Visitation at Mamre 


Genesis 18 Theory One
Theory Two Theory Three
Theory Four Conclusion
Bad Theory

Andre Rublev, Trinity Icon


Genesis 18

The record of this very perplexing incident is found in Genesis 18. Abraham was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day when three visitors stop by:



  • “And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
  • “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,
  • “And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant:
  • “Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:
  • “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.
  • “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.
  • “And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.
  • “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.
  • “And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.
  • “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.
  • “Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.
  • “Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?
  • And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?
  • “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.
  • “Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.
  • “And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.
  • “And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
  • “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.
  • “And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
  • “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.
  • “And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.”
  • (Genesis 18:1-22).




Who are these three visitors, referred to variously as 'men' and 'angels'? God does nothing in vain; everything in this story is there for a reason. None of the descriptive words which here appear was inspired by the Holy Spirit in vain or at random. What does this visitation, in the form in which it occurred, seek to communicate? The LORD, we know: "So he himself went out, and saw the Holy One, blessed be He, standing at the door; thus it is written, 'Pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mazi'a 86b.) But, more specifically, Who?

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Theory One

The first theory is put forth by Justin Martyr, a Christian author of the second century. This theory postulates that Abraham's visitors were God the Son accompanied by two created angels:




  • “Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things; for he speaks thus: ‘God appeared to him under the oak in Mamre, as he sat at his tent-door at noontide. And lifting up his eyes, he saw, and behold, three men stood before him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent; and he bowed himself toward the ground, and said;’” (and so on;) “‘Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the Lord: and he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward the adjacent country, and beheld, and, lo, a flame went up from the earth, like the smoke of a furnace.’” And when I had made an end of quoting these words, I asked them if they had understood them. And they said they had understood them, but that the passages adduced brought forward no proof that there is any other God or Lord, or that the Holy Spirit says so, besides the Maker of all things.
  • “. . .And quoting once more the previous passage, I asked Trypho, “Do you think that God appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre, as the Scripture asserts?”
  • “He said, “Assuredly.”
  • “Was He one of those three,” I said, “whom Abraham saw, and whom the Holy Spirit of prophecy describes as men?”
  • “He said, “No; but God appeared to him, before the vision of the three. Then those three whom the Scripture calls men, were angels; two of them sent to destroy Sodom, and one to announce the joyful tidings to Sarah, that she would bear a son; for which cause he was sent, and having accomplished his errand, went away.”
  • “How then,” said I, “does the one of the three, who was in the tent, and who said, ‘I shall return to thee hereafter, and Sarah shall have a son,’ appear to have returned when Sarah had begotten a son, and to be there declared, by the prophetic word, God? But that you may clearly discern what I say, listen to the words expressly employed by Moses; they are these: ‘And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian bond-woman, whom she bore to Abraham, sporting with Isaac her son, and said to Abraham, Cast out this bond-woman and her son; for the son of this bond-woman shall not share the inheritance of my son Isaac. And the matter seemed very grievous in Abraham’s sight, because of his son. But God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the son, and because of the bond-woman. In all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken to her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.’ Have you perceived, then, that He who said under the oak that He would return, since He knew it would be necessary to advise Abraham to do what Sarah wished him, came back as it is written; and is God, as the words declare, when they so speak: ‘God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the son, and because of the bond-woman?’” I inquired.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, a Learned Jew, Chapter 56).




This theory avers that God was one of the three visitors. This theory is consistent with the thinking of the early church on the Old Testament theophanies; it is a part of a robust theory that explains and harmonizes a mass of seemingly conflicting information given in the Bible. The word 'angel,' meaning 'messenger,' is a job description which can be borne by whoever is tasked to carry out the job. Those tasked with the job have included men. . .and also God: "And he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day, The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads. . ." (Genesis 48:15-16).  In addition to walk-ons tasked with the job, God has specifically commissioned an order of created beings to perform this function:

"Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts. . .Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded, and they were created." (Psalm 148:2-5).

