“God appeared to Abraham in Elonei Mamrei, as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”
The eighteenth chapter of Bereishit is structurally difficult to understand. It can be divided into three parts:
1. God appears to Abraham as he is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day (verse 1).
2. Abraham looks up, sees three men and invites them to rest and have a meal. They are reluctant, but Abraham prevails on them and they eat. During the course of the meal, they tell Abraham that within a year Sarah will have a child. Sarah, overhearing, laughs, but God assures Abraham that it will be so (verses 2-15).
3. The men depart to go to Sodom, and the dialogue between God and Abraham on the fate of the city takes place (verses 16-33).
In scenes 1 and 3 the participants are God and Abraham, in scene 2 they are Abraham and the three visitors. The structural question is therefore: what is the connection between the three scenes? Are they three distinct episodes, or two, or one? What is the narrative logic of the passage as a whole? In particular, how are we to understand the first verse? It is unusual, even unique. God “appears” to Abraham but there is no apparent content to this appearance: no words, no speech, no substance. What is the connection between it and the verses that follow?
Rashi offers one interpretation. God’s appearance in the first verse is “to visit the sick.” Although Rashi is citing a midrash, his reason for doing so – for believing that it represents the plain sense of the verse – is twofold. The first is contextual. The previous chapter has told of Abraham’s circumcision at the age of 99. Painful at any age, this was an operation that made Abraham frail and weak (in Bereishit 34 we read of how Shimon and Levi persuaded the men of Shechem to be circumcised; they were so weak three days later that the two brothers were able to conquer the entire town). Following the midrashic assumption that God’s conduct is a model for ours, Rashi infers that the first verse teaches us, by Divine example, the mitzvah of visiting the sick. The second reason is substantive. It explains why God “appeared” without saying anything. Normally, a Divine appearance is a prelude to an act of communication, but there are times – visiting the sick – when mere presence is enough. Rashi thus brilliantly solves the problem of verse 1. The structure of the chapter, according to this reading, is that verse 1 is a scene on its own. God visits, and thereby brings comfort to, Abraham ailing after his brit milah.
Rambam offers a radically different explanation (Guide for the Perplexed II: 42). “The general statement that the Lord appeared to Abraham is followed by the description of the way in which that appearance of the Lord took place, namely that Abraham first saw three men; he ran and spoke to them.” According to Maimonides, the first verse of our chapter is not the description of an episode at all: it is a chapter heading, a summary, in advance, of the rest of the chapter. First the Torah states, in general terms, that God appeared to Abraham, then it describes how, namely in a vision of three men. (It was this latter point – that the entire sequence of events narrated in chapter 18 occurred in a prophetic vision – that evoked a passionate objection from Ramban, who held that it was absurd. If the three men of chapter 18 were a mere vision, what of chapter 19, where two of them leave Abraham and visit Lot? Were they also a vision? Was Lot a prophet? Were the people of Sodom prophets when they surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that the men be brought out? Was the entire destruction of the cities of the plain also a vision? “Such words” says Ramban of Maimonides, “contradict Scripture. It is forbidden to listen to them, all the more so to believe them!”). Whatever view we take of Maimonides’ interpretation of the concept of Divine “appearance”, the structural point remains. Verse 1 is a superscription to the chapter as a whole, not a separate incident.
There is, however, a third interpretation, by far the most radical. According to this, there were two events: God’s appearance to Abraham and the visit of the three men. However, the second interrupts the first. God appeared to Abraham, but before He could say what He intended to say, three men passed by. Abraham interrupted God, asking Him to wait while he attends to the needs of his visitors. He then runs to meet them, persuades them to rest awhile, prepares food, serves them while they eat, then accompanies them on their way. Only then does the encounter between God and Abraham resume.
The point of difference between this reading and the others turns on the interpretation of verse 3:
He [Abraham] said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lords/O Lord, do not pass your servant by.”
There are two possibilities:
1. Abraham is talking to the three visitors (“my lords”). He is asking them not to pass by but to stay, rest and eat. The sentence shifts between singular and plural (plural “my lords”, singular “do not pass by”) because Abraham is addressing the men collectively, but specifically directing his words to the one he takes to be their leader or senior.
2. Abraham is speaking, not to the men but to God, saying: “Please God, do not leave. Stay while I serve the visitors.”
The difference between the two turns on a single vowel. If we follow the first interpretation, the nun of the word A-D-N-Y carries a patach; if the second, a kametz. This is halahkically significant. In the first case, the word simply means “my lords,” but according to the second it represents the name of God and must therefore be treated with special sanctity. Tradition chose the second route. The word A-D-N-Y in 18:3 was deemed to be holy and to refer to God (unlike its occurrence in 19:2 when Lot is speaking to the angels, where it was judged to mean “my lords” and is therefore vowelled with a patach).
This is an extraordinary fact. Halakhic tradition ruled in accordance with the most radical reading, according to which Abraham interrupted his encounter with God in order to welcome passers-by. This is the basis of the rule – no mere figure of speech but meant categorically – that gedolah hachnassat orchim mi-kabbalat pnei ha-Shekinah, “Greater is hospitality than welcoming the Divine presence.” One of the Hassidic masters put it beautifully. When Abraham first saw his visitors they were “standing above him” (nitzavim alav). They were angels; he was a human being. When he served them with food and drink, however, he “stood above them” (omed alehem). Kindness to strangers lifts us higher even than the angels (Degel Machaneh Ephraim).
With this interpretation of the narrative structure of Genesis 18, Jewish tradition expressed one of its most majestic ideas. There is God as we meet Him in a vision, an epiphany, a mystical encounter in the depths of the soul. But there is also God as we see His trace in another person, even a stranger, a passer-by; in Abraham’s case, three Arab travellers in the heat of the day. Someone else might have given them no further thought, but Abraham ran to meet them and bring them rest, shelter, food and drink. Greater is the person who sees God in the face of a stranger than one who sees God as God in a vision of transcendence, for the Jewish task since the days of Abraham is not to ascend to heaven but to bring heaven down to earth in simple deeds of kindness and hospitality.
What empowered the sages to reach so daring a conclusion? Quite simply, the continuation of the narrative. When told of the impending destruction of the cities of the plain, Abraham, calling himself mere “dust and ashes,” rises to challenge God Himself:
Then Abraham came forward and said:
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?
Will You really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?
Far be it from You to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from You!
Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”
There is no precedent, nothing in the history of civilisation, to prepare us for this remarkable confrontation whose echoes reverberate through Jewish history: the argument with Heaven, against Heaven, for the sake of Heaven, the covenantal dialogue between God and man, the protest against suffering in the name of justice.
What understanding of the human condition, what religious sensibility, empowers an Abraham to challenge God? One that sees the Divine presence in human lives more powerfully even than in a prophetic vision. Abraham looked at three strangers and treated them as if they were angels, to the point of breaking off a conversation with God Himself to attend to their needs. Only such a man can challenge the verdict of Heaven. Only such a faith can bring the Divine presence into the finite world of humanity.