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
As we continue to examine the blurry encounter of Genesis 18—of Abraham, Sarah, and these strangers, it is important to recognize that the lens through which our forebearers have historically viewed this story is the lens of hospitality.
These strangers were exposed.
They needed help—protection from their environment, sustenance for the journey—and Abraham and Sarah gave it.
If you, like me, are troubled and uncertain about how to act, about how to live out our moral responsibility, then this theophany introduces us to unrestrained hospitality—the unrestrained hospitality of Abraham and Sarah.
This story begins with Abraham being visited by God—communing with God. Before the three visitors even arrive, Abraham is having a divine experience.
And yet, he is still keeping his eyes on the horizon, looking for those who may need his help in the heat of the mid-day desert. He sees three travelers and runs to them.
Rabbi Nahum Ward Lev writes, “Abraham immediately turned from his spiritual meditation and ‘ran’ toward the strangers to beg them to come to his tent to enjoy his food and drink.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis says it’s as if “Abraham says, ‘God, yes, you are talking to me…but could you hold on a moment please? Don’t leave…just hang on please because I have to look after these strangers.’”
Right out of the gates, I’m a bit unsettled by this unrestrained hospitality.
I don’t know that I would do this. I’m not sure I’ve ever done this. Have I ever been communing with God—having an experience with the divine—and told God to hang on so I can take care of some strangers?
In my modern mind, these are two separate acts. I pray, I study, I worship—all in an effort to commune with the divine—to develop my relationship with God. Then, when that’s over, hopefully, I engage in acts of service and caring for others. But that doesn’t sound like unrestrained hospitality does it? It sounds more like scheduled hospitality—hospitality at the right time and place for me.
The ancient biblical interpretations of the Talmud state that “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the divine presence.” But I can’t say that when my eyes have been closed in prayer, focused in study, or raised in worship, that they have simultaneously been trained on the horizon—scanning for strangers in need of help. And even if they were, would I really abandon my prayer, ask God to hold while I took care of someone else?
For that matter, Abraham and Sarah don’t simply “take care” of these strangers the way that I do when someone needs my help. Abraham runs to them, bows before them, honors them, invites them in. Abraham and Sarah prepare and offer the best that they have in food and drink with urgency and expediency, extending the strangers all courtesy and freedom, behaving as though this is a matter of life and death.
This is a pretty high bar for serving others—seeming to abandon communion with God in order to offer everything they have to strangers. Chief Rabbi Mirvis says, “That is precisely the point. When we are on the lookout for fellow human beings to help, it’s part of our relationship with God.
Our concern for others and our responsibility toward them is interwoven in our connection to God.
When Abraham ran toward those strangers, he wasn’t leaving God behind. He took God with him. By engaging the strangers and showing them blessing, Abraham and Sarah were connecting with God in a very deep and special way.” In other words, communing with God and caring for strangers are not separate activities. They are connected. They are one—in the blurry reorientation of this theophany. Is God communing with Abraham before the strangers arrive or is God among the strangers that Abraham serves?
The story answers: Yes.
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