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Genesis 18 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
Genesis 18 The chapter is clearly divided in two parts: vs.1-15 the visit of the three men in Abraham's tent and vs.16-33 the departure for Sodom and Abraham's intercession.
The appearance of God to Abraham, accompanied by two angels, is one of the most remarkable theophanies in the whole Bible. It is almost comparable to the Incarnation of Christ, in that God appears in human form; but the Incarnation was permanent. Here the Word became flesh only temporarily. It must have taken Abraham a while before it dawned on him Whom he was facing. He treated the company as humans, though with the utmost respect.
This incident must have happened approximately the same time of the year as the previous one. According to chapter 17:21 God appeared to Abraham one year before the birth of Isaac, and here again God announces in vs.10 that when He returns to Abraham one year from that time Isaac will have been born then. In the first report Abraham laughs and here Sarah does. Undoubtedly, this is a reason for Bible critics to see a duplicate story in both accounts.
The 10th verse appears to be open for different interpretations though. The NIV says: "Then the LORD said, 'I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.'" The KJV appears to stick closer to the original by saying: "And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son." The Pulpit Commentary says here: "Literally, at the time of reviving; i.e. when the year shall have been renewed, in the next year, or rather spring; though other interpretations of the phrase have been suggested, as, e.g., 'according to the time of that which is born,' i.e. at the end of nine months.' "The latter translation would mean that this second theophany took place about three months after the previous one. It seems more logical to me that some time elapsed between the two.
Most likely Abraham had conveyed to Sarah the message of the change of her name and the meaning and implication of this, as well as God's specific promise that she would have a child. She may have simply disregarded this information. After all it had been Abraham's vision, not hers. The purpose of the Lord's visit here may have been primarily to convince Sarah.
Vs.1-8 give a vivid picture of Bedouin hospitality, as it is still practiced now. Abraham sees three men and he invites them in, offering them rest, shelter and food during the heat of the day. The scene abounds with hyperbolas and euphemisms if we compare it to our modern way of treating guests. Hospitality is recommended as a Christian virtue in Heb.13:2 - "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." The author of the epistle to the Hebrews undoubtedly had Abraham's example in mind when he wrote those words.
Abraham's running towards the guests and his bowing down are foreign to the Western culture of our days, as are the words of welcome he utters. We read in vs.3 - "He said, 'If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.' "The closest we come to this form of politeness is when a guest is told "our pleasure!"
One would wonder, if the "something to eat" in vs.5 turns out to be a huge and sumptuous meal, consisting of a whole calf and bread made with three seahs of flour, (which according to Adam Clarke would amount to more than 12 gallon,) cheese and milk, if then "a little water" for the washing of the feet, would not be the equivalent of a dip in Abraham's swimming pool! Abraham is not stingy. He was a wealthy man, but he knew how to share.
The eating of the food by the LORD and His two angels is of greater importance than it seems. Up to this point Abraham must have been under the impression that he was dealing with three human strangers. When afterwards he realized that he had harbored the LORD of the universe and two of His angels, he may have started to doubt his senses and the reality of it all. The leftovers of the meal would convince him. That is why we read in vs.8 - "He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree."
It is still customary among some tribes in Asia for the lord of the house to look on when his guests eat. This would not be considered proper in our Western culture.
The conversation starts in vs.9 "'Where is your wife Sarah?' They asked him. 'There, in the tent,' he said." We may presume that it was the Lord, who asked the question; and that the way our verse puts it, as if the question came from all three of the men, indicates that Abraham did not pay attention at first as to who was speaking. Immediately following, he is wide awake and knows that this is not an ordinary man speaking.
Theologically the question is redundant. The omniscient God does not have to ask him where is wife is. But then the all sufficient God does not need to eat Abraham's food either. The obvious intent is to draw both Abraham's and Sarah's attention to what is going to follow. All God's questions to man are for man's benefit, not because God needs our information.
"I will surely return" has some of the force of the oath like affirmation with which Jesus introduces His sayings in the Gospels. The NIV translates the words "amen, amen, lego"with "I tell you the truth." The KJV puts it more forcefully, though archaically as "verily, verily, I say unto thee." God's promise to Abraham has this same forceful affirmation of an 'amen.' We mentioned above already the possible translations of the phrase "about this time next year." It may have meant that Sarah's pregnancy was about to start and that Isaac would be born nine months hence.
It is hard not to smile when reading how Sarah listens at the door. It is amazing what a person will do when he thinks he is unobserved. Improper behavior of this kinds is as old as mankind. When we realize that God sees our every move and thought, we will behave as if we are under constant surveillance by someone. A Christian can never let his hair down.
Sarah's laugh must have been inaudible. Vs. 12 says: "So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?' "The Lord reveals not an audible chuckle, but Sarah's inward thoughts when He asks Abraham: "Why did Sarah laugh..?" This revelation, however embarrassing it may have been for Sarah, since it showed that she was eavesdropping and that she doubted the truth of what she heard, was the best proof that the One who was speaking was no common man. The realization that God knows us through and through is rarely a pleasant one, at least not initially. When David meditates on this in Ps.139:1-5 "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in; behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me;" his first reaction is to flee: (vs.7) "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?"
