Abraham’s Visitors: Prolegomena to a Christian Theological Exegesis of Genesis 18-19

Francis Watson, University of Aberdeen

“YHWH appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre” (Gen.18.1): like the previous chapter of Genesis, this one opens with a theophany, introduced in almost identical language ( wyera YHWH el Abram , Gen.17.1; wyera elyaw YHWH , 18.1). On the earlier occasion, YHWH announced his own identity as El Shadday , and declared the terms of the covenant with Abram and his seed. Strangely, at the very moment when the sign of circumcision establishes the covenant relationship between God and Israel, Abram and Sarai are renamed as Abraham and Sarah, signifying that the birth of their son will make them the father and the mother not of the one nation only but of many nations (Gen.17.4-6, 15-16). The name of the coming child will commemorate the incredulous laughter with which first Abraham (17.17) and then Sarah (18.12-15) received the news of their prospective parenthood. Close thematic links bind the two chapters together. While Pentateuchal source criticism is surely right to postulate divergent origins here, it is remarkable how successfully the different narratives have been incorporated into the single canonical narrative.

Yet the two theophanies take a very different form. In the first one, the visual aspect is indeed assumed, for at its conclusion it is said that “When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham” (17.22). The speaker has been visibly present; Abraham does not simply hear a voice issuing as if from nowhere. And yet the visual aspect is completely subordinate to the auditory one. There is no concern to describe what was seen, for all attention is focused on what was said. In the second theophany, however, what is seen is no less important than what is said and heard; indeed, what is seen appears to be in some tension with what is said and heard. Abraham seems aware from the start that this is indeed an appearance of YHWH (contrast Judges 13), but what he actually sees is not YHWH alone but “three men standing in front of him” (Gen.18.2). Abraham “ran to meet them” ( liqr’atam ), and his fulsome words of welcome are addressed initially to one only (v.3) but subsequently to the three (vv.4-5a); and it is the three that reply ( wayomrw , v.5b). Thus the shift from the one to the three in the introduction to this narrative (vv.1-3) is matched by a corresponding shift in Abraham’s speech (vv.3-5). In the sequel, however, the reverse movement occurs, from the three to the one. The three eat together under the tree and call for Sarah, but it is YHWH who announces to Abraham that “your wife shall have a son” and who expresses his displeasure at Sarah’s incredulity (vv.8-15). At the end of the meal, however, it is “the men” who get up and set out for Sodom, with Abraham accompanying them. YHWH decides that Abraham must be informed about the purpose of their journey there (vv.17-19) – although the announcement that follows (vv.20-21) seems anomalous in this context. It is not explicitly addressed to Abraham, and it is expressed in the first person singular rather than plural (” I will go down to see…” (in contrast to Genesis 11.7). “The men” now continue their journey to Sodom, but YHWH remains behind to be interrogated by Abraham about his intentions for the city (v.22).

It seems that YHWH is presented here as one of the “three men,” and not, for example, as speaking in and through all three of them. A clear differentiation is subsequently made between YHWH, who took his way after speaking with Abraham (18.33) and the “two angels” who “came to Sodom in the evening,” after a journey of some hours (19.1, cf. 18.1). The “three men” (18.2) therefore consist of YHWH himself and “two angels” – although the narrator is surprisingly unconcerned to emphasize this distinction, or to exclude the possibility that the three who appeared to Abraham were three deities, one well known to him but the other two unknown. Even after the two have been identified as “angels” (19.1, 15), their relationship to YHWH himself continues to be puzzling. “They” – the two angels – bring Lot and his family out of the city, but “he said, Flee for your life…” (v.17). Has YHWH now met up again with the two angels outside the gates of Sodom? The narrator has nothing to say about any such meeting, being concerned perhaps to preserve YHWH’s essential mystery. The Septuagint’s plural reading brings this statement into harmony with the introduction to Lot’s reply: “And Lot said to them…” (v.18). Despite this, Lot now negotiates a place of safety for himself with a singular conversation-partner (vv.18-20), who clearly identifies himself as YHWH, the agent of the imminent overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv.21-24). No more is said about the two angels. The one who said “I can do nothing till you arrive there” is obviously identical to the YHWH who “rained brimstone and fire from YHWH out of heaven” (vv.22, 24). Does this imply that YHWH returned to heaven after speaking with Lot, in order to commence the work of destruction from there? Or does the odd doubling of YHWH’s name imply that he is somehow simultaneously in heaven and on earth? If YHWH is indeed “the judge of all the earth,” as Abraham has earlier said (18.25), one would not expect him simply to leave his heavenly dwelling-place unoccupied even for a moment.

