Abraham’s Visitors

Daniel W. Hardy, University of Cambridge

Two preparatory papers are available to me as I write these comments, those by Elliott Wolfson and Francis Watson. I have found them very helpful and illuminating indeed, but I shall not attempt to respond to them directly or in detail. Rather, I wish to ask about the overall meaning of the passage on which they comment.

The text, I believe, places us as readers within the events being narrated. Unlike our normal role as critical observers, the text “observes” us, like an icon placing us in a reversed perspective where the lines that give the text its meaning (which in Western art meet in the distant horizon) meet in us, incorporating us within the field portrayed. In that way, we are already “marked” by the coming of the Lord and by the choice of Abraham and Sarah by the Lord. In that sense, neither the text itself nor we in ourselves are ever complete (cf. Wolfson ). And something very important occurs: both text and we are renewed ever and again. The Christian counterpart of this is what occurs in Eucharistic worship. What Wolfson describes of Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas and the kabbalists – the quest for meaning unfolding in time – happens in a significantly multidimensional fashion in the Eucharist: there we are transformed in every aspect of our being. This is the Christian counterpart of circumcision for the Jews and Muslims, and no less definite in its transformative import.

More important, the reading of this particular text places us in the dynamic field of the divine presence as operative in the world. This is a field interwoven with ongoing history because it is that which gives this history its full significance. It promises Abraham that he “will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him” (18.18). Abraham with Sarah embodies the nation to come, and embodies blessing for all nations. His embodiment of blessing is particularized in his nation, but thereby extended to all, as inclusive of them.

To place these events within the histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to ask the questions “normal” to them, has been the means by which these traditions have enhanced their positions, even to the extent of marginalizing or excluding the others. Such questions as “where is the Lord?” the tracing of vestigia trinitatis in the threeness of the visitors, the primacy of circumcision and the intensity of the sacrifice involved, etc., are the beginning of the problems that not only beset the interpretation of this passage but also divide the traditions. They have their place, of course, but they are also held within the dynamic field exemplified in the text. Unless that is realized, they are potentially very destructive.

What is more primary to the text is not so much spatial dynamics – “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions (see Watson) – as that it combines the “intensity” of the presence of the Lord with the “extensity” of the Lord’s operation in human history. This is what accounts for “the shift from the one to the three in the introduction to this narrative (vv.1-3) matched by a corresponding shift in Abraham’s speech (vv.3-5)” (Watson). On the one hand, the Lord is self-identical (“simple”) but complex in historical involvement. On the other hand, the Lord’s operation is both participatory in special involvement with those chosen, and also extensive in the blessing thereby conferred. No wonder that the text is polyvalent! Too much is concentrated here to find a “proper” meaning favoring any of the three religious traditions. And that makes the text especially important as the occasion for their mutual engagement!

What seems to lie at the heart of this text is indwelling the other , how the Lord fully indwells the three visitors without displacing their identities, and they indwell the Lord without displacing the identity proper to the Lord. That is the gift and promise to which Abraham and Sarah assent, and by doing so dwell in the fullness of the blessing of the Lord. That indwelling becomes their blessing upon all nations, calling us likewise to dwell in it – and so indwell each other.