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).

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[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.

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