The Three Visitors
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Genesis 18:1-2
Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is relaxing outside of his tent on a hot afternoon when the Lord appears to him as three men. Remember, the names given to God in Genesis are plural nouns. The name translated as Lord is Adonai, which is not only plural, but also has feminine connotations. Regardless, the Lord appears to Abraham as three men in this story. Abraham offers the visitors a place to rest, water to drink, and food to eat, which they accept.
As they converse, one of the visitors says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). As was noted in last week’s Life Note, Abraham and Sarah were already advanced in years and had no children. Sarah laughed at the thought, and one visitor responded, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14). The visitors – one God manifest in three persons – talk among themselves and include Abraham in their conversation. The three discuss the rampant evil in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and their plans to destroy both cities. Abraham asked why the Lord would slay the righteous with the wicked. The Lord agreed to preserve the cities if even ten righteous people could be found there.
My primary reason for considering the story of the three visitors, however, is because it is the first biblical evidence of God manifesting as three unique persons – what will later be referred to by theologians as the Trinity. While I will consider the Trinity in greater detail later in this series, the significance of the story of the three visitors in Genesis is worthy of consideration on its own. So many encounters with God in the Bible seem to imply meetings with a single being, notwithstanding the plurality of the names used.
The picture above is a recreation of an icon produced by the monk Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century. It provides a visual reference to the plural God of Genesis presented in Genesis 18. Although Abraham labels the three as “Lord,” there is no explanation as to how he knew their divine nature, except perhaps from the content of their conversation. Their discussion with Abraham about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was clearly a two-way conversation, meaning that Abraham seemed to be included as an equal participant. When he questions whether everyone in the towns needs to be destroyed, they go into something of a negotiation over who, if anyone, is righteous enough to warrant saving.
Here is what I find so interesting about this story. The God presented in Genesis 18 is a relational and personable God, consulting and communing with humans. The three visitors invite Abraham into their discussion and consider his point of view in shaping their decision-making. Not only is God presented as a relationship of persons, but there is also give and take both within and without this God-circle. This God is not a distant and dictatorial ruler sitting on a throne high above us, but a God that is here with us, wrestling with how best to handle the issues of the day. The story also refutes any fatalistic notions of God, that God has the future mapped out in advance and nothing we can do will change it. The God of Genesis includes us as co-creators of and co-participants in our daily reality, just as God included Abraham in the determination of what to do about Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Trinity – one God in three persons – is a difficult concept to grasp. The story of the three visitors, however, refutes the traditional image we hold of God as being distant and aloof. Instead, God invites us into the divine relationship that is God and that is the foundation of our being. We cannot hope consciously to experience more of God’s presence in our lives without first eliminating our limiting misconceptions of God.
One of the faces of God is that of three visitors. One God; three persons. Hmmm…
Note: this is the eighth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.