Poverty in Silas Marner & Michael

        A child, more than all other gifts

That earth can offer to declining man,

Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

– Wordsworth

The epigraph to Silas Marner is an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem Michael, which tells the story of a shepherd who is blessed with a son in his old age. Michael loves his son, Luke, but is forced to send him off to the city to repay an unexpected debt which will otherwise leave Luke disinherited. Despite heartfelt promises to come home again to his father, we learn in the final lines of the poem that the son is forced to flee the country after committing an unnamed crime, never to take his father’s place, to trod the mountainsides, or to finish building the sheepfold that was to commemorate his return. Even without the epigraph, Eliot draws upon associations with the poem in the first line of the novel: “In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses” (3) immediately takes the reader back to the setting predominant in the poem, defined by the continuous whir of the shepherd’s industrious wife at her spinning wheel. The poem was widely-known enough that George Eliot might safely have trusted many of her readers to recognize the associations. And yet, it would be easy to forget them as the reader progressed through the novel. Silas is a very different sort of man than Wordsworth’s shepherd. One traverses mountainsides full of rustic praise for the beauty of the earth while the other grows shriveled and nearsighted over a loom in the confines of a single room. One begins in the warmth of family life while the other begins in desolation. But Silas’s narrative gradually forms an interesting reversal of Michael’s. Rather than surrendering a child to prevent the loss of his earthly goods, Silas gains a child in place of his fortune. Even the novel’s ending forms a strange reversal of the poem’s; while Michael’s sheepfold remains an unfinished pile of rocks long after his death, Eppie extends their home into a completed garden “fenced with stones on two sides” (161). Both fathers love their children uniquely as providential gifts come long after they’d lost all hope for such comfort, but only Silas’s hope in Eppie bears fruit.

Despite the narrative parallels, in some ways it’s strange that Eliot chose to use Wordsworth’s poem as an orienting text. The underlying significance of the poem is that the rustic shepherd life which had once defined the pastoral English countryside was now irrecoverably and devastatingly lost. The novel, on the other hand, isn’t explicitly concerned with the loss attendant on encroaching industrialization. Though both are set in the age of spinning wheels, their settings are otherwise quite different—and the significance of Wordsworth’s poem is directly tied to its setting. Michael is the figure of a lost age, and his son is a symbol of what lies on the other side of that loss. While the story of Silas Marner is distinctly parabolic in many ways, the characters in the novel are clearly more than symbols. And insofar as they are navigating broader themes, those seem more related to belonging and virtue than anything like the loss of the pastoral age.

Perhaps the unexplored disparity is actually related to virtue. After all, Wordsworth’s claims about the loss of pastoral livelihoods has weight because it is assumed that there is virtue in a certain kind of poverty—so that the loss of a certain kind of “poor” livelihood is a loss worth mourning. But Eliot has to prove that this is true. The workhouse is mentioned several times in reference to Eppie and her mother, and it’s a recurring reminder that these characters are directly affected by the institutionalization of poverty which solidified a prejudice against certain kinds of poor people (“the undeserving poor”) in this period. In other words, Eliot’s characters are a very different kind of poor than Wordsworth’s. She has to either show that they are the deserving sort or undermine the premise that makes that a question at all.

The question is addressed over and over in the narrative, most often by contrasting the poor with the rich. By keeping Eppie from leaving her adopted father for a wealthy inheritance, Eliot suggests that the life of the poor can offer far more substantial happiness than that of the wealthy. Furthermore, Eppie’s poverty is ultimately more fertile than Godfrey and Nancy’s wealth, emphasized by the contrast between the young squire’s barren home and the “four united people” outside Eppie’s garden at the close of the novel. Though Nancy is admirably principled, her principles occasionally lead her to heartless convictions, painfully illustrated in the scene when she tells Eppie that leaving the father she loves for the father she barely knows is an act of “duty.” Alternately, Silas seems to have lost all principles at the beginning of the narrative, but his unexamined impulse to care for Eppie forms the foundation of a deeply Christian love that gradually extends to his whole neighborhood. The wealth and comfort of the squire’s home not only fails to keep it from being a place of moral vagary, it produces a family burdened by underdeveloped consciences. The weaver’s home, by contrast, is a place of sincerity, gratitude, and restoration. It is after Silas loses his wealth that he is able to receive Eppie as a providential gift. To determine whether this is an undermining of Victorian prejudices against the poor or simply an identification of Silas as one of the “deserving” sort might require a broader look at the other disadvantaged characters in the novel—or perhaps in Eliot’s novels as a whole.