Some are created to be 'messengers,' but not all 'messengers' are created! Baptist theologian John Gill assents to the 'One of the Three' theory:

"In Genesis 18:2 we read of three men who stood by Abraham in the plains of Mamre, who were angels in an human form, as two of them are expressly said to be (Gen. 19:1). Dr. Lightfoot is of opinion, that they were the three divine Persons; and scruples not to say, that at such a time the Trinity dined with Abraham; but the Father, and the Holy Spirit, never assumed an human form; nor are they ever called angels. However, one of these was undoubtedly a divine Person, the Son of God in an human form; who is expressly called Jehovah, the Judge of all the earth, (Gen. 18:13, 20, 25, 26) and to whom omnipotence and omniscience are ascribed, (Gen. 18:14, 17-19) and to whom Abraham showed the utmost reverence and respect, (Gen. 18:27, 30, 31) and now he is distinguished, being Jehovah in human form on earth, from Jehovah in heaven, from whom he is said to rain brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, (Gen. 19:24) which conflagration was not made by the ministry of created angels, but is always represented as the work of Elohim, of the divine Persons (Jer. 50:40; Amos 4:11)." (John Gill, Body of Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 27, Of A Plurality In The Godhead; Or, A Trinity Of Persons In The Unity Of The Divine Essence. 1c).

Certainly Jesus and Abraham were acquainted; that much must be conceded by all: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." (John 8:56). However this theory fails to account adequately for some of the unique features of Genesis 18. Why does Abraham, seeing Three, address One? The theory that the Old Testament theophanies were in general appearances by the pre-incarnate Logos, is credible and well attested, in spite of several outliers which do not fit within the confines of this theory:



Theory Two

Theory Two is given to us by Philo Judaeus, a non-Christian Jewish writer of the first century A.D. As is his custom, Philo examines the passage from several different angles, but notices there is definitely an agenda here to communicate something about God's nature:



  • “The things which are expressed by the voice are the signs of those things which are conceived in the mind alone; when, therefore, the soul is shone upon by God as if at noonday, and when it is wholly and entirely filled with that light which is appreciable only by the intellect, and by being wholly surrounded with its brilliancy is free from all shade or darkness, it then perceives a threefold image of one subject, one image of the living God, and others of the other two, as if they were shadows irradiated by it. And some such thing as this happens to those who dwell in that light which is perceptible by the outward senses, for whether people are standing still or in motion, there is often a double shadow falling from them.


  • “Let not any one then fancy that the word shadow is applied to God with perfect propriety. It is merely a catachrestical abuse of the name, by way of bringing before our eyes a more vivid representation of the matter intended to be intimated. Since this is not the actual truth, but in order that one may when speaking keep as close to the truth as possible, the one in the middle is the Father of the universe, who in the sacred scriptures is called by his proper name, I am that I am; and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power.


  • “And the creative power is God, for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord, for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind, which is endowed with the faculty of sight, a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three; of one when the soul being completely purified, and having surmounted not only the multitudes of numbers, but also the number two, which is the neighbor of the unit, hastens onward to that idea which is devoid of all mixture, free from all combination, and by itself in need of nothing else whatever; and of three, when, not being as yet made perfect as to the important virtues, it is still seeking for initiation in those of less consequence, and is not able to attain to a comprehension of the living God by its own unassisted faculties without the aid of something else, but can only do so by judging of his deeds, whether as creator or as governor. This then, as they say, is the second best thing; and it no less partakes in the opinion which is dear to and devoted to God. But the first-mentioned disposition has no such share, but is itself the very God-loving and God-beloved opinion itself, or rather it is truth which is older than opinion, and more valuable than any seeming. . .


  • “But that what is seen is in reality a threefold appearance of one subject is plain, not only from the contemplation of the allegory, but also from that of the express words in which the allegory is couched. For when the wise man entreats those persons who are in the guise of three travellers to come and lodge in his house, he speaks to them not as three persons, but as one, and says, “My lord, if I have found favor with thee, do not thou pass by thy servant.” [Genesis xviii. 3.] For the expressions, “my lord,” and “ with thee,” and “do not thou pass by,” and others of the same kind, are all such as are naturally addressed to a single individual, but not to many. And when those persons, having been entertained in his house, address their entertainer in an affectionate manner, it is again one of them who promises that he by himself will be present, and will bestow on him the seed of a child of his own, speaking in the following words: “I will return again and visit thee again, according to the time of life, and Sarah thy wife shall have a son.” [Genesis xviii. 10.].”


