43. Genesis 18:1-21

III. A. continued

3. Abraham’s Final Years

a) Sodom

i) Abraham Entertains Angels (Genesis 18:1-21)

My approach to Scripture and interpretation views the Covenant of Revelation as the central purpose of Abraham’s life. For this reason I have divided his life into three periods: his early years, leading up to the Covenant; the making of the Covenant, which took about fifteen years to complete; and his later years, after the Covenant had been made. This is an entirely artificial way to discuss his life, but I use it as a matter of convenience. Therefore since I am beginning to discuss the events that occurred after the Covenant was completely implemented, I call it his later years; but the events discussed here occurred very soon after the circumcision, perhaps only weeks.

The story of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, its destruction, and the rescue of Lot and his family begins when Abraham recognized three passing strangers as angels. With God, there are no unnecessary delays. The fourteen years of silence had been enough. Now it was the right time for things to happen. As so many important acts in the divine drama, it began quietly with three men appearing not far away from Abraham’s tent. He had been taking his siesta in the doorway of his tent, when he looked up and saw them, standing some distance away. Perhaps because he had a new depth of character from all his interaction with God, a new sensitivity to spiritual things, he knew intuitively that these were not ordinary men. He recognized the angels because he could see what others could not, and perhaps that kind of discernment was also behind his hostility to the king of Sodom.

Though 18:2 specifically calls them men, it is clear that they were not. What form had the previous appearances of God taken? We don’t know but the accounts do not make any suggestion that God had ever appeared like a man before this, and certainly never in a group of men. However he recognized them, this was the sixth time God had spoken to him and he was eager to respond. Abraham was very good at waiting, and perhaps he assumed he might have another fourteen years before he heard from God again. It must have been a mix of joy and relief when he saw these men; he ran to greet them.

Though there were three of them, when Abraham first addressed them he used the singular, as if he were speaking to only one of them. It is easy to read into this a symbol for the Trinity, but it is possible that he recognized one of the “men” as being special, as being an appearance of the Most High God Himself, and the other two as being subordinates. Subsequent events seem to bear out that possibility: 18:13 attributes the words of one of these “men” to God Himself, but the other two are not described in the same way as the story goes on. I do think the Trinity is prefigured constantly through the Hebrew scriptures, but not necessarily here.

Though this appearance occurred shortly after the circumcision at which God had so emphatically said that Sarah would have the child who would be heir of the covenant, when the men repeated the promise that Sarah would have a son within a year their words were met with incredulity, particularly on Sarah’s part. The passage does not say what Abraham felt at this repeat of the promise, but Sarah, who was listening from the tent, was laughing, possibly with some bitterness, but certainly with incredulity. Sarah had not been involved in the visions as Abraham had, and so she should be excused. The events surrounding the circumcision would not have affected her in the same way as Abraham. He had had Ishmael to fall back on, but Sarah had had nothing. All the waiting would have been far more difficult for her than for Abraham.

God was very gentle with Sarah; He knew her. He had pushed both of them to the very limit of their ability to believe, not to find fault with their weakness when they wavered, but to help them believe Him more surely. He also meant that all who read this account over the millenia would find encouragement to believe the ridiculous promises He tends to make. So, although Sarah disbelieved His word and lied about laughing – I can’t fault her for being afraid to admit she had laughed – He was very mild in His response, milder than many of us would be in His place. But He did make clear the main point of all the waiting: “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” That is the question that is posed to all of us one way or the other, sooner or later.

Whatever we may think we would say to that question, each of us has a limit to his ability to believe. I know that nothing is too difficult for the Lord, but if He takes me out far enough on a limb I will eventually reach the boundary where doubt and fear are at least the equal of faith and trust in my heart. Whether you are strong in faith or weak, the day will come when you are on the edge of what you can believe, and when that time arrives it is important to know that it is God who brought you there, and it is important to know that His intent is not to find fault with you if you fail. Failure or success, these things mean nothing as long as you go on, as long as you get up and keep pursuing God. As in so many other areas of life, it is quality that counts rather than quantity. It is what you do with the faith that you have that is important, what beautiful thing you make of it, and not whether your faith is large or small. And it is only when we are at the edge of our ability to trust that we have the opportunity to grow. It is wise to prepare now for that time, which will surely come, so that when it does come you will be ready to make good use of it.