We have identified three distinct but interrelated problems in the narration of Genesis 18-19. First, the relationship between YHWH and the “three men” remains unclear in Genesis 18. Second, even after two of the three have been identified as “angels” (19.1, 15), their role in the narrative is taken over by one who appears to speak and act as YHWH. Third, YHWH appears to be simultaneously in heaven and on earth. The first two are problems of horizontal differentiation , since they concern the relationships between the three who appear, eat and speak on earth. The third is a problem of vertical differentiation , which concerns the relationship of the earthly YHWH to the one who (apparently) remains in heaven.

These problems have been of great interest to Christian interpreters, who have traditionally found support here for their belief in the divine triunity. In the early period, interest centered on the “vertical” problem of a God who could appear in human form on earth while not ceasing to dwell in heaven; the story was thus seen as an anticipation of the incarnation. At a later period, concern about the “subordinationist” tendencies of this reading led to an alternative account in which the “horizontal” problem came to the fore: the “three men” were now identified with the three persons of the trinity. There are thus two traditional, broadly trinitarian readings of this story, and they are mutually exclusive.

In what follows, I shall offer brief analyses of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho , chapters 55-57 (c. 160 CE), and Augustine’s De Trinitate , ii.19-22 (c. 420 CE), in which the rival versions of the “trinitarian” reading are stated in full. In more recent times, however, Christian readings of this story tend no longer to be explicitly trinitarian: I shall therefore supplement the patristic analyses with some comments on the very different although equally untrinitarian interpretative interests of John Calvin (1563) and Hermann Gunkel (19011). These four readings – Justin and Augustine, Calvin and Gunkel – all exemplify the curious interdependence of interpretative insight and blindness, although perhaps in different proportions. In a final section I shall some very brief concluding evaluations.


Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho ostensibly records the author’s attempt to show his skeptical though open-minded Jewish interlocutor that Christian convictions are far more deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures than he had been led to believe. It bears witness to the rift that opened up in the second century between two equally radical interpretations of the Jewish scriptural heritage – that of rabbinic Judaism, and that of catholic Christianity. In the background here is also an inner-Christian debate about whether the Christian gospel really needs the Jewish scriptural heritage at all. For Marcion, Jewish scripture and the Christian gospel speak of different deities; the relationship between the two is one of stark antithesis, and any attempt to connect them more positively is simply an extension of the disastrous judaizing falsification of the gospel that has corrupted even the sacred writings of the apostle and the evangelist. In demonstrating, to his own satisfaction at least, that he can hold his own in a debate with a well-informed Jew, Justin is also demonstrating to his fellow-Christians that the Marcionite option should be rejected and that the relationship between scripture and the gospel is one of harmony rather than antithesis. For that reason, precisely the readings that Justin presents here to Trypho later recur in anti-Marcionite contexts such as Irenaeus’s Against Heresies , book 4, and Tertullian’s Against Marcion , book 3. Judging from the surviving second century literature, the challenge posed by Marcionite and Gnostic Christianities was felt far more acutely than any threat emanating from the synagogue. The primary task for these theologians was not to polemicize against Judaism but, on the contrary, to establish the inalienable Jewishness of Christianity, its essential rootedness in the Jewish scriptural tradition.