  • (Philo Judaeus, On Abraham, A Treatise on the Life of the Wise Man  Made Perfect by Instruction, or, on the Unwritten Law, that is to say, on Abraham, Chapters XXIV-XXV).




To summarize this rather complex story:

"Again, Genesis 18 yields an allegory which represents a very high point in the progression of Abraham. When he is seated at the portal of his tent at noon, God appears to him; he raises his eyes and sees three angelic men. He runs to welcome them hospitably, gives instructions to Sarah for the baking of bread, and himself goes to his flocks for an appropriate animal.
"In the unfolding of he chapter there are two interpretive difficulties. The three men are at times alluded to in the singular, but also in the plural; and in the very first verse, one wonders about the relationship of God and the three visitors, namely, are they one and the same, or are they different? In Philo's allegory, there are two important lessons we have already seen, and here repeat. The three visitors are, respectively, Theos, the creative power; Kyrios, the ruling power; and the Logos. Some men, of limited minds, discern God only from the results of creation; somewhat better minds discern Him from his rulership; the best minds perceive Him in the Logos. For the best minds, the triple vision is in reality a single vision, that of a unity which transcends every other form of unity.
"The three entered Abraham's household, for it was a well-ordered household. Similarly, the allegorical Abraham had a well-ordered spiritual household. Into such a well-ordered spiritual household God enters." (Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings, pp. 292-293).

How ironic that a non-Christian commentator feels free to offer a 'trinitarian' explanation of this manifestly trinitarian theophany, while Christian commentators scarcely dare to do so!


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Theory Three

Theory Three is not only popular with heretically-inclined groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the 'Oneness' Pentecostals, it is also held by timid Christians, or even unthinking ones, by default. It suggests that all three of Abraham's visitors were created beings, angels, one of whom improperly and, one might almost say impiously, identifies himself as 'God.' One of the many problems with Theory Three is identified by Justin Martyr in the excerpt given above. God makes no empty promise; He follows up, just as He said: "I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life." Who returned? The LORD. Then who is the speaker who says "I will certainly return"? The LORD.

Some of the Rabbis took this tack, "All the divine names found in the Torah in connection with Abraham, are holy, except that of [Gen. xviii. 3]: 'And he said, my Lord,' which was addressed to an angel."  (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume 17, Tract Shebuoth, Chapter IV, Kindle location 69338).

This theory can safely be discarded; it is a counsel of despair, offered in hasty dismissal by those who would rather not explore the implications of this most mysterious passage.

Theory Four

Theory Four is popular with Greek Orthodox Christians, who take Genesis 18 for the pattern of the icon called 'the Hospitality of Abraham.' Theory Four asserts that the visitation at Mamre was an appearance of the triune God, not of course according to His essence, but veiled, at such a distance and under a form proportioned to human sight. Abraham encountered, not the Trinity in all simplicity, but rather at a minimum a sign and a type of the Trinity. But is this possible? We can eliminate the idea that Abraham encountered the Trinity materially: "Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father." (John 6:46).

It is really not possible that there is a one-to-one correspondence between Abraham's visitors and the persons of the Trinity, so that one could say, 'Abraham sat down and visited with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.' But this is not what is asserted. It still remains possible that the visitation was intended to symbolize the Trinity. Just as Christians believe the sacrificial lamb pointed to the final sacrifice of Christ, yet all these dead lambs were not simply identical with the person of Jesus Christ, so it remains that the visitation at Mamre took the form that it did for the purpose of communicating a great theological truth.



Conclusion

Theory Four in its 'simple identification' form, if anyone holds that, is over-bold. There is good Bible reason to think that no man has ever seen God the Father; some apparent exceptions, like Stephen's vision or Daniel's vision or John the Revelator's vision, are not real life, real time encounters, but visions, in which the object seen is cast in an accessible, symbolic form, not its own native presence. The 'symbolic instruction' form of the theory remains. Perhaps Theory Two is the best that can be said. There is something in the form of this theophany that intends to communicate to Abraham something remarkable about God's nature. Abraham got the message, or perhaps already understood. Abraham was a trinitarian, if not by sight, then at least by communication.