Absence in Rublev’s Trinity

I was struck in reading Bunge’s history and interpretation of Rublev’s Trinity by the double absence of Sarah and Abraham. Double, in that Bunge offers a genealogy of their disappearance, but also in that their disappearance disappears within this genealogy itself. Three passages describe and perform the disappearance of the two, and in them Bunge slowly transitions from the history of disappearance to its effect:

“Gen 18 will, from the ninth century onwards, be ordinarily understood as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity […] and Abraham and Sarah are now fundamentally bystanders, who can be dropped if need be” (55).

“This scene is very early on set free from this context in the history of salvation in order to be placed in a straight-forwardly christological-typological context […] Abraham and Sarah, originally hosts to the main figures of the event, are changed into suppliants of the mystery of the Trinity […] From the fourteenth century onwards, Abraham and Sarah may even completely vanish” (90).

“Of the biblical ‘hospitality of Abraham’ only the head of the calf in the chalice is recalled. The hosts themselves, Abraham and Sarah, are missing. Their place is taken by us, the faithful, among whom the Holy Trinity set up their tent. The biblical event, recounted with such a delight for detail in Gen 18, is compressed to the furthest limit. No historical narrative tale. The divine light of fulfilment has completely swallowed up the Old Testament type, the preliminary sketch and likeness. Transparence of the earthly, the creaturely, to the divine reality. Primordial event as an image of timeless presence” (110).

It is uncertain in what sense—or even whether—we ought to be struck by the absence of Sarah and Abraham, whether we ought to notice it, or what noticing it might entail. It is uncertain, that is, to what extent Bunge takes the absence of Sarah and Abraham to be significant to the theology of the icon. I take it for granted that the icon could still be imagined as interpretively or theologically tethered to that which it does not depict (in that it depicts the Trinity this is precisely true, but more on that below), but I also take it for granted that it need not be tethered to what (to who) is absent from it. (As far as this goes, it is not immaterial that the pictorial untethering is echoed in the liturgical untethering that Bunge describes, in the freezing of a moment within the biblical story and the relocation of that image to the story of Pentecost.) The verbs that Louth uses to translate Bunge’s descriptions in these passages offer something of an answer to these questions: the two “can be dropped,” the icon is “set free” from their story, they “may even completely vanish,” they “are missing,” their place “taken,” their story “compressed” and “completely swallowed up.” The movement of the verbs suggests a transition from the non-necessity of Sarah and Abraham to the necessity of their disappearance; it is relayed in the succession of the verbs themselves, the iconic image first liberated and distinguished from its traditional setting, then defined against this setting (defined as the consumption of this setting). There is a sense in Bunge’s narration that Sarah and Abraham had to vanish for Rublev to write his Trinity, that in order for the Trinity to be depicted, space could not be made or added but only rededicated, these other subjects effaced. It is not better to take the other track presented in the last passage of imagining their disappearance as a necessity—not better, that is, to say that Abraham and Sarah had to disappear in order for their place to be taken, as Bunge unhappily puts it, by the Christian who prays with the icon. The effect of these descriptions of their disappearance (what I mean by the disappearance of their disappearance) is that Abraham and Sarah, like their depictions, are absences effected by and within different competitive economies. They vanish within and are vanished by competitive imaginations of the divine and the mundane, of the Jewish and the Christian, the biblical and the theological.

Yet if I want to claim that, I also want to suggest that these movements seem unnecessary, that more might be imagined from the disappearance of their disappearance, and that Still’s reading of Derrida’s hospitality might aid in evoking the revelatory potential of Sarah and Abraham’s hiddenness in the icon. Their slipping away from the icon’s field of vision can be read as significant to the depiction of the Trinity and suggestive of what the icon does depict (or, in iconic fashion, what it does not depict). Thus it strikes me that the disappearance of Sarah and Abraham images the horizons of Derrida’s “Law of hospitality,” as Still distinguishes it, or especially as she later expands, drawing from Adieu, the “Law of absolute welcoming, in which the other is received beyond the capacity of the self” (8). The effacement of the hosts, their complete displacement remains within a hermeneutic of hospitality, and if there is something potentially violent and competitive in the genealogy of their disappearance, there remains something revelatory of radical or absolute hospitality in still seeing the icon as an image of Abraham’s hospitality. The hosts have so opened their world as not only to cease to be the subjects of hospitality but also to disappear from the act of hospitality itself. (This, alternatively, might depict how the Law is a vanishing point, that its fulfillment negates the twoness hospitality requires.) This vanishing is, of course, theologically significant as well. The guests of the icon have become the hosts—with Christ in the center, hand held over the chalice, the doubling of meaning here cannot be escaped, that the guest is the host, the Host. Abraham and Sarah can only be hosts, the icon suggests, analogically.