Justin discusses the narrative of Genesis 18-19 in response to Trypho’s request that he should demonstrate from scripture that the word “God” can be extended to a second, alongside “the Maker of all things” ( Dial .55). His argument, in brief, is as follows:

Moses, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that the one who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in his company to judge Sodom, by another, who dwells eternally in the heavenly places, invisible to all and engaging in converse with none; the one whom we believe to be the Maker and Father of all things. ( Dial .56)

Justin, then, is interested not in the three but in the appearance on earth of one who may be distinguished from the God who remains in the heavens, but who may still be identified as “God.” (Genesis 18.1 LXX speaks of an appearance of “God.”) There are three strands in his exegetical argument:

(1) In response to Trypho’s suggestion that God appeared to Abraham before the vision of the three, and that the three were all angels, Justin argues that the promise to Abraham and Sarah of a son demonstrates that “God” is as it were physically present in this story. Trypho concedes that one of the three must have been God, but points out that this does not entail the differentiation of God from God that Justin wishes to establish.

(2) Justin’s primary proof-text is Genesis 19.24-25, where it is said that “the Lord rained on Sodom sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and overthrew these cities and all the neighbourhood…” The Lord on earth is distinguished from the Lord in heaven: that scripture can indeed differentiate God from God and the Lord from the Lord is demonstrated from Psalms 45 and 110. Trypho, however, remains unpersuaded by such dangerous speculations. Justin points out that “the Lord” who “rained on Sodom sulphur and fire” is precisely the one who engaged Abraham in conversation and who took over the care of Lot from the two angels. This is a Lord who is present on earth in order to execute judgment on Sodom. The awkward phrase, .”.. from the Lord out of heaven,” is best taken as a reference to the Maker of all things, who remains in the heavens and who sent one who is also called “God” and “Lord” to carry out his will on earth.

(3) Justin’s reading of this text is confirmed, he claims, by other passages in Genesis and Exodus where an “angel of the Lord” speaks in the name of the Lord. In a dream, the “angel of God” appears to Jacob and announces, “I am the God who appeared to you in Bethel…” (Gen.31.11-13). Jacob wrestled with an angel at Peniel, but claimed to have seen God face to face (Gen.32.24-30). The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, but spoke with Moses as the Lord himself (Ex.3.2-6). In these passages, we find here exactly the same duality as in the Abraham example ( Dial .58-60).

Undergirding this exegesis is a novel approach to the biblical anthropomorphisms, which are no longer allegorized away, as in Alexandrian Judaism, but appropriated to the second divine person:

Wherever God says, “God went up from Abraham,” or “the Lord spoke to Moses,” or “the Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,” or when “God shut Noah into the ark,” you must not imagine that the unbegotten God himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither came to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in his own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, not with eyes or ears but with indescribable power; and he sees all things and knows all things, and none of us escapes his observation; and he is not moved or confined to any particular place in the whole world, for he existed before the world was made. How then could he talk with anyone, or be seen by anyone, or appear on the smallest portion of earth…? Therefore neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor anyone else saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all (even of Christ); rather did they see the one who was according to his will his Son, being God and the Angel, because he ministered to his will. ( Dial .127)

In this passage, the theological concern underlying Justin’s exegesis comes to light. The Genesis story of a God who appears in human form and is entertained by Abraham is incompatible with the divine transcendence that Justin knows not only from Greek philosophical sources but also from the Jewish scriptures themselves. The differentiation of God from God serves to preserve the divine transcendence, which is apparently compromised by the particularity of the theophanies; and it also supports Justin’s claim that a particular human being, confined like the rest of us to a specific time and place, can nevertheless be acknowledged as “God” and “Lord.” It is the dual coming of Christ, in salvation and judgment, that Justin sees typologically foreshadowed in this passage.


Two and a half centuries after Justin, Augustine’s interpretative concerns are quite different. Once again, however, it is an inner-Christian debate that motivates his reflection on the Genesis narrative: the debate not now with Marcion or Gnosticism but with Arianism or semi-Arianism, according to which the word “God” cannot be applied to the Son or the Spirit as unequivocally as to the Father. In such an intellectual context, Justin’s exegesis will have to be rejected. Originally intended to show that scripture supports the Christian belief in a divine mediator between the invisible God and the created order, this same exegesis can later be employed to show the ontological inferiority of the Son to the Father. Augustine therefore seeks to undermine it, and to read Genesis 18-19 differently.

