In the most recent post in this series on Knowing God, I talked about the strange stories in the Scriptures about what it’s like for humans to meet God, and how these stories all resort to playful, or even nonsensical, use of language to get across just how much of a jumbled and contradictory paradox encountering the infinite God always is. Today I want to zoom in on one of those stories, the Hospitality of Abraham, to see what it might say to us about knowing God.
The story, found in the first half of Genesis 18, begins:
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.”
The identity of Abraham’s guest(s) flips back and forth throughout the story. “The LORD appeared” to him, but it’s three strangers Abraham sees and welcomes. In the conversation that follows, the focus keeps shifting between Abraham’s discussion with his one God and his hospitable address to the three.
We, of course, have no way of knowing what exactly transpired here. The story — for all its detail about Abraham’s hospitality — is sparse in its discussion of what Abraham encountered of God. But it’s clear from the story that in inviting three strangers to share his shade, water and food, Abraham met God in a real and life-changing way. This mysterious encounter with God in three strangers actualized not only the rest of Abraham and Sarah’s story, but also the whole story of the Bible.
This is a passage that’s well worth a closer look, so I’d like to do that now through my five-step integral framework, which looks at: my experience of the text, who we encounter in the text, what the scholarship has to say about the text, what cultural and ethical challenges we find in the text, and how the reading that emerges from these steps leads to spiritual growth.
As someone who spent time in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I bring a lot of baggage with me to this text. It is a favorite story in the Eastern tradition: Families often display an icon of it in their dining rooms as a reminder of the virtue of hospitality. This icon later provided the basic composition for Rublev’s famous icon representing the Trinity. The jarring back-and-forth between oneness and threeness in the story was simply too juicy for Christians not to see as a foretaste of the later revelation of God as triune, three-in-one and one-in-three.
And so, it’s hard for me to see the story with fresh eyes. It’s not surprising then that it was these two themes — hospitality and the strange ‘blurred vision’ between oneness and threeness — that stuck out once again.
But this reading left me wanting more. What’s actually going on with the three visitors? How does Abraham’s hospitality connect to the theophany?
The Encounter section didn’t really add much to my reading this time around. As I’ve mentioned before, Genesis doesn’t go much into the interior life — the thoughts, feelings, and motivations — of its characters. And this is especially true of Abraham. He is presented entirely through his actions: Here, he is the perfect Near Eastern host, who goes above and beyond what is expected of him in welcoming the strangers. We see more in this story of Sarah, who is presented as every bit the strong, sarcastic, and opinionated matriarch we encounter elsewhere in Genesis. But this doesn’t help in diving deeper into the mystery of the theophany.
Looking at the narrator is more helpful. What stood out to me here is how, while the theophany has struck Jewish and Christian readers as remarkable for thousands of years, the narrator is not remotely fussed about it. This is what is expected of Abraham’s God. This reminded me of just how old the story is. If we think about the framework of cultural evolution proposed by Integral theorists (see the figure below), the Abraham story cycle seems to fit best at the cusp between the Magical and the Mythical-Literal stages: the scope of God’s relationship is the kin group (Abraham and his family), this relationship is marked by established ritual (the sign of circumcision, which was only just introduced in the previous chapter), and the story has no issue at all with God casually visiting a devotee, eating and drinking, in the flesh.
With this in mind, the story’s lack of interest in the fact that God ate and drank with Abraham makes sense contextually. The fact of the theophany is not unusual then, from the internal perspective of the text — only the shifting between oneness and threeness.
It is also striking that this theophany is placed in between Abraham’s receipt of the covenant of circumcision in chapter 17 and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 18. This story intentionally acts as a bridge between the two: it looks back by actualizing the promise that Sarah will have a son, and forward in the conversation the visitors have about whether to let Abraham in on the plan to destroy Sodom.
If we read the text of Genesis as it’s been given to us, the theme of hospitality seems to be the tie that binds all of this together: Abraham has just been marked out by God for a special relationship and yet his first act after this is promised is to welcome strangers; and this hospitality stands in sharp contrast to the ‘welcome’ the same visitors receive at the hands of the men of Sodom. And in this act of hospitality Abraham meets God.
Could it be as simple as this?
Before I settle on the simplest reading of the text, there are a number of lines of thought I want to explore in the critical scholarship.
