Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a
The Abraham/Sarah cycle in the First Testament is full of odd stories.
And, except that it is Sunday-school familiar to many Christians, this particular story in the cycle is especially odd. It’s not odd because three “men” show up “out of nowhere” and need hospitality. It’s the kind of oddity where the deity circles back on a promise made many years before and many times over. Except now, Abraham is old, and presumably feeble. Why should they believe God this time? This question might be a very good preaching starter for anyone wanting to preach this text. I know it’s not the obvious question, but if proclaimers remind listeners of the saga by putting this passage in context, there are so many possibilities.
For example, Abram has heard this promise and it made him leave his father’s house and to venture out to a god he did not know and for — if we were not believers and numbed to the adventure — sound like grandiose and fantastical promises. In the larger narrative, there are missteps and efforts to help God along the way to keep the promise of progeny, land, and legacy. All for the want of the promise, for want of a son. Again in Genesis 15, Abram has another vision where God reminds him of the promise of progeny, land, and legacy. This time, Abraham pushes back: “But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3). But God insists on the original promise. Not Eliezer, but a son of Abraham’s loins and Sarah’s womb. Vision is followed by vision in that chapter. If you read them closely, my hunch is that you will think them strange, what with passing between pieces of ritually slaughtered animals, terror, smoking pots, and flaming torches, and more promised. If we don’t think them strange or odd, it is only because we have gotten accustomed to the strangeness. Despite this vision, this reminder, Abraham fathers Ishmael by forcing Hagar into slaver surrogacy in Genesis 17. But God says, (my words) “Not the one, sir. I said a son with Sarah.” If one follows this story line, they would be concerned about whether God is going to come through, just as Abram/Abraham was.
Preaching this text means helping listeners have a sense of this strangeness and long-suffering waiting for such a promise. It would explain a lot about Sarah’s laughter and Abraham’s skepticism. Over the years we’ve cleaned it up with our storybook version of what happened, but by the time three men show up in the desert, and Abraham (and the other men in this household) are presumably weak after recovering from circumcision, the meal is the preparation for the line in verse 10: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” What are a feeble, tired, hot, now-99-year-old man and his wife expected to believe? I also believe preachers ought to expand the passage to include verses 10b-16. That way, we would have the added benefit of Sarah’s reactions in the text, and can further explore the long awaited fulfillment, questions about faithfulness in the wait, and how to hold on to a “word from God” when all evidence to it being possible diminish with every passing day. I invite preachers to really explore that faith.
If preachers think my first suggestion is too much work, there are two others that seem possible. One option is to explore the idea of “entertaining angels unawares.” I would caution preachers that nowhere in the text are the three men called angels. But, as I have called this story odd, that oddity is between verses one and two. “The Lord” appeared (singular) to Abraham and “he looked up and saw three men standing near him.” Are “the Lord” and the three the same? Through interpretation history, some have used this text to preach a trinitarian message. They’ve followed Augustine’s lead, especially, in his book writings “On the Trinity: Book II,” where he writes:
Yet Scripture at the beginning of that narrative does not say, three men appeared to him, but, The Lord appeared to him. And then, setting forth in due order after what manner the Lord appeared to him, it has added the account of the three men, whom Abraham invites to his hospitality in the plural number, and afterwards speaks to them in the singular number as one; and as one He promises him a son by Sara, viz. the one whom the Scripture calls Lord, as in the beginning of the same narrative, The Lord, it says, appeared to Abraham. He invites them then, and washes their feet, and leads them forth at their departure, as though they were men; but he speaks as with the Lord God, whether when a son is promised to him, or when the destruction is shown to him that was impending over Sodom.1
There have been art and icons since medieval times to depict this text as the trinity. But this reading feels like a stretch, except for preachers to use the text to point out the way the church through the years have worked to talk about the mystery of God. That conversation could be here. How does Abraham know the one who “appeared” to him is the Lord? What are the ways we identify and understand out encounters with the Holy and the Holy One? How do we respond to those encounters? Which brings me to option three.
The final option I would offer to preachers is to consider the level of hospitality Abraham offers these visitors. While it is true that he perceives God is there — and maybe that affects his offering — he goes all out to provide customary care in the desert, and maybe extraordinary care. He runs to greet them and bows in honor (verse 2). He offers water to drink and to wash their feet. He offers rest from the heat of the sun, “under the tree,” verse 5. Basic care is what Abraham offers, but what he provides us much more. It reads like the feast for a long lost relative or friend, or better yet, a dignitary: cakes, a tender, calf, curds and milk.
Christians may here that Luke 15 describes such a feast when the prodigal son returned. Here, I am not calling for preachers to interject Jesus into the story, but the quote suggests that if we greet people as if they were “of the same substance” as God, a claim Christians make every time we say people are made in God’s image, then Abraham’s response might be ours. Preachers might explore what expansive and generous hospitality looks like for believers. It would stand in contrast to the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah to follow.
This odd story might yield an abundance of grace.
- Saint Augustine. On the Trinity: Book II. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130102.htm.