What Did Abraham Know?
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.