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Go to Bible: Genesis 18
“Yahweh appeared to Abraham.” These verses pose a problem for Christians who have been taught that no one has ever seen God. The Hebrew text clearly says that Yahweh appeared to Abraham in the form of a man, and He was with two angels, who also took on human appearance. This should not be a problem for us to understand. God created humankind so He could intimately fellowship with us. It is reasonable that He would occasionally become visible and take on human form to be intimate with His creation. In fact, Scripture records a number of people to whom God appeared: Adam and Eve (they heard His footsteps, Gen. 3:8), Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 15:1; 17:1; 18:1), Jacob (Gen. 28:13), Moses and the elders of Israel (Exod. 24:9-11), Samuel (1 Sam. 3:10), Solomon, twice (1 Kings 3:5; 9:2; 11:9), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-5), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:26-28), Daniel (Dan. 7:9-14), Amos (Amos 7:7), Stephen (Acts 7:56) and the Apostle John (Rev. 5:1-8).
A study of Genesis 18:1 in Christian commentaries reveals that most theologians do not believe that Yahweh can appear in the form of a man. Before we examine why they say that, we must remember that, difficult to believe or not, that is exactly what the text says. Many theologians who do not believe what the text literally says have postulated other explanations. The standard explanations of the verse are: it was a dream and not real; it was the pre-incarnate Christ who appeared; it was an angel that appeared carrying the name of Yahweh.
Some theologians teach that the record of Genesis 18:1ff was a dream because of the circumstances, i.e., it was the heat of the day and the time for naps. However, the Bible never says it was a dream, and there certainly was no time in the record when Abraham “woke up.” Furthermore, what happened next with Yahweh and the angels, which was the record of Sodom and Gomorrah, was certainly not a dream. The angels left Abraham and went to the city of Sodom where they rescued Lot and his daughters from God’s judgment. There is just no solid Scriptural evidence that Yahweh’s appearance was a dream. Neither would this record being a dream explain the many other times Yahweh appears.
Many Trinitarian theologians say that Genesis 18:1 is an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. The evidence they give for their conclusion is twofold: Yahweh is invisible and no one has or can see Him, so it cannot be He; and the record clearly says it is Yahweh, so it must be the pre-incarnate Christ since “Christ is a member of the Godhead.” However, if it could be shown that Yahweh does indeed occasionally appear in the form of a man, then there would be no reason not to take the Bible literally. Furthermore, the fact that Scripture never says that the one appearing is Christ is strong evidence that this is not Christ, but the strongest evidence that the “pre-incarnate Christ” did not appear is that there is no such being as the pre-incarnate Christ. Besides, there are at least two occasions where Yahweh and Christ appear together (Dan. 7, in future prophecy, and Rev. 5). This seems to us to force the conclusion that Yahweh cannot be Christ.
The major reason to make the “Yahweh” of this record into an angel is the same as the reason to make the record a dream or to make Yahweh into the pre-incarnate Christ. It comes from the preconceived idea that Yahweh just cannot appear in human form. Therefore, the temptation here is to make Yahweh of necessity a dream, an angel or Christ. Even though in other records angels are called God, this record is different. We have seen from other verses that angels are occasionally called “God” [See the commentary on Gen. 16:7]. However, a study of the records where the angel of the Lord is called “God” shows that he was always clearly identified as an angel, and it was clear that he was bringing a message from God. This record, and the others mentioned above in which Yahweh appears are decidedly different. The “man” identified as Yahweh is among other angels, and the entire record identifies Him as Yahweh. And while other records show the angel of the Lord carefully avoiding the use of the first person, “I,” “me” and “my,” referring to God, the “Yahweh” in this record uses the first person over and over.
Most Christians have not been taught that God can appear in a form resembling a person. They have always heard, “no one has seen God at any time.” In Don’t Blame God! (Schoenheit, Graeser & Lynn), the language of that phrase is examined and explained. John 1:17-18 states: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God…” We write:
Further evidence that “see” means “know” in John 1:18 is that the phrase “no man has seen God” is contrasted with the phrase “has made Him known.” The verse is not talking about “seeing” God with one’s eyes, it is saying that the truth about God came by Jesus Christ. Before Jesus Christ came, no one really knew God as He truly is, a loving heavenly Father. Jesus Christ made that known in its fullness. Our study has led us to conclude that verses seeming to say that no one has ever “seen” God are either using the word “seen” as meaning “to know,” and thus referring to knowing Him fully, or they are referring to seeing Him in all His fullness as God, which would be impossible. We agree with the text note on John 1:18 in the NIV Study Bible, which says, “Since no human being can see God as He really is, those who saw God saw Him in a form He took on Himself temporarily for the occasion.”