God was going to perform a great miracle through Sarah, and the embarrassment was a necessary part of it. There are no Isaacs born into this world, and Christ is not formed in us without some exposure of our innermost being.
"Is anything too hard for the LORD?" We seldom realize that a lack of faith is equivalent to casting a doubt on God's omnipotence. We are dealing with the Almighty God. "El Shaddai." Yet we live and act as if God's budget is quite limited and His recourses are quite small. The New Testament tells us over and over again that with God nothing is impossible. In Luke 1:37 the angel Gabriel says to Mary: "For nothing is impossible with God." Speaking about salvation of the rich, we read in Matt.19:26 - "Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'" To the father of the demon possessed boy, who asked Jesus to heal his son, if he could, Jesus answers in Mark 9:23 "'If you can'?" ..... 'Everything is possible for him who believes.'" So the key to unlock God's omnipotence is our faith. That is why we read in Matt 17:20 that Jesus says to His disciples, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
The Scripture does not hesitate to paint Sarah's picture, warts and all. We see her eavesdropping, laughing in unbelief and to top it off, lying about it. I do not know which sin is the worst, probably the laughing. A lie is the most convincing proof of a severed relationship with God. Lies come from the devil, who is the father of all lies. He invented them. Yet even for God's children it is easier to lie than to accept the embarrassment of exposing our innermost being. Sarah lied, we are told, because she was afraid. Actually she was embarrassed.
Later when Isaac is born Sarah turns this lie into a laughter of victory. There is a confession in what we read in Gen 21:6 - "Sarah said, 'God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.' "This is what God does with confessed sins; whatever comes to light becomes light. Even our sins can glorify God, if we confess them.
The second part of this chapter, vs.16-33, deals with the departure of the LORD and the angels in the direction of Sodom and Abraham's intercession. It is one of the most moving chapters in the Old Testament. The angels have come on a mission of destruction. One of the most terrible judgments in the Bible, next to the flood, is to be executed: the wiping of the surface of the earth of Sodom, Gomorrah, Adama and Zeboim, all the cities in the valley of Siddim.
The matter weighs heavily upon the LORD's heart, so He decides to take Abraham into His confidence. We hit here upon a most mysterious truth, that human intercession is sharing in the burden of the Lord. God shares His feelings with Abraham to bring him to prayer for those who are lost. We will see how effective and ineffective Abraham's intercession is. But the most important feature of the dialogue here is the confidentiality. In Ps 25:14 we read: "The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them." The KJV is even more wonderful here: "The secret of the LORD is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant."
Vs.17-19 are hard to interpret. The thoughts that are attributed to God are clearly anthropomorphistic. The omniscient God does not reason that way. We almost get the impression that God says to Himself: "Shall I tell Abraham or not?" God deal in eternal decrees, so this cannot be the way it went. These words are written for the benefit of Abraham and for us. The thoughts are probably Abraham's, projected upon the mind of God. That is, Abraham must have understood that this was the reason why God told him what was going to happen to Sodom and Gomorrah.
The verses show us more about the human mind than about the mind of God. This is the way we think about God and approach God, with the thoughts and feelings we know inside ourselves. There is nothing reprehensible about using our own mind as a model in trying to understand the mind of God. After all, we were created in His image and there must be some similarity between His personality and ours. As long as we are aware of the fact that we are projecting, that our imagination can bring us closer to God, but that we do not have the full picture, we should be safe.
Abraham understands that God takes him into His confidence. He receives prophetic insight. God shows him what is going to happen. The realization of this brings back to Abraham's mind God's original promise, that one that was given to him, when God first called him. Obviously, the Holy Spirit reminds him of this. The next thought is that God's confidence puts him under the obligation to make his children walk in the way of the Lord. Abraham understands that the fulfillment of God's promise is dependent upon the obedience of his children in whom and by whom the promise will be fulfilled.
There are several instances of promises God gave to people that never came about because of the unbelief and unfaithfulness of the people for whom they were meant. Israel never fully occupied all the territory that God had given them. The temple built by Zerubabel never occupied the central place that Haggai and Zacharia foretold. The people who received the promise did not take it seriously enough. God does not cancel His promises, but we do not see their fulfillment if we do not exercise faith. Abraham understood this clearly.
That is why we read that Abraham decides to "direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."
Vs.20 and 21 give another instance of human interpretation of God's acting. Obviously God does not have to come down from heaven and see for Himself. If He did, He would not be the omnipresent and omniscient God we know Him to be; He would not be God. There is in these verses first of all a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Word. But also God wants to justify Himself in the eyes of men. What happens to the angels, once they arrive in Sodom, is proof that the situation has gone completely out of hand in that city. God knew; now we know. But most of all Abraham would never have interceded for the people had God not come down to see for Himself. That may be the most important point.
Verse 22 has an interesting history. "... but Abraham remained standing before the LORD." According to The Pulpit Commentary : "the Masorites text originally read, 'And the Lord stood before Abraham,' and was changed because it did not seem becoming to speak of God standing in the presence of a creature. This, however, is a mere Rabinical conceit...." Several years ago I heard a moving sermon about this point by Denis Kinslow, in which he showed how God stood before Abraham, expecting him to start praying for the people in Sodom. As if God was saying to Abraham, I am going to destroy the city, are you not going to do anything about this?
