I discuss the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre and the conversation concerning the destruction of Sodom.
Welcome back to this, the eighth of my series on the story of Abraham. We have arrived at chapter 18, in which Abraham is about to be visited by three figures.
The setting of this chapter is significant. It occurs shortly after the events of the preceding chapter, within the ninety-ninth year of Abraham’s life. There is a setting of the scene provided in the first verse: it is by the oak—or the terebinth tree—of Mamre. Mamre is an important site. Abraham has already built an altar there at Mamre, near Hebron. And there are two other details that are given to us. He is sitting in the tent door. The tent door is associated with the boundary, the liminal realm, the place where you cross over from one realm to another. It is associated with birth; it is also associated with death. Important things happen at the door. It is where transitions occur. Later on we will see that Sarah is also at the door of her tent.
What happens at the door elsewhere? Jephthah’s daughter comes out of the door of the house first. Jephthah’s vow is associated with the doors of his house; it is what first comes of the body of the house. And the body and the house—or the tent—are very closely associated with each other. This is something that we will see at various points in Scripture. The symbolism of the body is associated with the symbolism of the tent and the door, and we will see our bodies described as like tents or tabernacles. The body can also be described as a temple.
Those connections help us to understand the significance of the door. The child opens the doors of the womb, as we see within Exodus 13 and the law of the firstborn. We will see the way that, at significant points, when there is prophecy concerning birth or death, there will often be the setting of the person hearing that prophecy in the doorway—as the liminal realm between two different realms. Liminal realms are important within Scripture. Another example of liminal realms are water crossings: the river crossing, the crossing of the Red Sea between Egypt and slavery within Egypt, and the time within the wilderness; or the crossing of the Jordan into the land; the crossing of the ford of the Jabbok, where Jacob’s name is confused—the letters of his name mixed up in the word ‘Jabbok’—and he receives a new name: ‘Israel’. Later on in the Pentateuch, Israel is described as having crossed over the River (Euphrates), having worshiped other gods on the other side of the River.
These liminal realms are literally the borders that define the land of Israel, but they are also the borders that help Israel to define its identity over against other identities. And those crossing points are the liminal regions where Israel’s identity transitions. This chapter itself marks a significant realm of transition: from the death of Sarah’s womb and of Abraham’s body, and entering into the life that occurs after that.
It happens at the heat of the day. This is the middle of the day. [This is something I got wrong in the previous one of these talks, where I talked about the darkness setting being symbolically present for the whole of the period until the sun rises over Sodom. That is not actually the case. There is bright sunlight here, and that is contrasted with the darkness of the events in Sodom, which occur later in the evening and at night. What happens here is during the middle of the day.]
The visitors arrive and Abraham sees them. The emphasis upon sight is noteworthy: he lifts up his eyes, and he looks, and behold—three references to sight. The three men are before him. He runs from his tent door to meet them and bows himself toward the ground. He begs them to stay and receive his hospitality. The theme of hospitality here is very important. “Entertaining angels unawares”—mentioned in the Book of Hebrews—is expressed here in very literal form.
Abraham displays great hospitality here and it is juxtaposed with what we see in the story of Sodom. Sodom is a place that is devoid of hospitality—indeed, it is a place where we see quite the opposite of hospitality. They are characterized by hostility and violence to the people who visit: whether that is the sojourner of Lot or whether it is the angelic visitors who come, whom they seek to rape. In both of those instances there is a stark contrast to what Abraham displays here. Elsewhere, in the story of Ezekiel, we will see the way that Sodom’s sin is described as the lack of hospitality; the treatment of the visitors is the committing of abomination. And this is not excluding their sexual sin—it is associated with that in various ways. But it is a more general society of violent inhospitality and hostility.
And that is characterizing them in juxtaposition with Abraham, who is shown to be a person of great, indeed, excessive hospitality. For instance, the measures of flour that he calls Sarah to bake cakes with are huge measures of flour. Likewise, the calf that he brings forth and all these other things that he provides for them: he is giving them a most bountiful feast. He is showing them the very utmost hospitality. We will see hospitality being shown later on in the story of Sodom and Lot, but that is hospitality of a very different type, and it is hospitality that has some sort of resonances of a very different sort of meal. We will get to that in my next talk on this next week.