But if Sarah and Abraham’s absence images an absolute hospitality that is in turn depicted by the presence of an image of the divine economy, appealing to Still pushes further, in her elaboration of Derrida’s recognition that the Law must be and can only be realized in relative and particular ways. The Law is realized historically, humanly. That this is also true of Trinitarian theology is manifest, more powerfully than it often is in words, in the iconic depiction of the Trinity, in its ranging on the idolatrous, its risking of the forbidden, its crossing of boundaries, in the fact that the meaningfulness of its depiction depends entirely on the recognition that it does not depict its subject. In this, Rublev’s Trinity contains another effacement that is also a manifestation: it presents God as God is known in divine hospitality: in human form. Divine transcendence is effaced, hidden away, folded within the three human shapes. Here, to return to Bunge, our perspective alongside (not rather than) Abraham and Sarah’s proves theologically opening: that God is the absolute and eternal host arrives enfolded in God’s coming as the stranger and the guest. If the icon relates a divine economy, the absence of the human hosts also marks the manner of the divine economy and the demand it makes: that this God must be hosted, cared for, welcomed.

What Did Abraham Know?

What Did Abraham Know?

Matthew Turnbull

As Erich Auerbach noted in Mimesis, the biblical accounts often seem to us as mere adumbrations of their respective narratives (11).  The visit by the LORD to Abraham in Genesis 18 is, accordingly, an acutely spare account of an incident which is rendered in light of values not always obvious to the reader and (in our case as 21st century American readers) not always in harmony with our narrative norms and preferences. Whenever I read this account I want more information. The narrative generates as much darkness as light. Especially in view of the present thematic focus on hospitality, I finish the text with as many questions as insights. The most pressing one for me is this: Did Abraham think that one or all of the men were the LORD? If so, at what point did he comprehend that he was entertaining God? On the way to addressing these questions, it seems wise to consider how this passage is to be properly read.

Immediately, the first two verses of Genesis 18 present an interpretive problem for the reader. In verse one, the text says that “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” In verse two, it says that Abraham “looked up and saw three men standing near him.” The Hebrew word for “LORD” here is Jehovah or YAHWEH, the proper name for the God of the Israelites. In the second sentence, the phrase used to describe the subject of Abraham’s visitation is “three men.” There is an immediate tension created by this juxtaposition. How are we supposed to compare these two verses? Are the three men to be understood as the LORD?

On the initial reading of this chapter, it would seem that the LORD’s appearance to Abraham is in the form of three human visitors. While our readings on the Rublev icon—and the iconographic iterations of the visit to Abraham which historically precede Rublev’s rendition—clearly trace the logic of a Trinitarian, retrospective interpretation of this kind of epiphany (Bunge 46, 52, 89), it seems reasonable to wonder how an Old Testament believer in YAHWEH would have heard or read this. How would an Israelite recently emerged from the bondage of Egypt, camped at the foot of Sinai, hear and understand Moses’ account of this visit? In biblical context, by this point in Israel’s history, the notion of God as Trinity might only be discerned in the faintest sense, and possibly only by those who are viewing the text from the vantage of later revelation. In fact, this passage (if we are to interpret it so) is itself one of the earliest biblical foreshadowings of the Trinitarian idea. Thus, it is probable that an Israelite camped at Sinai would experience even more tension between verses one and two than I do. How should this tension be understood, much less addressed?

Perhaps the ostensible conflict between the idea of YAHWEH appearing to Abraham, and three men appearing to Abraham, can be resolved by framing the first verse as a heading for the narrative that follows. Is the opening sentence actually not the commencement of the story, but rather the way the author prepares his readers for the entire chapter (granting that the chapter breaks, of course, are not in the original text)? Under this view, there would seem to be a diminished dissonance between verse one and two. The first sentence announces the topic of the whole encounter. The second sentence is the actual starting place of the narrative and does not, at least initially, have to be read as the specific way that the Lord appeared to Abraham. The three men, then, are not necessarily epiphanic. Does this interpretation really work?

