Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who are the three visitors/men? (Gen 18:1-23)

Today we look at an interesting passage in the Old Testament, involving Abraham. It is about the story of the Lord appearing to Abraham and at the same time there were three men standing nearby – yes, the story of the Three Visitors (NIV Bible caption) in Genesis 18.

The way to read this article is that the orange underlined texts are the verses of the Bible (NIV, unless otherwise stated). The black texts following the Bible verses (and enclosed by square brackets) are my commentaries.

Genesis 18:1-23
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. [In Gen 13, we read that in order to avoid clashes between each other, Abraham decided to separate from his nephew, Lot, giving the latter the first right of choice. Lot chose the whole plain of Jordan which was well-watered and was “like the garden of the Lord”, and lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Abraham had agreed that if Lot went one way, he would go the other, so Abraham ended up living in the land of Canaan. But after Lot had departed, the Lord spoke to Abraham and made to him the promises that all the land that his eyes could see, in the north, south, east and west would be his (Abraham’s) and his offspring forever; and that his offspring would be too numerous to be counted. On hearing this, Abraham moved his tents and went to live at the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord (Gen 13:18). This is the background for this passage. Firstly, the altar of the Lord is there, probably in the vicinity of his tent. Secondly, the Lord probably appeared at the place near to where an altar was dedicated to Him. So, the scene was that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, with the altar of the Lord in the vicinity, and the Lord appeared to him.] 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. [It is very interesting to think about what it was meant by “The Lord appeared to Abraham” when at the same time, verse 2 said that Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. What actually happened? In what way/form did the Lord appear to Abraham? Are the three men the appearance of the Lord (i.e. the Lord was the three men)? Or were there the Lord, and separately, the three men (i.e. the Lord and the three men were completely separate)? Or was it just that the Lord uttered some words, maybe a greeting or something that Abraham knew the Lord was manifestly present (and Abraham looked up to see where the Lord was)? Verse 2 said he (Abraham) looked up, saw the men, hurried over and bowed to them. I looked up a number of Bible commentaries on this but I had not found any clear-cut addressing of this question. I believe there must be certain significance to this particular appearing of the three men/visitors. The three men were probably not just “props” in a story scene. Even the number three may be part of the significance. Why not two, why not four or several men? And if you read on, you will find that it was not very clear all the time whether or not it was the Lord (present by Himself) who was talking to Abraham, the men (themselves) who were talking to Abraham, or it was the Lord talking through the men to Abraham.] 3 He [Abraham] said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant." "Very well," they answered, "do as you say." [Who was Abraham addressing? The Lord God? The three men? Because the verse ended with “they answered”, we can conclude that Abraham was talking to the three men. Are we to say that at this juncture Abraham did not know of the manifest presence of the Lord, that he just happened to look up and saw the three men and proceeded as expected of people of those times, to provide hospitality to the travelers who came by his tent? My take is that the Lord appeared in the form of the three men. At the time that he (the Lord) appeared as the three men, he caused Abraham to look up. This is my preferred interpretation. There are those who think that the “three men” was not the manifestation of the Lord, rather they were either angels or beings created by the Lord. Do you think Abraham knew the three men were really not normal men? I like to look at it this way: maybe he (Abraham) had a hunch that the three men were no ordinary travelers. I put myself in Abraham’s shoes – he had had prior experience of visitations by the Lord, and an example was that the Lord had spoken to him, promising him the vast land, and that his offspring would be really numerous - Gen 13; so this sudden appearance of the three men at the vicinity of his tent and the Lord’s altar could well be the work of the Lord, was probably what was in his mind, he might or might not have thought that the Lord was manifestly present in the three men but very clearly he held with great esteem the three men who were present. Bible commentators said that what Abraham did as a gesture of hospitality to the travelers was the kind reserved for those highly regarded.] 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread." 