Another point should be made about the word “seen” in John 1:18. If Trinitarians are correct in that Jesus is “God incarnate,” “God the Son” and “fully God,” then it seems to us that they would be anxious to realize that “seen” means “known” because it makes no sense to say that no man has seen God with his eyes and then say Jesus is God. Theologians on both sides of the Trinitarian debate should realize the idiom of “seen” meaning “known” in John 1:18.
The Bible also calls God “the invisible God.” This is true, and God’s natural state is invisible to us. However, that does not prevent Him from occasionally becoming visible. Angels and demons are also naturally invisible, but they can and do become visible at certain times. If angels and demons can sometimes become visible, then God certainly can too. We remind the reader that the Bible plainly says, “Yahweh appeared to Abraham,” and to others as well.
It is often stated that the people could not have really seen Yahweh because a person will die if he sees God. This idea comes mainly from the conversation Moses had with God. Moses asked to see the glory of God, and God responded, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). It is clear from the context that the “face” of God was the “glory” of God, because that is what Moses asked to see. We would concur that human beings are not equipped to comprehend God in all His fullness, and exposure to all that God is would be lethal. However, we know that God did create mankind so He could fellowship with us, and we assert that the human-like form that He has sometimes assumed in order to be near us is not His fullness in any way.
There are two records very important to this subject because they describe God and also show Jesus Christ with Him. The first is a revelation vision of the future that Daniel the prophet had.
The “Ancient of Days” is Yahweh. Note his description as a man. Into his presence comes “a son of man” who is given authority and dominion. It is quite universally agreed among Christians that the “Ancient of Days” is God the Father, and the “son of man” is Jesus Christ, who receives his authority from God. Note that in this passage there is no hint of the Trinity. There is no “Holy Spirit” and no indication that the “son of man” is co-equal or co-eternal with the Father. On the contrary, while God is called the “Ancient of Days,” a title befitting His eternal nature, Christ is called “a son of man,” meaning one who is born from human parents. This prophecy is one of many that shaped the Jewish belief about their Messiah: he was not foretold as “God in the flesh,” but rather a man like themselves who would receive special honor and authority from God. For our purposes in understanding Genesis 18:1, these verses in Daniel demonstrate very clearly that God can and does appear in human form. And because in Daniel’s vision He is with the Messiah when He does so, there is no reason to assume that the other times He appears it is actually Jesus Christ.
The other very clear record is Revelation 4-5. The length of the record prohibits us from printing it here, but the reader is encouraged to read those two chapters. They portray God sitting on a throne surrounded by elders and creatures who repeat, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” God is holding in His right hand a scroll that is written on both sides but sealed shut with seven seals. An angel calls out to summon those who could open the scroll, but no one was worthy. As John began to weep, an angel comforted him with the words, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll.” Then “a Lamb” (the context makes it clear it is Jesus Christ) “came and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.” At that point the creatures and the elders fell down before the Lamb and started singing a “new song.”
The record is clear. God is described as sitting on a throne and even holding in His hand a scroll that Jesus comes and takes from Him. This record again shows that God can and does occasionally take on human form so that we can better identify with Him.
This record and the others like it show a glimpse of what Christians have to look forward to. God loves us and created us to have a deep and abiding relationship with Him. He will not always remain as distant as He now sometimes seems. The Bible tells of a time when “the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).
[For more information on God coming into concretion, see commentary on Acts 7:55. For more information on Jesus being the fully human Son of God and not being “God the Son,” see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son”].(top)
“he lifted up his eyes and looked.” When Yahweh appeared to Abraham, Abraham saw “three men.” For an explanation on God appearing as a “man,” see commentary on Genesis 18:1.
