The most famous image of Abraham’s welcome to the LORD* in chapter 18 is best known not for the event it shows but for what it represents – more of that later.
On the surface, the story is one of hospitality offered and received. Abraham welcomes three strangers, who are in some way ‘The LORD’. I must admit, I’d always thought that it was clear that they were angels, but reading the passage today I’m not so sure. It’s certainly angels who visit Sodom in chapter 19, but it looks as though it’s the LORD and two angels who visit Abraham. Maybe this is asking the wrong sort of question of the passage. What’s clear is that God is visiting Abraham, and accepting his hospitality. For me that raises all sorts of questions about how we make space for God in our hearts and homes – and how we make sure by welcoming the stranger to our homes and our churches that we don’t miss God’s visit.
Judgement on Sodom
I love Abraham’s cheek and skill in negotiating with God in 18:16-33 – bargaining for the sake of the people of Sodom, haggling God down from giving mercy for the sake of fifty righteous people down to ten. Perhaps in our prayers we should show more courage in reminding God of his mercy, love and righteousness as well as his holiness and justice. Yes, prayer is partly about learning to see and accept God’s will, but we’re also called to plead for the world; how often do we really wrestle with God in prayer, keeping on at him until our prayers are answered?
Sadly, there weren’t even ten righteous people to be found in Sodom.
One thing to be clear about, because of the way that this story is (ab)used in some arguments about sexuality. Sodom’s evil was not about same-sex relationships. It’s about horrendous sexual violence – and, perhaps in deliberate contrast to Abraham’s behaviour, about the breach of hospitality, a duty valued more in the Ancient Middle East more than most of us can imagine. That’s the explanation for Lot’s attempt to placate the crowd before the angels step in. His duty to protect his guests was even more than his duty to his own family.
In the end, Sodom was destroyed – and Lot’s wife paid the price of looking back to her past rather than on to God’s future. We forget too easily that God is a just and holy God, and doesn’t ignore evil forever. Let’s pray for a change of heart in places where evil seems ingrained, before it’s too late. And let’s share some of Abraham’s courage in that prayer.
The ‘Trinity’ icon
You can find out more about the image at the top of the post here. It’s an icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century. It shows the visitors to Abraham, but as an image of the Trinity – at least, that’s how it’s generally understood and used in prayer nowadays.
There’s all sorts of meaning in the way that the three figures look to each other, point and so on – but one key thing that’s often pointed out is that there’s space at the table for one more to join them. As they accept Abraham’s hospitality, we are invited to take our place in the icon and enter into the love and life of God the Holy Trinity.
I don’t know whether the writer of Genesis had this in mind, but it’s worth looking into ways to use this image in prayer. Give it a try!
* In case you’re wondering, when we see ‘the LORD’ in English versions of the Old Testament, it’s in keeping with the Jewish tradition of not saying God’s name out loud – so where traditional Jews see the name of God (for the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to say what it is until we get to Exodus 3!) then instead they read out ‘Adonai’ which means ‘the Lord’. The capital letters are just to give us a clue that this is what’s going on here.