Avraham's Guests – Angels or Men?


A Missing Revelation

Chapter 18 opens with Hashem appearing to Avraham:


וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו י״י בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם.

Hashem appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.

Surprisingly, though, instead of sharing what Hashem then said to Avraham,1 the following verses proceed to tell the reader how three guests visited Avraham. 2


(ב) וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרׇץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה. (ג) וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

(2) He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, (3) and said, “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not go away from your servant.

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 וַיָּקׇם לִקְרָאתָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה.

The two angels came to Sodom at evening. Lot sat in the gate of Sodom. Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them. He bowed himself with his face to the earth,

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 (like "אֲ-דֹנָי") usually used to denote Hashem.  It is unclear whether these verses refer to Hashem or the guests:

  • "אֲ-דֹנָי 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 אֲ-דֹנָי" – 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)?