Confusion of Number
The confusion of number, what I referred to earlier as the text’s “blurred vision,” is often commented upon in both ancient and modern scholarship. It is referred to by contemporary scholars as a “shift back and forth,” a “fluidity,” and “oscillation;” it is “wondrous and puzzling,” and a “deliberate ambiguity.” Victor P. Hamilton notes that, while the confusion of number is unique to this passage, fluidity between God and angelic messengers is very common in the Scriptures. This in turn reminded me of a much later Jewish idea that refers to angels as “God’s thoughts,” which cannot easily be distinguished from their source. This is also reminiscent of the understanding of God’s Word and God’s Spirit as being divine, which — like the oscillation in number here — fed into early Christian trinitarianism. So there is a long history in our tradition of God having, for lack of a better expression, fuzzy boundaries: Where God begins and where God ends in these kinds of encounters has never been discernable.
Another idea mentioned with respect to the confusion of number is how basics of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary contribute to a multiplicity of possibilities here. In Hebrew, the grammatical plural can be used as a superlative; and so the common word for God, ‘elohim, is a grammatical plural (meaning literally something like ‘mighty ones’), as is the word for Lord as a title for God, ‘adonai, (meaning ‘my lords’). This has proven to be confusing in this story, even among giants of Jewish biblical interpretation, such as Maimonides (who assumed ‘adonai in v.3 refers to God), and Rashi and Ibn Ezra (who believed it referred to the three guests).
While this discussion doesn’t help to explain the confusion of number, it at least demonstrates that the problem is inherent to the text itself and isn’t simply the result of overactive Christian imaginations. There is no perfect solution. It remains, then, a mystery, shrouded in obscurity. But this need not be a barrier for us. As W.M. Alston Jr. summarized, “Obscurity is story’s way of telling us the truth about this God … by reminding us of God’s hiddenness …and of the impossible possibilities that are open to all who believe.”
Even if the fact of God’s appearing to Abraham accompanied by two angels — the most literal reading of the story — is taken at face value, it remains for us to ask how it was that Abraham perceived God in the visitors and what that might mean for us today.
This is hardly a new question, and by starting with “And the LORD appeared to him,” the story itself is set up for us to ask it. The hearer/reader knows what’s happening before Abraham does. As Leon R. Kass notes, this creates narrative tension: “Will Abraham be able to see for himself what the reader has had to be told? Will Abraham be able to discern the presence of the Lord in the person of these strangers?” These questions focus the attention away from the theophany itself and toward Abraham’s ability to perceive it. To frame it a bit differently, it changes our story from a miracle of divine revelation to a miracle of human perception.
This line of thought, as it turns out, has an ancient pedigree. Origen, in the third century, noted that “Abraham’s vision and sharpness of sight pleased the Lord. For he was pure in heart so that he could see God” (Hom Gen 4.3). More recently, Hamilton has noted the importance of the expression “he lifted up his eyes and saw” (which is often translated simply as ‘saw’ in our English Bibles) as an idiom that implies more than simple sight, but rather a “conscious intellectual decision” that “may take the form of an understanding that arises out of the sight.” (The same expression will be used when Abraham sees the ram caught in the thicket as he is about to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22.13.)
Turning the story in this way into a miracle of perception is helpful for us today, since, if we truly believe that God is infinite and “everywhere present and filling all things,” then everything has the capacity for us to be a theophany if our perceptions are tuned, like Abraham’s, to see it.
This is particularly true of the possibility of experiencing God in other people, since, the human form is made in God’s image. As Christians, we would go even further and say that the human form has been fully sanctified — and even divinized — through the Incarnation, in which God’s eternal Wisdom, Word, and Power lived a fully human life. So not only do we all carry something of God in our very nature, but God has acted to fill that nature with divinity, making the human form a particularly appropriate vessel through which we might encounter God.
This brings us tantalizingly back to the story’s major theme: hospitality.
Hospitality as Theophany
The importance of hospitality in the Ancient Near East is well known and so it comes as no surprise that there is scholarly consensus that the story cannot be understood outside of this context. In a dry climate and often desolate landscape, resources of water, food, and shelter were precious, and generosity was a matter of life and death. This explains the detail the story gives to Abraham’s hospitality: The narrator thinks nothing of Abraham dining with God yet thinks it’s of utmost importance that we know what he served for dinner, the speed at which he had it prepared, and the gracious humility with which he offered it.
