The beginning of this short passage when compared to the first verse of this chapter may well present some challenge to the student of scripture who prefers to take things literally. In verse one we read that “Now the Lord appeared to him….” When one analyzes this phrase, he/she is faced with several options of interpretation. What is the intent of the word “Now”? We need to note that the word “Lord” is singular in nature. Thirdly, does the word “appeared” imply a physical visual appearance or one that resides more in the eyes of the mind?
When we get to verse two, we need to decide if it occurred subsequent to verse one or is it simply an amplification of verse one. Taking the more literal approach based strictly on the words we have before us, leads us to believe that the Lord (singular) appeared to Abraham in the eyes of his mind in verse one. (The phrase “And when he lifted up his eyes and looked” found at the beginning of verse two further supports this.) And then in verse two, Abraham visually saw in a physical way “three men (were) standing opposite him”.
Up to this point in scripture, the word ‘man’, the singular of ‘men’, has been used strictly to refer to the man that God created – Adam, and those that came after him. And for our particular study of scripture as it unfolds to us, we have no basis on which to give these two words any other interpretation at this time as some may be led to do.
We are not told exactly how these three men got to stand opposite Abraham that day. Certainly the word ‘behold’ which has as one meaning the idea of looking or listening to something amazing or unexpected, adds to the possibility that God placed them there Himself. What we may surmise is that this was in the heat of the day as Abraham had been sitting at his tent’s door and actually ran from there to meet them. In fact, this along with his very running may help us understand his first comment to the men.
Certainly Abraham had, at least that day, an eagerness to serve and be hospitable. While it is likely in his nature to be thus, it is also possible that his action was as a result of seeing God or feeling that somehow the appearance of the men was related to what occurred in verse one. It may also have been as a result of visitors being a rare occurrence where Abraham’s tent had been set up, and especially at that time of day. Nevertheless, Abraham bowed to the men and uttered, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by.”
The last part of his statement may simply have been a hospitable gesture imploring his guests to stay and be refreshed – probably a most common custom in those days and in that region. It simply refers to that fact that he did not want them to move on without stopping. The second part, that of “if now I have found favor in your sight” is a little more complex. Again, it may simply have the same kind of meaning that a restaurateur of today may have in mind when he says to those considering eating in his/her establishment after browsing the menu in the window, “if you like our décor and our menu, won’t you please come in and eat here?” On the other hand, it may again have been related to what had happened between the Lord and Abraham in verse one. We have no basis for making a determination either way from the words before us.
The part of his statement that is most puzzling is the first two words, “My lord”. In the particular version of the Bible that I use for studying, when the word ‘lord’ refers to the ‘Lord’ God Almighty it is capitalized and in this particular verse that word is not capitalized. The difficulty arises as to why it is singular in number. Why didn’t Abraham say “My lords” when he had three men before him? This may be the reason that some people today believe that these three men were in fact ‘not just men’ but God in some form. Such a position cannot be arrived at from scripture itself and, in fact, later in the chapter I believe there is more evidence that it was not. I am more likely to go with the interpretation that while we would today say “my lords”, it was perfectly acceptable to address all present with the singular form of that word – that is, collectively “you are my lord” and I am your servant.
Regardless of what general interpretation one makes of these two verses, it behooves us to be hospitable people eager to serve and meet the needs of those that God puts in our paths, or as in Abraham’s case, in the doorway of his tent.
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