“bowed down to the ground.” A common way of bowing before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body to the earth (see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20).(top)
|Gen 18:3||- (top)|
|Gen 18:4||- (top)|
“piece of bread.” Abraham got more than a “piece of bread.” It was a biblical custom to take excellent care of guests and feed them well, both as a blessing to them and as a sign that God had blessed your house with all you needed. This custom was why Jesus could tell the parable of the man who had a guest come but had no bread, and so made the effort to wake up a neighbor even though it was late at night (Luke 11:5-10). But you must take care of your guest without making it seem like you are going to any trouble, even though you are. So Abraham, acting like it was no problem, told his guests to please take time to rest, wash their feet, and he would get them a piece of bread to eat.
Abraham would have taken good care of any guest. But in this case, Abraham knew he was feeding God, who had come to his house in human form, so he wanted to take especially good care of Him. He had Sarah get 3 seahs (about 21 quarts, or over 5 gallons [22 liters]) of fine flour for bread, and biblical “bread” was flatbread, like a pita or pancake. It usually takes about ¼ cup of flour to make a good-sized pancake, so at ¼ cup per flatbread, Sarah could have made over 250 loaves of bread with the amount of flour Abraham said to get (a full flatbread is referred to as a “loaf” in many Bible versions).
Then Abraham selected a tender young calf (the Hebrew uses an idiom and reads, “a son of the herd”) and hurried to prepare it. Generally, that preparation would have been to butcher the calf and then boil it, making a kind of stew that could then be eaten using pieces of the bread as spoons. People did not use forks and spoons as eating utensils in the biblical world of the Old Testament. By Roman times, the common people of Israel would have maintained the ancient custom of eating with the hands, using bread as a spoon, but many of the Romans used at least some utensils to eat. The spoon was the most prevalent utensil, then the knife, then, and rarely, a kind of fork (most of the time, if meat needed to be stabbed, the knife would do double duty).
Abraham had made it seem to his guests that feeding them was no problem to him and no inconvenience to the guests: just a piece of bread, a little rest, and they could be on their way. In reality, things were much different (and usually both parties understood that). Making the huge amount of bread would have taken some time; as did killing, butchering, and boiling the calf. No doubt at least a couple hours had gone by before Abraham was ready to set the feast before them, and then he acted like a household servant and stood watching over their needs while they ate, ready to pass them what they needed, get more of anything that needed to be replenished, and pour water over their hands when they were done to cleanse their hands (cp. 2 Kings 3:11).
Having a host stand and wait on the “table,” which for tent-dwellers was usually a cloth spread on the ground, while you, the guest, ate, would make any modern guest uncomfortable, but the people of the time understood the special treatment that guests received, and so there was no protest from the three guests when Abraham stood and watched as they ate.
“for that is why you have come to your servant.” As a part of his hospitality, Abraham makes it seem like the reason that the three men have come that way is so that they can honor Abraham by letting him take care of them.(top)
“three measures.” The Hebrew is three seahs, which was about 21 quarts, over 5 gallons (about 22 liters). See commentary on Genesis 18:5.(top)
|Gen 18:7||- (top)|
|Gen 18:8||- (top)|
|Gen 18:9||- (top)|
“return, yes, return.” This is the figure of speech polyptoton, where the verb “return” is repeated twice but with different aspects, emphasizing that God will return. Another English translation might be “absolutely return,” or “surely return,” but those miss the poetic beauty of “return, return.” God is assuring Abraham that Sarah will indeed have a son. [For more on the figure polyptoton and the emphasis it brings, as well as the way it is translated in the REV, see commentary on Genesis 2:16].(top)
“it had ceased to be after the way of women.” Sarah was no longer having her menstrual periods.(top)
|Gen 18:12||- (top)|
“Why.” The Hebrew has a demonstrative pronoun (“this, such”) after “Why,” as if to say, “Why this laughter,” or “Why such laughter.” Thus the Hebrew expresses God’s astonishment that Sarah would laugh, after all, He created the heavens and the earth. So, with Sarah listening, God expresses his astonishment to Abraham and says in essence (as it is well expressed in the NET text note): “Why on earth would Sarah laugh?” Once we see God’s expression of astonishment we can better see why Sarah was afraid and denied it, especially after God goes on to say, “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”(top)
“hard.” The Hebrew is pala (#06381 פָּלָא), and it means to be marvelous, wonderful, surpassing, extraordinary, to be beyond one’s power. Thus “hard” is an acceptable translation, especially in light of the fact that “wonderful” in Hebrew had the connotation of hard or beyond one’s ability, but it does not carry that overtone in English. Nevertheless, “hard” and “wonderful” are both conveyed in the Hebrew in this verse: Sarah’s getting pregnant is not too hard for Yahweh, and it is indeed “wonderful.”