While there is unanimity among biblical scholars that Abraham’s hospitality is the key to his experience of God here, there is a great diversity of opinions as to how this might be. For example, Hamilton notes that Psalm 23 describes salvation itself in terms of receiving divine hospitality:
“God is the host: we sit at the table he has prepared while a hapless enemy looks on. Thus Ps. 23 pictures God as shepherd and host. Both metaphors suggest the idea of providing for the physical needs of another and providing for the protection of those for whom the host is responsible.”
Reading between the lines here, Hamilton is arguing that the act of hospitality becomes a theophany because within that act Abraham demonstrates how his character is like God’s.
Alternatively, Nahum M. Sarna suggests that in this story, the hospitality to strangers takes the place of the construction of altars that normally accompany theophanies in Genesis; this parallelism implies, he argues, that hospitality is itself the act of worship in this story. As evidence for this perspective, he quotes the Talmud, which says, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Shab. 127a).
Kass, for his part, notes the placement of Abraham’s hospitality in between two promises of the birth of Isaac and wonders if this isn’t a kind of test from God to see if Abraham will fall into the danger of chauvinism as a result of God’s choosing him: “Because God’s covenant with Abraham is ultimately for the sake of bringing the blessings of righteousness and holiness to all human beings, his privileged relationship with the Lord must not lead Abraham (or his clan) to xenophobia, undue ‘homophilia’ [i.e. love of those who are the same as you], or injustice.” If this is true, then Abraham passes the test easily, going above and beyond to welcome the strangers into his life and home.
Lastly, Claus Westermann picks up on the theme of the image of God in the strangers: “One who comes as a stranger is honored because a dignity may be his without there being need of any external signs thereof.”
All of these explanations have something helpful to add to the equation of understanding the relationship between hospitality and knowing God. It is a way of breaking down the barriers between insiders and outsiders, of demonstrating that we are bound by something greater than blood, nationality, or religious identity. It is a way of showing that our hearts and intentions are aligned with God’s. And in this, it is an act of worship — of reaching out beyond ourselves and our limited perspective and seeing the worth and beauty in another, both for their humanity and the image of God they bear.
As we leave the ‘explore’ phase, a coherent reading of the story is starting to emerge. Abraham had a strange encounter in which in welcoming three strangers he experienced the presence of God. However we may conceive of this — God and two companions, three angels acting as God’s messengers, or the image of God in three human visitors — Abraham was able to experience this event as a theophany because he had ‘eyes to see’; his ‘election’ by God did not blind him to the needs of others but rather he was able to demonstrate that God had chosen well by reaching out and bringing outsiders in.
But before we settle on this interpretation, it’s important to ask our ‘challenge’ questions to ensure as much as we can that we aren’t walking with blinders on.
This section brings a postmodern critical eye to both the text and our emerging interpretation of it. Let’s take the questions in turn:
How do the text and my reading of it intersect with my cultural context?
While it hadn’t been on my mind when I started this process, I can’t help but see now how relevant this story is in our present moment. Issues of insiders and outsiders, welcoming vs. wall-building, and our responsibilities to strangers, foreigners, refugees are some of the leading social and political issues of our day. In this way, the emerging interpretation of the text poses a significant challenge to the comfort of Western society. Will we be able to meet the challenge of radical, sacrificial generosity of Abraham’s example?
How might the culture of origin influence the text?
The study has already touched on some of the ways the text’s culture of origin impacts the story, particularly the religious worldview and the importance of hospitality in the Ancient Near East. In terms of the broader cultural world of the Hebrew Bible, there are two decidedly different trends that are in tension with one another when it comes to how the people of God are to engage with those outside the covenant: the trend towards isolation from other nations (seen especially in the conquest narratives and Ezra-Nehemiah) and positive engagement with foreigners (e.g., the protections in the Law for foreigners living among the Israelites, the kinship between Israel and many of her neighbours and rivals, and the call for Abraham’s descendants to bless all the nations of the world). This story falls decidedly into the second of these trends.
Who isn’t being heard in the story or our interpretation of it?
When it comes to stories from the Hebrew Bible, I feel it’s always helpful to look at Jewish readings as well as what the Christian tradition has done with the text. (While I have several sources I like to go to for accessible and insightful Jewish readings of Scripture, this time around the most helpful ones were all reflections from ReformJudaism.org. A grateful shout out to them for their beautiful work!)