In Genesis 18.1, we read that “the Lord appeared to him” (that is, to Abraham). Is this to be understood as a manifestation of the pre-existent Son, as the traditional but now problematic exegesis insists? While it is true that the title “Lord” is often appropriated to the Son (cf. 1 Cor.8.5-6), it is elsewhere appropriated to the Father, in clear distinction from the Son (Psalm 2.7, 110.1), and to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.3.17). The theophany to Abraham might have been an appearance of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Spirit, or of the whole trinity together. Indeed, this last possibility becomes very attractive when we read how the Lord appears in the form of three men (Gen.18.1-2) – a point that the traditional exegesis cannot satisfactorily explain. As the narrative unfolds, we see how Abraham “invites them, and washes their feet, and leads them forth at their departure, as though they were men; but he speaks as with the Lord God, whether when a son is promised to him, or when the destruction impending over Sodom is shown to him” ( De Trin . ii.19). If only one man had appeared, there might have been some basis for the Arianizing reading. Yet that is not the case. “Since three men appeared, and no one of them is said to be greater than the rest either in form, or age, or power, why should we not here understand, as visibly intimated by the visible creature, the equality of the Trinity, and one and the same substance in three persons?” ( De Trin . ii. 20). If, later in the narrative, Abraham is said to speak to one of the three as to the Lord, whereas the two who proceed to Sodom are identified as angels, Augustine must show that even here there is no inequality in the Trinity. These “angels,” he must argue, are not what they seem.

The Lord goes his way after the dialogue with Abraham, and we might suppose that the two “angels” were sent by him to carry out the work of destruction, and that they are therefore his ontological inferiors. According to Augustine, however, that would be incorrect. Initially, Lot speaks with the angels as with two men; they are no less of a plurality than his two daughters. But then, when they have brought him outside the city, Lot suddenly begins to address them in the singular: “Not so, my lord,” rather than, “Not so, my lords.” He was clearly not addressing the Lord who had departed from Abraham, and had sent his angels; the two are not rejoined here by a third. Nor is he speaking to just one of the two, for scripture states that “Lot said to them , ‘Not so, my lord.'” This narrative incongruity testifies both to the plurality in number of the (two) divine persons and to their unity of substance, which makes it possible to address the two as one. One final question is easy enough to answer: which of the two divine persons are represented by these “angels”? Most probably it is the Son and the Spirit, for an angel is one who has been “sent,” and elsewhere in scripture it is said of the Son and the Spirit that they are sent, but not of the Father ( De Trin . ii.22). It is, then, not just angels but the co-equal divine Son and Spirit who visit Sodom and enjoy Lot’s hospitality there.

Exegetically, the difference between this reading and Justin’s is that Justin exploits the discrepancy between divine transcendence and the narrative’s rendering of a quasi-physical divine presence; the “vertical” differentiation of the Lord on earth from the Lord in heaven is the crucial point that Genesis 19.24 enables him to establish. The fact that the Lord who communes with Abraham is clearly differentiated from the angels who proceed to Sodom is convenient for him; since two of the three turn out to be (merely) angels, the fact that the theophany takes the form of an appearance of three can be disregarded. For Augustine, it is the “horizontal” relationship between the three that matters. His insistence that the appearance of the Lord (18.1) is identical to the appearance of the three (18.2) compels him to bestow co-equal divinity on the supposed “angels” – who are therefore addressed by Lot as the one Lord. In developing their respective theological claims, both readings can legitimately be said to find some support in the text; and each is in a position to point out the blindnesses of the other.


In turning from Augustine to Calvin, we move to a different interpretative genre. Augustine’s interpretative aim is to use the biblical text to help to establish and defend his trinitarian doctrine, whereas Calvin writes as a commentator on Genesis, his aim being to combine responsible exegesis with edification and instruction. The commentator and the constructive theologian must each deal with many matters that the other can overlook – even when the same individual practices within both interpretative genres, as in the case of both Augustine and Calvin. Even when allowance is made for the change of genres, however, it is still striking how completely uninterested Calvin is in claiming this narrative for post-Arian trinitarian orthodoxy. His interests lie elsewhere.

