Genesis: Folklore of Faith, Lesson 21

Genesis 18:1-15 – Hospitality to God originally broadcast Feb. 26, 2006


Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church.  My daughter saw an amusing button the other day. It said that “heck is for people who don’t believe in Gosh.” She’ll be 14 tomorrow.

 Setting of Gen. 18:

We are steadily making our way through Genesis, one of the most important and controversial books of the Bible. This week we are looking at a story that is a favorite with many people even though it has sometimes given problems to theologians. This story provides the theme for one of the most popular icons in the Greek Orthodox Church, and it is a story that preachers tend to enjoy. Genesis 18 builds on the story we had last week because it is a second account of the promise that Sarah will give birth to the child of promise, but it also anticipates the violent story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Genesis 18 is different form many of the other stories in Genesis because it has more of literary setting. It takes place on an ordinary day when Abraham was relaxing on a hot afternoon. Those of us who grew up without air conditioning in the South can relate to the need to relax during a hot summer afternoon. I’ve often pictured Abraham sitting in a rocking chair on the porch sipping iced tea in this story, kind of like Burl Ives in the old Lusianne Tea commercials. I figure Sarah was taking a nap in the tent the way my grandmother used to do each day at 3 p.m. Of course, the biblical scholars at Wake will tell you that I’m reading a lot into the text here, I think those familiar images do help us set the scene for this story. Abraham’s tent is in the shade of the oaks of his friend Mamre, and he is wisely keeping cool on a hot day.

  Mysterious Strangers:

I’ve also always pictured the air being warped by the heat, the way it does on hot days in dry lands. Abraham looks out and in the shimmering heat he suddenly sees three men standing near him. This motif of three mysterious visitors appears in the stories and legends of many cultures. It is what we call an archetypal image. In fact, it makes it way into some of our movies, although Americans tend to have just one mysterious stranger suddenly appear in town. At this point, Genesis 18 feels a bit like one of the old Twilight Zones that I still love to watch. There is no music, no miracles, no fire or whirlwind, but somehow we know that these three strangers are not ordinary men. Of course, we’ve got the advantage over Abraham in this story, since we are told at the beginning that it was the LORD who appeared to Abraham.

I’ve known many people who have wanted to meet the LORD in this life. To be honest, I’ve had that thought from time to time myself. What would it be like if God showed up at your house on a summer afternoon while you were relaxing? Would you know who it was? Would you expect shining white robes, a long beard, the sounds of angels in the background? The singer Joan Osborne asked, “what if God were one of us, just a stranger on the bus?” Some people were offended by Joan’s song, but she had good biblical precedent in Genesis 18. Unexpected, the LORD stopped by Abraham’s tent by the oaks of Mamre.

Commentators through the centuries have disagreed over whether Abraham recognized the LORD when he appeared that afternoon. They had spoken several times in the past, and last week we saw that the LORD appeared to Abraham. So maybe he recognized the LORD, but it seems to me that Abraham did not know the identity of his visitors. It appears that these three men were walking past the tent when Abraham saw them since he asked them to stop and “sit for a spell.” One thing is clear, the LORD in this story had feet. This is one reason theologians have not been inclined to take this story literally, but stories like this communicate important theological insights even if we might dismiss them as primitive and anthropomorphic.

There are three visitors in this story. Icons show the visitors with wings and halos like angels, but they are also often identified as the three persons of the Trinity. Early Christian theologians were very happy to have a story in the OT in which three divine persons speak with a single voice. It was seen as confirmation of the new doctrine of the Trinity, even if the three persons of the Godhead had feet and ate a goat. Until the resurrection of Jesus, the three strangers were identified as the LORD and two angels. The angels are important because in the next passage we learn that they are on their way to destroy Sodom. Angels may be beautiful, but they can also be deadly. We’ll save that story for another today. Today, we’ll focus on 18:1-15.

 READ Hospitality:

The first thing to notice about this story is the attention it gives to the preparations Abraham and Sarah make for these strangers who have appeared at their tent. There is water to wash their feet and the finest food available. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, Abraham promises the visitors a little bread, but then orders a feast for the men. One rule of hospitality is to pretend that it was no trouble at all. Of course, modern readers may notice that Abraham does little for his guests other than to tell the servants and Sarah what to do. That is something that many families are familiar with. Dad comes home with surprise visitors and tells Mom to fix a nice dinner. We can see a bit of wry humor in the statement that Abraham took the things ‘he had prepared’ and set them before his guests. Sarah and the servants, of course, might not have seen the humor in the situation.

 Hospitality as righteousness:

The key point, though, is that the story goes into such detail about the meal Abraham ordered for his visitors. Why all this detail? Is it merely to stretch out a good story? I think it was to press home the point that Abraham the sheik, Abraham the warrior, Abraham the chosen, knew how to show hospitality. He saw three strangers before his tent and he was generous and hospitable to them. This is not just a reflection of Middle Eastern custom; it is an example of righteous living for those who worship the God of Abraham. This is a scene in which Abraham displays his righteousness; that is, his intention to live right. And this is something that we have largely forgotten in our modern world.

Years ago I made one of my first journeys out of my native South. I went to a meeting in Bethlehem, Pa., and my boss left me on my own for dinner without warning. I had little money and no knowledge of the town, but I had just met a young man named Dave. He took me home with him and his father prepared a meal for us. It was baked sweet potatoes and peppermint tea, but for me it was the same as the fatted calf and milk and curds that Abraham served. I was shocked to learn that Dave’s father was one of the highest ranking officials in the Northern Province of the Moravian Church, Gordon Sommers. When I thanked him for welcoming a stranger at his table, he told me that hospitality is the most basic obligation of a Christian. I’ve never forgotten that lesson in my mind even though I sometimes forgot it in my living.

