Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;XVIII.
VISIT OF ANGELS TO ABRAHAM AT MAMRE; AND OVERTHROW OF SODOM.
(1) And the Lord (Jehovah) appeared unto him.—No new section could begin in this way, but evidently this is a continuation of the narrative of the circumcision. We thus find a Jehovistic section coupled in the closest way with one which is Elohistic (comp. Genesis 17:22-23); and even here it is Elohim who for Abraham’s sake delivers Lot (Genesis 19:29). Far more important, however, is it to notice that this familiar intercourse, and clear revelation of Jehovah to Abraham, follows upon his closer relation to God by virtue of the sacrament of circumcision. Jewish tradition adds that this visit was made to Abraham on the third day after the rite had been performed, and was for the purpose of healing him from the painful consequences of it. It was on this account, as they think, that Abraham was resting at home, instead of being with his herds in the field.
The tent door.—Heb., the opening of the tent, formed by looping back one of the curtains.
The heat of the day.—The time of noon, when Orientals rest from labour (comp. Genesis 3:8). As the air in the tent would be sultry, Abraham sits in the shade on the outside. So in Genesis 18:8 the meal is spread under a tree.
And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,(2) Three men.—Jewish commentators explain the number by saying that, as no angel might execute more than one commission at a time, one of the three came to heal Abraham, the second to bear the message to Sarah, and the third to destroy Sodom. More correctly one was “the angel of Jehovah,” who came as the manifestation of Deity to Abraham, and the other two were his companions, commissioned by him afterwards to execute judgment on the cities of the plain, The number three pointed also to the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, and is therefore read by our Church as one of the lessons for Trinity Sunday. But we must be careful not to use it as a proof of this doctrine, lest the inference should be drawn of a personal appearance of the Father and of the Holy Ghost, which would savour of heretical impiety.
And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant:(3) My lord.—Heb. ‘donai, a term of simple respect, just as the bowing towards the earth is exactly what an Arab sheik would do now to a passing traveller. Abraham’s conduct is marked by all that stately courtesy usual among Orientals. He calls himself their slave: regards it as a favour that they should partake of his hospitality; speaks slightingly of the repast prepared as a mere morsel of bread; and treats it as a providential act that they had come into his neighbourhood. It was only afterwards that he knew that he was entertaining angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2). While, moreover, he addresses the chief traveller first, as courtesy required, he immediately afterwards changes to the plural, lest he should seem wanting in hospitable welcome to his companions.
Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:(4) Wash your feet.—This is the first necessity of Oriental hospitality (Judges 19:21), not merely because the feet, protected only by sandals, are soiled by the dirt of the roads, but because it cools the whole body, and allays the feverishness caused by the heat of travelling. Thus refreshed they are “to rest,” Heb., to lay themselves down, in the shade.
And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.(5) Comfort ye your hearts.—Heb., strengthen ye, the original meaning of comfort, a word formed from the Latin fortis = strong, brave. The heart in Hebrew is the sum total of all the powers, mental and bodily, of the whole man.
After that ye shall pass on.—Coming at noon, the travellers after rest and refreshment would continue their journey. It is quite plain that Abraham still regarded them as passing wayfarers.
Therefore . . . —Abraham thus suggests that his tent was pitched near to the route on purpose that he might exercise that hospitality which was and continues to be the sacred duty of an Arab sheik.
And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.(6) Three measures.—Heb. three seahs, the seah being a little more than a peck. It is still usual on the arrival of a stranger to make this hasty preparation for his entertainment, the ordinary meal even of a wealthy sheik consisting of flour and some camels’ milk boiled together. Cakes such as those here described, baked amid the embers on the hot hearth-stone, are considered a delicacy (1Kings 19:6). Flesh is seldom eaten; but if a traveller arrives, sweet milk and rice are added to the meal, and if he be a person of distinction a lamb or kid is killed. Abraham’s calf, “tender and good,” shows that he regarded his visitors as persons of more than ordinary high rank; and the quantity of food cooked seems to show that the three travellers had numerous attendants. The calf would be cut into small portions, and a meal like this is, we are told, got ready in a very short time.
And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.(8) Butter.—Heb. curds, or curdled milk. Neither the Hebrews, Greeks, nor Romans knew how to make butter, and the word itself signifies cheese made of cows’ milk. This is less prized in the East than that made from the milk of sheep, or of goats, while camels’ milk is regarded by the Arabs as best for drinking. In a hot climate milk is more refreshing when slightly sour; but Abraham brought both fresh milk (probably from the camels) and sour milk (from the sheep), and this with the cakes and the calf made a stately repast. With noble courtesy “he stood by them, and they did eat.” The Targum of Jonathan and other Jewish authorities translate “and they made show of eating,” lest it should seem as though angels ate (Judges 13:16). There is the same mystery as regards our risen Lord (Luke 24:43).
And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.(9) They said.—But in Genesis 18:10 “he said,” and in Genesis 18:13; Genesis 18:17; Genesis 18:20, &c, “the Lord (Jehovah) said.” The messenger speaks as one with Jehovah, or as being His representative.
Where is Sarah thy wife?—This question is contrary to Oriental manners, as the women may be referred to only in the most indirect manner. But during the meal Abraham, as he talked with the strangers, had probably begun to recognise in them something more than human.
And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.(10) According to the time of life.—Heb., according to the living time. It is evident from Genesis 18:14, and 2Kings 4:16-17, that these words denote some fixed period, but the exact rendering is in dispute. “When the season revives” = next spring, is entirely remote from Oriental thought, and the rendering of Zunz “at the living time” is poetical, but meaningless. The true rendering is probably “a year hence,” as when the year is over it dies, and a new year lives in its place. Jewish tradition is strongly in favour of this view, translating “according to this time next year,” and adding that the season was the Passover. The only other tenable rendering is “in course of time.”