Why did the Lord appear again to Abraham, repeating the promise of the son that had already been given in the previous chapter? The repetition reflects the significance of the promise of Isaac’s birth: “For the promise concerning Isaac, from whom at length redemption and salvation should shine forth to the world, cannot be extolled in terms adequate to its dignity” ( Genesis , 1.468). The “three men” were in fact three angels, but they are described as “men” because that was what Abraham took them to be. The story of their appearance is above all an object lesson in hospitality ; Calvin follows the lead of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which exhorts its readers to show hospitality to strangers, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb.13.2). Abraham’s hospitality was not the kind that expects something in return:

Wherefore the humanity of Abraham deserves no slight praise; because he freely invites men who were to him unknown, through whom he had received no advantage, and from whom he had no hope of mutual favours. What, therefore, was Abraham’s object? Truly, that he might relieve the necessity of his guests. He sees them wearied with their journey, and has no doubt that they are overcome by heat; he considers that the time of day was becoming dangerous to travelers; and therefore he wishes both to comfort and to relieve persons thus oppressed. And certainly, the sense of nature itself dictates that strangers are to be especially assisted; unless blind self-love rather impels us to mercenary services. ( Genesis , 1.469)

After demonstrating that inns – establishments that turn the duty of hospitality into a means of profit – are a sign of our current depravity, Calvin finally addresses the trinitarian question in connection with the phrase, .”.. and bowed himself toward the ground” (Gen.18.2). This is, he argues, a mere piece of traditional courtesy, and has no profound theological significance:

This token of reverence was in common use with oriental nations. The mystery which some of the ancient writers have endeavoured to elicit from this act, namely, that Abraham adored one out of the three whom he saw, and therefore perceived by faith that there are three persons in one God, since it is frivolous and liable to ridicule and calumny, I am more than content to omit. For we have said before that the angels were so received by the holy man as by one who intended to discharge a duty towards men. ( Genesis , 1.470)

Unencumbered by such trinitarian concerns, Calvin can attend more closely to the narrative itself. Minor details come to life in his hands. Why, for example, did Abraham offer his guests only bread, when it was his intention to prepare for them a rich feast?

As to his offering them simply a morsel of bread, he makes light of an act of kindness which he was about to do, not only for the sake of avoiding all boasting, but in order that they might the more easily yield to his counsel and his entreaties, when they were persuaded that they should not prove too burdensome and troublesome to him. ( Genesis , 1.471)

Excessive concern with a highly particular set of theological questions would cause us to overlook the “humanistic” dimension of the text, which for Calvin is an indispensable element in a theological exegesis that is genuinely attentive to the text itself.

Calvin does believe that God spoke especially through one of the angels, who was identified with the pre-incarnate Christ, and to that extent he continues the exegetical tradition represented by Justin: “Whenever [God] manifested himself to the fathers, Christ was the Mediator between him and them” ( Genesis , 1.475). It was Christ with whom Abraham spoke of the fate of Sodom. Yet he makes little use of this belief in his exegetical practice. It does not occur to him to draw a trinitarian point from Lot’s addressing the two as if speaking to one:

Though Lot saw two persons, he yet directs his discourse to one. Whence we infer, that he did not rely upon the angels; because he was well convinced that they had no authority of their own, and that his salvation was not placed in their hands. He therefore uses their presence in no other way than as a mirror, in which the face of God may be contemplated. ( Genesis , 1.510)

More important for Calvin is the fact that Lot at this point refuses the safety of the hills that has been offered him, and demands safety instead in the town of Zoar. How typical of human nature, which, left to its own devices, seeks safety in hell itself rather than in heaven! Yet, in his great mercy, the Lord heeds even this prayer. The lesson is clear: “Since God so kindly and gently bears with the evil wishes of his own people, what will he not do for us if our prayers are regulated according to the pure direction of his Spirit, and are drawn from his word?” ( Genesis , 1.511). Everywhere, the text lends itself to instruction and edification.

Calvin’s reading of this story suggests two broader conclusions. First, it is a mistake to imagine that so-called “pre-critical” Christian Old Testament exegesis was concerned exclusively with narrowly “christological” readings of the narratives. It is of course not the case that Calvin was uninterested in christology; it is rather that his christological and trinitarian beliefs constitute a general framework within which the text can be read with particular attention to its implications for practical Christian living. The existence of different interpretative genres, and of differences of interpretative practice within those genres, should make us wary of all generalizations about the Christian exegetical tradition.

