Under the Terebinths of Mamre - The Three Visitors
Genesis Chapter 18:1-15
The Lord once again appears to Abraham. Abraham is encamped under the terebinths of Mamre. This is near Hebron where Abraham had once built an altar. A terebinth is a grove of large trees that grow in this desert region. This makes it clear to us that the visitors in this story are indeed God or God and His representatives.
Recently there was a PBS TV special that dealt with a traveler that was making a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai to follow the steps of Moses. In his travels he spent a few days with some Arab nomads. (In nomad culture, to be hospitable you are welcomed as an honored guest for 3 days. After that you are treated like a pariah.) While watching this show I thought back to this chapter in Genesis and imagined how much this resembled Abraham sitting on pillows and rugs in the front windflap of his tent that was tethered under the grove of trees.
The name Mamre, we may recall was a landowner.
God appeared to him as the day grew hot. Abraham looked up and saw three men approaching. He ran from the entrance of his tent to greet them. This tells us that Abraham was not expecting anyone and was startled by the forthcoming visitors.
He bowed low to the ground in reverence and begged them to come to his tent for water to drink and bathe their feet and a morsel of bread that they may refresh themselves.
As a gracious host Abraham makes an understatement as he intends to serve much more. He makes haste into the tent and instructs Sarah on what to prepare and tells her to be quick about her business. Additionally he runs to the herds and instructs his servant boy to prepare a tender calf. Also instructing him to prepare curds and milk. The laws of Kashrut were not yet observed. We know that the amount of food prepared was far beyond what 4 people could eat. We do not know if the feast was meant as a celebration for the visitors and Abraham’s family or as extra provisions for the visitor’s journey.
There are also Midrash arguments on whether or not the Divine visitors actually ate or merely pretended to eat. I don’t think this is important and would not begin to determine what or what not God could do.
The visitors ask of Abraham, "Where is your wife Sarah?" (Did he ask himself, how do they know her name?)
Abraham replies, "She is there in the tent."
One of the visitors says, "I will return to you when life is due and your wife Sarah shall have a son!"
Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent which was behind the visitor that just spoke. I reiterate that both Sarah and Abraham were old. Sarah had not menstruated for many years.
Sarah laughed to herself saying, "Now that I am withered am I to have enjoyment with my husband who is so old?" Contrary to the Puritans and those religious who say that sex is merely for procreation, Sarah states here that it is for enjoyment.
The Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Shall I bear a child as old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the time that life is due and Sarah shall have a son."
Sarah lied saying, "I did not laugh." For she was frightened.
But He replied, "You did laugh."
Laughed in Hebrew is va-titzchak. Sarah’s behavior explains the name Isaac Yitchak.
We are not told the identity of two of the three men. Were they angels? Were they aspects of the One God? We do not know. From prior verses we know that God talks to Himself. Moving to the next study we find angels coming to visit Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The belief in angels is widespread in Near Eastern literature and angels are frequently sited in the Scriptures as messengers or couriers of God’s message. Here we see "The Annunciation" of Isaac’s birth. Later on we are privy to another "Annunciation of Jesus." We also see a reecho of Isaac’s sacrifice with the sacrifice of Jesus. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
In post-Biblical Judaism, in Islam and also in Christianity there developed an elaborate structure of "angelology." I am not going to comment or judge this since I have nothing on which to base it’s foundation. Lately we have been deluged with folks claiming that they can talk with angels that write books and give lectures on the subject. Since I have nothing to use as exegesis on this subject I once again will rely and concentrate on Scripture.
This is a rather unusual story to be included. It brings up some topics that were discussed in the prior chapter. Some scholars believe that this follows Abraham’s circumcision to show us how much importance God places on visiting the sick. Hence the mitzvah of visiting the sick.
Hospitality is of great importance in Judaism then and now.
Some scholars say that this was all a vision of Abraham. Others say it was an event.
What is important? God speaks, Abraham listens, trusts God and shows hospitality to passing strangers. That is the importance of this chapter.