Humanly speaking we can say that the fact that God had to destroy the cities of the plain tore Him apart, and He expects us to be torn apart in the same way. That is what intercession is all about. Abraham may have thought that he had to move the heart of the Lord. God was trying to move Abraham's heart. Intercession is sharing the burden of the Lord.
All this coincides with Paul's concept of intercession with the help of the Holy Spirit. In Rom.8:26 we read - "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." The RSV uses the expression "with sighs too deep for words." God's burden is heavier than human words can bear.
Abraham knows the situation in Sodom. He anticipates what the angels will find there and that God will wipe out the place. In his eyes God's judgment is a foregone conclusion. In vs. 23 he presupposes that the wicked will be swept away. His thoughts are immediately with Lot and his family. Although the distances that separated them must only have been a few miles, contact may have been scant or non-existent. He also presupposes that Lot will not be the only righteous person in the city. It turns out that he is wrong about that. His question is: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?"
Abraham is right in feeling horrified about the coming destruction of the cities. He is wrong in his suspicion that God may not be perfectly righteous in the way He is going to execute judgment. Behind his question is the hidden suggestion that he may be more righteous than God in this. We find the same philosophy behind the cry: "If God is love this would not happen." The problem is, that we have a tendency to confuse our horror about the perdition of man with the content of the wrath of God. We tend to shift the burden of responsibility from man to God as if the sins man commits are actually acts of God. We do not realize how much we degrade man in the process by trying to diminish his responsibility. The above mentioned phrase "If God is love..." was uttered at the end of World War II when the horrors of Auschwitz and other German concentration camps were discovered. Very few people came to the conclusion that God had not done this but man. But just as Job held God responsible for what happened to him, so does modern man and so was Abraham about to do.
One helpful thought is that our sense of righteousness is derived from God's righteousness. This will help us to understand that we are not more righteous than God. Abraham did come to that conclusion when he said: "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" The very basis of all ethical behavior is at stake here. If God, the Judge of all the earth, would not do right, there would be no difference between good and evil.
Abraham was deeply shaken and we have to understand that God wanted him to be. The vs.23-32 show that intercession is a progressive discovery of the mind of God. Abraham must have thought that in crediting Sodom with fifty righteous citizens, he was giving them a stingy allotment. He must have understood from the way God answered, that he was beside the mark, so he took away five. But after deducting five people twice, he realizes that the situation was much worse than he anticipated and he takes away ten at the time. Finally, he stops at ten. At the end of the intercessory prayer Abraham goes away with the impression that there are fewer then ten righteous people in Sodom and that God is justified in turning the city upside down. What he did not know was that there was only one righteous person in the whole place and that God would not allow the destruction of the city as long as that one person was still there. In 19:22 the angel says to Lot: "'I cannot do anything until you reach it.'" (That is why the town was called Zoar.)" That Lot was the only person becomes evident from the fact that his wife could not detach herself from the place and from the immoral behavior of his two daughters later on. God's righteousness and compassion is infinitely bigger and greater than ours!
As Abraham progresses in his intercession, he becomes aware of his own smallness in comparison with the eternal God. This means that he also gets a clearer view of God's greatness. In vs.27 he is amazed to realize that he had the nerve to address God on the subject. He sees himself as "nothing but dust and ashes." His discovery reminds us of David's words in Ps.8:3,4 -"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" But just as David answer his own question "What is man?" in a positive and glorious way, so does Abraham keep on speaking, as if his words to God would make a difference. And they did! It is doubtful if even Lot and his daughters would have made it out of Sodom alive, had it not been for Abraham's prayer. The answer to the question why God wants man to pray and why God modifies His behavior as a result of man's prayer is the key to understanding who man is. The more we understand this, the more effective we shall be in the affairs of the Kingdom.
Let us not forget that Abraham's intercession was God's initiative. God wanted to save not only Lot, but all of Sodom and Gomorrah. He looked for a man who could save the city, but He found none. Ezekiel 22:30 "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none."
Isaiah 63:5 "I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me." Abraham's prayer did some good but not enough. Had the man been there who could save the city, then the man would have saved it. We conclude this from Jesus' words to the inhabitants of Capernaum in Matt. 11:23-24 "And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."
Twice Abraham uses the expression "May the Lord not be angry" (vs.30,32). This indicates that Abraham did not understand that his intercession for the cities was God's initiative. It seems that his prayer was cut short because of this fear. He says in vs.32 "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?" We do not know what would have happened if Abraham had persevered till the end.
The thought that this prayer was God's idea and not Abraham's is also expressed in the closing verse. We read: "When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home." This dialogue is considered to be God's speaking to Abraham. We can say that in intercessory prayer God speaks more to us than we to Him.
God's glorious presence withdraws from Abraham, and then Abraham returns home. It must have been evening, the end of a heavy day. There was the laughter of Sarah's coming pregnancy and a sadness beyond tears for the destruction of the cities.
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