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. [According to some Bible commentators, these treatments collectively represented the great regards Abraham had for the three men. In other words, it would be unusual for Abraham to go to such great length if not for the “special hunch” that Abraham had for the strangers.] 9 "Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him. "There, in the tent," he said. 10 Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." [It is this part of the story that made this story intriguing to me. Verse 9 said “they asked him where Sarah was”, meaning the three men asked Abraham, and Abraham answered them, “in the tent”, yet what followed in verse 10 was that the LORD said that at about that time the following year Sarah would have a son. Up to now, it was all about the three men, then suddenly the storyteller said “the LORD said”. I believe it was the storyteller’s way of saying at this juncture the Lord revealed Himself plainly to Abraham and Sarah. But how, in what way? Was it by way of a word of knowledge and prophesy? By the question asked, clearly the three men somehow knew the name of Abraham’s wife. Could it be, on top of that, the voices of the three men had changed, when they, maybe collectively, prophesied that Sarah would have a son, and they spoke as if they were the Lord God. Without looking at verse 22 below, one may accept that this could be so. But if you take verse 22 into account, you may want to join me to believe that it could be more than just that – that the Lord had also, at this point in time appeared separate from the three men, He was in the men and He was separate (multi-presence/omnipresence manifestation). You see verse 22 said Abraham remained standing before the Lord after the three men turned away and went to Sodom. I do not think the storyteller meant that Abraham remained standing there (after the men left). If that was the intention, there was no need for the phrase “before the Lord”. Verse 22 is then followed by verse 23 which states that “Then Abraham approached him”. Quite clearly, this tells of a separate presence.]Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" [These tell of the physical conditions of both Abraham and Sarah – old, and Sarah past the age of childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself when she thought of the promise that the Lord had just made.] 13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." [This is one story that tells of how God can bring Himself to the level of man, in fellowship, when man is in true fellowship with God. He was not angry, instead just assured Abraham again that Sarah would have a son the following year.] 15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." But he said, "Yes, you did laugh." [Do you know that the promise of Sarah going to bear a son was not new, and that when this was previously told to Abraham by God directly {so a prophesy by mere men (if you treat the three men as mere men) or angels really did not quite fit in; God already told Abraham directly, why bother to prophesy through men or angels subsequently}, Abraham also laughed? (God appeared to Abraham and established the covenant of circumcision with Abraham, Gen 17:15-17 - God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?")] 16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him." [In our fallen world, often if you make a pact with someone much stronger or powerful than you, you will find yourself without much bargaining power or worst still not even consulted with or informed of what was going on. Although it is not my intention to dwell on this, the second part of this story tells us that when God makes a pact with us, it is not like that. In the pact God made with Abraham, the circumcision covenant (Genesis 17), we read that God asked that Abraham walk before Him and be blameless, and God would make Abraham the father of many nations. Abraham’s name was changed from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) by God. It was with this in mind that God was deliberating in his heart whether or not to consult Abraham on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the rest of the story you see that God told Abraham His intention and let Abraham speak his views.] 20 Then the LORD said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know." [Very simply, these verses speak of God telling Abraham his intention. In addition, they also reveal to us that God hears prayers (outcries) and checks them out before dishing out any verdict – isn’t it good to know that. People cannot anyhow accuse you before God and expect God to act on their accusations blindly!] 22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? [In relation to what I was trying to establish concerning the Lord and the three men, as I have postulated, the Lord first appeared as the three men, then revealed Himself by perhaps, coming separate, while still manifestly in the three men (multi-presence/omnipresence manifestation). The Lord was still manifestly in the three men going on to Sodom and Gomorrah to check out the situation (verse 20) and at the same time standing separate before Abraham, allowing the latter to approach and converse with Him on the sparing of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah.]

