Genesis 18: Men or Angels?
In the passage that runs from Genesis 18:1-21, we are presented with an interesting story about three visitors who appear to Abraham “by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.” Determining who exactly those visitors were can be a little tricky. When the question arises as to whether or not God will ever show up in human form, my Jewish friends often point to this passage to argue that God did not, and will not, ever appear as a man.
The passage in question begins as follows:
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.Gen 18:1-2
Shlomo Meir argues that in this passage, “the presence of the Lord appeared to Abraham; HaShem was not in human form since G-d is not a man. The three men who visited Abraham were all angels.” Meir holds that God is spirit and not a man, and I think we can all agree with that. The question, however, is whether or not God ever took on the form of a man prior to the Incarnation.
There are a couple of interesting things about Shlomo’s exegesis of this passage. First, he provides no textual basis for his claim that these visitors were angels rather than men. He merely says it is so. Yet, in Gen 18:2, the Hebrew root word used of the visitors is אִישׁ (ish) which means man, not מֲלְאָךְ (malak), which means messenger or angel.
Second, in Gen 18:3 Abraham refers to his three visitors as Adonai (My Lord). In the Hebrew, this is אֲדֹנָ֗י and when the plural is formed using a singular possessive ending like this, it always refers to God. (It occurs in this form more than 300 times in the Tanakh.) This means that Abraham referred to these three men as God.
Third, if we keep reading it becomes evident that this passage is referring to three physical men, not spiritual angels. In Gen 18:4-8, Abraham has water and bread brought to them, has their feet washed, bids them rest under a tree, and prepares fresh meat, curds, and milk which they all eat together under a tree. Their physicality is clear in the text.
Fourth, in Gen 18:9-15 a conversation unfolds between Abraham and his three visitors. Pay attention to the pronouns because in this passage we see the same three visitors referred to alternately as they, men, he, and YHWH. The text says they asked “Where is Sarah your wife?” and Abraham told them she is in the tent (Gen 18:9). Then he told Abraham, I’ll be back in the spring and she will have a son (Gen 18:10). Then Sarah, listening from the tent, laughed at the idea of becoming pregnant because she was so old (Gen 18:11-12). Then YWHW repeated to Abraham that He would return in the spring and Sarah would have a son (Gen 18:13-14). Then Sarah denied laughing and He said “But you did laugh.” Then, in v16, the men “set out from there.”
Lastly, we can confirm who was speaking in this passage by looking at Gen 21:1, which says, “The Lord (יהוה – YHWH, God), visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord (יהוה) did to Sarah as he had promised.” This is an unambiguous reference to the promises made in Genesis 18. Therefore, we know it was God (יהוה) who said He would return and that Sarah would have a child. Moreover, Gen 21:2 tells us “And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God (אֱלֹהִים – Elohim) had spoken to him.”
There are a few things we can conclude from this passage. First, it appears to be referring to physical men since Abraham’s visitors ate, drank, had their feet washed, rested, and so on. Second, it was also God who visited Abraham and made and kept the promise that Sarah would bear a child. Third, there is no textual evidence that suggests angels were present during the visit.
The passage is undoubtedly enigmatic about the specific nature of the visitor(s) and does not explicitly say that God took on the form of a man. However, it does leave that possibility wide open as a reasonable and faithful interpretation of the text. More than that, the passage seems to at least hint at the concept of the Triune God. Interestingly, even Jewish scholars are beginning to reluctantly admit that the theological idea of the Trinity can be found in the Hebrew Bible, and they point to this very passage as evidence. For example, Benjamin Sommer, a Jewish Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said:
We Jews for centuries have objected to the Trinity, have labeled it pagan, have said, “Well, it’s clear the core of Christianity doesn’t come out of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. (Christians) are being disloyal to the Old Testament.” Actually, I think that’s not true. To my surprise, I came to the conclusion—somewhat to my dismay—that we Jews have no theological right to object to the Trinity . . . Fundamentally the theological model used by Christianity is a model that shows up in our own sacred literature.
If you read some of the church fathers on the story of Abraham and the three visitors, they make a linkage between that story and the doctrine of the Trinity . . . Those three visitors become a harbinger of, a hint at, the later idea of the Trinity . . . And they’re really correct that there is a linkage between the theological intuition that’s behind the idea of the Trinity and the theological intuition that’s behind the story in Genesis 18.-Benjamin D. Sommer, “The Bodies of God and The World of Ancient Israel,” Lecture series (Watch it here).
Interestingly, if we continue reading in Genesis 18 we find that “The men turned from there and went toward Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” (18:22). How are we to understand this? Were there three men (18:2) talking to Abraham, plus the Lord? Was the Lord just one of the three men, and the other two continued toward Sodom? The beginning of Genesis 19 says “The two angels entered Sodom in the evening.” Here the Hebrew word is HaMalak’im, which means “the angels” or “the messengers.” Could this be two of the three “men” that visited Abraham in the previous chapter? If so, it would suggest that when “The men turned from there and went toward Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord” (18:22), only two of the men went toward Sodom and the third man was God who stayed and talked with Abraham.
Also, if the men visiting Abraham in 18:1-21 were actually angels, they, too, appeared in physical form, rather than as spirits. This would be another biblical example of spiritual beings taking on the form of a man. As we continue to read in Genesis 19, there are indications that the two angels/messengers in Sodom are physical men. There are also indications that they may have a level of spiritual authority which would suggest they were angels, rather than mere men.
I do love a good mystery!