The Promised Visit That Never Happens
After Abraham informs the divine messengers or angels that Sarah was in her tent, one of them says:
שׁ֣וֹב אָשׁ֤וּב אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־בֵ֖ן לְשָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ
“I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” (Genesis 18:10)
This second visit never occurs anywhere in the Torah, so how are we make sense of this verse?
Filling in the Missing Visit (Jubilees)
This problem seems to have been noticed as early as the Book of Jubilees (early second century B.C.E.), which adds a second visit Abraham after Isaac is born (ch. 16):
12 In the middle of the sixth month, the Lord visited Sarah and did for her as he had said.13 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son in the third month; in the middle of the month, on the day that the Lord had told Abraham—on the festival of the firstfruits of the harvest—Isaac was born. 14 Abraham circumcised him when he was eight days old. He was the first to be circumcised according to the covenant which was ordained forever. 15In the sixth year of the fourth week  we came to Abraham at the well of the oath. We appeared to him just as we had said to Sarah that we would return to her and she would have become pregnant with a son. 16 We returned during the seventh month, and in front of us we found Sarah pregnant. We blessed him and told him everything that had been commanded for him: that he would not yet die until he became the father of six sons and (that) he would see (them) before he died, but (that) through Isaac he would have a reputation and descendants. (Vanderkam trans.)
The timeline in Jubilees is a little confusing, but it is likely that the author is trying to add the promised visit into the timeline. In verse 12, he does this by translating פ-ק-ד from chapter 21 as “visit,” a meaning that it has in Biblical Hebrew, though the context of Genesis 21 suggests that “remembered” is a more likely translation. Further, in verse 15 he describes a visit from the angels to Abraham, and explicitly claims that this visit is the one referred to in their previous promise.
The Narrative is Missing (Gunkel)
The German biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), in his commentary on Genesis (ad loc.) argues:
[S]ince there is no account of the men visiting Abraham a second time, it can be inferred that the narrative originally had a continuation which reported that the men returned to Abraham.
Since Gunkel is unable to find where the strand may have continued, he is forced to conclude that, “this continuation is now missing.”
Redefining the Meaning of “Return” (Ramban)
Much earlier, Ramban was bothered by this problem. He surveys some previous suggestions and suggests:
שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה לשון רש”י לא בשרו המלאך שישוב אליו אלא בשליחותו של מקום אמר לו כמו ויאמר לה מלאך ה’ הרבה ארבה את זרעך (לעיל טז י) והוא אין בידו להרבות אלא בשליחותו של מקום אמר לו אף כאן בשליחותו של מקום אמר לו והוצרך הרב לאמר כן מפני שהקב”ה אמר לו בכאן למועד אשוב אליך ובין במלאך או בהקב”ה לא מצינו ששב אליו למועדו.
“I will return to you next year (כעת חיה)” – Rashi says: “The angel did not say that he will return to him on his own authority but only as a messenger of God did he say this. This is just like (Gen 16:10) “I will greatly increase your seed,” for he had no ability to increase [her seed] except as the messenger of God. So too here, [the angel] speaks to [Abraham] as a messenger of God.” The Rabbi (=Rashi) needed to say this because the Holy One says here that, “I will return to you at the appointed time,” but we don’t find that either the angel or God ever return to him at this appointed time.
אולי נכלל בלשון וה’ פקד את שרה כאשר אמר ויעש ה’ לשרה כאשר דבר.
Perhaps [this visit] is included in the verse (21:1), “The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken.”
ורבי אברהם אמר כי “ויאמר ה’ אל אברהם” הוא דבר המלאך בשם שולחו ושב אליו למועד אשר דבר אתו ואם לא נכתב.
Rabbi Abraham [ibn Ezra] said that the verse, “The Lord said to Abraham” is the angel speaking on behalf of [God] who sent him, and he returned at the appointed time to speak with him, even if this was not written.
והנכון בעיני שהוא מן “לתשובת השנה” יאמר כי שוב אשוב אליך עת כעת הזאת שתהיו בו חיים ויהיה בן לשרה אשתך וזהו כאשר נאמר לאברהם למועד הזה בשנה האחרת ויהיה "אשוב" כמו ושב ה’ אלהיך ושב וקבצך.
What seems correct to me, however, is that the phrase is related to the phrase (2 Sam 11:1) “the turn of the year,” meaning that I will return a time like this time of the year when there will be life, and Sarah your wife will have a son. This is like what is said to Abraham earlier (17:21) “at this time in a different year.” Thus the word אשוב (I will return) is like the phrase (Deut 30:3), “then the Lord your God will restore… He will bring you together again….”
Ramban rejects the identification of later revelations with the promised visit (as suggested by Jubilees and ibn Ezra) and rejects Rashi’s unusual suggestion that the angels only meant they would visit if God sent them. Instead, he reinterprets the words to mean something other than what they seem to mean: “to restore.” This is unlikely as peshat since shuv only has that meaning in conjunction with shvut, which is absent in Genesis. Thus, Ramban’s tenuous suggestion only underscores the serious problem – the promised return visit never happens.
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November 6, 2014
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