If we read the whole chapter under this notion, we are allowed to see the three men as simply men. Thus, the men Abraham sees when “he looked up” were three human beings. When Abraham says “My lord . . . do not pass by your servant” and offers to wash their feet and feed them, he is offering hospitality to three human strangers, not the LORD. When the men agree—“Do as you have said” (v. 5)—Abraham urges Sarah to hastily make cakes as he runs off to slaughter a calf and prepare the curds and milk. At the end of this first phase of the visit, the text says that the men ate the food Abraham had prepared (v. 8). So far, this interpretation adequately accounts for the details of the text. The interchange between Abraham and the men, the behavior of the men, seems quite natural.

But then, in verse 10, the text reads: “Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’” The focus in the text constricts from the initial three, to the “one.” After Sarah laughs at the practical difficulties associated with the fulfillment of this prophecy, the text grows even more specific: “The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh . . . Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?’” Now we see that the “one” who spoke the prophecy of Sarah’s future childbearing is, apparently, named in the text as the LORD Himself. Immediately, it becomes obvious that the attempt to ameliorate the interpretive tension by separating verse one from the following verses fails.

Furthermore, the tension is reestablished at the commencement of the next phase of the visit. The LORD announces a second and third foretelling. He declares that “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation” (v. 18), and then He declares that He is going to judge Sodom (vv. 20-21).  Given the significance of word choices in the account, does it seem reasonable to suppose that the three men are, corporately, the “appearance of the LORD” to Abraham? And, further, it would seem logical to assume that “one” of those men is labeled in the text as “the LORD.”

If we conclude this, there are still unresolved interpretive questions. If one of the men is actually “the LORD,” are we to assume that, since the Son will, in the future, become incarnate, “the LORD” here is a preincarnate manifestation of Christ? Moreover, what is the ontological status of the other two men? Are they, as the Rublev icon treats them, to be considered representative of the other members of the Trinity? Or are they just men? Or are they angels accompanying the LORD? I am inclined, based on other biblical passages to think they are angels. In Genesis 19, the two men are explicitly called “the two angels” (v. 1). And in Hebrews 13:2—in a clear allusion to Genesis 18—disciples of Jesus are called to show hospitality to strangers knowing that some (referring most famously to Abraham) have entertained angels without knowing it.

To return to the opening questions: did Abraham not know that he was entertaining angels? At what point did he realize that his three visitors were two angels and the LORD? It seems very apparent that he did know it at some point in the course of the visit, but we are left to speculate where that juncture occurs.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Bunge, Gabriel. The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007.

To Cross a Threshold: The Relationship between Hospitality and Place

Upon the arrival of their divine visitors, Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, and Lot at the gateway of Sodom.[i] Both were ready, and, it seems, waiting, to welcome those “others” at the threshold of their dwelling places. It is there, at the threshold, the boundary of their home or residence, where hospitality appears to become possible. Only from that place can Abraham and Lot get up as hosts and greet the others as guests face-to-face.

There is an emphasis on thresholds and boundaries in the introduction of Judith Still’s work Derrida and Hospitality, itself a kind of welcome and opening up to the topic of hospitality, which synthesizes the thought of Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and others. In the introduction, Still writes that hospitality in “theory and practice relates to crossing boundaries or thresholds” of a multitude of “overlapping territories.”[ii] These territories, she writes, range from the self and the other, the private and the public, the inside and the outside; territories that intersect but cannot be overlaid upon one another.[iii] It is because hospitality relates to crossing boundaries and thresholds that Derrida notes that hospitality is ethics “insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there.”[iv] While hospitality as ethics becomes complicated in relation to a politics of hospitality, a relationship of which Still and Derrida are mindful, less clear to me here is the relationship between hospitality and place, and the place of the threshold in particular.

As in Genesis 18 and 19, the threshold acts as the physical place wherein hospitality occurs or becomes feasible; conversely, it is also the threshold that can mark inhospitality—not all doors are open. Further, the threshold acts as a marker for the identities of the relations on either side of it: the host and the guest, the native and the foreigner, and, again, the self and the other. Still writes that hospitality, now as ethics, “regulates the relations” between the boundaries of those territories named above.[v] Hospitality may regulate the relations between those boundaries, but it also, according to Derrida, blurs those boundaries—blurs the boundaries of the spaces themselves, of the identities of those within them (e.g., l’hôtes), and of power and vulnerability.[vi] The threshold, then, becomes a place of transition and movement, an in-between, a crossing.

