Three Visitors and Scriptural Hermeneutics

Peter Ochs, University of Virginia

In addition to two models for how to read the story of Abraham and Sarah, we are treated here to two remarkable models for how to conduct scriptural reasoning. I’d like to offer brief comments on the strength of each type of model.

To begin with the model of scriptural reasoning in general, it is, I trust, a wonder for us to have Francis Watson, the classically trained Bible scholar, also give us what we have here so rarely: the strength of plain-sense (alias historical-critical) bible scholarship married to a sense of the immediate pragmatic force and reason for Bible study and of the traditioned character of the scriptural text as we receive it through the ages. It doesn’t take Francis long to display this multi-textured approach, since he soon moves from the Biblical texts themselves to a tantalizingly selective reception-history of them: Justin, Augustine, and Calvin. Just by the method of reading, we see the base text no longer as a predetermined line of meaning, but as a necessarily vague or polyvalent semiosis that urges a singular meaning on a particular reader while failing to manifest any universally predetermined field of meaning. Therefore we also see the interpreter – Justin, Augustine or Calvin – as drawing selectively from the text’s field of potentiality: not out of mere subjective whim or fancy, but in service to the specific communal-theological challenges of the day.

If the divine word displayed in scripture is not merely plain-sense, but plain-sense as it will disclose meaning for this generation and that generation, then the word is itself triadic. This means it is displayed (1) through the face of the plain-sense, (2) as it signifies a specific meaning (3) to a particular communal context, and is therefore displayed over and over again, because the plain-sense is not exhausted by any of its determinations. The divine word is infinite and thus a mark of the divine – an ayat , or, sign of the divine, as I learn from our colleague Basit Koshul. But to continue what I learn from him, the historical tradition of the community that elicits a given meaning is also a sign of the infinite presence, an ayat , or siman , or seme . But then, thirdly, the meaning as disclosed in the heart-mind of the interpreter – within this community examining that text – is also a sign, or ayat of the infinite one. Now, obviously, we are suggesting that it takes three signs to explain the footprint or pattern of the infinite one in our midst: three signs, you see, like the three visitors, or three angels. In other words, I am taking Francis’ selection of interpreters to be doubly significant, for I am taking the theological debate about the threeness of Abraham’s Visitor to be about the hermeneutics of receiving God’s word as well: about how we are “visited” by God by way of the divine word, which word, after all, is his messenger to us, malach , or angel.

I won’t take time here to examine the relation between each of Watson’s interpreters and their hermeneutic, except to ask if a hermeneutical pattern might be displayed therein: where each interpreter’s answer to the text’s ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ aporias will reflect the interpreter’s hermeneutical as well as theological choice. To read the visitors only as men: is this to remove any divinity from the scriptural word as we receive it, as if it were “inspired” but not infinite itself? To read a visitor as God the Son: is this to introduce divinity into the word, but as fully displayed for all? To read the three as all of God: is this to display the triadicity of the word’s divinity, displayed, that is, not all at once, but through the process of reception . . . or? Overall, do the angelic intermediaries in such readings display an interest in the indirection of scriptural hermeneutics – that is, the need to hear the divine word through a part of its triadic reception history, rather than directly, once and for all? Does Calvin’s reducing the angels to ‘mirrors’ correspond to any impatience with the triadic hermeneutic?

When we turn to Wolfson, we receive the riches of reception-history once again, but now the reception-history also enters another dimension: not only an historical succession of receivers in and outside of the self-defined limits of the scriptural tradition (from ibn Hazm to Heidegger to Wolfson), but also what we might call levels of ontological or mystical reception. Here, we engage scripture not only as a received text, but also as re-membering the Ur-levels of the giving of language: the infinitely-giving Word recollected as scripture and in scripture. Here, the polyvalence we heard through the communal receptions of scripture’s meaning extends into an infinite generativity, where the Word’s renewals may not have to await the historical moment of each community’s socio-theological crisis, but may be renewed, as if spontaneously, as if through the intrinsic generativity of the Word itself. Then we arrive at Cordovero’s kabbalistic vision of the uniqueness of each moment – so that not merely each socio-historical time but potentially every moment renews the meaning of the infinite word.

What is the hermeneutical implication of this doctrine of renewal? Interpreting the story of the three visitors, Elliot draws on Nahmanides’ reading of what he finds in Genesis Rabbah: that the three visitors are men when the Shekhinah hovers over them, but angels when it does not. This, Elliot suggests, alludes to Nahmanides’ kabbalistic understanding that God is, as it were, incarnate in the angels for the vision of those visionaries and prophets to whom the vision is granted. Perhaps the hermeneutic is clear: the context through which the infinite word becomes determinate is nothing other than the vision of the seer or prophet, and this vision needs be offered in response to specific crises in the life of an historical community. The novelty of vision outstrips the novel incursions of what we might call the “angel of disruption” into the salvation history of Israel. A purified, disciplined, ethically attentive, sanctified – circumcised – earthly life sets the condition for the word’s novel determinations. Or do I misread?

In Watson and Wolfson, then, scriptural reasoning displays two poles of scriptural polyvalence: the visitation of the word embodied in the life of specific communities and/or its incarnation in the imaginal bodies or images that stand before sanctified visionaries.