Genesis 18: The Promised Son

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Unlike the previous chapter, which was mostly dialogue, this one is comprised of two stories, both of which center around heavenly visitors. The story begins with the statement that the Lord appeared to him at Mamre. We are to assume that the "him" is Abraham. So far, nothing seems unusual because the Lord and Abraham already have had several encounters. However, the very next line speaks of Abraham noticing three men. Now this is rather unique, and scholars have a hard time trying to explain exactly what this is. It is not easy to accept a divine manifestation in the form of three men, especially since there are only two later on and the verbs keep switching from singular to plural. This is a point where some scholars will argue that several stories were simply pieced together. Others take note of parallels with other mythological tales. Some even argue that the three visitors represent the holy trinity.

It is safe to say that the story has no interest in any of these issues. What it does do is give a detailed glimpse of patriarchal hospitality, with Abraham epitomizing the virtuous host. He sees these men suddenly in the heat of the day. We don't know where they came from; they're just there. Immediately, he runs to greet them and bows to the ground. It is a warm welcome and very respectful. He turns on the charm and says, "If I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant." Again, this is very deferential. He offers a little refreshing water for their feet, some needed rest, and a morsel to eat. Nothing fancy, just the basics. He is anxious for his guests to stay. If he had offered a feast, they might have declined, thinking they were imposing upon him.

However, once they accept, Abraham changes gears. He hurries into the tent, asks Sarah to make bread quickly, dashes out to choose a young calf himself, and tells a lad to hurry in dressing it. The syntax all points to the feeling of urgency. We get the impression that all these things were happening at once. And all this rushing around was happening in the midday heat—the hottest time of the day. Abraham is being a virtuous host. And, true to his reputation, he manages to turn that morsel of bread into a sumptuous feast after all. A seah of flour is a great quantity of bread. A whole calf for three guests is supremely generous, to say nothing of the fact that a lamb or goat would have been more than adequate. To top it off, Abraham does the serving himself.

Through Abraham's eyes, though, this is just proper hospitality. Yet, because of that announcement at the beginning of the chapter, we know that these are no ordinary guests. We have, in fact, eavesdropped while Abraham unknowingly uses words that are true, "my lord, your servant." He bows down. Yes, it is a welcoming gesture but the same word is used for worship when the object is God. We noticed how appropriate his offerings were—the best flour, the choicest calf. Everything Abraham does is proper and fitting, given the caliber of his guests. We see the significance of his actions; he sees three strangers. And that alone tells us a great deal about the virtuous character of Abraham.

Yet, once the meal is over, the real point of the encounter is revealed. Conversation begins. "Where is your wife Sarah?" one of them asks. As a married woman, Sarah would have been expected to stay out of sight, to remain in the tent, and away from the visitors. She has been invisible. Yet they know her name. This is Abraham's first hint that these are no ordinary strangers. He responds simply, "In the tent." Undaunted, the visitors announce that they will return in about a year and that Sarah will have a son. This is a very strongly worded statement, leaving no doubts to its contents. But it is unclear whether this includes a physical return.

What is clear, however, is that even though Sarah is not present, she is definitely interested in what is happening. Standing behind them within the tent, she is listening intently, perhaps ready to be of assistance in whatever way she can. So it is that she overhears the announcement of Isaac's impending birth. Her response is very similar to Abraham's in the previous chapter. She laughs, silently, within herself. She asks, "After I am worn out, and my husband is old, shall I have this pleasure?" It is too much to even think about.

There is some ambiguity in her statement. Scholars aren't sure whether her use of the word, "pleasure," refers to the joy of sexual relations with Abraham or to the process of having a child. Let's face it. She is ninety years old; Abraham is a hundred. The text delicately informs us that she is long past the age of childbearing. Even menopause was a distant memory.

And when the hope of a child faded, as it surely had, it was replaced with a sense of acceptance of her plight, a resignation to the facts. Sarah has been very faithful to the promises made to Abraham. When Pharaoh threatened his life, she stood by him, supported his lie to maintain his life. When she remained barren, she volunteered her servant to give him the child he so desperately wanted. A child was born, but things hadn't turned out so well. Those had been difficult years for her; yet Abraham had his heir, he loved his son. It's not clear what role, if any, Sarah had in his upbringing. Surely, this had affected her relationship with Abraham. As far as she is concerned, God's promise has been fulfilled, despite her barrenness. No one had ever said to her that she was also to be included directly in God's promise. If anyone had, many events might have been handled differently. As it is, no one knew. Yet, she has been faithful, supportive, helpful, but demurely kept on the outside of that inner circle of participants. So she asks, "Am I now to have this pleasure?" The prospect overwhelms her. She laughs to herself, laughter edged with irony, joy, and disbelief. Even at this moment, however, she does it silently, respectfully.

One of the men asks Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying 'Shall I bear a child being so old?' " She has been silent; she remains behind them. They cannot possibly see her, and her response makes no noise, yet they know. And they know everything. By their delicate rewording of her statement, they also show great sensitivity. They do not repeat the question about being worn out or about having pleasure. It remains ambiguous. They focus on her age, and by now Abraham surely knows these are no ordinary visitors. And then they ask the most wonderful question, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" It comes in the form of a question. The only possible answer, of course, would be to respond, "no." Yet the implications of that "no" are enormous.

The phrase bears the sense that nothing can be too wonderful, too marvelous, or too extraordinary for God. His promises are not too surpassing. These are teachings that are implicit throughout the Bible, but rarely is the question placed so bluntly. It calls into question everything they have surmised for decades; it challenges their plans, hopes, and activities. It pushes them beyond the point of reason, wisdom, or common sense. It shatters their sense of reality. It insists that God alone is omnipotent and omniscient. And the promise is repeated.

Sarah hears this comment too, and her response was "no." Nothing is too hard for the Lord. But by now she is so afraid, she denies that she laughed. The Lord replies, "No, you did laugh." In both instances, the word "laugh" is a form of the word, "Isaac." So in a jumbled, linguistic way, Sarah confirms the divine promise, and the Lord's response clinches the discussion. The scene ends with the rhetorical question still on the table, open, unanswered. But therein lies the most wonderful point. The fulfillment of God's promise does not depend on Abraham and Sarah's readiness to accept it. It will happen, if not through the context of faith, then through a context of disbelief, incredulous laughter, and even fear.