’s eyes see God’s people with favor. Grace always comes first. Because that grace is there, God’s people can respond with their best. Because we have found favor in God’s eyes, it is possible to welcome God with hospitality and generosity, as a favored and welcome guest.


[1] Gideon also uses that language in Judges 6:19, as does David in 2 Samuel 15:25.