Second, Calvin’s rejection of the trinitarian reading of Genesis 18-19 draws attention to the fact that interpretative difference is often also interpretative disagreement. The diversity of Christian readings of this text should not be seen as demonstrating that meaning is irreducibly plural, being determined by the interests of interpreters and the communities they serve. Neither Calvin nor Augustine would have understood their differences in this way, which would for them have deprived the scriptural word of its divine authority, as well as radically individualizing the work of the interpreter. Interpretative disagreement presupposes a shared framework that enables further dialogue; pure interpretative difference without disagreement represents the breakdown of dialogue.


Like Justin and Augustine, but unlike Calvin, our final interpreter is very interested in the relation of YHWH to the three and to the two – but for a quite different reason. Hermann Gunkel wishes us to understand this story as the outcome of complex diachronic processes, thereby adding an all-important third dimension to the two-dimensional surface of the text. Thus Gunkel immediately resolves the old problem of relating the appearance of YHWH (Gen.18.1) to that of the three men (18.2), by assigning v.1a to an editor and v.2 to an “old legend” that begins with v.1b. As Gunkel notes, the alternation between singular and plural that begins here continues throughout the narrative (v.2 pl.; v.3 sing.; v.5 pl. [LXX v.5.b sing.]; v.8 pl.; v.9 pl. [LXX sing.]; v.10 sing.; vv.13-15 sing.; v.16 pl.):

Formerly, this circumstance was usually explained by identifying one of the three as the master and the other two as servants: Yahweh and the two angels. V.5b contradicts this understanding, however. In it all three agree to remain with Abraham. It would have been solely the master’s prerogative to make this decision. It is equally remarkable that all three begin the mealtime conversation in v.9, but that then one continues it in v.10. The alternation between singular and plural follows no principle, then, but is entirely haphazard. ( Genesis , trans. Mark E. Biddle, Mercer University Press 1997, p. 193)

Source-critical solutions to this problem are unsuccessful, and we should conclude instead that an older polytheistic narrative about the visit of three (equal) deities has been taken over and adapted to the Yahwistic faith. The fact that the deity is here said to eat is a sign of this story’s age; according to Judges 13.16, even an angel cannot eat human food ( Genesis , 196).

The legend contains such ancient elements (the deity appears in person, he eats bread and veal, they lie down at table, there is no wine) that it does not seem too bold to hypothesize that the narrative may stem from a pre-Yahwistic period in which these three men were not originally messengers of Yahweh, but three gods. Israel would then have later applied this legend, like others, to Yahweh . . . The introduction of the singular into the account . . . would then signify a progressive Yahwization of the narrative . . . ( Genesis , p. 199)

Gunkel finds external support for this hypothesis in a Greek narrative in which Zeus, Poseidon and Hermes are received by an old, childless man from Boeotia, Hyrieus, to whom, after the meal, they promise a son (Orion) who is to be born of divine seed. “It can hardly be denied that it is essentially the same legend” ( Genesis , 199). In the original form of the legend as applied to Abraham, this must have been the first occasion on which a son was promised; the legend therefore shows no knowledge of Genesis 15. “Here, then, is evidence for our hypothesis concerning all the old legends in the earliest form: every legend stands alone” (200).

To what extent is Gunkel’s still a recognizably “Christian” reading of Genesis 18? The approach corresponds to the fundamental tenets of the Religionsgeschichtlicheschule , as articulated especially by Ernst Troeltsch. Religion is seen as a unitary, purely human phenomenon, and boundaries between religious traditions are regarded as artificial and tendentious. We ourselves stand at a particular point in the history of religion, and by looking back at its earlier forms we become aware of the facts of change, development and progress. Christianity itself is not “the absolute religion.” It may seem to represent that for us, but who knows how parochial such a claim will look thousands of years into the future? If Gunkel’s exegetical insights are valid, however, it should be possible to detach them from the Troeltschian metanarrative and put them to use within a different context.

