A Missing Revelation
Chapter 18 opens with Hashem appearing to Avraham:
(א) וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם.
(ב) וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה. (ג) וַיֹּאמַר אֲדנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
What is the relationship between Hashem's revelation and the guests' appearance? Are the two connected or are they distinct events? If the latter, why did Hashem appear to Avraham if the revelation was going to be abruptly interrupted before any substantive communication?
Three Men or Two Angels?
The guests who come to Avraham are referred to by different terms in the subsequent accounts of their activities. In 18:2 above the guests are referred to as "אֲנָשִׁים" ("people").3 Yet, at the beginning of Chapter 19,4 when two of these same guests arrive in Sedom, they are described using a more ambiguous term "מַלְאָכִים" which sometimes denotes Heavenly angels:
וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה בָּעֶרֶב וְלוֹט יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר סְדֹם וַיַּרְא לוֹט וַיָּקָם לִקְרָאתָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה.
Are these "מַלְאָכִים" angels or humans? If they are human messengers, is there any significance to the variation in the terms the Torah uses to describe them? Conversely, if they are angels, why are they referred to as "אֲנָשִׁים" when they visit Avraham? Additionally, either which way, why are there only two visitors in Chapter 19? To where did the third member of the delegation disappear?
Angelic or Human Behavior?
The various actions of the guests are an additional factor which leads one to wonder about their identity. On the one hand, the text shares that the guests were given water to wash their feet, that they ate,5 and that the people of Sedom wanted to sleep with them. All of these activities are normally associated with humans, rather than with celestial beings. On the other hand, the visitors appear to have supernatural knowledge and abilities. They tell Avraham that Sarah will give birth, blind the people of Sedom, decide on their own to save the city of Tzoar, and perhaps even bring about the destruction of Sedom.6
Ambiguous Appellations: Hashem or the Guests?
To add to the confusion, the chapters contain several verses where there is ambiguity regarding words usually used to denote Hashem. It is unclear whether these verses refer to Hashem or the guests:
- "אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ" – To whom is Avraham speaking in this verse? It would be logical for Avraham to be conversing with the arriving guests, the subjects of the previous verse. Yet, Avraham addresses his interlocutor/s in the singular ("תַעֲבֹר", "בְּעֵינֶיךָ", "עַבְדֶּךָ") rather than the plural, as would be expected if he were speaking to several guests.7
- "אַל נָא אֲדֹנָי" – A similar ambiguity exists In 19:18, when the guests tell Lot to flee to the hills and he replies, "אַל נָא אֲדֹנָי". From the context, it would appear that Lot is responding to his guests. However, here too, the continuation of Lot's words ("עַבְדְּךָ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וַתַּגְדֵּל חַסְדְּךָ אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ") indicates that he is speaking to only a single being.
- "וַיֹּאמֶר ה'... לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה" – When the visitors bear news of Sarah's conception, she laughs, Hashem questions Avraham regarding her reaction, and this is followed by Sarah's denial. These verses are puzzling as it seems from them that Hashem is speaking to Avraham in the midst of Avraham's conversation with the guests! In addition, how does Sarah hear Hashem's question, and how does she dare to deny her actions in front of an omniscient God?
- "וַה' אָמָר הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם" – Here, too, Hashem seems to make a speech while Avraham is still interacting with his guests. How is this to be understood?
- "'וְאַבְרָהָם עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי ה" – In verse 22, immediately after the guests leave, the Torah states that Avraham was continuing to stand in front of Hashem.8 Yet, Avraham had not been in the midst of standing before Hashem; but had rather been busy sending off his guests!?
- Who destroyed Sedom? 19:24 states that "Hashem rained upon Sedom fire and brimstone from Hashem". This formulation is somewhat awkward; if Hashem is the one bringing the destruction, why the need to repeat that it came from Hashem? In addition, if Hashem destroyed Sedom on His own, why do the guests tell Lot "כִּי מַשְׁחִתִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה" (verse 13)?