How odd that a non-believing Jew like Philo is bold enough to see what is to be seen in this visitation, while many Christians are not. While his explication is veiled in the same obscurity as the incident itself, he is plainly reaching for something; Philo elsewhere calls the Logos a 'shadow' of God.



There is undeniably an obscure intimation of the Trinity in this passage, though saying more goes beyond the evidence. If an anti-trinitarian demands that you produce a Bible verse where 'three' are said to be 'one,' this verse fits the bill. Righteous Abraham called the 'three' whom he saw the 'one' Lord.

There are in truth two different questions here: a.) Who are Abraham's visitors, and b.) What does this visitation mean? While the answer to the first question cannot be 'the Trinity,' the answer to the second can scarcely be anything other than 'the Trinity.' God could have appeared to Abraham, his friend, in any form He chose; He saw fit to appear in the form of 'three men.' Why 'three men'? Why not an ocean, a whirlwind, blue sky? One would almost get the sense that He is trying to communicate something here. Tracing their further travels, the reader discovers the two companions are, by nature, naught but created angels, but what was their function at Mamre? Why were they there? God does nothing in vain. Is it not His will to teach, to reveal, to communicate, and did Abraham ace this pop quiz, or fail it?

Surely the 'three created angels' theory ought to have been discarded long ago. Who spoke to Sarah? The LORD, and not any creaturely ambassador:



  • “And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken.
  • “For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
  • “And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.”
  • (Genesis 21:1-3).




As Ambrose pointed out,

"But neither was Abraham ignorant of the Holy Spirit; he saw Three and worshipped One, for there is one God, one Lord, and one Spirit. And so there is a oneness of honor, because there is a oneness of power." (Ambrose, Three Books on the Holy Spirit, Book Two, Chapter 4).

"Abraham, ready to receive strangers, faithful towards God, devoted in ministering, quick in his service, saw the Trinity in a type; he added religious duty to hospitality, when beholding Three he worshipped One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, yet addressed one Lord, he offered to Three the honor of his gift, while acknowledging one Power. It was not learning but grace which spoke in him, and he believed better what he had not learnt than we who have learnt. No one had falsified the representation of the truth, and so he sees Three, but worships the Unity. He brings forth three measures of fine meal, and slays one victim, considering that one sacrifice is sufficient, but a triple gift; one victim, an offering of three." (Ambrose, On the Decease of His Brother Satyrus, Chapter 96).

The Eastern understanding that the visitation at Mamre was a sign or type of the Trinity fits the Bible evidence very well. There is nothing impossible in God's typifying the Trinity in Abraham's front yard, and this explains the otherwise mystifying features of the theophany, such as the 'three' who are addressed as 'one.'

Bad Theory

A theory which would not otherwise deserve mention, but might occur to some who've been exposed to modern Bible 'scholarship,' is that this is just bad editing. When confronted by perplexing features in the Pentateuch, they always say that. There was one account which featured three guests, another with a single guest, and a really clumsy editor just stitched the two together without bothering to change the verbs. Is there any such thing as bad editing found in the Bible?:


Angel

The sharp-eyed ancients were quick to notice that Abraham saw three, but addressed one. The disdainful moderns cannot stop assuring everyone that it can't possibly matter, as Abraham cannot have been a trinitarian:

"So, yes, Christians and Muslims (and Jews) affirm fully that 'that God is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' but — borrowing from Stackhouse — 'if we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn't know God, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ.'" (Statement of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, posted on scribd).

They know this how? Jesus Himself identified Abraham as a personal acquaintance! He cannot be taken seriously? Incidentally, it is odd that his hijab-wearing professor does not know that Muslims don't, as it happens, affirm that God is the father of Abraham. . .or of anyone else. But in this they err, following the example of their errant 'prophet'. . .which is where we came in. It is surprising how many Old Testament passages, otherwise inexplicable or pointless, come into focus for the reader who understands that God is, has ever been, and ever will be, triune. Normally the theory that explains the most is preferred, but not here.

Realizing that Abraham spoke to God, setting limits to his knowledge is unwarranted. The God of the Bible is triune, and this is apparent in both testaments:


Angel