More than a few questions arise here. First, if the threshold is this place of transition, does it mark the beginning of hospitality? In other words, does hospitality begin at the threshold of the host? Is a delimited place, like a home, necessary for hospitality? Or, in contrast, does hospitality begin with the need of the other? Does it begin with exile? To offer an example of the thought behind this set of questions, in Luke 10, Jesus sends seventy disciples to proclaim the coming of kingdom of God. With nothing, they are to be the vulnerable others in need of hospitality; indeed, Jesus says they are to be sent “like lambs into the midst of wolves.”[vii] And yet, the disciples are also to be hosts of a kind, offering healing and the good news to those who welcome them. With this, does hospitality begin with the disciples’ commission, or does begin upon their entering a town or in the welcome of another’s home? Overall, where and how does hospitality take place and can hospitality be delimited?

Secondly, if a threshold does delimit hospitality, what is it that lies beyond the threshold and beyond the structure of hospitality? If hospitality blurs borders, as Derrida writes, what remains of the liminal spaces, of the identities and relationships in the wake of hospitality and the crossing of the threshold? Perhaps Derrida’s or Still’s answer to this would be that something like friendship would remain. If so, what would such friendship look like? How do we treat the difference that remains in the relationship? But, if not friends, what then?

Finally, to set this topic in a broader context, how might we consider the relationship between hospitality and place theologically? In her second chapter, Still quotes Louis Massignon, who writes that it is by hospitality, “and by this alone…that we cross the threshold of the Sacred.”[viii] For Massignon, Abraham, the Friend of God, modeled such hospitality. Yet, where else could we begin: Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Pentecost? What can we look to as thresholds of hospitality in the story of the relationship between God and God’s creation?  

[i] Genesis 18:1; 19:1 (NRSV).

[ii] Judith Still, Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 4.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Still, 7. Quoting Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 16-17.

[v] Still, 11.

[vi] Still, 27. Quoting Derrida, HJR, 73.

[vii] Luke 10:3.

[viii] Still, 71.

Considering Hospitality’s Relation to Christian Practice: Methods and Sources

“This custom [hospitality] functions as an effective bridge for evangelization and the unification of the early church.”[1]

“Having become, in the Spirit, the adopted son of the Father, the beholder ventures a shy look at the ultimate source of his own being…Inexhaustible fulness of life, so overflowing, that it can itself create a space for being that, even though not equal in being, yet has a share in its fulness of being through grace to which we have no right.”[2]

Arterbury’s article follows typical historical-critical method, making historical context—in this case, thought and practice about hospitality—essential to understanding the text. And helpfully so: whereas today hospitality typically stays between friends or family, Arterbury explains, ancient hospitality was offered to strangers, to unknown travelers, putting host and guest in vulnerable positions[3]—a fact important for understanding how the hospitality in Luke 10, Luke 24, and Acts 10 would have been understood.

What interests me, however, is how Arterbury’s method affects his understanding of hospitality’s relationship to Christianity. His key points primarily suggest how Christian practice in the texts fit hospitality as first-century people knew it, positioning hospitality as a guide and tool. The 70 in Luke 10 are to take the dependent position of a guest as they minister;[4] the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus listen, as good hosts do, and only after hosting him recognize Jesus;[5] Cornelius’s hospitality to Peter welcomes someone from a different region or culture, resulting in unification of Jews and Gentiles.[6] Correspondence allows Arterbury to make the conclusion in the epigraph above: ancient hospitality is used as a bridge for evangelization and for unification of the church.

The argument is admirably thoroughgoing, drawing detailed rather than facile relations between ancient hospitality customs and Christian practice in the texts. Belief that the divine can come in the guise of a stranger and the practice of forming an enduring covenant with some guests through the exchange of gifts in ancient hospitality help explain why it is crucial to evangelization that disciples receive hospitality.[7] Such details also provide generative insights and questions for the ethics of Christian hospitality. Ancient hospitality practices affirmed in scripture suggests we cannot conceive of ourselves as unaffected or invulnerable hosts when we welcome others, including nonbelievers. In what ways should we become more vulnerable in offering hospitality today? As hosts, how do we recognize the other’s vulnerable position without positioning ourselves above them? Approaching the text from the perspective of human practices as Arterbury does encourages fruitful attention to concrete details of our human interactions.

Standing alone, however, Arterbury’s method risks significant theological deficiencies. Missing are questions of how Christian theology and practice might challenge and transform our concepts of hospitality. One can forgive Arterbury for not venturing outside biblical studies’ familiar territory in a 6-page article, but the issue lurks just below the surface. In Arterbury’s reading of Acts 10, “Peter moves seamlessly from guest to host and back again while God provides the ‘gift’ that seals the permanent relationship.”[8] But if the gift is not Peter’s, to what extent can we rightfully speak of him as host? And when the “permanent relationship” between Jew and Gentile is not an agreement to host each other in passing but consistent table fellowship where all are blessed by receiving the Host, who hosts whom? These challenges spur important systematic questions about the role of human culture in Christian theological and ethical treatment of hospitality. What other sources might help us think hospitality in a more thoroughgoingly theological way?