Who are the three visitors? It is not entirely clear that Abraham knows who these visitors are until later on. At this point, he may just think that they are human figures who are walking and needing some sort of sustenance. But later on we will see that they are angelic figures, something I will get to in a moment. At this point, maybe the identity is revealed as they ask for Sarah by name. Has he actually told them Sarah’s name? Presumably they have heard it, but he may not know. When he is asked about the presence of Sarah, she is in the tent, and she is in the tent door.
And then there is a shift. It says, “And they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘Here, in the tent.’” It goes on to say, “And he said, ‘I will certainly return to your according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son’ (And Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him).” The shift from ‘they’ to ‘he’—that shift is a significant one. There is a suggestion here that one of the visitors is the Lord himself—the Angel of the Lord—the Angel of God who has come to declare the promise. This is something that will help us to read the later part of this passage. We have two angels, and we have the Angel of the Lord; God himself has come to declare this promise.
Later on in this chapter, Abraham stays and talks with the Lord while the visitors go on. And there are two angels that arrive at Sodom. So, there are three visitors. One is the Angel of the Lord, we are to presume. And he tarries with Abraham and talks with Abraham concerning Sodom, while the other two angels go on to Sodom. This helps us to understand that, contrary to Rublev’s icon and other accounts of this particular narrative, the three visitors are not, in fact, the Trinity. What we have here are two angels and the Angel of the Lord.
Sarah laughs when she hears the declaration that she will have a child. She laughs and she says, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” She is post-menopausal. She is someone who is not expecting to find pleasure in sexual relations with her husband. Her husband is old too; he is not expecting to have children. And this is something that is a cause of laughter. Now, this can easily be read just as an example of unbelief. I do not think it is just that.
I do not think that Sarah is being rebuked for unbelief here. Rather, I think that she is fearful; she recognizes that this is not just a human visitor. But the response of the visitor—the Angel of the Lord—is to say, “But you did laugh!” Essentially, he is insisting: “Own the fact! You did laugh!” And it is not inappropriate to laugh. The name of the child will be called “laughter,” because there is something appropriate about that laughter. His life will be defined by a sort of laughter, a turning of the tables, an unexpected surprise.
This is not what Sarah was expecting, and laughter was fitting in the circumstances. She should own that laughter. She should recognize that that is the way that she should respond to that news—not with a laughter of disbelief, but with a laughter of surprise and astonishment that this should be the case: that someone in her condition, someone who was completely beyond hope of bearing a child, should be rendered fruitful. This is an appropriate cause of laughter indeed! And indeed, when she names the child ‘Isaac,’ she does own that laughter. That laughter becomes the name of her child, the defining characteristic that marks his story and what follows.
The promise is that ‘according to the time of life’ she will have a son. This is a significant expression. It is something that we also have with the annunciation event in the story of 2 Kings 4, where the Shunammite woman is told that she will have a son: that story is very similar to the story of Issac. Within a year, she will have a son. The child in that story dies. The expression is used in the same way in these two chapters and helps us, I think, to see a very important connection between these stories. Also, given the way that the figure of the woman becomes more prominent within the story of the Shunammite son, it helps us to interpret Sarah’s part in the story of Isaac. I might get into that in a later video, when we talk about the binding of Isaac. But Isaac and the Shunammite son are very closely-related figures: both miraculous children and both children that, in some sense, are brought back from the dead.
After there has been this announcement of the birth of the child and the laughter that will be associated with that, the men rise and look towards Sodom, and they move towards Sodom. Abraham goes with them, to send them on their way. But then God has an internal dialogue, as it were. “And the Lord said”—as if speaking to himself—“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he might command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has spoken to him.”
This is a very, very significant passage. It is a passage that explains the reasons for God’s calling of Abraham and the particular ways that Abraham will receive the promise that God has designed for him: “For I have known him, in order that he might command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has spoken to him.” So, the means by which God will fulfil his promise to Abraham is through Abraham’s ministering and keeping the way of the Lord, and ministering to his children afterwards, and his raising of a faithful family. This is the means by which God will fulfill his purpose to make Abraham a blessing.
