I think Genesis 18, which begins todays weekly “Torah portion,” has to be one of the most mysterious chapters in the entire Hebrew Bible. Abraham encounters three men (Heb. אנשים) whom he hosts as honored visitors in good Middle Eastern style, washing their feet, giving them rest and shade, and fixing them a meal (meat and dairy combined–which I will ignore for now!). They are further identified as “messengers” (Heb. מלאכים), sometimes poorly translated as “angels,” two of which then proceed on to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to investigate their wickedness and deliver Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from the impending destruction (Genesis 19).
The fascinating thing about this whole scene is that one of these three men is clearly identified as YHVH (Heb. יהוה Yahweh or Jehovah) and he begins to speak back and forth directly with Abraham following the meal, promising to return to Abraham and Sarah the following year and resulting in Sarah–now well past menopause at age 90–becoming pregnant with Isaac. This is apparently such a problem for the Masoretes who edited the final versions of the Hebrew Bible that they replaced the divine name YHVH with Adonai in vv. 3, 27, 30, and 32 and changed the phrase in v. 10 to read “And Abraham still stood before YHVH” rather than “And YHVH still stood before Abraham”–thinking it unworthy of YHVH to “stand before” Abraham in terms of showing deference. Abraham and YHVH then have an extended conversation in which YHVH introspectively questions within himself–”Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” and Abraham respectfully reminds YHVH that he must not destroy the righteous with the wicked–”Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” The Abrahamic “seed and household” covenant is reiterated and the two then carry on a back-and-forth dialog over how many “righteous” it would take to save a wicked city. Once their conversation is completed YHVH simply walks away and Abraham returns to his place. “Subsequently, this “lower” YHVH calls down fire from YHVH in the heavens to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
For most readers this “walking, talking, eating, drinking” YHVH is simply an example of the rather blatant anthropomorphicism of the “J source.” But perhaps it is much more than that. Christians seized on this and other similar passages in the Torah that seemed to describe a very “human-like” YHVH, in contrast to One above whom “no man could look upon and live,” as evidence of a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ! Paul hints at this in 1 Corinthians 10:4 and Justin Martyr, in the mid 2nd century CE, developed his whole “Christology” around such passages. Starkly put–this YHVH of the “Old Testament” was none other Jesus himself–born as a human being! So one could hardly object to any sort of “Christ” devotion–even to the extent of equating Jesus with YHVH. In other Jewish circles these texts became the basis for speculating about “two YHVHs,” and “upper” and a “lower,” and the possibility, eventually considered heresy, of “two powers in Heaven”–see the article “Metatron” in the Jewish Encyclopedia for references.
It is entirely possible, however, to understand this and other passages in the Hebrew Bible, where “one” YHVH–seems to speak in the third person about a second–and often more remote–”YHVH,” as a rather sophisticated narrative strategy of dealing an ancient Hebrew understanding, in some circles at least, of YHVH as existing on both human and meta-human planes of reality. In other words, a flesh and blood human being could speak and act in the name of, and in the person of, “YHVH.” The Prophets seems to reflect this understanding in any number of places, for example, Zechariah 2:8-10 [Hebrew text 2:12-13] or Isaiah 48:14-16. It seems the one speaking in the 1st person as YHVH is also “sent by YHVH,” and thus the Prophet himself, whether Isaiah or Zechariah. Genesis 18 seems to be one of the first places that one encounters this mysterious phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible, and it was troubling to ancients as it likely is to careful modern readers as well. It surely does not fit well with later “Classic” understandings of Theism in the West.
I close with a PDF of my own very exacting translation of Genesis 18 with notes from the Transparent English Version. If one reads it through carefully the troublesome nature of this fascinating narrative comes out all the more strongly. You can download it here: Genesis 18 TEB.
- See David Capes very important study, Old Testament Yahweh texts in Paul’s Christology, J. C. B. Mohr, 1992. [↩]
- See Alan Segal’s classic work, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism, Baylor University Press, reprint, 2012 [↩]