Is there any weekly portion of the Torah that is packed as much as this section? Perhaps the Garden of Eden story in Bereishit. However, look at all the memorable tales crowded into this single portion:
- God’s appearance to Abraham
- The visiting strangers
- The promise of a late life birth
- Sarah’s laugh
- Sarah’s redemption
- Sodom and Gomorrah
- Lot and his wife
- Ishmael, his birth and expulsion with his mother
- The most famous part of all, the Akeidu, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac
I am going to focus only on the first three topics, God’s appearance to Abraham, the visiting strangers and the promise of a late-life child for Abraham and Sarah. They are covered in the first three verses of the parasha.
The scene opens with Abraham resting and sunning himself at the entrance of his tent. He had pitched his tent on the plains of Mamre. Perhaps he is grimacing. He has just circumcised himself. Presumably, he is in terrible pain. The day was very hot. Suddenly God appears.
If the parasha is crowded with stories, what about this opening verse which offers the setting for the story? The reference to Mamre occurs elsewhere in Genesis.
- Genesis 13:18 – near Hebron where Abraham pitched his tent and built an altar
- Genesis 14:13 – an escapee arrived, an Amorite, a tribe allied with Abraham
- Genesis 23:17 – a description of the Cave of Machpelah before Mamre
- Chapter 23:19 – Abraham buried Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah
- Chapter 25:9 – Isaac and Ishmael buried their father in the Cave of Machpelah
- Genesis 35:27 – where Jacob came before his father, Isaac
- Genesis 49:30 – the Cave of Machpelah purchased by Abraham for a burial place
- Genesis 50:13 – where Jacob’s sons buried him
Mamre is a holy site, a place of refuge and located near an even more famous Cave of Machpelah, the burial site of Sarah and the forefathers of the Israelites. It is no surprise that God appears to Abraham at that place. What is surprising is what happens next.
2 And he [Abraham] lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. (my italics)
Look at the surprises.
Abraham takes no notice of God. Did he not see Him? Did he ignore God? Or was Abraham simply distracted by the three men suddenly standing beside him? And why does the verse say twice that Abraham “saw” them? Further, if they were standing beside him, why did Abraham have to get up and run towards them? If Abraham was in great pain from circumcising himself, how could he get up so quickly? How could he run? Then there is the real kicker; God appeared and Abraham did not even seem to notice. Instead, three strange men appear, and Abraham prostrates himself. He bows down before them. What in the world is going on?
The puzzles continue.
3 And he said, “My lords, if only I have found favour in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.”
Abraham addresses them as “my lords.” Is this an appellation of respect? Or were they dressed to the nines like royalty? Why does Abraham make the conditional request, “if only I have found favour in your eyes?” Was that an expression of customary respect or did the query have a deeper meaning? And why not just say if you find favour in me or favour me? Why the addition of “in your eyes”? And what about the request not to pass on or pass by?
The puzzles continue.
4 Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree.
5 And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant.” And they said, “So shall you do, as you have spoken.”
Abraham offers them water, offers to bathe their feet and invites them to recline under a tree. He then promises them bread, not to fill their stomachs but to sustain their hearts. Only after he has carried out all four of these mitzvah, does Abraham say then, and only then shall they pass on. Then and only then, should they pass by. Once again there is the shift from passing on to passing by.
The Lords instruct Abraham to do as he offered. But Abraham immediately does far more. Scene 2 takes place inside the tent and outside in the animal pen before Abraham returns to them and offers them food to eat. Perhaps the offer of bread was just a euphemism for offering to feed them.
6 And Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah, and he said, “Hasten three seahs of meal [and] fine flour; knead and make cakes.”
7 And to the cattle did Abraham run, and he took a calf, tender and good, and he gave it to the youth, and he hastened to prepare it.
8 And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them [there were no laws of kashrut at the time], and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate.
Had Abraham already given them water to drink and bathed their feet? Had he then gone into the tent when they reclined and rested under the tree? Is this presumed?
Then the third and climactic scene of Act 1 of the parasha.
9 And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold in the tent.”
10 And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the entrance of the tent, and it was behind him.
By now it has become really creepy. Still no notice has been given to God. What about giving God your undivided and uninterrupted attention? The Lords eat and ask after Abraham’s wife and do so by name? How did they know he had a wife? The woman cooking could have been a maidservant. How did they know her name? And if they knew the woman cooking was his wife and named Sarah, why did they ask where she was? Then the most surprising turn of events. Up until then, all three of the lords spoke as one. Now it is “he said” and not “they.” The “I”, not the “we” promises to return at the same time next year and promises that Sarah will have a son. Not a daughter, but a son. Does it mean she will give birth during the next twelve months or in nine months; on the anniversary she will already have had a son?
Let me try to clear up some of the puzzles. When Abraham notices the three strangers, they do not intimidate him; he does not act in fear. He does not seem to regard the world as a dark and evil place with danger lurking behind every corner. The very opposite. He not only shows his respect, but demonstrates that he honours these strangers. This goes beyond the call of duty in treating strangers. Are these three strangers not ordinary men but angels disguised as humans? If so, Abraham seems to see through the disguise.
Whether they are angels whom Abraham recognizes as such could clear up some puzzles, but what about another, Abraham’s ignoring God. One answer rabbis offer is that Abraham does not ignore God. Abraham sees that there are two angels and the third figure, is God. And Abraham even sees through that disguise. In verse 9, God comes out as a singular to promise that Sarah will have a baby son. Well before then, Abraham saw through the game, but went along with it nonetheless just as he would later go along with the commandment to sacrifice his son.
As many or even most rabbis interpret the message of the text, it is a lesson about how to treat strangers. You should not regard them as threats. They may turn out to be monsters, but they should initially be given the same respect and honour with which you would welcome God. For the stranger is thirsty. The stranger has sore feet. The stranger is tired. God does not suffer from any of these problems.
Further, some suggest that this was an act of reciprocity. God appeared to Abraham when he was in pain and ailing. Abraham, even when in pain, must pay forward and do what he can for the strangers. God acts with loving kindness and so must Abraham. The three strangers are not the advance guard of an allegedly threatening caravan travelling up the spine of Mexico. Taking care of their needs is how we honour God, how we express empathy and not fear. God expects kindness from those who would be human.
Hence the reference to feeding the heart. Hence the repetition of “to see” in the sense of seeing what first appears and then seeing and understanding the message beneath the appearance. This is what it means to know God in all His ways and in all His guises.
This interpretation clears up many of the other more minor puzzles. The strangers or angels or God plus two angels stand beside Abraham but also at some distance. They are beside Abraham and are there to support his gracious offering. They are distant from Abraham because he must exert energy and effort to reach out to them. As guides, they are near. As recipients, they are distant.
When it comes to the dual phrases “passing on” and “going by,” the latter is a reference to what happens in space. Strangers pass one another in the night. But strangers may “pass on” in time. The phrase we now use is “passing forward.” We give so the other may also give. In that way, we perform a double mitzvot. By acting with loving kindness we pass on the value of loving kindness. We become witnesses to the joy of giving.
Finally, though Abraham appears to ignore God, when he says “if I find favour in your sight,” we have a clear indication that the narrative, both here and in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and contrary to Sőren Kierkegaard, is not about whether Abraham has faith in God but about whether God has faith in Abraham. God is testing the waters to see whether Abraham is a man worthy of setting a standard for all of mankind. If God finds favour in Abraham, if God sees in the double sense of noticing what appears before Him and, second, understanding its deeper meaning, He will perform a miracle and allow Sarah in her old age to become pregnant.
Pregnant with whom? Another forefather who will have to demonstrate that he too is the embodiment of loving kindness, the embodiment of empathy, for how else can these patriarchs give birth to a nation that, in its heart, must give witness to a people that will be the embodiment of empathy, the embodiment of loving kindness.