Re-Figuring Hospitality: Interpreting Incarnation in Genesis 18-19

Willie Young, Loyola College in Maryland

First, let me express my thanks to both Francis Watson and Elliot Wolfson for their excellent and stimulating papers. Francis has pointed us toward several tensions in the readings of Genesis 18-19 within the Christian tradition, and I would like to build upon this work by addressing a minor issue that also relates to Gene Rogers’ response. Specifically, when Abraham feeds the visitors, do they really have bodies, and do they really eat the food?

When St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this issue, he draws upon and dislocates both the Justinian and Augustinian approaches to the story by seeing divine presence as operating at the figurative level. In short, he reads the “three persons” as angels, and Abraham “sees God” in them as one may see God in prophets who are human. For Aquinas, the three “men” who represent the Lord are neither three men – nor the Lord. The angels prefigure the coming of Christ, and the dwelling and eating of Christ with the faithful, in this life and the next. The odd irony, here, is the following: because Aquinas does not see the angels as fully embodying divine presence, he also does not see them as fully eating with Abraham. In other words, because he reads the literal text as indicating “angels” rather than men or God, it is in the figurative interpretation of the text that divine presence shines forth. My goal, here, is to take the issue of eating as epitomizing some of the problems that figurative interpretation may encounter in addressing issues of embodiment.

In the Summa Theologiae , Aquinas addresses the issue of whether or not angels can assume bodies. The answer is affirmative, and for the sed contra (“on the contrary,” an argument from authority that begins Aquinas’ response to the question), Aquinas cites Augustine, saying that angels appeared to Abraham under assumed bodies (citing City of God , xvi). Aquinas’ argument then proceeds through several important points: while angels are not embodied creatures, nor have bodies by nature, they can nonetheless assume bodies. They do so on our account: “that by conversing familiarly with men they may give evidence of that intellectual companionship which men expect to have with them in the life to come”(ST I.51.2 ad 1). The angelic assumption of bodies enables the “spiritual communication” or intellectual companionship constitutive of charity as friendship with God (II-II.23.1). Furthermore, such assumption figuratively indicates the incarnation, the Son’s union with the flesh – so that the truth of the Incarnation, for Aquinas , surpasses that of its figuration, or, to use one traditional way of phrasing it, the angelic type is surpassed by its antitype in Christ. [12]

In the next article, where he argues that angels do not exercise vital functions in bodies, Aquinas explores how the angels ate with Abraham. Strictly speaking, they cannot eat, because eating converts food into the substance of the eater, but material food cannot be converted into angelic substance. Thus, their eating “was not a true eating, but figurative of spiritual eating” (ST I.51.3). The point, of such figuration, again is to establish fellowship and allow hospitality: “Abraham offered them food, deeming them to be men, in whom, nevertheless, he worshipped God, as God is wont to be in the prophets, as Augustine says”(ST I.51.3, my emphasis). By visibly offering food, Abraham shows spiritual hospitality; by their visible “eating,” they accept this fellowship and share in the feast. Later in the Summa , Aquinas explains how angels can do so. In I.111.4, Aquinas argues that angels can inflict sensory changes upon people through the use of material things, as the angels who overturn Sodom inflict blindness upon the men at Lot’s door. For Aquinas, it seems clear that such material change is directed toward a spiritual transformation.

Aquinas’ discussion of the visitors is consistent with much of the angelology in the Summa . However, the emphasis on incarnation in Elliot’s paper and the interpretations described by Francis both raise intriguing questions about Aquinas’s hermeneutics. It would seem that Aquinas limits the literal sense of divine presence in Genesis, precisely so as to open a figurative reading that signifies God’s presence in Christ. The question, then, is how one sees God “in the flesh” of the visitors, an issue central to Elliot’s paper. Aquinas’ reading of the visitors as angels is consistent with his figurative interpretation of the rite of circumcision. For Aquinas, the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law were legitimate insofar as they directed their practitioners toward spiritual fellowship and prefigured the coming of Christ. In light of the New Law of Christ, however, these precepts were no longer seen as necessary. Thus, for Aquinas , both the bodies of the “angels” and the bodily rite of circumcision point toward a deeper fulfillment of divine presence in one’s heart through Christ’s incarnation. Both the bodies of the men, and the bodily rite, are “assumed” (an exterior enactment) to direct one toward full interior union with God, but the bodies themselves are not central to this union. The polemical possibilities are clear in relation to the views set forth in Elliot’s paper. If faith in Christ circumcises the heart, then a fleshly circumcision is no longer necessary. Perhaps the Eucharist provides a substitution for Abraham’s hospitality, enacting a different ritual that still involves a fleshly, embodied welcoming of a divine stranger?

This leads me to two concluding questions:

1. Both Justin and Augustine use figural interpretation to intensify the divine presence in the story of Abraham. Their interpretations are incompatible, since they focus on either vertical or horizontal differentiation, yet both read the scripture in ways that intensify the divine presence in the story for their communities. Aquinas’ approach goes in a different direction, restricting divine presence so as to reconceive divine presence in the incarnation. I point this out just to suggest that figural interpretation can function in both ways, though I personally prefer the Justinian and Augustinian approaches that Francis explicates.

Still, Aquinas’ interpretation does raise the question: under what conditions would his reading be acceptable, or help a community to understand divine activity more fully? Or, alternatively, when is such a reading untenable, and for what reasons? What do we make of his reading in the context of a discussion among Christianity, Judaism and Islam?

2. The connection in Elliot’s paper between incarnation and the demand for justice is intriguing. I am deeply puzzled, as a Christian, as to why the Christian interpretations set forth so continuously ignore Abraham’s questioning of God’s actions toward Sodom (and none ignore this more than Aquinas). In our conversation in Denver, Francis made the point that this is an important connection for Christian theology, so I do not mean to overgeneralize, nor suggest that such an interpretation is impossible. Still, at the least, the authors discussed do not see Abraham’s questioning as a central element of divine presence, or connect it with Abraham’s hospitality to the same extent as our Muslim and Jewish colleagues; the connection of incarnation and justice may be part of Christian interpretation, but in the context of SSR discussion, it is less central than in the other traditions. Furthermore, in Aquinas’ approach, I do not see this connection developed, and his restriction of divine presence in Gen. 18-19 also seems to restrict the significance of Abraham’s questioning of God, and the importance of his pursuit of justice.

In more systematic terms, one could ask the following: if Christ is the full incarnation of God, then does his question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22, Mt. 27: 46, Mk 15:34) enable or silence the questions of others who seek justice – such as Abraham in Genesis 18-19? With Gene Rogers, I think Christ’s questioning should be seen not only as intensifying the pattern of giving, but also opening it to others. For Christians, the cry on the cross could show the openness of God to the hearing of human questions as an intratrinitarian condition for God listening to Abraham regarding Sodom. Divine presence and the pursuit of prophetic justice would thus come together. Here, Francis’s explorations of Justin and Augustine’s readings can point toward a constructive moment of dialogue, since both emphasize the incarnate presence of God, perhaps suggesting ways to think about incarnation and justice today. In this way, while relying upon Christian practices of scriptural interpretation, Christian readers may learn from Jewish and Muslim scriptural reasoners to rethink incarnation, justice, and hospitality.

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