It is one of the most famous scenes in the Bible. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when three strangers pass by. He urges them to rest and take some food. The text calls them men. They are in fact angels, coming to tell Sarah that she will have a child.
The chapter seems simple. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:
Verse 1: G-d appears to Abraham.
Verses 2-16: Abraham and the men/angels.
Verses 17-33: The dialogue between G-d and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . He looked up, and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them. Bowing low, he said, “Sirs, if I have deserved your favour, do not go past your servant without a visit.”The same ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19: 2), when two of Abraham’s visitors (in this chapter they are described as angels) visit Lot in Sodom:
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening while Lot was sitting by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low he said, “I pray you, sirs, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night there and bathe your feet.”Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halakhic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case is unusual, because if we translate Adonai as ‘G-d’, it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If we translate it as ‘my lords’ or ‘sirs’, then it has no special sanctity.
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to G-d] he said: “My G-d, if I have found favour in your eyes, do not leave your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree...”This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine presence.” Faced with a choice between listening to G-d, and offering hospitality to [what seemed to be] human beings, Abraham chose the latter. G-d acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom.
Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell... Their makers become like them, and so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalm 115)You cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person: compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that G-d is personal, someone to whom we can say ‘You’, we honour human dignity as sacrosanct. Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of G-d in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine presence when G-d appears as G-d. What is difficult is to sense the Divine presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving G-d and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.