You may ask, why this angle – whether or not God appeared as the three men? Even if it was so, what was the significance? First, I must say that I am not one who is dogmatic about such things as the number “three” is always special, and so, spiritual things must come in threes. In fact, it is important, whether or not the Word directly mentioned them, or whether or not, it was probable that the scriptures may have implied them, or that they came as revelation by the Holy Spirit without contradiction with the Word.

So, what is on my mind? It is this - this Old Testament reference of the three men might have been a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinity theology of God. The word trinity is not found in the Bible, although there are many New Testament verses supporting the Trinity theology of God. On the other hand, I have not come to know of any “in one place” kind of verses showing clearly the Trinitarian concept of God in the Old Testament.

I made my study and contemplation of this story in Genesis 18 in the hope to see if there is any ground to believe there is really some relevant truth embedded in the story. Before I go any further, I must say there was really too little being said of the three men to draw conclusive stand. So, if you do not quite accept this aspect of the exposition of this first part of a great story in the Bible, it is ok.

So based on limited revelation, either by way of the scriptures or the Holy Spirit, let me give a poser for you to ponder about – maybe the three men was meant to be a “type” to Triune God. Maybe more specifically a type to Triune God in relation to God’s dealing with the fallen state of man.

Below are a few “supporting” comments:

1. If not for hidden meaning, the three men was really an unnecessary “prop” in the typical dealings of God with Abraham
In Genesis 13 where God gave the 2 great promises to Abraham, the dealing was straightforward. In Genesis 17, in establishing the circumcision covenant, again God straightforwardly spoke to Abraham about what Abraham had to do, and what God would do for Abraham. I believe the 3 men, was meant to mean something.

2. It is clear enough that the three men were not really ordinary men
If they were ordinary travelers, they would not know the name of Abraham’s wife and ask such a direct question of “Where is your wife, Sarah?”

3. The men were probably not angels
From scriptures, we understand that God commonly send angels on errands. The thing is that in the case of Abraham, God had customarily dealt with Abraham directly (see Genesis 13, & 17). I believe it was even more so after God had established the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. In Genesis 17:1, God said to Abraham [invited, I would say], “walk before me and be blameless”. Every few people in the Bible are said to have walked with God. I can accept that God still “talk” to us when we are engaged in our human activities (and I have experienced that, and I am sure many others, have), but why would God have Abraham serve the angels or created beings while He was engaging Abraham? It doesn’t make sense.

4. Bow and worship only the Lord God and no others, not even angels
While even if it was customary in those times to bow as a show of respect, it still did not make sense for the Lord to allow Abraham to bow to the three men. If they were mere men, God’s allowing it as a mere custom of respect and honor was understandable. But if we say that the three men were angels, and God’s knowledge (assumed) of Abraham’s suspicion (that the three men were not mere men), I believe God would not have allowed Abraham to bow to the angels and the angels would not dare to accept the bow. This is no small matter. The Lord views this very seriously. When Apostle John was shown the things written in the Book of Revelation on Patmos Island, and when he bowed before the angel who shown him the things, the angel immediately forbid him to bow to him (the angel). We believe Satan (once the Chief Angel) fell because he wanted others to bow to him, we also know what Satan asked of Jesus when he tempted Jesus after the fasting in the wilderness – Satan asked Jesus to bow to him, to which Jesus refused. If the men were not mere men, not angels, maybe they were manifestly God, allowing Himself to be bowed to, and served by Abraham.

5. The setting was no ordinary place
The place as clearly been explained above, in the exposition of the first few verses of the story, was a very significant place. Leaving out our body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (really does not want to complicate matter more), now, we talk about churches, further back, people talked about temples and still further back, tabernacles, in Abraham’s time, it was altars. You got the idea – an altar, a place dedicated to God, was where God could be expected to be at. I believe God dwelt in many places, albeit temporary, in the Old Testament. For example, God dwelt on Mount Horeb, at the place of the burning bush where Moses “met” with God. I believe this was one such dwelling place of God. At the dwelling place of God, you can expect to see the manifest presence of God. (For example, in Moses’ meeting with God on Mount Horeb, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit was seen – Do you know what that manifestation was?).

6. Maybe the three men was indeed a type to Triune God in relation to God’s dealing with the fallen state of man
It is interesting that three men appeared, not any other number. And the purpose of the three men was to go to see and confirm how bad the fallen state of the people at Sodom and Gomorrah was before deciding on the course of action. If indeed the three men was a type, then the three men are the Father God, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all three working together in dealing with the fallen state of man – it foreshadowed the work of the Father God, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit in saving men from destruction in God’s great plan of salvation. If you buy into this analysis, vis-à-vis man, God is Trinity at work, even from the times of Abraham, the father of the nations.

Anthony Chia – Vis-à-vis man, God is Trinity at work, right from the beginning.

Comments are welcome here. Alternatively, email them to me @:
Or just email me your email address so that I can put you on my blog (new entry) notification list. To go back to blog main page, click here.