One of the strongest threads in Jewish interpretation of this text is to tie it explicitly to Abraham’s receiving the covenant of circumcision in the previous chapter. Specifically the idea is that “one mitzvah [covenant responsibility] leads to another.” In this reading, Abraham has received the mitzvah of circumcision, which then creates the mitzvah for God to visit him in his recovery, which then elicits the further mitzvah in Abraham of hospitality. This interpretation highlights the fact that God’s appearance to Abraham here is not a one-off thing, but is part of ongoing relationship, a relationship in which both of them have responsibilities to one another.
Another line of thought picks up on the idea of Abraham’s perceptiveness discussed in the Explore section. The theologian Franz Rosenzweig calls Abraham “the religious man par excellence for he sees God in the human situation.” Again, the idea is that the miracle is not that God was present in Abraham’s visitors but that Abraham had the capacity “to feel God’s presence in an everyday experience.” As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God dwells wherever we let God in.” It was Abraham’s openness to God as evidenced by his life of prayer, worship and meditation that allowed him, in the words of Rabbi Charles Kroloff, “to be open to the possibility of surprise, of transcendence, of the other.” Rabbi Pamela Wax summarizes this idea beautifully:
“Perhaps it was because of Abraham’s communion with God that he was able to offer hospitality so willingly and openheartedly. Let us understand Abraham’s fulfillment of the mitzvah of hospitality as the direct result of God’s revelation to him, for the goal of holy silence is not a withdrawal from community in favor of a relationship only with God but rather a fuller, more loving engagement with community, informed by one’s relationship with God.”
What I’m seeing here is that all of these steps are circling around the same ideas: that hospitality is the key to Abraham’s theophany because it is only through the openhearted attitude that it demonstrates that one can see the world accurately enough to encounter God.
Finally, we check our interpretation against our integral criteria: Does it encourage growth? Does it expand our circle of empathy? Does it encourage us to bring more into our awareness? And how does it impact other people and the world around us?
The interpretation that has emerged in this exercise passes these questions with flying colours. It encourages growth by taking us out of ourselves and reorienting us towards others. It expands our circle of empathy by tearing down the walls dividing ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. It brings more into awareness by suggesting that any encounter can in fact be an experience of God. And it positively impacts the world around us by making us more attuned to the needs of others.
This process has proven to be a surprise once again. It is still unquestionably a strange story: Abraham is visited in the flesh by God, and the original premise with which I approached the text — that the “blurred vision” of oneness and threeness is a way the text demonstrates how truly encountering God stretches our language and intellectual capacity beyond its limits — remains intact.
And yet, the focus of the text on hospitality — that Abraham’s welcoming of strangers provided the context for the theophany — opens us up to another deep truth, and one that is perhaps more relevant and challenging for our day-to-day life. Because it shows that being in relationship with one another always carries the capacity for theophany; for in welcoming one another we are welcoming the image of God. This insight adds further meat to Jesus’ saying, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them: He is not just mystically present but actually present in the other’s flesh.
To conclude this (lengthy) exercise, let’s open our hearts in the prayer: May God grant us eyes to see God in the faces of friend and stranger. Amen.
Arnold, Bill T. Genesis. The new Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.
Hartley, John E. Genesis. New International Biblical Commentary, Old Testament Series. Peabody, Mass. Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2000.
Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis*.*** New York: Free Press, 2003.
Kessler, Martin, and Karel Deurloo. A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings. New York: Paulist Press, 2004.
Klein, Zoe. “Hearing the Silent, Seeing the Invisible.” ReformJudaism.org. [https://reformjudaism.org/hearing-silent-seeing-invisible.](https://reformjudaism.org/hearing-silent-seeing-invisible)
Kroloff, Charles A. “A Visit from the Eternal.” ReformJudaism.org. https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/vayeira/visit-eternal.
McKeown, James. Genesis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.
Ra, Simcha, and Edward Levin, eds. The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk. Northvale, NJL Jason Aronson, 1995.
Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis: the traditional Hebrew text with new JPS translation / commentary by Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia: The Jewisih Publication Society, 1989.
Sheridan, Mark, ed. Genesis 12-50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002. [ACCS]
Westermann, Claus. Trans. John J. Scullion, S.J. Genesis 12-36: A Commentary. Minneapolis, Minn: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985.