Friday, February 10, 2012

Where Is God When Isaac's Birth Is Announced? An Exegesis of Genesis 18:1-15

By way of showing all of you back home what I'm working on these days, I'll share an exegesis I wrote recently. But wait ... what the heck is an "exegesis"? Simply put, it's a very close reading and interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture. Enjoy.


He Qi, Abraham and Three Angels
“The LORD appeared to Christy and Josh in the second of Josh’s two apartments on 19th Avenue, as they sat on his bed reading a book to each other at the end of a long, enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.” If my own life were sacred scripture, these words could begin the story of a direct encounter with God that changed everything. In Genesis 18:1-15, we have just that sort of story—a theophany—that changes everything for Abraham and Sarah. While God has communicated directly with Abraham several times before now, this story is especially about Sarah. It is the annunciation of the birth of her son. Paralleled in chapter 17, this is the fulfillment of the promise first made to Abraham in chapter 12. Encounters with God are typically both mysterious and unsettling, and that is certainly the case for Sarah here. Fear is the only emotion mentioned in the entire passage. Furthermore, we are left not quite understanding the physical location of God. While it is fair to conclude that God is present in at least one of the three strangers, the story intentionally dodges every attempt to confine God’s presence to a single place.

By this point in the Genesis narrative, God has given the same promise to Abraham four times: He will make of him a great nation that will bless all the peoples of the world. The promise appears in chapters 12, 13 and 15, as if a funnel of divine pronouncements is moving us inexorably toward the promise’s fulfillment. In chapter 17, which just precedes this passage, the fourth occurrence of the promise is paired with an announcement to Abraham of Isaac’s pending birth. In that story, Abraham laughs so hard he falls on his face (Gen. 17:17). But we must not approach chapter 18—a “J”-source story—as if Abraham already knows this news, for chapter 17 comes from the “P” source, a later tradition. Walter Brueggemann writes: “[Genesis 18:1-15] belongs to an earlier stream of tradition [than the preceding chapter] with some affinities to chapter 16.”[1]  As chapter 18 begins, Abraham and Sarah are anticipating the fulfillment of God’s promise but have no idea yet how it will come about.

“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” (Gen. 18:1, NRSV). Verse 1 is an introduction to the story, and it lets the reader in on the secret of the three strangers who appear in verse 2: “He looked up and saw three men standing near him.” Does Abraham understand immediately the divine nature of his guests? The only possible evidence for this might be Abraham’s effusive welcome. The next several verses are marked by two goals: Abraham must provide absolutely the best hospitality for these three men, and he must do it as quickly as possible. But David M. Carr describes this as “a description of the ideal hospitality of Abraham parallel to that of Lot in 19:1-11.”[2]  Perhaps Abraham is the kind of man who would provide extravagant hospitality to any and all strangers. Perhaps this is one reason God has chosen him.

In verse 3, the Common English Version has Abraham addressing the men as “Sirs,” but this is not true to the Hebrew. According to Nahum Sarna, “The verbs in verse 3 are in the singular, indicating that only one of the three strangers is spoken to, whereas those in verses 4-5 are in the plural … Abraham addresses himself to the leader but … his invitation applies to all three.”[3]  More importantly, the vocative word Abraham uses is יאֲדֹנָ, “my lord,” and it is rendered in this lowercase way in the NRSV, the NIV, and the NJB. This is the same word that is spoken in place of the tetragrammaton יְהוָה, but it is also used both in the generic sense to address a human superior, and to address God in the uppercase, as Abraham does in Gen. 15:2 and at other times. Sarna continues: "Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand it to mean ‘My lords’; Maimonides renders it ‘My Lord.’ Since it is clear that the patriarch at this point is unaware of the true identity of the strangers, the present vocalization serves as an indication to the reader that the three ‘men’ are no ordinary wayfarers.”[4]

The reader knows that YHWH is present, if not yet revealed, and this creates a dilemma, especially for illustrators and those who might attempt a paraphrase. How are we to imagine these three strangers? Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s storybook for children provides three winged angels, standing tightly together, facing a visibly terrified Abraham and Sarah: “‘We are angels sent by God,’ the visitors said. ‘When we return, Sarah will have a son.’”[5]  For Tutu, YHWH Himself is not present, but has sent three emissaries—an interpretation that skirts the issue of drawing a picture of God at all. On the other hand, in his Godly Play children’s curriculum, Jerome Berryman places a special focus on our inability to confine God’s presence in this story. While wooden figures are used to represent Abraham and Sarah, Berryman specifically advises the storyteller: “You don’t need to put any figures down for the strangers. Leave them mysterious.”[6]

