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.

One thought on “Hospitality and Violence in Genesis 18

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *