Saturday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15

Another stage in the fulfilling of God’s promise to Abraham. The reading begins by our being told that the Lord visited Abraham by the terebinth (turpentine tree) of Mamre, which was the site of his home, as he sat at the entrance to his tent. For all his wealth and prosperity, Abraham still lives a nomadic life, as does Lot.

In fact, he sees three men standing before him. And the text seems uncertain in its use of singular or plural for the visitors. A more primitive tradition seems to speak of only three men and leaves their identity mysterious. Abraham in speaking uses the singular, but it is not clear whether he is speaking to all three in the singular, or to one of them. Many of the Fathers saw a foreshadowing here of the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine that was revealed only in the New Testament. As later on, two of the men are described as ‘angels’, the third is taken by some to be Yahweh himself. Whatever interpretation is chosen, they clearly represent a special presence of God himself.

Abraham ran forward to greet them and bowed profoundly before them. Speaking in the singular (‘Sir’), he immediately asks them to accept the hospitality of his tent. At this stage his bowing to the ground is not religious adoration, but simply a mark of respect to guests. At first, Abraham sees his guests as mere human beings and welcomes them warmly; their superhuman character is only gradually revealed.

He offers them water to wash their hot and dusty feet and suggests they take some rest under the shade of a tree. He also invites them to have some food and refresh themselves before continuing their journey. They accept his invitation.

The picture is one of typical Near Eastern hospitality which includes:

  • Giving prompt attention to the guests’ needs.
  • Bow low to the ground as a sign of respect.
  • Politely addressing the guest as ‘Lord’ and calling oneself ‘your servant’.
  • Acting as if it would be a favour to be allowed to serve them.
  • Asking for water to wash the feet of the visitors, much appreciated in a dry, hot and dusty climate.
  • Prepare a more than ordinary meal for them.
  • The host standing nearby in the attitude of a servant meeting their every wish.
  • Abraham immediately tells his wife Sarah to bake bread, and he orders that a steer be prepared for eating. When all was ready, he offered his guests the meat of the steer with curds and milk, and waited on them as they ate under the tree. The curds were a type of soft cheese or yogurt.

    The men then asked for Sarah. On being told that she was in the tent (women did not appear in the presence of men as they ate), one of them said that he would return in about one year’s time when Sarah would have a child. ‘One of them’ would indicate the speaker as being Yahweh himself, something Abraham begins to realise when he hears the prediction of a miraculous birth. “About this time next year” is literally “when the time becomes alive”, i.e. at the time when birth is due after the period of gestation; the conception is understood as taking place soon after the prediction.

    Sarah, who was inside at the entrance to the tent, heard all this being said. She and Abraham were very old, and Sarah had long before had her menopause. She laughed to herself at the thought of being a mother. “Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?” We will subsequently see her future son named Isaac, a name that means ‘God has smiled’.

    But the Lord (in the person of the three men) asked Abraham why Sarah had laughed at the idea of becoming pregnant.

    Is anything too marvellous for the Lord to do?

    Mary will hear similar words from Gabriel at the Annunciation. Again the Lord promises to return in a year’s time when Sarah will bear a son. Sarah then became afraid (she has begun to realise who the speaker is) and denies having laughed. “Oh yes, you did,” the Lord said.

    That is the end of our reading. Immediately after this, the three men left and continued their journey to Sodom. Abraham, with true courtesy, accompanied them part of the way. Monday will find us in Sodom. The reading is a lesson in courtesy and hospitality to the stranger, and one to be taken aboard by every Christian. One never knows when God is present in a caller to the door. In fact, one can take it that he is present, one way or another, in every caller and should be treated as such.

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