The meal that Abraham prepared for them would have taken quite a long time: he began by killing the animal. They arrived in the heat of the day, near noon, and it is difficult to see how Abraham could have prepared the meal very much before sunset. Also the meal that he prepared for the men was not kosher, strictly, since it apparently included both meat and milk together. This implies that, though the dietary laws were instituted by God and were required for His people, there was nothing absolute about them. We err if we think that whenever God issues a command He is issuing an absolute command which remains His will for all people in all times. This might seem obvious from a New Testament viewpoint, as when Jesus altered the dietary laws for His disciples, but it is also clear from the viewpoint of the earliest books in the Bible.

By the time the meal was over, it must have been near sunset or after. The oaks of Mamre were about thirty miles from Sodom, a guess since we do not know Sodom’s exact location. Sodom was somewhere in the Jordan valley, and standing on the edge of the hill country and looking down into the valley, Sodom might have just been visible on a perfectly clear day. The hill country would have ended overlooking the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and it could be that Abraham accompanied the men at least that far, a matter of ten to fifteen miles. It is hard to see how the men, the angels, could walk to Sodom and arrive there by that same evening, at least not if they were walking like ordinary men, and so we should probably assume that the angels had spent the night with Abraham. Abraham was walking with them as a good host, but probably also because he was hoping to speak further with the One who seemed like God. Abraham seems to have had a suspicion that something was up, something important and a little scary, and he wanted to know what it was.

There were three “men” who came to Abraham, but only two arrived in Sodom; thus when the “men” turned away and went toward Sodom, Abraham was still standing before the Lord, before the third “man”. The easiest way for a Christian to understand this passage is as a pre-incarnation appearance of the Messiah, Jesus. That the Most High God would appear to Abraham in the form of a man would be an odd thing to do when He would later spend so much time emphasizing to Israel that He had no such form as anything that they could see; at least it is odd apart from the future Incarnation. How can He both not have a form and yet appear in a form unless there is something complex and subtle going on, or unless He is simply not very good at communicating? Since communication is what He does best, if it seems complicated then it must be because what He is communicating is complicated. God is bigger than His creation, not like anything in it that we can see, and yet He intended to make Himself visible to us, to not only appear as something we could see, but to appear as something we could understand from the inside.

The description of God debating with Himself over whether or not to tell Abraham what He was about to do is intriguing. That this passage was put in Scripture means that God wanted us to eavesdrop on this internal conversation, and we should ask why He does. One reason was to emphasize to us that the Covenant of Revelation makes His people party to His plans. We are His accomplices, His accompanists, in His work. Genesis 18:17-19 reads, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” Let’s examine this remark very closely.

In the final analysis the reason He shared His intention with Abraham was because Abraham was certain to become a mighty nation, a blessing to all other nations. Why then was he certain to become a blessing to the world? Because God had chosen him. For what purpose had God chosen him? To command his household and descendants to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice. But there was not much specific content to be commanded at that point, only the oral tradition he had received and was adding to, just these first few chapters of Genesis that we have read. In particular, there was no set of commandments indicating in any detail what righteousness and justice were. Such things would come, God would make it clear in future generations to come exactly what He meant by righteousness and justice, but in the context of Genesis all He could have meant was that Abraham was chosen to be the steward of the revelation, the oral tradition that was being expanded in his own life. He and his descendants were chosen to be the conduits of the revelation. Or in other words, he and his descendants had been given the Covenant of Revelation. And the reason he had to pass on that revelation was so that God could make him a blessing to all the nations. It was a somewhat convoluted way of saying: “Abraham is certain to be a blessing to all the nations because he is the one chosen to carry the revelation that is the blessing to all the nations.” Therefore God revealed to him what He was about to do in Sodom.

This is the germ of the doctrine that is now called predestination, which is too big an issue to consider fully at this point.  It was an idea like so many of the ideas in the revelation, like the Trinity and the Incarnation, an idea so deep that it had to be disclosed gradually. It is an idea that is repeated throughout the whole Scripture as the central truths always are. We will discuss the free will vs predestination question in the future as we proceed to read the Bible. For the moment, notice that if there is certainty to be had, it cannot be based on free will. There is no stability, no dependability, in the free choice of men, so free will itself cannot be the whole story.

Members of the Covenant are entitled to be in on God’s plans. Obviously, however, God did not tell Abraham everything, and He doesn’t tell us everything either. Doubtless God was involved in doing things all around Canaan, all around the world, and still is. It would have been impossible for Abraham to carry the weight of knowing all of God’s purposes, just as it would be impossible for us. What God did was to give Abraham privileged access to the information that was of direct concern to him: the people and events surrounding his nephew Lot.

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