Which was behind him.—The LXX. has a preferable reading, and she was behind it. The door, as we have seen, was an opening made by looping back the curtain, which would effectually conceal Sarah’s person.
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?(12) Sarah laughed.—See Note on Genesis 17:17. The laughter of both husband and wife brings into prominence the inconceivable character of the fact. Sarah’s conduct has been very unjustly condemned. Though Abraham may have begun to guess that his visitors were more than men, she probably had no such suspicions. Sitting inside the tent, and catching their words only occasionally, listening, perhaps, now only because she heard her own name mentioned, when she hears them talk of her having a child she naturally laughs. thinking possibly that they did not know how old she was.
After I am waxed old.—The Hebrew word is stronger and more lively. It means “to be worn out like an old garment.”
Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.(14) Is anything too hard for the Lord?—Heb., Is anything too wonderful for Jehovah? At last it is made evident that the travellers are messengers from God; but until this declaration, there could have been, at most, only a dim feeling that the visitation was more than human. Though the angel does not claim for himself divinity, yet the narrator prefixes to his words, And Jehovah said. In some ineffable way there was an identity between Jehovah and the angel.
Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.(15) Sarah denied.—With strange inconsistency Sarah knows that the speaker is Divine, and that He perceived the thoughts that passed “within herself” in the retirement of the tent, and yet denies; but it was the inconsistency of fright. Struck with terror at the thought that she had ridiculed the promise of Jehovah, she offers no excuse, but takes refuge, as frightened people are apt to do, in falsehood. Gently reproved, the result was the building-up of her faith, just as Mary’s doubt was removed and her faith perfected by the angel’s words (Luke 1:34-37).
And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.(16) The men . . . looked toward Sodom.—This visitation of God combined mercy and love for Abraham, and through him for all mankind, with the punishment of men whose wickedness was so universal that there were none left among them to bear witness for God, and labour for a better state of things. There is a strange mingling of the human and the Divine in the narrative. Even after the fuller manifestation of themselves they are still called men, and Abraham continues to discharge the ordinary duties of hospitality by accompanying them as their guide. Their route would lie to the south-east, over the hill-country of Judah, and tradition represents Abraham as having gone with them as far as the village of Caphar-Barucha, whence it is possible through a deep ravine to see the Dead Sea.
For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.(19) For I know him, that he will.—This translation has most of the Versions in its favour, and means that Abraham’s good conduct earns for him the Divine condescension. But the Hebrew is, For I have known him in order that he may command his sons, &c. It gives God foreknowledge of the purpose for which He had called Abraham as the reason for thus revealing to him the method of the Divine justice. And this purpose was, that from Abraham should spring a nation whose institutions were to be fraught with Divine truth, whose prophets were to be the means of revealing God’s will to man, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, the Messiah should come. What more fitting than that one appointed to fill so noble a calling should also be raised to the rank of a prophet, and be permitted to share in the Divine counsels? This rendering closely agrees with what is said in Genesis 18:18 about Abraham growing into a mighty nation; and it was the unique and high purpose for which this nation was to be called into being which brought Abraham into so close a relation to Jehovah.
I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.(21) I will go down.—God examines before He punishes (see Note on Genesis 11:5) with the same care and personal inspection as the most conscientious earthly judge.
Altogether.—Some take this word, not as an adverb, but as a noun (comp. Isaiah 10:23), and translate “I will see whether they have done according to the cry of it: (in which case there shall be for them) utter destruction.” But the ellipse is harsh; and inquiry, the knowing and not the punishing, is the prominent thought in the words of Jehovah. Hence too the last clause, “I will know.” The two angels go to Sodom to give the people a final trial. If they meet with upright treatment, then God will know that there are limits to the wickedness of its inhabitants, and it will be spared.
And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.(22) Abraham stood yet before the Lord (before Jehovah).—The two angels went on their way in form as men, towards Sodom, but the one who was a manifestation of Jehovah (Genesis 18:13; Genesis 18:17) remained behind.
And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?(23) Abraham drew near.—As Jewish commentators remark, this word is especially used of prayer, and Abraham’s intercession is unspeakably noble. Nor must we suppose that he thought only of Lot. Doubtless he remembered the day when he had restored the persons and spoil to the king of Sodom. He had then seen their human affection; the joy of parent meeting with child, and friend with friend; and he hoped that there were good people among them, and that so marvellous a deliverance would work in many of them a true repentance. Neither must we suppose that Abraham adroitly began with a large number, with the intention of lessening it. It was the readiness with which each prayer was heard which made him in his earnestness continue his entreaties. It thus illustrates the principle that the faith of the believer grows strong as he feels that his prayers are accepted, and he ventures finally to offer petitions, nothing wavering, which at an earlier stage would have seemed to him to ask more than he might venture to hope from the Divine goodness.
Destroy.—Heb., sweep away; and so in Genesis 18:24. The difference is not without force; for the verb “to sweep away” gives the idea of a more indiscriminate ruin than the usual word destroy, which Abraham substitutes for it in Genesis 18:28; Genesis 18:31-32.
And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.(33) The Lord (Jehovah) went his way.—Not to avoid further importunity, for Abraham had ended his entreaty, and obtained all that he had asked for; but because the purpose of the revelation was fulfilled. Besides the primary object of making known the perfect justice of God’s dealings with men, it further showed that the Gentile world was both subject to Jehovah’s dominion, and that there was mercy for it as well as for the covenant people. Such, in future times, was also the lesson of the Book of Jonah.