Connections 06.18.2017: When God Comes to Visit…

Genesis 18:1-15

Several points and questions strike me as I read this passage.

• On the infrequent occasions when an unexpected stranger approaches my door, I peer out unseen to assess whether the person is trustworthy. Most of the time, I pretend I’m not at home. The thought of offering hospitality, as Abraham and Sarah did to the three strangers who came to their tent, rarely crosses my mind. I’m more concerned about the safety of my family and my home.

• I wonder how long it took Sarah to make the cakes, especially if the dough required kneading. It takes my bread machine three hours to make bread, and that’s fast considering how long it would take me by hand. And how much time did the servant spend preparing the meat, from live calf to choice steak? What are we missing of the conversation between Abraham and the visitors that surely took place during these hours of preparation?

• I would be flabbergasted by pregnancy at my age, and Sarah was more than fifty years my senior. If she laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea of having a baby in her old age, I can’t blame her.

• Infertility is a big deal in the Bible, and it’s a big deal today. Many couples suffer quietly, enduring multiple miscarriages, battling intense stress on their relationships, and longing for a child to parent together. If Sarah laughed because she felt overjoyed at the resolution of years of infertility, I can’t blame her.

• The three visitors suddenly become “The LORD” in verse 13. Is this because the three men merged into one persona, because Abraham finally recognized the visitors as being of the LORD, or because Abraham had a special ability to hear the LORD’s voice and was able to distinguish it from the voices of others?

Sometimes our questions don’t have clear answers, and for me, that is especially true of questions about the Bible. Some questions matter a great deal, and many more are merely the result of curiosity. The challenge is to figure out which questions matter and try to find the best answers to those. In this passage from Genesis 18, the question that matters seems to be, “Why did God visit Abraham and Sarah?”

And the best answer I can discover from a few readings is, “To bring joy to them and to stretch their faith.” God brought joy to Abraham and Sarah with the promise of new life in a once-barren womb. God also stretched the couple’s faith with this news, which would completely change their lives and affect generations to come.

When God comes to visit, may we be able to recognize God’s presence. May we come out from our hiding place and welcome God with whatever we have to give. May we relate to God with honesty, even if it involves a little disbelief and incredulity. And may we delight in the joy God brings even as our faith is stretched.

Discussion

1. What questions does this passage raise for you? Which questions matter for your faith, and which are simply curiosities? How might your questions be answered?
2. Has anyone you know ever experienced a “visit” from God? If so, what was that like for the person?
3. Have you ever experienced a “visit” from God? If so, what was that like for you?
4. We know that God is always with us in a sense, but it’s also true that there are moments when we feel God’s presence more powerfully than usual. What can you do to be prepared for God to visit you in this way?
5. How has God brought you joy? How has God stretched your faith?

Reference Shelf

18:1-15. Yahweh’s promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah (J).

The self-disclosure of Yahweh to Abraham (v. 1) in this tradition is a showcase example of the J writer’s sophisticated way of representing God. On the one hand Yahweh is Abraham’s guest at dinner (v. 8). The portrayal is on the other hand subtle and nuanced: for all that Yahweh is understood to be present, his appearance is not described. There is a calculated ambiguity of identity between Yahweh and his representative. The Lord appears, but Abraham sees three men (v. 2). Later it is implied that one of the three is the LORD and the other two men are angels (18:22; 19:1), but nowhere is this made explicit, least of all while Abraham plays host to God in vv. 1-8 (NRSV smoothes over the ambiguity of identity in vv. 9-10; cf. KJV or RSV, which are closer to the MT).

This scene of promise takes place by the oaks of Mamre (v. 1). Earlier Abraham built an altar at MAMRE (13:18); later he will purchase a burial plot for Sarah in the same area (23:19).

Excluded from the presence of male guests, Sarah is listening at the tent entrance (v. 12). Hearing the declaration that she would bear a child at her age, she laughs (cf. 17:17 and Abraham’s laughter). The ensuing byplay of challenge and denial about her having laughed stresses the laughter theme—Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” The extended wordplay over Sarah’s laughter (vv. 12-15; contrast 17:17) conveys the narrator’s sober suggestion that Isaac’s birth—the birth of the people destined to be Israel—is an improbable, unlikely happening, in the sense of being of miraculous origin, a singular work of God.

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Genesis,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 107.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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