Abraham’s Hospitality: Is God a Good Guest?
Hospitality is both nowhere and everywhere in the Bible. It is nowhere, because there is no word in biblical Hebrew for hospitality, nor for that matter, any word for host or guest. But the concept is certainly there, and the social practice of hospitality is thematized in such stories as:
- Abraham’s three guests in Mamre (Gen 18);
- Lot’s two guests in Sodom (Gen 19);
- The account of the travelling Levite and his pilegesh or secondary wife (Judg 19); and
- The story of Jael and Sisera (Judg 4).
The biblical authors never let us know if the characters in the narratives have performed hospitality well. Using anthropological fieldwork on the etiquette of hospitality in Mediterranean-type societies, however, we can evaluate their behavior. We may use this fieldwork to construct a model of what we would expect successful hospitality to look like, and then we can use the model to pose questions to the texts.
A Stranger Arrives: Threat or Ally?
According to the British Anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers (1919–2001), hospitality is triggered by a social necessity: the arrival of a stranger. To the community the stranger poses a potential threat, but also and importantly a potential ally and a way to gain honor. The stranger, travelling in unfamiliar territory, is exposed and in need of protection and shelter. In this scenario, hospitality cancels or at least postpones a latent conflict.
Once hospitality is offered and accepted, there is a delicate balance between the host and the guest. The host must bestow hospitality on his guest without causing him to lose face and honor. The host has what the guest needs, food and shelter, but the guest’s honor demands that he is not made to feel as a beggar or a charity case. At the same time, the guest must not be seen to take advantage of the hospitality offered by the host. In a reciprocal relationship, such as hospitality, host and guest alternately find themselves at each other’s mercy, because they go through a cycle of alternating inequality in which they both can return honor with honor or return honor with insult.
In this context, hosts in a Mediterranean-type society like in the Bible may breach the etiquette of hospitality if they fail to honor, protect, or care for their guest. The hosts must always let the guest take precedence and what they offer must always be the best they have. Conversely, a guest may violate the etiquette of hospitality by insulting or failing to honor the host, or by refusing to accept what is offered. The guest may also breach the etiquette of hospitality by attempting to usurp the role of host or taking what is not offered.
The model establishes a set of expectations of behavior, which we may use to pose the right questions to a text or, in other words, to find the right things surprising in the text.
Abraham the Host
When YHWH, accompanied by two divine messengers or angels, visits Abraham in Mamre, Abraham is initially unaware that his visitors are anything other than ordinary travelers. Therefore we must assume that Abraham’s decision to urge the travelers to stop and visit is his usual response when guests appear on his doorstep:
בראשׁית יח:ב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה. יח:ג וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
Gen 18:2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, 18:3 he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.
Abraham goes to great lengths to honor his guests. He refers to himself as their servant, and he addresses them as “my lords.” He impresses upon them that they must not pass by his tent without stopping, but it also seems that he is mindful of any other business they may have, since he explains that as soon as they have accepted his offer of rest and refreshment they may journey on:
בראשׁית יח:ד יֻקַּח נָא מְעַט מַיִם וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ תַּחַת הָעֵץ. יח״ה וְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ כִּי עַל כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם עַל עַבְדְּכֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ.
Gen 18:4 Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. 18:5 And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”
Abraham’s speech is also peppered with the emphatic particle (נא), which creates a sense of cordiality and insistency, “please do not go on past your servant,” and “do let water be brought!”
As soon as the visitors accept his invitation, Abraham hastens to arrange for them a veritable feast of veal, cakes, curds, and milk, which seems to signal abundance, wealth, and generosity:
בראשׁית יח:ו וַיְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה אֶל שָׂרָה וַיֹּאמֶר מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת לוּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת. יח:ז וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הַנַּעַר וַיְמַהֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ.
Gen 18:6 Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” 18:7 Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it.
This effort to stress the haste with which all the preparations are carried out is a little comical considering how long it would take to butcher a calf and cook it or to make dough and bake bread using Iron Age technology. Even if we imagine a meat stew of the tenderest morsels and bread baked on a griddle over the fire rather than in a tabun, we are certainly looking at hours of preparation rather than minutes. The emphasis on his expediency, however, underscores Abraham’s readiness to serve his guests.
Abraham’s eagerness to please may also explain his decision to wait on his guests while they eat:
בראשׁית יח:ח וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.
Gen 18:8 He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them [lit. “stood above them”] under the tree as they ate.
His decision to stand to attention next to his guests differs from comparable biblical hospitality accounts that contain no suggestion that the hosts do not partake in the meal together with their guests. In this way, Abraham communicates both with his body and with his words his wish to be the guests’ servant.