Perhaps the Rublev Trinity, as Gabriel Bunge interprets it, suggests one. As Bunge documents, Rublev’s masterpiece emerges out of an iconographical tradition around the “Hospitality of Abraham” in Genesis 18. Over centuries, the primary focus of these icons became Trinitarian, so that by about 1000 A.D., Abraham and Sarah were often depicted between the three guests, their hospitality having become “an act of reverent worship of the Holy Trinity.”[9] Rublev follows a still further development: he omits Abraham and Sarah entirely, making all who faithfully behold the icon the worshippers.[10] Hospitality has turned to contemplative worship of the economic Trinity,[11] in which it seems our perspective of hospitality is itself turned over. As Bunge narrates, contemplation of the icon goes from one member of the Trinity to the others, past the chalice of the Son’s suffering to the Spirit that is given at Pentecost, drawing the beholder deeper into contemplation of the divine until the awesome recognition of the gift of the Spirit.[12] In effect, it seems the icon participates in the saving activity of God, welcoming us ever deeper into God’s life in contemplation. Welcoming God in worship, we find ourselves welcomed, and we realize God’s welcoming—in creation, in Christ’s death, in the gift of the Spirit—is in fact the one that came first.

Arterbury sees hospitality first as something used within God’s economy. It is an “effective bridge.” But perhaps we should also think of hospitality as God’s economy. As we participate in this economy, we ourselves offer others hospitality, but our hosting is never independent; the practice of Christian hospitality itself becomes a gift God gives continually as we are welcomed into the divine life.

Still, we can’t remain in theological contemplation—at some point we have to look away from the icon to the world around us if we are to actually offer hospitality to human others. In doing so, how do we balance attention to existing human practices of hospitality and attention to God’s economy as sources for ethical and theological thought about hospitality? And if we think of God’s economy as hospitality, how do we avoid making “hospitality” so expansive that its ethical import becomes vague? Concepts of hospitality as we know it do not seem quite capacious enough for Christian life, but they remain in some sense an essential consideration.


[1] Arterbury, “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts,” 26.

[2] Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, 110–11.

[3] Arterbury, “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts,” 20–21.

[4] Arterbury, 22–23.

[5] Arterbury, 24.

[6] Arterbury, 25. Admittedly, Arterbury is slightly ambivalent on this final point: he frames hospitality between Gentile and Jew as consistent with the ancient practice of hospitality overall but different from some Jewish practice of seeking hospitality only from other Jews.

[7] Arterbury, 21.

[8] Arterbury, 25.

[9] Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, 54.

[10] Bunge, 56.

[11] Bunge notes that icons cannot depict the inner workings of the Trinity but only the effects of its economy that are manifest to us. Bunge, 92.

[12] Bunge, 110–12. Note near-repetitions of phrases such as “Thought plunges deeper.”

Reading the Servant in Genesis 18

Traditional Christian art and iconography populate the hospitality-scene of Genesis 18 with anywhere from three to five figures. Always there are three mysterious strangers, these “men” (18:2), at least two of whom are “angels” (19:1), but at least one of whom is also somehow “the Lord” (18:1).[1] Frequently Abraham is depicted, offering the hospitality of his tent; and often, as in the text itself, Sarah is also included.[2] And this, we assume, is the full cast of characters.

However, a passing reference in Genesis itself briefly introduces a sixth character. As Abraham rushes to prepare for his unexpected guests, he takes “a calf, tender and good, and [gives] it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it” (18:7, emphasis added). The minor character status of this “servant” is underscored by the diminutive word used (Rober Alter translates it “the lad”[3]), by the character’s anonymity, and most of all by the way he vanishes again, not just from the scene, but even from the chain of events, one verse later: “Then he [Abraham] took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them…” (18:8, emphasis added). The servant’s work of preparation is subsumed into Abraham’s work, and he disappears from the story.

Historically speaking, the presence of a servant is unsurprising. A wealthy nomadic patriarch or familial leader like Abraham would certainly have a large extended household. Just a few chapters earlier he rallies 318 “trained men, born in his house,” for a military rescue operation (14:14). We should probably imagine “the tent” mentioned in Genesis 18 surrounded by many others. Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine Abraham not delegating some of the tasks of preparation. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that he and Sarah between them apparently do so much of the work themselves. Nevertheless, it is not immediately obvious why the narrator would introduce this additional character only to dismiss him moments later. Especially if his work of preparation counts as Abraham’s own work, why mention the servant at all? I want to suggest three possible readings of this glimpsed and immediately hidden figure.