“about this time next year.” Expressed idiomatically in the Hebrew, literally, “when time revives.”(top)
|Gen 18:15||- (top)|
“the face of.” The Hebrew is idiomatic. The concept of “face” was important in the Hebrew culture because it expresses so much and was visible to all. In this case, the part of the city they could (possibly) see from the highlands of Judah was the walls and/or buildings that “faced” them, or the face of the city. Most translations ignore it because the expression can be confusing, but it is an important cultural concept.(top)
|Gen 18:17||- (top)|
“become, yes, become.” The verb is repeated twice in different forms. This is the figure of speech polyptoton, and it magnifies the fact that Abraham will become a great nation. [For more on the figure polyptoton, and the way it is translated, see commentary on Genesis 2:16.(top)
“chosen.” The Hebrew is “known,” but this is the pregnant sense of “known,” where “known” is idiomatically used to mean that Yahweh has much more than just “known” Abraham, but has “known” him to the end that He has acted in his favor and “chosen” him.
“house.” This is the common use of “house” for those who live in the house, or the household.(top)
“outcry.” Sodom had many innocent victims. Chapter 19 lets us know that the whole male population of Sodom willingly participated in raping visitors to their city, and so the crimes of the city must have been that and much more. The cries for help and justice came up before God, who, in the case of Sodom, answered with divine justice of burning fire and sulfur from heaven. God’s executing such rare justice in this life, and not the next, was meant to be a warning for all people that God will judge them for what they do—and people who defy God will die in the lake of fire (Jude 1:7; Rev. 20:14-15).
Sadly, people completely ignore the account of Sodom and Gomorrah as if it was some kind of fictional story. Worse, there are many Christians who believe that because God is “love,” that He will overlook people’s sin, and not destroy them in the fire, so they do not make any effort to warn people about the Judgment to come. But that misses the point of God being love. God loves the victims of sin, and since sinners make the freewill choice to hurt their victims, the way God has set life up to stop sin is to stop the sinners—and they will be finally stopped in the Lake of Fire. The time to stop sinning is now, as Christ said that even if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away so that you don’t end up in Gehenna because of it (Matt. 5:29).
“grievous.” The Hebrew text reads, kabad, (#03513 כָּבַד), literally, “heavy,” used of something that is heavy, or serious, grievous, grave, hard; but also rich, honored, glorious, etc. To best understand this verse it is important to know that biblically, sin is often thought of as a weight. Furthermore, forgiveness is thought of as lifting off, or carrying off and away, that weight.(top)
“go down.” Yahweh is with Abraham in the hill country of Judah and Sodom is to the east down by the Dead Sea, thousands of feet below them, so “go down” is literal here.(top)
“Abraham still stood before Yahweh.” There is good evidence the original text read that Yahweh stood before Abraham, but that wording generally indicated that Abraham was greater than Yahweh, so the scribes changed the wording to seem more acceptable, and that it was Abraham who stood before Yahweh.(top)
|Gen 18:23||- (top)|
|Gen 18:24||- (top)|
|Gen 18:25||- (top)|
“spare.” The Hebrew is nasa (#05375 נָשָׂא, or נָסָא nacah ), and it means to lift, to bear or bear up, to carry or carry away and thus also to take, support, sustain, forgive, and in this case, to “spare.” This is to be seen in light of the fact that the sin of Sodom was “heavy” (see commentary on Genesis 18:20), so it has to be lifted and carried away. This is a common way of depicting sin: it is a weight that must be carried, and eventually “forgiven,” (carried away).(top)
|Gen 18:27||- (top)|
|Gen 18:28||- (top)|
|Gen 18:29||- (top)|
|Gen 18:30||- (top)|
|Gen 18:31||- (top)|
|Gen 18:32||- (top)|
|Gen 18:33||- (top)|