Abraham serves his guests and stands nearby while they eat. No mention is made of Abraham serving them the bread he has requested from Sarah. Perhaps it is still baking. At any rate, Sarah does not emerge from the tent at all during this episode. In verse 9, the strangers address Abraham again, this time seemingly in unison: “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham replies that she is in the tent. No doubt Sarah’s ears perk up at the mention of her name. How could the strangers possibly know of her? Terence E. Fretheim suggests, “The question in v. 9 ensures Sarah is within earshot of what will be said; the narrator states (v. 10) that she listens ‘off camera.’”[7]

Suddenly only one person is speaking: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” The Hebrew pronoun is “he,” but many translations render it “one said,” or “one of them said,” to emphasize the change from plural to singular. The NIV jumps the gun and treats this speaker as YHWH, but this shift has not yet occurred in the received text.

The narrator tells us that Sarah “was listening at the tent entrance behind him.” Behind whom? E.A. Speiser writes: “‘He/it was behind him/it’ … is far from clear. [The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint] read the first pronoun as feminine; this would mean that Sarah was not far from the speaker; in Heb., however, the pronominal suffix at the end is more likely to refer either to the tent or the entrance, so that the received version is to be preferred.”[8]

In other words, the opening of the tent is just behind the speaker. Perhaps the tent is set up under the same tree where the three strangers are eating their meal. Somehow, the speaker has come between Abraham and Sarah.

In verse 12, Sarah laughs to herself, amused at the impossibility of this announcement. It is at precisely this point that YHWH definitively enters the scene, marked by the tetragrammaton, asking Abraham why Sarah laughed. YHWH reiterates what the stranger said before: “I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son” (v. 14). If the speaker is the one who turns out to be YHWH, and if indeed he is standing right by the tent entrance, he may actually be standing closer to Sarah than he is to Abraham, with only the tent fabric separating them. The divine ears have no trouble apprehending Sarah’s chuckle.

Next, in the most personal moment of the story, Sarah denies that she laughed (v. 15). I can certainly relate to the “it wasn’t me” impulse. All of us have had an experience of being caught red-handed and denying the facts in total disregard of overwhelming evidence against us. We know the motivator is fear, but that emotion is spelled out for us here: “for she was afraid.” Is this the moment when Sarah understands it is YHWH speaking? Perhaps this is why the narrator has made the stranger’s identity clear to us. When YHWH replies, “Oh yes, you did laugh,” these words are not merely spoken through a tent flap by a strange man.

Augustine of Hippo would someday remark on his own experience: “You were more inward than my inmost self, and superior to my highest being.”[9]  We can imagine for ourselves whether YHWH’s intent was to shame Sarah, or to call her back to faith in a jesting way. But I believe that Sarah felt YHWH was right there in the tent with her. One parallel moment—with markedly less subtlety—is Job 38:1, when YHWH suddenly answers Job “out of the whirlwind” (NRSV). In that case, YHWH swoops in, and Job’s reaction is finally to stop talking and listen. In Sarah’s case, YHWH seems to have sneaked into the tent while she was baking and eavesdropping. Now there can be no more denying the divine presence, and that presence naturally evokes fear. Abraham was already coming to realize that God cannot be confined to one place. Now Sarah has her own experience of the omnipresence of YHWH.

Richard J. Clifford writes of this passage: “The fluidity of actors in the scene is a narrative means of describing both the nearness and the mysterious elusiveness of God.”[10]  YHWH is so all-encompassing that we cannot even limit Him to the constructs of “singular” and “plural.” At the same time, God is near enough to appear as a guest seeking a bite to eat before resuming his journey.

“The LORD appeared to Christy and Josh in the second of Josh’s two apartments on 19th Avenue, as they sat on his bed reading a book to each other at the end of a long, enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.” In our case, YHWH appeared as a not-quite-visible mist, enveloping us and giving us the familiar words spoken throughout the Bible by God and by angels: “Be not afraid.” In our case, the message continued: “Get married, and await further instructions.” We were called from fear to faith one step at a time. In the same way, Sarah was called out of her fear into a new life that would require all the faith God would grant her.

1  Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 157.
 2 David M. Carr, Commentary on Genesis in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version (ed. Michael D. Coogan; Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007), 35.
 3 Nahum M. Sarna, JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 128.
 4 Ibid.
 5 Bishop Desmond Tutu, Children of God Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zonderkidz, 2010), 20.
 6 Jerome Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Volume 2 (Denver: Living the Good News, 2002), 62.
 7 Terence E. Fretheim, “God Visits Abraham and Sarah,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck, et al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 463.
 8 E.A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), 130.
 9 The Confessions of St. Augustine (translated by John K. Ryan; New York: Doubleday, 1960), 84.
 10 Richard J. Clifford, S.J., “Genesis,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S.; Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 22.

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