Abraham is going to be an influence. Abraham is going to raise a faithful family. And as he raises a faithful family, God will bring to pass what he has promised concerning Abraham. And all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. The fact that God is going to bless the nations of the world in Abraham is also something that gives some sense of why God talks to him concerning the fate of Sodom. If Abraham is going to be a blessing to all the nations of the world, then Abraham can intercede for Sodom. He can be a blessing by speaking on behalf of the city that seems to be about to be destroyed. Is he able to be a blessing in this situation? What will it mean to be a blessing? Can he influence this situation, this situation that seems to be lost?
There are also other things going on here. God is conferring with Abraham concerning what he is planning to do. Elsewhere in Scripture it makes clear that God does not do these things without conferring with his prophets. Abraham is a seer. He is also a prophet. He is someone who is part of the divine counsel. God deliberates with Abraham, and that deliberation with Abraham is a sign that Abraham is part of God’s purposes, that he is a participant in God’s plan. He is not just someone who is at the receiving end of God’s purposes, but someone who is part of deliberations concerning what God is about to do.
Other things to note: he is to keep the way of the Lord. Where else have we seen an expression similar to this? In reference to the cherubim, who keep the way to the tree of life. Could there be a connection here? There may just be: the keeping of the way of the Lord is keeping the way to the tree of life. And if Abraham keeps the way, there is an entrance back to the tree of life. There is a return to that realm that mankind has been kept from. There are themes associated with the Garden in the chapter that follows. Sodom is associated with the Garden of Eden elsewhere, as we see Lot choosing that part of the land in chapter 13. Maybe there is something there—I don’t know. But it is worth registering. There may be something else that you noticed that I do not. If there is, please leave it in the comments below—I would love to hear it!
God says the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grievous: “I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” This expression of an intent to go down and inspect the city is similar to that which we find in chapter 11 concerning the Tower of Babel: “Let us go down and confuse their language.”
Now, what do we notice elsewhere in Scripture? Two visitors to a city. This is something that we find elsewhere. The Angel of the Lord meets with Moses in the wilderness, and Moses and Aaron go to Egypt to test that place, to see what will happen. Will they respond? Will they show hospitality? Will they let God’s people go or will they be judged and destroyed as a result of their unfaithfulness? We see it in the story of Rahab: two visitors sent to the city. What happens? Will they show hospitality? Two visitors sent to each of the villages and cities of Israel as Christ sends out his apostles. And he sends out his disciples, two by two, to these various locations. Again, I think there is a testing theme there. They test hospitality: will they be received?
That is the important theme that Christ brings out in his instructions concerning the disciples that he sends. Will they be received? And if they are received, then they will bring a blessing. If they are not received, then they should shake the dust off their feet and it will be a better outcome for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that city. There is a testing of hospitality. In this chapter we have seen Abraham really showing the extent of his hospitality, however, he is now entering into God’s presence. There is a shift of the dynamics and there are significant parallels but also contrasts in the way that he approaches God. When he sees God, along with the angelic visitors—the Angel of the Lord and the two angels—Abraham begs them to stay and to receive his hospitality. And now he is begging for the favor of God’s hearing. Will God actually hear his concern concerning Sodom?
This passage describes Abraham bargaining with the Lord. Yet it is an unusual sort of bargaining. When you bargain, you usually set a figure and the person says “No.” And then you raise the figure, and then the person says “No.” And then, they maybe present a counter-figure; you gradually converge on something and you both compromise. “Oh, I could not sell it for that much. I would be robbing myself!” And then, “You’re twisting me arm here! Five dollars less?” or whatever. And then eventually, they give in and you feel that you have won this great coup. You have achieved this object and they are also pleased with themselves. Perhaps they made slightly more than they expected. But there is a negotiation, a haggling down to a particular price. And that haggling is where one party goes up and one party goes down. That is not actually what we see here. It is not a typical bargaining event.
What we have is Abraham steadily going lower. He presents God with a particular number of people. And God says, “Yes.” And then, a lower number, and God says, “Yes.” And a lower number still, to which God also says, “Yes.” Lower, and all the way down to ten people. And God says, “Yes.” And Abraham stops at that point. Now, that, I think, is interesting. That suggests to me that there is a sign of God’s grace here, that God is not seeking to destroy. God is not a god who relishes in the act of destruction. God is not a god who is in the business of just bringing death and destruction upon places. He wants to see them thrive. And he will save them just for ten people.
