It Takes Two (or More): Genesis 18-19 and Communal Theophany

Brantley Craig, University of Virginia

My thanks first of all to Elliot Wolfson and Francis Watson for our two wonderful “starting point” papers, both of which are readings of the best kind – the kind that opens the way for more and further readings. I propose with my reading a slight change in focus. As I read Wolfson on the self and the other and beholding God from the flesh and Watson on the interplay of the vertical and the horizontal, I began to think of what it might look like to not only read Abraham’s visitors as God, but to read them as ourselves. Perhaps it is we, as members of our religious communities, who are the visitors to Abraham’s tent. The fact that there are three visitors is convenient for a gathering of three faiths, but I am after something bigger. Whether the three men be angels or the trinity or God separated from God, or something else entirely, their plurality is essential to a pattern established in the promise to Abraham before they arrive – a pattern continued in Christian scriptures as well – that introduces the communal nature of theophany.

The set-up of this pattern requires some backtracking. Until the story of Abraham, God in Genesis deals chiefly with individuals (Adam, Cain, Noah) or at most couples (Adam and Eve), going so far as to thwart humanity’s first attempt to reach the divine presence en masse at the Tower of Babel. God first addresses Abraham, when he is still known as Abram, as an individual (Genesis 12), but with the hint that something more is yet to come: “I will make of you a great nation.” This promise is reiterated twice more, in Genesis 15 and 17, as a covenant between God and Abraham. In Genesis 15, it is framed as a covenant between individuals, a business meeting of sorts between then-Abram and God. The promise in Genesis 17, however, is a covenant with a difference, for more persons than Abram and God are now involved; God’s promise creates a community.

Things change in Genesis 17. Watson notes the strangeness of the connection between the renaming of Abram and Sarai and the establishment of circumcision, but it is not so strange at all, for circumcision creates a new people – the people of God’s covenant – and Abram and Sarai, as the figurative and literal parents of that new people, must also become new people. Augustine, in the City of God notes the thoroughgoing theme of “newness” to this entire episode, and, indeed, for Abram and Sarai, the change in name reflects a greater newness of relationship with the divine presence. It is as Abraham and Sarah that they will begin to behold God in the flesh – in their renamed flesh, in the flesh of the circumcised males of Abraham’s household, and in their own flesh and blood as their son Isaac. The promise to Abraham and the covenant of circumcision have done what the Tower of Babel could not: brought a community into the presence of God.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the theophany that follows at the oaks of Mamre takes a plural form. That three figures come to Abraham need not indicate a privileging of either the vertical or the horizontal (or, perhaps, the universal and the particular), but rather it indicates that revelation entails an intersection of the two. For Abraham and his children, God will be known in community. It is surely no coincidence that the visitor’s words are received by Sarah as well as Abraham, and, indeed, the visitors ask for Sarah by (new, it’s worth noting) name. If, as Wolfson and Watson show, the shift between plural and singular (and back again) in the addresses to the Lord is significant, the shift between individual and community in those the Lord addresses and is addressed by is also significant. Just as there are three visitors but one presence (however distributed), there are at least two hosts but one community (and let it not be imagined that the presence and the community can be separated). God is one, but appears in and amongst the many.

It is significant for Christian interpretation that Abraham eats with these visitors, and more significant that he is mentioned as eating bread. Not only does this scenario provide evidence to Augustine and others of the claim in Hebrews that some have “entertained angels unaware,” and foreshadow the eschatological feasts of the Kingdom of Heaven (on which see Gene Rogers’s commentary), but it establishes a precedent of communal theophany for the New Testament instances of “miraculous” eating (the feeding of the five thousand, the Last Supper, the post-Resurrection meals with Jesus on the way to Emmaus and on the lakeshore). Note that it is only after the meal that the promise is reiterated; first eat, then hear the revelation – or stranger yet, see the eating as the revelation. For Abraham and Sarah, as for the Emmaus-bound travelers in Luke, the divine presence is “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Stanley Hauerwas, in a sermon published in Unleashing the Scripture , contrasts the eating-engendered eye-opening experiences of those Emmaus travelers with the equally eating-engendered eye-opening experiences of Adam and Eve, with the difference being that Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to a sort of blindness whereas the travelers’ eyes were opened to the presence of Christ, reversing the blindness. A similar contrast can be drawn between Abraham and Sarah and the people of Sodom in Genesis 19. In Sodom, we see the concept of communal theophany inverted. Lot, like Abraham, offers bread, and eats with the two visitors. The rest of the community, however, is not so hospitable. The men of Sodom recognize no theophany in the two visitors, only an object of lust. (The exact nature of Sodom’s sins is the topic of another essay.) Perhaps the fault is in the lusting, or in trying to take contact rather than receive it, or in the simple fact of inhospitality. Whatever their sin, the end result is that the men of Sodom are not the sort of community that is fit for revelation. They are struck blind – and thus rendered incapable of seeing further signs. Their community is figuratively and literally destroyed by the end of Genesis 19. While Abraham and Sarah and their household receive the theophany and become a new people, the men of Sodom reject the theophany and lose their people-hood. That which is promised to Abraham – continued progeny, new land, a new relationship with God – is forcefully taken from Sodom. Only Lot, who, like Abraham, entered into the community of presence, is saved with his family. Like Abraham and Sarah, Lot’s family are called to be a new people. Lot’s wife, whose look back reflects an unwillingness to wholly part with the community of Sodom, is excluded, becoming lifeless salt.

What we see in the story of Abraham’s visitors, therefore, is the story of the birth of our faith communities. God is revealed to Abraham in his flesh, his household, and the visitors. The divine presence is a presence of community, which is manifest to us week after week in the church, the synagogue, and the mosque. It is no coincidence that for Christians both the bread of the Eucharist and the people of the church are called the body of Christ, for the presence of the Lord is made known in both. I cannot speak for similar details of Judaism or Islam; I will leave that to other commentators. But I submit that wherever God is embodied in the gathering of our bodies, it is a revelation as old as Abraham (and cf. Young, Hardy, and Rogers on the Eucharist).