God appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham lifted his eyes and saw three men nearby. He ran from his tent to greet them and bowed before them. He said, “Master, if it please you, stop for a while with your servant. I’ll get some water so you can wash your feet. Rest under this tree. I’ll get some food to refresh you on your way, since your travels have brought you across my path.” They said, “Certainly. Go ahead.” Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. He said, “Hurry. Get three cups of our best flour; knead it and make bread." Then Abraham ran to the cattle pen and picked out a nice plump calf and gave it to the servant who lost no time getting it ready. Then he got curds and milk, brought them with the calf that had been roasted, set the meal before the men, and stood there under the tree while they ate. The men said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” He said, “In the tent.” One of them said, “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man. Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’ Is anything too hard for God? I’ll be back about this time next year, and Sarah will have a baby.” Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh," because she was afraid. But he said, "Yes, you did; you laughed." When the men got up to leave, they set off for Sodom. Abraham walked with them to say good-bye. GENESIS 18:1-16
In the early 1930’s, the remains of three clay tablets containing roughly 650 lines of poetry were discovered among the ancient ruins of Ugarit—in what is now Syria. These tablets contain parts of a 3,400-year-old Canaanite myth known as the Epic of Aqhat. Part of the ancient Epic of Aqhat relays the story of Dan’el—a childless, righteous ruler who petitions the gods for a son. Eventually, divine representatives traveling through Dan’el’s town are shown great hospitality as Dan’el and his wife prepare the strangers a meal of cooked lamb. Ultimately, Dan’el and his wife are granted a son. The story of Dan’el and his wife in the Epic of Aqhat, much like this story of Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis, is built around what is known as a theophany.
A theophany is an encounter between the divine and the human—an appearance of God to a person or group of people.
Theophanies were a common occurrence in ancient near Eastern literature as many stories were told of humans encountering the gods or the messengers of the gods. Coming forward from the ancient Canaanite and Israelite stories, there are even parallels in Greek literature—theophanies that include three gods in human form visiting a childless host and granting them a child. These theophanies—these stories of encountering and receiving divine strangers—are found in many cultures and ancient writings. More often than not, these theophany stories are more abstract or playful with the specifics about God than we might prefer. As modern, western thinkers, we may come to a theophany like the one in Genesis 18 and find ourselves frustrated over the fuzzy nature of the divine details. We want to make sense of it all. Who were the three travelers? Was one of the strangers God—like God and two angels? Or were all of the strangers God? Are Christians supposed to read the Trinity into this story even though the doctrine of the Trinity would not exist for centuries? Doesn’t this story say that God is with Abraham before the visitors arrived? Which one is God? Where is God supposed to be? The identity of who is speaking to Abraham and Sarah in this story bounces around from God, to all of the visitors, to one of the visitors, and back to God. It is extremely difficult to follow who everyone really is. It’s as if our vision is blurred.
It doesn’t all quite fit the way we want it to fit.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann warns against making a theophany story like this one address questions it was never meant to answer. He says who the strangers are—or precisely where God is at any given moment—is not the point of this story. According to Brueggemann, this story is not told to address questions of the Trinity or what God looks like. Instead, this theophany offers a divine revelation. Though it may appear a little blurry, this theophany is a lens through which to examine our relationship with God and each other. You know, if we zoom out on the story of Abraham and Sarah to examine the broad strokes, what we see is a couple of people who were pretty much done. They were an elderly, childless couple—most likely discarded, forgotten, and overlooked by everyone else. These folks are not the kind of people anyone would expect to birth something new into the world. They couldn’t even wrap their own minds around it. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t understand how they would be a part of something miraculous. They don’t fit the mold.
What could they possibly do?
Furthermore, their journey with God is a journey filled with missteps. Their record is not that good. They rarely get it right. In terms of the biblical narrative, Abraham and Sarah are the original “one step forward, two steps back” people. Are we really supposed to learn about our relationship with God and each other from these two? Rabbi Nahum Ward Lev says, “Yes.” In fact, he describes the stories of Abraham and Sarah as having practical value to us “because they show Abraham and Sarah being, at times, troubled and uncertain about how to act—about how to live out their moral responsibility” in covenant relationship with this God. Now that, is something to which I can relate.
I am frequently and presently troubled.
I am frequently and presently uncertain about how to act.
I often misunderstand, misinterpret, or misapply my moral responsibility.
Sometimes, I just miss it altogether.
I need a theophany.
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