Now, why ten people? I think because these ten people will be an influence. There is a sign of hope. As long as there is the seed there, as long as that seed has not died, as long as there is still the hope of influence, then that city will not be destroyed.
It is interesting that there is an ending of this bargaining process—this so-called bargaining process—but without a complete resolution. There is not a lower number set. Why ten? Maybe Abraham is thinking about the fact that Lot has—at least it seems—two sons, and presumably they have wives, and he has at least two daughters, and the daughters have husbands, or at least fiancées. And so, you have eight people represented there; adding Lot and his wife, you get ten people. Maybe he is thinking that “Here, you have Lot’s family. Ten people—they have ten people! It is enough. God will save this place.”
And is there an end to the negotiation? In some sense, it sets things up for the chapter that follows, because the angels go to the city, and there is a testing. Are there, in fact, ten people there? Is there, in fact, a possibility that Lot’s family is enough of a seed to influence others? Does Lot have influence here? Does Lot even have influence within his own family, or is this city doomed to destruction? Has the seed, as it were, died in the ground or been in stony ground that has not received it? This is the question that is being asked.
I think this chapter moves into the next one quite naturally. What we see in the next chapter is the testing of “Is there, in fact, ten?” Is Lot’s family enough? Is Lot’s influence and his witness enough to save this place? Has he influenced the people around him or is he, in fact, someone who is going to be brought out of it, plucked out and rescued, the city being doomed to destruction?
Other things to notice: there is an emphasis upon the familial dynamics here. Again, that will contrast with the story of Sodom, where you have another vision of wild sexuality, an unrestrained sexuality, sexuality that is rapacious, and cruel, and evil. Now, these are ugly words, but this is a society where people are either f***ed or they f*** other people. It is a cruel, vicious society where sexuality is used as a means of violence, and it is important that we use those words on occasions, just to recognize how ugly such a society is.
Abraham, by contrast, is called to be a faithful father. He is called to tame that sexuality, that power of creation, so it would not be a means of violence and a source of domination over others, but a means of building up a family; to raise a family after him, and to teach, and to guide that family, to lead that family towards that which is good. We will see throughout the story of Abraham and his seed that sexuality in its wildness expresses itself on many occasions. Abraham and his seed express their sexual desires in ways that are cruel, in ways that lead to wildness, that lead to disorder within the family, and lead to death on certain occasions. But God is pruning this family. God is preparing this family to raise faithful offspring.
And this contrast between the way of life and the way of sexuality represented by Abraham and that represented by Sodom is a very important contrast. Here we have a form of sexuality that is defined by commitment to raising a family, by commitment to a wife. And the relationship between Sarah and Abraham is a very important one—God opens the womb of Sarah and God prunes the sexuality of Abraham. And that is part of the means by which God brings the fruitfulness by which a faithful family will be brought into the world.
There is something happening here that stands out starkly against the background of the society of the cities of the plain—of Sodom, Gomorrah, and all these other places within the plain. Something is very different in Abraham’s family. And God is establishing this family, not just for its own sake, but in order that they might be a blessing to these nations, that there might be something of an influence exerted through this faithful family, that other people might be changed; that he might command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord might bring to Abraham what he has spoken to him.
You would not be mistaken to hear echoes of the later giving of the law there. Abraham is to be someone who establishes the law within his house. And later on we will see that God speaks of Abraham as someone who has kept his law, his statutes, his judgments, etc. Abraham, as it were, is the prototypical keeper of the Law. He is someone who obeys the commandments and establishes those commandments within his household as a source of delight. His raising of a faithful family, his commitment to that family, his being a father—his very name is defined by his being a father—these are the means by which God will bring to pass what he has promised concerning him.
This is a very significant pruning of sexuality. It is a tempering of man’s nature towards an end that is good, that is constructive, that constructs in a very different way from the tower-builders of Babel, that is building people up in a very different way from the rapacious sexuality of Sodom. It is very different from the waywardness and the going down into death that we will see in the story of Lot. This is a building up of a family. Sarah is going to be built up. This is a story of laughter following death. This is a story of God reversing and turning the tables, God bringing life from death, God bringing something new to pass. And as we read this story, I think these themes will become more pronounced.