Abraham and the three angels by Gustave Doré 1865

Abraham and the three angels by Gustave Doré 1865

Abraham is having his midday siesta when he sees three men approaching. He jumps up to greet them and asks them to stay while he fetches them some food and water. They accept his invitation.

These three men, of course, are God.

I’m not joking. All three of them are God. They speak all at once, so we get lines like: “So they said, ‘Do as you have said'” (Gen. 18:5). It’s like that throughout the whole exchange.

I didn’t see this in my reading, but my study bible says that, at the beginning of the encounter, Abraham doesn’t know that these three guys are God. So when he serves them, he’s not just being a sycophant, but rather he’s modelling proper hospitality. I really don’t know where this reading comes from, though, since Abraham has no “ah ha!” moment. He just gets God(s) some food and then they have a chat in which it is very clear that Abraham knows whom he’s talking to.

In any case God(s) tell him that they will visit again in the spring and Sarah will have had a son. Sarah laughs because it’s oh-so-funny that she’s really old and even post-menopausal – or, as the Bible puts it, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen. 18:11). No one seems to realize that pregnancy and labour are extremely hard on even a young body in the peak of health and that Sarah, if she survives the experience at all, is in for a world of pain. No, the appropriate response is not laughter.

Oh yes, and she calls having a child at her age the “pleasure” (Gen. 18:12). I think I might have guessed that this woman was childless even if we hadn’t already been bludgeoned with that little biographical detail.

Then we get a little throwaway comment about God(s) getting offended that Sarah laughs because he interprets it to mean that she doesn’t think he’s powerful enough to make it happen, and Sarah denies having laughed “for she was afraid” (Gen. 18:15). There’s a guest who doesn’t deserve a second invitation!

Down to business

God(s) wonder if they should hide from Abraham what they are about to do, but then decide that they should tell him because he “shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him” (Gen. 18:18). Good a reason as any, I suppose.

They tell him that there’s been a big outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, so they’re going to see if the things they’ve been told are true. Seriously. “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know” (Gen. 18:21). So much for omniscience.

Then things get interesting. Abraham challenges God(s), asking him again and again if he would spare the city if a smaller and smaller number of righteous people were found there. We start with 50 and end up with 10, and each time God(s) agree that he would spare the city if that number of cool people were there.

This is rather interesting because it’s a reversal of communal responsibility. We saw this in the garden of Eden, where the sin of two specific individuals leads God to curse all men and women. But here, we have the opposite – Abraham is arguing that the righteousness of the few might save the community. We’re eighteen chapters in to the Good Book and this is the first thing that might possibly deserve the label.

Before we move on, I want to quote Abraham’s central argument. He says to God: “Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:26).

One of the main criticisms I’ve seen levelled against Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion is that he has no right to judge God because God is the judge. So when Dawkins lists the atrocities of the Bible, revulsion is the wrong reaction. He should, instead, be edified by God’s amazing power, or some such nonsense. And yet here, right here, Abraham is able to so perfectly capture what Dawkins is getting at. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

As Dan Barker writes in Godless: “If the basis for morality rests with a single entity, then what makes that entity accountable? What makes God moral?” (p. 162).

Aside from that, some have questioned why Abraham presumes to argue with God, and why God bothers to listen to a mortal dude. This, according to Victor Matthews, comes back to the rules of hospitality that I mentioned earlier. Since the visitors have accepted Abraham’s offer of a meal, they are bound by a host/guest contract, which “put[s] the patriarch on a more equal footing with God. Men who eat together in peace and enjoy each other’s hospitality can thus be said to be equals” (Manners & Customs, p.42). This becomes an important piece of contextualization once we get into a discussion of what, exactly, is the sin that Sodom and Gomorrah have committed.