One reading is that this aspect of the text reveals—in the midst of a story about encountering the “other”—a profound inability to see an “other” who is actually part of Abraham’s day to day life. The introduction of a sixth character is troubling, because he is seemingly mentioned only to be erased; and erased not only by Abraham’s actions, but by the narrative itself. On this reading, Abraham appropriates the labors of his servant; he is, to follow Judith Still’s lead and borrow Derrida’s words, “the familial despot.”[4] The author of Genesis 18 could be seen as complicit in this appropriation; however, it is also possible to see the text itself inviting such a critique of its apparent hero. The hint comes a few verses later, when the visitors specifically draw attention to the invisibility of Sarah, who has remained in the tent: “Where is your wife Sarah?” (18:9). She, as much as he, is the rightful recipient of the word of promise they bring. Perhaps they are subtly exposing and confronting Abraham’s own inability to see clearly, not only the divine presence arriving hidden in his guests, but also the possibility of God’s work through members of his own household.

However, a second and very different reading is also possible. The introduction of Abraham’s servant need not be negative, any more than the father of the “prodigal son” in Jesus’ parable is necessarily the subject of critique when he instructs his servants to prepare a feast to welcome his lost-and-restored younger child home (Luke 15:22-23). Indeed, the mention of the servant’s labors could, as in Jesus’ parable, underscore the lavishness of Abraham’s hospitality. Not just one man, or one aging couple, but an entire nomadic household extends a welcome to these three strangers.

From this perspective, we might consider whether this passing mention of the unnamed servant can be read in a positive way with regards to the servant himself. Just as Sarah, though invisible within the tent (albeit in earshot), is specifically included by the visitors’ questions and promise, so also the servant could be read as a stand-in for the rest of Abraham’s coterie, suggesting that the divine acts of inclusion and promise somehow extend to them as well. Even unnamed, they are drawn into the story. Earlier, God promised that, through Abraham, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This interpretation underscores that the expansive nature of this blessing begins with Abraham’s own household. The servant participates—indeed, his work plays an essential role—in welcoming God.

A third, more spiritual or Christological reading might take up this last point to underscore the graced nature of the entire encounter. Every divine self-revelation to Abraham in Genesis is initiated by God. Here the Lord gives Abraham an opportunity to invite three mysteriously angelic-divine visitors to dinner. But Abraham alone cannot accomplish this act of hospitality. He relies on Sarah and the anonymous servant (and perhaps others who go unmentioned). This is grace at every level: grace inviting Abraham to serve God, but also grace providing the aid he needs to do so.

Early Christian readers saw a Christophany in the mysterious strangers. This third approach might seek a similar element in the mysterious servant, who humbly empties himself of any attention or significance, whose work makes Abraham’s own service to God possible, who prepares the animal that Byzantine Christians linked with an “Old Testament type of Christ’s sacrifice,”[5] and who thus transforms death into a feast. Read in this way, the anonymous sixth character in the story hints at a theme that the New Testament will take up with zeal: God’s unexpected arrival in the “familiar other,” in the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” the Lord Jesus (Philippians 2:7).

This, in turn, could arrive (from the opposite direction) at something like our first reading. On this interpretation we, the readers, are being invited to see God where he might least be expected. This is divine self-revelation in the ordinary and often-unrecognized work of people like Sarah and the unnamed servant: Christ made known in the baking of the bread (see Luke 24:35).


[1] I am using the New Revised Standard translation.

[2] Father Gabriel Bunge describes the historical development of iconographic imagery based on this story in The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev, translated by Andrew Louth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 54-56.

[3] Rober Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, (York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 86. Though the “servant” or “lad” is anonymous, the form of the Hebrew word [na’ar] seems to specify a male referent; accordingly, I will use masculine pronouns.

[4] Judith Still, Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 67.

[5] Bunge, 55.

Hospitality and Violence in Genesis 18

Unit 1 Blog: Theology of Hospitality

Andrew Ronnevik

Passing strangers, passing peace; promised son, promised destruction; proffered shelter, proffered virgin daughters: in the Old Testament account of Abraham, Sarah, the three visitors, Lot and his family, and the people of Sodom, hospitality and violence clash and interweave. Judith Still, in her reading of Derrida on hospitality, attends to this dissonance, especially in terms of politics, ethics, and sexuality. She leaves somewhat open, however, theological questions of the violence at work in the hospitable encounter between divine and human.

