God's Appearance to Abraham: Vision or Visit?
In Genesis 17 (vv. 23-27), Abraham, his son Ishmael, and their entire household are circumcised; parashat Vayera (Gen. 18) begins immediately after this. The first few verses of the parasha read (the New Jewish Publication Society translation, with some modifications):
אוַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. בוַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה.גוַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. דיֻקַּח נָא מְעַט מַיִם וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ תַּחַת הָעֵץ. הוְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ …
1.The Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oak trees of Mamre [Hebron]; he [Abraham] was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. 2. Looking up, he [Abraham] 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, 3. he said, “Adonai , if it please you, do not go on past your servant. 4. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. 5. And let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on…”
To summarize the middle of this story: vv. 6-8 describe Abraham busying himself to prepare food for his guests; vv. 9-12 deal with the prophecy of Sarah having a child a year later; in vv. 13 and 14 God reacts to Sarah’s response to the prophecy.
Coming to the part of the story that we will look at more carefully, v. 16 describes how 2 of the 3 guests head off to Sodom (to rescue Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his family; Gen. 19:1-26). In verses 17-21, God wonders whether He should tell Abraham that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Verse 22 then reads: “The men [guests] went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” This verse partially recapitulates verse 16, with the adding that after the 2 other “men” (angels) headed off to Sodom, Abraham was left standing before God.
The Traditional Approach – Three Angels
The traditional understanding of these verses emphasizes their proximity to Abraham’s circumcision in the preceding chapter and provides examples of ethical behavior to be emulated. In verse 1, God is “visiting” Abraham (in a vision) because Abraham was recuperating from his circumcision. In verse 2, Abraham sees potential guests, and therefore, in verse 3, breaks off his vision with God to tend to his potential guests.
This reading thus exemplifies the performance of two mitzvot – visiting the sick and welcoming guests. Note that in this reading in v. 3, Adonai, which may be understood as “my master” or “my Master,” refers to God, who does not reappear in the narrative until verse 13, where the tetragrammaton (YHVH) and not the more ambiguous Adonai is found.
This traditional midrashic reading, like many rabbinic readings, is not (completely) fanciful, but like many other rabbinic readings, is responsive to some anomalies in the text. First, the vision formula of verse 1 is unusual in that it is not followed by a verbal declaration stating the content of the vision (as is the case in Gen. 12:7 and 17:1: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said…”).
Second, the word order is unusual: instead of Vayera Adonai eylav (God appeared to him) it states Vayera eylav Adonai (God to him appeared). Thus, it is not unreasonable to argue that verse 1 is not a normal vision. Finally, even though it appears awkward that verse 3 should be directed at God and verses 4-5 to the potential guests, the verbs in verse 3 are singular and the verbs in verses 4-5 are plural.
A Peshat Reading – God as One of the Guests
Although clever and ethically uplifting, the traditional reading is not the peshat, the plain meaning of the text. The peshat reading, which is in consonance with modern literary analysis, is rather straightforward. In verse 1, we are given an introduction that God appeared to Abraham. That appearance then begins in verse 2, and of the 3 “people” Abraham sees, one is God personified while the other 2 are angels or messengers of God. In verse 3, Abraham is then addressing God directly. In verses 4-5 Abraham then addresses all 3 of his potential guests, as implied by the shift from singular (v. 3) to plural (vv. 4-5).
The narrative then continues: As in the traditional reading, verses 6-8 describe Abraham busying himself to prepare food for his guests, and verses 9-12 deal with the prophecy of Sarah having a child a year later. In verse 13 there is no doubt that God is speaking, because the tetragrammaton is used. In this reading God is not “reappearing” in verse 13, rather God has been with Abraham the whole time. Abraham did not turn away from God in verse 3 in the peshat reading, since God is one of the guests. God’s speech continues in verse 14 (as in the traditional reading), and v. 16 describes how 2 of the 3 guests (the angels or messengers) head off to Sodom. In vv. 17-21, God (again the tetragrammaton is used) resumes speaking and verse 22 ends with Abraham standing before the Lord.
The Tikkun Soferim
The peshat reading suggested above goes further than just clearing up some awkwardness in the narrative; it also confirms an ancient tradition regarding the reading of the text (Gen. Rab. 49:7):
"וילכו סדומה ואברהם עודנו עומד לפני ה'" – א”ר סימון תיקון סופרים הוא זה שהשכינה היתה ממתנת לאברהם.
“[The angels] went to Sodom and Abraham remained standing before the Lord” – Rabbi Simon says: “This is a correction of the scribes (tikkun soferim ), for the presence of God was waiting for Abraham.”
According to Rabbi Simon’s statment, also cited by Rashi (ad loc.), verse 22 originally read “the Lord remained standing before Abraham.”
Rabbi Simon’s statement is part of a tradition about “scribal corrections” that exist in the biblical text. According to this tradition, there are up to eighteen biblical verses that underwent scribal correction (tikunay soferim). These verses were “corrected” to remove any possible anthropomorphisms or disrespect towards God. The potential disrespect in the “uncorrected” reading of verse 22 is that it appears that God is subservient to Abraham; therefore, our source tells us that the verse was modified by the scribes to read as it does now: Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
In the context of the peshat reading, the “uncorrected” verse makes perfect sense. God was addressed directly in verse 3 and resumes His speech in verses 13-14. The 2 angels head off to Sodom in verse 16. In verses 17-22 God contemplates and then begins discussing plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham, while God was still standing in Abraham’s presence. The “uncorrected” statement of God left standing before Abraham probably highlighted the solemnity of what was to follow (Abraham’s petition to save Sodom; Gen. 18:23-33.) As such, it no longer seems to be merely a repetition of verse 16. In addition, the “uncorrected” text continues with the notion of God’s presence remaining before Abraham found throughout the narrative.
The reason the peshat reading was overlooked for the traditional reading seems clear – a desire to avoid anthropomorphic imagery about God which would be considered problematic by later authorities. Nevertheless, a literary analysis focused on peshat offers a straightforward way to read a familiar narrative and sheds new light on an ancient tradition regarding the history of the text.
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October 8, 2013
April 1, 2020
Professor Ben Zion Katz, M.D. is a Professor of Pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an Attending Physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases of the Anne and Robert H Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He has also written on topics of Jewish interest related to Bible, liturgy and the calendar. He recently published A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis.
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