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What did Abraham Know and When Did He Know It?

What did Abraham Know and When Did He Know It?

Genesis 18:1-10


I don’t know much about circumcision. I won’t pretend that I do. But, I do know this, it is so painful that the sages allow one to break the sabbath in order to care for someone who has been circumcised within the past three days. And, I’ll add this, if you cut off an important part of my body I would still be in bed complaining about it three days later, probably longer. Not Abraham. He was up and sitting in the doorway of his tent three days after his circumcision, and he was on the lookout for visitors. That may sound saintly, but it is really more practical than that. People who arrived unannounced didn’t always have the best intentions. Showing hospitality was a way for the host to demonstrate power over a visitor, satisfy any need the visitor might have and therefore avoid conflict. And, since he was a trader, Abraham would have been interested in who passed by and what he might be able to trade for. He didn’t get rich by lounging inside his tent, after all. He sat at the door and kept alert. Hospitality was also a way for Abraham to build up a reservoir of good-will among his neighbours in the event that he might need help sometime. So, he had lots of reasons to be attentive to who might happen by that day. 


In this story, though, something funny happened. The visitors took the dominant role. We see this demonstrated in the things they knew:  They knew that Abraham had a wife, they knew her name, and they offered their own hospitality in the form of a gift of prophecy. Everything gets turned on its head in this story. It’s a great way to tell a story, but it makes me think that we might need to look for meaning beyond the actual words. There is something in this reading that I’d never thought about before and I think we should explore that this week:  


Abraham told his visitors to sit down and wait for him to bring a little water and bread, but then he proceeded to produce a feast which included much more.


Was Abraham just being modest? Maybe he didn’t want to appear wealthy and make himself vulnerable to a robbery. We can’t know, but at some point Abraham shifted into high gear and laid out a spread for his guests. Is it possible that somewhere along the way he figured out who his guests really were? 


In the Watergate scandal which rocked, and ruined, the presidency of Richard Nixon, then Senator Howard Baker asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” That question is now haunting the current president, Donald Trump, as we found out last week that he did in fact know about hush-money payments made to his mistress Stormy Daniels. Like Nixon, it turns out that he knew a lot sooner than he originally let on. But, what about Abraham? When did he know that his guests were not just travelers? When did he figure out that he should step it up a notch, put out the good silver? Did he ever figure out that HE was the guest?

I wasn’t there so I don’t know. I do know that to this very day it is desert culture to care for strangers and travelers. I know this because I have been a stranger and a traveler in the desert, and I was well cared for.

I also know that Abraham’s descendants would promise God that they would do all the things he commanded them. Doing was more important than believing or professing to believe, or even studying! When Moses went up Mt. Sinai for the first time he returned and told the people that if they would accept God’s covenant God would make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The people replied, “All that God has said, we will do.”  It does not say anything about believing, or saying that they believe, or anything like that. It’s about doing.

I also know that later Moses told the people what specific things God wanted them to do and, again, they said that they would do them (Genesis 24:3).


I know that a few verses later they agreed again. This time they said, “We will do and we will understand.” By saying we will do first they mean to imply that doing what God says is of paramount importance. Understanding God’s law is secondary. In other words, doing the things God says to do is the defining characteristic of God’s people. What they believe is secondary. 


That’s what Abraham was exhibiting that day in the desert. He must have still been in a lot of pain. I mean, think about it. But he still did the work of caring for the stranger and the traveller. 


As the writer of James said, “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” It didn’t take thousands of years and Jesus for people to know that. Abraham knew it! He may have had practical reasons for monitoring things from the door of his tent, but he knew God too, and he didn’t spend time talking about what he knew. He did something about it! 


It is OK  for us to know what desert culture was like in Abraham’s day. And, it’s great to study and learn about stuff like that, even better if you have a friend to talk it over with. But none of that is enough. It is incumbent on us to understand the desert in our own backyard and do something there, be aware, and tend to strangers and travellers wherever we find them. 


There are big things we can talk about, like the migrant crises on the southern border of the USA. But, we already know what is required: Don’t wrong them, love them, show them hospitality. It’s in the Bible. Interestingly, the Bible is silent on the subject of secure borders but it has a lot to say about people who cross them. God is not interested in what we think about it, though, God is interested in what we do.

There are smaller things too, like neighbours or family members who seem like strangers. There are plenty of people crossing their own deserts who are in desperate need of a drop of kindness, encouragement, whatever you’ve got. Again, it’s not about what you think or what you believe, it’s about what you do. Where’s the check you can write? Where’s the good word you can offer? Or, maybe it’s just the harsh words you don’t say. It all counts. 


And there are the things that are so small that we may not even be able to see them at all. The dryness in our own lives, the now-disintegrated  hopes and dreams that used to sustain us… it all leaves us weary. But, surely we can find some kindness for ourselves too.


Here’s the thing: You might find that, like Abraham, in lifting up your eyes to see how you might be a blessing you wind up being the one blessed.

Some people interpret the three visitors to be a foreshadowing of the trinity. That’s a very Christian way of thinking about it. Abraham might have interpreted it differently. Maybe he thought it was God, appearing as an ordinary man, and incarnations of goodness and love, or light and care, or righteousness and justice. Whatever he thought, and whoever they were, the end was that it was Abraham who was blessed.

Blessings work like that. Some people call that karma, but that’s from a different religion. In our religion we call it losing your life in order to find it.

In what way can you lose your life this week?

What do you think you’ll find?


Some Notes of Possible Interest


Rashi has a little different take on Abraham’s hospitality, a more saintly take on it. He said that Abraham didn’t want to miss a chance to do a mitzvah, that is why he was sitting at the door of his tent. He also said that HaShem made it extra hot that day so that Abraham wouldn’t be bothered with any visitors. Abraham was depressed about this, though, and so on the third day of his circumcision God came to visit Abraham. Later, of course, Abraham will show similar enthusiasm when it is time for the akeidah. Circumcising yourself and killing your own child put Abraham in a class by himself, for better or for worse. 


Abraham’s wealth was mainly from livestock. 


Genesis 19:8… All that God has said we will do. 


James 2:16… If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?


Exodus 22:21… “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.


Exodus 23:9… “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.


Leviticus 19:34… You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.


Deuteronomy 10:19… Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.


Hebrews 13:2… Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.


Psalm 23:6… Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. 


Psalm 43:3… Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.


Psalm 97:2… Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.


Linda McMillan is on holiday in the rolling hills of Texas. This week, I am the guest and I love it!

Image:  Pixabay


©Linda Diane McMillan 2019



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