The jarring conjunction arises insofar as hospitality involves a penetration of the self by the other: “Hospitality implies letting the other in to oneself, to one’s own space – it is invasive of the integrity of the self, or the domain of the self. This is why it may be seen as both foundational . . . and dangerous.”(1) For Derrida, this encounter with the other takes shape through violence: it “supposes a reception or inclusion of the other which one seeks to appropriate, control, and master according to different modalities of violence.”(2) The dynamic of forceful and forcible hospitality is disturbingly performed in the two Old Testament stories that Still examines in conversation with Derrida (Genesis 19 and Judges 19), where male hosts do violence to women for the sake of maintaining the code of hospitality with their male guests.(3)

Still approaches these glaring instances of violent hospitality through the foregrounding story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three men who appear in Genesis 18, and I follow her lead here, exploring hospitable violence both in the registers that she proposes and in a further theological key.

The LORD appears to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre with an abruptness in keeping with that of Genesis 12, when Abram is suddenly confronted by the divine call to leave home and family in order to go where God would show him (this initial encounter, too, could be examined in terms of Abram’s hospitality to the Stranger’s call, which radically disrupted – did violence to – his life and his family’s). The first eight verses of chapter 18, a scene of “classic” hospitality – eager welcome, ample provision – do not display explicit violence, though Abraham certainly acts as the “master of the house” who “represents [the laws of hospitality] and submits to them to submit the others to them.” Does Abraham enact these laws in the “violence of the power of hospitality,” as Derrida discusses in connection with Genesis 19 and Judges 19?(4) No doubt, Abraham exploits his power with the household to carry out the hospitality he offers his guests; this is seen in the ways in which Sarah and the servant fulfill Abraham’s commands in Genesis 18:6-7. Further, his stature as generous patriarch-benefactor is built up and maintained through his ability to provide swiftly and well for the trio of strangers.

Perhaps the more pressing violence, though, occurs in the subsequent response to the initial hospitality. Having been refreshed by the ministrations of their generous host, Abraham’s three polite guests become disruptive heavenly immigrants (5) who demonstrate the incursion of the other and the reversibility of the roles of guest and host.(6) “Where is your wife Sarah?” they ask in v. 9. Here, the outworking of hospitality is intensified and enlarged, for Sarah, who has been laboring at the periphery, inside the tent or at its entrance (v. 10), is brought into the exchange typically reserved only for male participants who engage in the “the sacred bond of shared consumption between men.”(7) Sarah, who up to now has not been directly privy to Abraham’s conversations with God, is brought into the dialogue for the first time (though her voice remains marginal, as she stays at the border of the tent and is directly addressed only in response to her denial, “I did not laugh” [v. 15]). The boundaries of hospitality-exchange are pressed.

The warm initial hospitality of the first verses is now revealed as prefatory to the real purpose of this visitation: the visitors promise – and perhaps thus effect? – the birth of a son to the old couple (v. 10). The gifts of hospitality flow back to the initial hosts, who are rendered as guests by the strange proclamation. A sort of violence is done to the couple, though it is more chastening and fruitful than destructive. The shell of bitterness that surrounds Sarah and Abraham after their long-disappointed hopes is cracked open; the inertia of sterility and infertility is battered into motion by the encroaching promise. The defined, enclosed selves of Sarah and Abraham – menopausal, impotent, resigned – are breached by the dangerous guests. It is not clear that the aged couple is “letting the other in”(8); rather, the guests wrest control away from the hosts and take center position(9); the three guests have increased, and Abraham and Sarah have decreased (cf. John 3:30).

What does it mean for a human creature to be hospitable to God or for God to extend hospitality to a creature? Surely for the human, and perhaps even for the divine guest-host, Still’s initial insight – “[hospitality] is invasive of the integrity of the self”(10) – holds true, for the preliminary formalities of hospitality give way to such changes that “things will never be the same again once the [others] are allowed in.”(11)

Notes (In-text numbers with parentheses are used instead of superscript)
(1) Judith Still, Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 13.
(2) Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 17; quoted in Still, 13.
(3) Chapter 2 of Still; Genesis 19 is examined in ibid., 67-73.
(4) Ibid., 67.
(5) Ibid., 13.
(6) Ibid., 72.
(7) Ibid., 67.
(8) Ibid., 13.
(9) Indeed, in the Rublev Trinity, Abraham and Sarah no longer even appear in the icon. “[Rublev] will also renounce Abraham and Sarah. . . . They have become superfluous.” Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 56.
(10) Still, 13.
(11) Ibid.