By the standards of our model of hospitality behavior, Abraham seems to be almost overly mindful of alternating inequality. He goes out of his way to honor his guests both with his words and his actions. He appears eager and generous, but he takes care not to shame the guests and make them feel small or needy with his own generosity, and he carefully veils his invitation in expressions of supplication and servility.
In this way, Abraham is mindful of the guests’ honor and of the fact that his superior role as host leaves them vulnerable to insult as the invitation is issued. Abraham clearly offers the best of what he has, a lavish feast of a freshly butchered calf, cakes, and dairy, but in the same line of veiling and downplaying his own extravagant generosity, he refers to the meal as a “morsel of bread,” a modest serving. Thus, in this narrative Abraham is portrayed as an exemplary host.
The (Divine) Guests
Compared with Abraham’s stream of words and gestures, the guests come across as somewhat terse, but in essence they do what guests are expected to do. They arrive at Abraham’s tent (v. 2) and they accept Abraham’s invitation by saying, “Do as you have said” (v. 5). They also accept the food that is put in front of them, and they eat (v. 8).
After the meal, however, the guests begin to enquire after their host’s wife, to whom they have not been introduced.
בראשׁית יח:ט וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל.
Gen 18:9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he replied, “There, in the tent.”
Abraham answers them readily enough, and he shows no signs of surprise or displeasure, but the guests’ behavior here may be a bit surprising compared with what a well-behaved guest would be expected to do. A guest is not supposed to ask for anything that he is not offered, neither food nor information.
Then, the guest who is YHWH goes on to predict the birth of a son to Sarah,
בראשׁית יח:י וַיֹּאמֶר שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וְהִנֵּה בֵן לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו.
Gen 18:10 Then one said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him.
As the exchange progresses it seems that it begins to dawn upon Abraham and Sarah who their guest is. The annunciation of the birth of Isaac is sometimes interpreted as a reward for generous hospitality. This may very well be the case, but it seems that for a second time Abraham’s guest does not quite live up to our expectations.
It is important that the guest honors his host, and part of this is to avoid usurping or infringing upon the role of the host. A lavish display of supernatural gift-giving in the form of predicting the birth of children could be seen as a guest usurping the role of the host.
Whereas some kind of counter gift as an acknowledgment of hospitality may not in itself be wrong, the enormity of this gift seems to eschew the relationship completely and irredeemably between host and guest and to throw any attention to the delicate balance of alternating inequality out the window. Abraham, the generous host, is made small (relatively speaking) in his own home.
Abnormal Behavior from Divine Guests
These guests, however, are not human. There is no grand revelation to Abraham and Sarah of the identity of the guests, but it seems that YHWH’s rhetorical question serves as a kind of self-revelation:
בראשׁית יח:יד הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְ־הוָה דָּבָר לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
Gen 18:14 Is anything too wondrous for YHWH? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
If the guest’s ability to predict the birth of children has not already given him away (v. 10), then his uncanny knowledge of what Sarah does inside the tent behind his back (v. 13), and his subtle hint that nothing is too wonderful for YHWH (v. 14), has most likely made the penny drop. This would explain Sarah’s fear (v. 15).
In this part of the story, it seems that the guest’s ability to meet our expectations of hospitality behavior is declining at the same time as the hosts’ awareness of the guests’ true identity is increasing. The veils are falling, and with them the pretense that this story is an ordinary occasion and a typical, if idealized, example of hospitality.
Do Gods Make Bad Guests?
Does this mean that gods do not make very good guests? In a way, it would seem so. It makes sense that as long as YHWH and the two angels are disguised as human beings, they play by human rules of social interaction. However, as soon as the masks are off, different rules apply.
This example of divine “rule-breaking” recalls an observation made by the Social-Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss:
The inherent ethic of the myth runs counter to the ethic we profess today.
In other words, myths, stories about gods and heroes, often invert the norms of the society from which they emerged, not to challenge or to change the norm, but rather to confirm and enforce it.
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Prof. Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme is professor of Hebrew Bible Studies at the University of Oslo. She is the author of Before the God in this Place for Good Remembrance (De Gruyter, 2013) on the dedicatory inscriptions from the YHWH sanctuary on Mount Gerizim, and she is working on a book on hospitality in the Hebrew Bible. Gudme has written several articles and book chapters on ritual, food, materiality, and the senses in the Hebrew Bible and in the Iron Age Southern Levant, and she is the convener of the digital lecture series “Ancient Attraction” (2020), “Ancient Attire” (2022), and “Ancient Adornment” (2024).
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