Genesis 18

Two pronouncements, one laugh, and a very humble negotiation mark this chapter. Here again the majority is a theophany scene, opening with God/“God” appearing to Abraham with two attendants – in what manner we should consider these fellows is not elucidated – but unlike the previous encounters this time it is “in the flesh”, as it were, or at least in the guise of having flesh and the shape of a human being. Isaac’s birth is foretold as it was in the preceding section (17.16, 21), but now it is Sarah who laughs at the prospect rather than Abraham (compare 17.17 and 18.12). In the immediately following pair of verses God/“God” then actually reveals itself, giving full disclosure and yet remaining there in the form of a person to continue the conversation. This is quite astounding, and worth quoting in full:

18.13-14: “Then the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’”

God/“God” makes the direct connection between “Is anything too wondrous for the LORD?” – the Tetragrammaton – with the first-person pronoun “I”, thus eliminating any other interpretations of the questioner’s identity which might have been made. LORD = I, transcendent deity sitting here under a tree and enjoying the generous meal you, Abraham, have laid out for me. This is of course unsettling enough for a modern reader, but Genesis has given other instances of this kind of God/“God”-here-and-now, and it will continue to do so as its narratives unfold; to me, therefore, what is most surprising is not that but rather the non-reaction the text assigns to Abraham at this turn of events. Sarah, for her part, is given as being “frightened” (verse fifteen) – and surely we cannot blame her; I would probably try to hide somewhere – but Abraham instead calmly joins God/“God” and the mysterious adjoining duo to see them on their way (to the ancient mind these might well have been taken as lesser deities, an image that preceded the concept of “angel” or “divine messenger” which was something that developed over a long period).

Much has been made of the next portion wherein God/“God” somewhat indirectly informs Abraham that it wishes to judge the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham – in language that is very deferential – bit by bit gets God/“God” to agree to forgive everyone should a mere ten innocent (i.e. upright) people be found. (Verse twenty-one: “I [this is God/“God” speaking] will go down to see whether they [the inhabitants] have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The “take note” part there is chilling, but not particularly detailed.) Both the actual assent of the divine to change its decision, and that everyone should be pardoned for the sake of a few rather than each individual be responsible for their own specific conduct, are points that are almost limitless in the notional implications involved, but perhaps due to this great depth it may be easy to overlook the setting in which this takes place.

As mentioned, God/“God” has just directly stated that it is present, manifest as a traveler, that it has eaten and drank of the meal provided as hospitality for guests, and then with apparent aplomb Abraham gets up and walks with God/“God” – still remaining “human” – and accompanies it and its probably-numinous companions on a walk towards Sodom (verse sixteen). The story does not have Abraham run away in terror, it does not have him bow down in awe nor even hide his face as he did earlier (17.17), it simply has him stroll and chat with the divinity. It is mind-boggling. Scholars think that this is probably from the J source and hence a very early layer (maybe tenth century BCE), and the presentation may reflect that as the older theophanic stories are much more of this sort than the later “voice from heaven” type, but if we allow ourselves to see in this something more than pure antiquity I think a profound lesson lies waiting to be discovered. The Absolute Other – in whatever way we may wish to think it, and not even necessarily as a being per se – gives itself to Abraham and he accepts it as is, he takes this miracle of existence in stride (literally!) and seeks neither escape nor explanation. He stays in the moment – as himself, in perfect candor – and tries to relate. Would that we might all find such comportment for life and its many marvelous surprises.

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