< July 18, 2010 >

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a


This passage (Genesis 18:1-10) has literally become iconic: the fifteenth century Russian icon by Andrey Rublev that depicts the three visitors to Abraham as a type of the Holy Trinity appears as a now-familiar image everywhere from mouse pads to refrigerator magnets.

Apart from its marketing potential, the icon helps us to remember that it is common in Genesis for God to appear to or visit with human beings in the form of a messenger or angel of the LORD (e.g., Genesis 16:7, 19:1, 21:17, 22:11, 32:1), or, as here, in the form of a human being (see also Genesis 32:22-32).  Such visitations and appearances are in keeping with other earthy, concrete portraits of God in Genesis: walking about in the garden in Genesis 3:8, responding flexibly and extemporaneously to human decisions and behaviors (Genesis 6:5-7; Genesis 8:21-22), etc. The God of Genesis responds creatively and improvisationally to humanity and to the rest of the created world that God has made.  

The first thing we may wonder about when reading this passage is why Abraham is so eager to see these strangers. He is sitting under a tree, hot (it is the heat of the day, verse 1), and likely pondering how it will be possible for Sarah and him to have a child to have a child, as God has just rather ridiculously promised in the previous chapter (17:16). At the end of that chapter Abraham had fulfilled his part of the covenant by having his whole household, including himself, circumcised (17:26-27). Perhaps he is still recovering from the circumcision--even minor surgery is serious at ninety-nine! 

The details of the text are telling: in the horrible heat of the day, just when he had been dozing at the entrance to his tent--the equivalent for us of sitting on our front porch at about three o'clock one August afternoon--Abraham sees these strangers approaching. Perhaps he wondered if he could trust his own heat-struck eyes, the oppressive sweltering temperature itself perhaps making the air shimmer such that he was not sure whether what he was seeing was really there at all, or whether the extreme heat was playing tricks on him.

The heat alone at this time of day would be a lethargy-inducing scenario for anyone, but add to it the recent surgery, to say nothing of the uncertainties generated by the impossible promises, and it seems all the more astounding that Abraham leaps to his feet to run greet these visitors (18:2). Furthermore, the story goes on to describe Abraham's elaborate preparation of a sumptuous meal (18:6-8)--again, during the sultry immobility of the day's heat--such that by the time he is standing under the tree watching his guests eat, you can nearly see the sweat cascading down his brow.

Not only does Abraham leap to his feet and run (in that heat), but the first words out of his mouth beseech the visitors to allow him to care for them: "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant" (verse 3). As the rest of the story will prove, these visitors have important news for Abraham about the divine promise, and so perhaps his leaping to his feet in the heat of the day is motivated by hope for some word or another about how exactly God proposes to make good on the divine promise of a son with Sarah. Even so, the narrative's emphasis on Abraham's gracious hospitality goes beyond an effort to satisfy Abraham's justifiable curiosity. 

It sets up a contrast with what follows in chapter 19 when the inhabitants of Sodom try to violate the laws of hospitality. Like Abraham, Lot will provide food, water, and shelter for the angels/strangers (19:3), but the principles of hospitality are threatened when the mob seeks to harm the guests. Lot offers his own daughters to the mob (!), saying "let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof" (19:8; see also the similar story in Judges 19).

Both Lot and Abraham model hospitality to strangers in their actions, while the mob in Sodom defines inhospitality by their actions. The contrast afforded by Abraham's example here in chapter 18 helps to emphasize a basic point often missed by modern readers of chapter 19: the story of the wicked inhabitants of Sodom is not about "homosexuality" (the idea of sexual orientation or sexual identity not existing in the ancient Near East); rather, the companion chapters underscore the centrality of hospitality as a virtue, in part by describing what happens when that virtue is derided.

Abraham has received a seemingly impossible promise, but his animated efforts on behalf of these strangers under adverse conditions suggest that he still trusts that God can and will do the impossible. He is eager to show hospitality, for its own sake perhaps, in contrast to the inhabitants of Sodom in the next chapter, but also because he refuses to succumb to a cynical or jaundiced view of his world and his place in it. Abraham certainly does not imagine what is in store down the road (chapter 22), but he continues to believe that God will make good on God's word.