Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Genesis 18:9-10 Who Visited Abraham?

Genesis 18:9-10: Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold, in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.

Consider the situation. Visitors are at your place enjoying some well-prepared food. You’re standing by ready to serve them should they need anything. As they’re eating, it occurs to them that there may be something wrong with this picture. “Where in the world is your wife?” may be a very reasonable question. What may be less reasonable to expect is that these guests, believed to be perfect strangers to this point, know Abraham’s wife by name and call her thus. It is possible that these were not mere ordinary strangers. Now here is where the text gets a little complicated, at least for the layman.

To begin with Scripture indicates that the enquirers of that question were plural in number for it says, “they said to him (or asked him).” At face value of the text, we would think that all the visitors asked the question. Alternatively, it is possible that a spokesman was identified and that he asked on every guest’s part, thus “they asked”. The singular Abraham replies with the truth, “Why, she’s in the tent.” It is possible that Abraham’s tone was one of surprise in that most guests should know that the women of those days were in fact always waiting, on the sidelines, in the tent. And it is possible, given who these strangers might be, and where they are from even if just ordinary people, that they knew that as well, and that their question was only facilitative in nature, enabling them to get to the point of the news they wanted to share.

And here’s the tricky part, the text next says “And he (singular) said, ‘I will surely return to you….’” Is this the spokesman on behalf of everybody? Or is it someone else speaking on his own initiative? Clearly, the response is “I will surely return….” The question for us then is who exactly the “he” in this phrase refers to. Who can be so certain that he will surely return at the same time next year and that Sarah will have a son? Some would argue only God could say that. They are backed by the fact that it is God who has been having the discussion with Abraham about the promise prior to this visit, so this may very well be Him again.

To make matters more complex, in my New American Standard Bible (NASB) that I consider quite strong in direct word translation, the word “he” here is not capitalized. NASB capitalizes the pronoun He in both the Old and New Testaments when it refers to God. Yet, here it is not capitalized. Further the singular visitor replies that “he will return at the same time next year and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” As a layman, there is no clue in the Hebrew translation that can help us either. In fact, most commentators simply assume that one of the visitors was God and stay clear of the issue of number in the text. Clearly, the text does not tell us that for sure.

On the other hand, however, the news shared by this stranger is very much in keeping with what we believe only God knew at that point. The story continues to unfold with the text’s next revelation; simply that Sarah heard all this as she was listening at the tent door (and one assumes out of sight behind the tent canvas). Now imagine a very old woman who had been barren all her life hearing from some perfect stranger that she would have a son in a year’s time. As far as scripture shows us up to this point, we have no proof that Abraham had in fact shared God’s earlier promise to him with her. In Chapter 16, verse 1, all we have is that she clearly talks about her thinking God would not give her children. How she reacts to hearing this incredible, or rather, unbelievable news in the verses that follow, support the notion that she was hearing it for the first time. On the other hand, there would be many who would argue that there is no way even a man like Abraham could keep such a secret from his wife. And while we have no knowledge of God saying not to tell anyone, we also have no proof that Abraham had told Sarah.

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