Hospitality means to make a stranger feel at home in your home. It means to welcome someone who may be at a loss in the world. It does not mean demanding that someone else change to fit into your world. Hospitality breaks down some of the many walls that divide us and isolate us. It is the most fundamental way of recognizing the humanity of the stranger. In the NT, Jesus identified himself with the stranger who is welcomed or rejected by us. The Epistles urge us to show hospitality to strangers because people have entertained angels unaware.

In other words, the NT authors saw this story of Abraham as a model for how Christians are to live in the world. Show hospitality and kindness and decency to all because you never know who might be an angel. Years after my friend Dave took me in on a winter’s evening in Bethlehem, he was biking alone through Portugal. He became violently ill, and a local family opened their home to him. They nursed him back to health because he was a stranger, because they knew he was vulnerable and alone. Perhaps they knew that Abraham had once shown hospitality to the LORD himself on a hot day.

Sarah Laughed:

The story continues with an interesting exchange between Sarah and the LORD. The LORD told Abraham that Sarah would have a son in due season when he returned. We have already heard this promise, but apparently Sarah did not know about the LORD’s plans. She was listening to the conversation and laughed to herself. “Shall I have pleasure with my old husband?” We don’t know why Sarah laughed. Perhaps she was ridiculing the idea and scoffed. Many commentators have been hard on Sarah for her lack of faith, but that seems unfair. Remember, Abraham laughed in the last chapter – and he even reminded God that he already had a son. Perhaps Sarah laughed for genuine delight at the prospect of a near-miraculous conception.

Most likely, Sarah simply laughed at the humor of the situation. An old woman who has given up all hope for children will be chasing after a little one? We tell jokes like this all the time, but they are not all appropriate for church. It is even possible that Sarah laughed for all three reasons. Doubt, joy, pleasure, hope, and amusement all rolled into one. All we know from the story is that Sarah laughed loud enough for the men to hear her. Sarah had that embarrassing experience of being overheard in laughter. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but this scene has often reminded me of “I Love Lucy,” with Sarah being Lucy listening in at the kitchen door. Abraham says, “Sarah, you got some splaining to do!”

 Does God Laugh?

I think we are supposed to share in the laughter in this tale. We even get a bit of divine humor woven in. The LORD asked Abraham rather than Sarah why his wife laughed. Again, this has bothered many commentators through the centuries. What God doesn’t know why Sarah laughed? God has to ask questions? And why ask Abraham instead of Sarah if you want to know the answer? Not only is this a bit of ancient comedy, it also reflects the patriarchal nature of ancient culture. But we should leave it there. It may be that God was really asking Abraham why he hadn’t told Sarah about the promise. “Why is Sarah laughing? Didn’t you tell her all this after my last visit? Didn’t you believe me?”

Abraham doesn’t get a chance to answer. Sarah boldly speaks up and denies everything. We still see this kind of ridiculous comedy played out in our day. Sarah has been caught doing something she is embarrassed about, and instead of acknowledging it, she tells a bald-faced lie. “I did not laugh!” But the LORD says, “did so.” As the kids say today, she was busted. Lies will never save us, only faith and righteousness. But there is comfort in the fact that the LORD didn’t change his plans just because Sarah lied to him. God keeps his promises to his daughters as well as to his sons. Sarah will bear a son who will be named for laughter.

 Is Anything too Wonderful for God:

God asks Abraham and Sarah a very important rhetorical question during this dialog. Is anything too wonderful for God? We know that it is a question in which the answer is obvious, but remember God has not done much for Abraham at this point. The answer to the question is still in doubt. It hinges on the birth of Isaac, the chosen heir. We know the answer because we have the rest of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus to guide us, but Abraham and Sarah did not know for sure. Soon they would know. Soon they would bounce a baby on their knees. Soon they would know that overwhelming sense of wonder that comes with the creation of new life in this sad world of ours. Each birth is a wonder, but this one would be even more so.


We need to keep this rhetorical question in our hearts and minds. Is anything too wonderful for God? We need food and shelter in order to survive, but we need hope and wonder to live. We need to see that the world is more than suffering and pain; it is more than labor and hunger. Life is filled with the wonderment and delight and laughter of the creator who loves us and cares for us. Faith means allowing yourself to be surprised by God’s wonders, even on those days when you all you want to do is stay out of the heat. Righteousness means doing the right thing; being hospitable and decent to strangers; and following the proper customs. Faith and Righteousness together mean that one day the LORD may appear and make your world a little more wonderful than it would have been otherwise.

 IF Time, haggling with God:

Next week we will look at Genesis 19, one of the hardest chapters of the Bible. I’m afraid that next week’s lesson has a PG-13 rating, but it would be wrong to simply avoid it. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah begins in chapter 18, though. The laughter and wonderment die suddenly as the sun goes down in the West. I’ll let you read the rest of Genesis 18 on your own, and it does not need a lot of explanation. I hope that you will notice that Abraham haggles with God for the sake of his nephew Lot. He asks an important question relating to divine justice. Is it just to destroy an entire city for the wickedness of some? Should the righteous suffer with the unjust?

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