To add an important note: “Christian” or not, it is inappropriate to describe Gunkel’s exegesis as “anti-Jewish.” It is unfortunately necessary to touch on this point, although only in passing, in response to some remarks in the entry on “Genesis” in the recent Abingdon Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation . According to this, Gunkel was infected with a sense of personal animus against Judaism, which colored his writings. The biblical figure of Jacob was the special target of his disdain; he described him as the archetypical Jew, whose deception delighted his “happy heirs.” Because of such judgments many Jewish scholars viewed higher biblical criticism as “a form of subtle anti-Judaism, if not anti-Semitism . . .” (1.440).

In response, it is sufficient simply to quote Gunkel’s own remarks about the Jacob narrative:

Older and more recent theologians have felt obligated to justify religiously and ethically the standpoint from which this narrative is recounted… In an equally unhistorical manner, modern “anti-Semites” are accustomed to derive the true character of the people of Israel, indeed of the Bible, from this and similar narratives. The voice of the truth-loving historian has been heard rarely enough in this battle which over-anxious piety and malicious impiety wage against one another. ( Genesis , 300)

Gunkel draws attention especially to the humorous element in the Jacob narratives. It is regrettable that Gunkel should be posthumously accused of precisely the moral and intellectual error that he here seeks to counter. The real problems that “higher biblical criticism” still poses to conservative Jewish and Christian believers cannot be dispelled by labeling the whole edifice “anti-Semitic.”

Some Conclusions

These readings in Christian interpretation of Genesis 18-19 do not themselves add up to a Christian reading of this text. At best, they serve as prolegomena to such a reading. In brief, I myself would evaluate the four contributions as follows:

(1) Whatever its limitations, Gunkel’s reading of this narrative seems to me to be illuminating. If the thesis about the “Yahwization” of an originally polytheistic story seems offensive and/or speculative, one would have to reckon with the overwhelming likelihood that just such a process has occurred in the case of the Genesis flood-narrative in relation to the Babylonian story preserved especially on tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh , to give just one of several possible examples. There is no good reason why such an approach to the Genesis material should seem “offensive” – except to those who still find it difficult to accept the presence of “legends” within the biblical narrative. There is no good reason why such an approach to the Genesis material should seem “offensive” except to those who still find it difficult to accept the presence of “legends” within the biblical narrative. But from a Christian theological standpoint at least, there is everything to be gained from simply abandoning the various questions that arise when the “historicity” of the narrative is assumed. (“Did the pre-existent Christ, appearing in the guise of an angel, really eat, or just pretend to do so?” and so on.)

(2) Calvin’s reading is a reminder that the Bible is more than an occasion for dogmatic construction. It is above all a guide to Christian living, and the aim of the dogmatic construction is simply to describe the framework that enables this Christian living – which for Calvin includes a significant “humanistic” component, and is not to be understood in narrowly particularist terms. Doctrinal construction is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

(3) Augustine’s reading is (for me) by far the most problematic of the four, although it is fascinating to observe his agility in deriving textual support for an interpretation that is basically incredible. Tempting though it might be to see the mystery of the one and the three in the opening verses of Genesis 18, the attraction of such a reading palls when it emerges that Lot’s guests, who are delivered from sexual outrage only by desperate expedients, are none other than the eternal divine Son and the equally eternal and divine Spirit. Such a reading makes Christian trinitarian theology itself “liable to ridicule and calumny,” as Calvin put it.

(4) Justin’s reading is in some ways the most theologically profound of the four, in its use of the story to reflect on the mystery of a divine being that can be identified with a particular creaturely reality without detriment to its transcendence. Since divine transcendence is also divine freedom, it can embrace particularity rather than dissolving it: that is the doctrine of God that Justin has begun to learn from the Christian gospel, and that he also finds in the picture-language of the Genesis narrative. It would be possible to develop this reading with more attention to the actual content of a narrative marked by the polarity between divine grace (the promise of a son) and divine judgment (the destruction of Sodom). Within the Christian Bible, this pattern can only foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s definitive, unsurpassable saving action on the world’s behalf. But developing that point would require another paper!

Title Page | Archive
© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning