GENESIS 12-19: THE CONTEXT
One emphasis of this text is the Lord’s promise that Sarah will bear a son (v. 10a). That promise has its roots in God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation,” made at the time of Abraham’s call (12:1-3), a promise that God repeated twice (15:4-5; 17:4-8). God further promised Abraham that Sarah would have a son and would give rise to nations (17:16)—a promise so far-fetched that Abraham fell on his face laughing at the thought (17:17).
Another emphasis is Abraham’s hospitality to the three men (Yahweh and two angels) who appear at his tent (v. 2). Abraham’s hospitality to the three men contrasts dramatically with the rude inhospitality that two of them will soon experience in Sodom (19:1-11).
A third emphasis is Sarah’s laughter at the prospect of bearing a son (v. 12 ff.). The response, “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” (v. 14) brings the issue of faith into clear focus.
GENESIS 18:1-5. ABRAHAM SAW THREE MEN STANDING OPPOSITE HIM
1Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please don’t go away from your servant. 4Now let a little water be fetched, wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 I will get a morsel of bread so you can refresh your heart. After that you may go your way, now that you have come to your servant.” They said, “Very well, do as you have said.”
“Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre” (v. 1a). Mamre is located on the plains near Hebron, due west of the Dead Sea. It is near Machpelah, where Abraham will purchase a cave as a burial place (23:9 ff.).
“Yahweh appeared to him” (v. 1). The narrator makes it clear from the beginning that the Lord is among the visitors to Abraham’s tent. The nouns and pronouns in this story can be confusing. However, verse 22 makes it clear that one of the three men of verse 2 is Yahweh and 19:1 makes it clear that the other two are angels.
“as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day” (v. 1b). In that hot climate, people work in the relative coolness of the morning and late afternoon so that they can take a break during the hottest hours of the early afternoon.
“He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him”(v. 2a). In more usual circumstances, Abraham would see the visitors as they approach from afar. The fact that he sees these men suddenly standing near him suggests that this is some sort of special visitation rather than the mere approach of three ordinary travelers. While the text does not specify this, it is possible that Abraham senses the special nature of this visit, which would explain his over-the-top hospitality. However, it is also quite possible that Abraham is entertaining angels unawares (see Hebrews 13:2).
Hospitality was highly valued in that culture. “One never knew when he would be dependent upon the hospitality of others. Therefore a stranger had the right to expect hospitable treatment. A visitor had no need even to thank his host, since he was only receiving what was due him” (Bromiley, II, 105).
I am reminded of a story that came from Alaska some years ago. Alaskans place a high value on helping stranded travelers, because roadside assistance can make the difference between life and death. According to the story, someone unfamiliar with the culture failed to stop and help. Once the stranded traveler was finally rescued, he notified authorities of the passerby’s failure to help. The word was passed from town to town, and soon the offender found himself shunned. Hotels refused to lodge him. Restaurants refused him service. Nobody would give him the time of day.
Hospitality is also emphasized in the New Testament. Jesus will emphasize the importance of hospitality to those in need (those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison), and will warn that failure to show hospitality will have eternal consequences (Matthew 25:31-46). Paul will include hospitality among the qualifications for a bishop (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). The author of Hebrews will call us to hospitality by reminding us that Abraham found himself entertaining angels unawares (Hebrews 3:2). Peter will say, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). John highly commended Christians who showed hospitality to visiting Christians, saying “because for the sake of the Name they went out, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 1:7-8).
“When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth” (v. 2b). This is normal polite behavior for that time and place. In that rural setting, people would be glad to see visitors—would enjoy a bit of social contact.
Abraham “he ran to meet them from the tent door” (v. 2b) is the first in a series of “hurry” verbs in this passage. Abraham will hasten into the tent and tell Sarah to make ready quickly three measures of flour (v. 6)—and run to the herd to get a calf (v. 7)—and the servant will hasten to prepare it (v. 7). These “hurry” verbs show Abraham’s eagerness to fulfill his role as host to these three travelers. We will see this “hurry” language again in a hospitality context when Rebekah hastens to give water to Abraham’s servants and his animals (24:18-20).
“Now let a little water be fetched, wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. I will get a morsel of bread so you can refresh your heart. After that you may go your way, now that you have come to your servant” (vv. 4-5). These are the comforts that a traveler would appreciate—water for drinking and washing, a shady spot to rest, and something to eat. Abraham gives no hint of the feast to come, but promises only a little bread. It might be that he is a modest man given to understatement—or he might prefer to promise a little and give a lot—or he might be concerned that, if he reveals his intentions for a feast, the travelers will insist that he not go to so much trouble.
GENESIS 18:6-8. QUICKLY PREPARE THREE MEASURES OF FINE MEAL
6Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly prepare three measures (Hebrew: seahs) of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a tender and good calf, and gave it to the servant. He hurried to dress it. 8He took butter, milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them. He stood by them under the tree, and they ate.
“Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah” (v. 6a). As noted above, this is one of a series of “hurry” verbs in this section, demonstrating Abraham’s eagerness to serve as a gracious host to the three travelers.
“Quickly prepare three measures (seahs) of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes” (v. 6b). “Grinding and baking is the women’s affair; the men take care of the butchering” (Von Rad, 206).
“three measures (seahs) of fine meal” (v. 6b). A seah is 1/30 of a homer and 1/3 of an ephah. It is difficult to know the exact modern equivalents of these measures. From the writings of Josephus it would appear that a homer is 412 quarts (390 liters), which would produce a seah of 13.7 quarts (13 liters). From a Qumran jar, it would appear that an ephah is about 45 quarts (43 liters), which would produce a seah of 15 quarts (14.3 liters) (Bromiley, IV, 1051). In his book, Ancient Israel, deVaux estimates a seah to be about two gallons (eight liters) (cited in Wenham, 47).
However, it isn’t necessary to know a seah with exactness to get the idea conveyed by this verse. Abraham asks Sarah to take three seahs of choice flour to make cakes. Using the smallest of the estimates for a seah in the last paragraph (two gallons), three seahs would be at least six gallons of flour (Correction: six gallons of choice flour). This isn’t a household quantity of flour, but a bakery quantity. No household cook uses six gallons of flour to make bread. It takes about one quart of flour to make one loaf of bread, and a gallon is four quarts. Six gallons of flour, therefore, would make 24 loaves of bread. Keep in mind that this calculation uses the smallest estimate of a seah (2 gallons). If we use the largest estimate (15 quarts), three seahs of flour would make 45 loaves of bread.
It is also significant that Abraham asks Sarah to take care of the baking. Abraham is rich. He and Sarah have servants who could be expected to bake bread. When Abraham asks Sarah to attend to the baking, he is thus raising the task to the highest level rather than delegating it to a servant.
To summarize, Abraham has put the top person in charge of baking, has specified that she is to use choice flour, and has asked her to bake a quantity of bread far in excess of the amount that the three visitors can eat. Like the “hurry” verbs mentioned above, this verse conveys Abraham’s zeal to treat these visitors with extraordinary generosity.
“Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a tender and good calf, and gave it to the servant. He hurried to dress it” (v. 7). This verse continues the emphasis on over-the-top generosity. In that time and place, most meals would be meatless, meat being reserved for special occasions. Most people could not afford to slaughter an animal for food on any frequent occasion—especially a large animal like a calf. A calf would feed dozens of people—not just three visitors and their host. Without refrigeration, a person who sacrificed a calf would have to salt the majority of the meat for future use or share it with a number of other families. If a person were going to slaughter an animal to feed three visitors, a smaller animal such as a lamb or goat would be more appropriate.
“a tender and good calf” (v. 7). The quality of the meat is as significant as its quantity. Years ago, I served a church in a rural area where all the farmers raised livestock. Most farmers raised one calf designated for their own table. They would feed that calf corn rather than hay—a high-calorie diet that ensured good marbling. They would slaughter that calf before it reached full maturity, because the meat of a calf is especially tender. You couldn’t buy meat of that quality in any supermarket.
In that time and place, members of the congregation would take turns inviting the pastor to Sunday dinner. They were not rich people—not at all—but the food on those Sunday tables was superior to anything that I have eaten in any restaurant. Everything was prepared “from scratch.” Those families could not afford prepared foods, but they would have been embarrassed to serve such food in any event. It wasn’t unusual for them to serve two or three kinds of meat and two or three kinds of homemade pies. The table was seldom large enough to hold all the food, so a nearby buffet was enlisted to hold the overflow. It is that kind of excessive generosity that is being described in our text. Abraham is going far above what is required to take care of his guests.
“He took butter, milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them” (v. 8a). Later, the law will specify, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21)—a law that requires strict separation of meat and milk in modern kosher kitchens. It isn’t unusual for observant Jews to have two sets of dishes—one for meat and the other for foods containing milk. I once knew of a Jewish chapel that had two kitchens—a meat kitchen and a milk kitchen. However, Abraham lived prior to the giving of the law, and was not bound by its strictures.
Wenham suggests that the description given by our text of “fine meal” (v. 6) and “a tender and good calf” (v. 7) corresponds to requirements that will later be set forth by the law for liturgical sacrifice (Wenham, 47).
“He stood by them under the tree, and they ate” (v. 8b). Rather than sitting at the head of the table, which would be typical behavior for a host in such circumstances, Abraham personally sets the food before his guests and then stands nearby while they eat to insure that their every need is met—more like a waiter than a host.
GENESIS 18:9-10a: YOUR WIFE SARAH WILL HAVE A SON
9They asked him, “Where is Sarah, your wife?”
He said, “See, in the tent.”
10abHe said, “I will certainly return to you when the season comes round. Behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.”
“Where is Sarah, your wife?” (v. 9a). Having received Abraham’s hospitality, the visitors address the business for which they have come. They ask Abraham where Sarah is, even though there is no indication that they have met her or heard her name. The fact that they know her name is another sign that these are not ordinary visitors but are instead heavenly emissaries.
“See, in the tent” (v. 9b). Earlier, Abraham went inside the tent to ask Sarah to take the responsibility for baking bread (v. 6), and it would appear that she has remained inside the tent during this entire visit.
“He said, ‘I will certainly return to you when the season comes round'”(v. 10a). The singular subject in this sentence (“I” instead of “we”) suggests that this is not one of the angels speaking, but is instead Yahweh (see v. 22).
“Behold, Sarah your wife will have a son” (v. 10b). As noted above, this is not the first indication that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. The juxtaposition of Abraham’s hospitality and this promise might make it appear as if God is granting Abraham a son as a reward for his hospitality, but that is not the case. God has already promised that Sarah will bear a son (17:16), so this verse simply reiterates a commitment already made. It does, however, make the time frame more specific (“in due season”).
GENESIS 18:10c-15. SARAH LAUGHED WITHIN HERSELF
10c Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him.
11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age. Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.12Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”13Yahweh said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I really bear a child, yet I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah will have a son.” 15Then Sarah denied, saying, “I didn’t laugh,” for she was afraid.
He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
“Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age. Sarah had passed the age of childbearing”(v. 11). This verse gives triple emphasis to the problem of age. Both Abraham and Sarah are old. They are advanced in age. But the final nail in the coffin is that it has ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women—which means that she has become menopausal. Prior to menopause, there is always a possibility of pregnancy, but menopause brings hope to a close—or that was the case, at least, prior to the miracles of modern medicine.
In verse 12, Sarah will identify another problem, “After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”—suggesting that she and Abraham are no longer engaging in sexual activity. Under such circumstances, there would be no way that Sarah could conceive a child. Furthermore, if she could conceive, her age would mitigate against her being able to carry the child to term and to bear a healthy baby.
“Sarah laughed within herself” (v. 12a). Laughter is a normal human response to a ridiculous proposition—a healthier response than anger, which is the alternative. At least Sarah doesn’t fall on her face as Abraham did (17:17). She laughs to herself rather than making an outward display of her disbelief. Sitting in a tent by herself, her inward laughter would not be audible or visible to Abraham and his guests.
“After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (v. 12b). We have no idea whether this is the first that she has heard of this proposition. Abraham might or might not have shared with her the earlier promise made by the Lord (17:16).
“Yahweh said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Will I really bear a child, yet I am old?”‘”(v. 13). The narrator identifies Abraham’s guest as the Lord. Sarah laughed after overhearing the Lord’s promise. Now the Lord challenges Abraham after overhearing Sarah’s quiet laughter. The fact that the Lord is aware of the quiet laughter is a sign that this is, indeed, the Lord.
“Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” (v. 14a). This is the key to this text, and offers great pastoral and homiletical possibilities. The one who created the heavens and earth and all that lives therein can surely create another human life at will. God chooses whom God chooses, and God often chooses unlikely candidates for great purposes. God chose Abraham and Sarah, not because they were the best candidates for parenthood, but because they were not. When Isaac is born, there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Lord had a hand in his birth. As God moves through history, he will show a strong preference for marginal people—for Moses, the one who stuttered—for the small nation, Israel—for Gideon and his tiny army—and for David, the young shepherd boy.
“At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah will have a son” (v. 14b). The Lord is speaking to Abraham, and repeats the promise of verse 10. Verses 21:1-7 tell the story of the fulfillment of this promise—”Yahweh visited Sarah as he had said, and Yahweh did to Sarah as he had spoken” (21:1).
“Then Sarah denied, saying, ‘I didn’t laugh,’ for she was afraid” (v. 15a). We tend to be startled when suddenly “found out”—when someone discerns and exposes our thoughts—when they succeed in drilling down to our inner sanctum where we felt safe from exposure. Sarah hadn’t intended for anyone to notice her laugh, which represented feelings that she preferred to keep private. When Yahweh noticed Sarah’s laugh, that threw her on the defensive. She became afraid, and therefore denied that she had laughed.
“He said, ‘No, but you did laugh'” (v. 15b). This seems less of an accusation than a correction. The Lord has no need to shame Sarah, but does insist on establishing the truth.
Abraham was 75 years old when he answered the call to leave his homeland and go to the land that God would show him. It was on that occasion that God first promised to make of Abraham a great nation (12:1-4). Abraham will be 100 years old when Isaac is born (21:5). Faith often requires believing things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). A faithful life can require abundant patience.
When God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son, Abraham “fell on his face, and laughed” (17:17). Now Sarah, listening to this conversation from the confines of her tent, “laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (v. 12). While Abraham and Sarah have followed God’s call and believed God’s promises, when it comes to this over-the-top promise that Sarah will have a son, they do not embrace the call but reject it as nonsensical (Brueggemann, 159).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-J –Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three: K-P –Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Farris, Lawrence W., in Van Harn, Roger, E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan