Genesis 18 Problem

Genesis 18 opens thus:

And the LORD appeared unto him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. (v. 1 KJV)

Afterwards he entertains three men who seem to inform him about Sarah’s imminent pregnancy as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conversations with the LORD are interspersed throughout the chapter with mentionings of the LORD in vv. 1, 13, 17, 19–20, 22, 26, 33. But conversations with the travelers are also woven alongside the divine conversations (vv. 3–4, 9–10, 16, 22). Verses 17–19 seem even to feature the LORD counciling with the other travelers by talking about Abraham in the third person:

And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do;  Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.

Verse 22 puts both the travelers and the LORD together, seemingly to indicate that the LORD had actually been there the entire time:

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.

By all accounts, the smoothest interpretation of these events would be, in my opinion, that the LORD was among the travelers who came to visit Abraham. This reading could be problematic for traditions which teach that God is invisible and that no one has seen God. For Latter-day Saints, theophanies (appearances of God) should present no problem. The scriptures teach that they are not only possible but expected. Nevertheless, President Joseph Fielding Smith taught:

We are not justified in teaching that our Heavenly Father, with other heavenly persons, came down, dusty and weary, and ate with Abraham. This is not taught in the 18th chapter of Genesis. The first verse of that chapter should read as follows: “And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre,” That is a complete thought. The second part of this paragraph has nothing to do with the Lord’s appearing to Abraham, and there should be another paragraph or sentence saying: “And he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him.” These three men were mortals. They had bodies and were able to eat, to bathe, and sit and rest from their weariness. Not one of these three was the Lord. (Doctrines of Salvation 1:16).

Let me just say now that I believe Joseph Fielding Smith was a prophet of God, and succeeded Peter as the Lord’s designated key-holder in his (Smith’s) time. That’s why this teaching puzzles me. President Smith goes on to specify why we should differentiate between the LORD and the travelers:

I will give you a key: It was natural for the English to translate, as in verse three, and say “My Lord” in referring to a distinguished individual, because that is the way they recognized distinguished characters; but you will notice that the word Lord in the third paragraph is spelled with one capital and three small letters which indicates that it was not The Lord that was meant. Now in verses 13, 14, 17-20, you will find all of the letters in capitals and that does refer to THE LORD. Now according to the Prophet’s revision of this scripture, the third verse reads as follows: “My brethren, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away I pray you from thy servant.” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:16–17).

This is a fairly familiar concept to readers of the KJV, who are used to this particular typographic phenomenon.  The use of LORD in the KJV follows the ancient Jewish tradition of substituting a euphemism for the sacred tetragrammaton, יהוה/ YHWH, better known in English as Jehovah. President Smith’s point is that the uncapitalized Lord in v. 3 could not have referred to God. Yet the Hebrew in v. 3 reads ’āḏōnāy (אָדֹנָי), “Lord” where ’āḏônay (אָדוֹנַי), “lord” would have been expected if it didn’t have reference to God. Incidentally, ’āḏōnāy is also used for God in v. 30–32 of the same chapter. Furthermore, bathing like a man was no problem for the mortal Lord when he himself initiated feet-washing in John 13:4–14.

In President Smith’s defense, however, neither of my arguments are conclusive. After all, the Hebrew text is essentially vowelless, so additions may have been made by later scribes who were unaware of the real situation. Also, it may have more appropriate for the mortal Christ to do things the glorified premortal Jehovah would not have done. But if President Smith’s position—supported by the JST, mind you—is the right one, then a couple of things may be going on:

  • The text may represent a splicing of different accounts. This would be singular given the Old Testament redactors’ tendency to obscure theophanies rather than render them more definite.
  • Abraham really could have been speaking with the Lord apart from entertaining his travelers, despite the disjointed reading. This explanation would have to account for the audience of the LORD in vv. 17-19.

Both of these are entirely possible, and I don’t think we should discount Joseph Fielding Smith’s authority as a then-apostle of the Lord. I’m just pointing out the difficulty this presents. My personal opinion is that then-Elder Smith was expressing his own views as an informed religious educator with a responsibility to teach and not in his capacity as prophet, seer, and revelator. If I’m wrong, I welcome correction. What are your thoughts?

3 Responses

  1. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThis is a fairly familiar concept to readers of the KJV, who are used to this particular typographic phenomenon. The use of LORD in the KJV follows the ancient Jewish tradition of substituting a euphemism for the sacred tetragrammaton, … […]

  2. You raise some interesting points; Thanks for bringing it up. I think this kind of thing should be discussed more frequently.

    This chapter is certainly a problem, and has vexed interpreters for some time. It is quite difficult to read this as straightforward narrative, since we seem to have Abraham in two places at once (v. 22): going to help the men on their way, remaining standing before the Lord. (There is another tradition that says that the Lord remained standing before Abraham.) We also have the problem of number: at times he’s speaking to one person, then inexplicably switches to the plural.

    It is possible, however, to roughly pull these narratives apart and, though it’s not perfect, they work well separately, which is a good sign that we’ve got two originally independent narratives massaged together by minimal redactorial work (probably changing the number from two to three, so as to orchestrate the destruction of Sodom with the bargaining scene).

    In any case, it does appear that we have the splicing together of two narratives here: one about divine visitors whom Abraham serves before they move on to Sodom (as a contrast with the hospitality of Lot) and another about the Lord’s appearance to Abraham and promise to Sarah and bargaining over the fate of Sodom. The redactor has edited these together and clearly tries to make the Lord one of the three men (because two show up to Sodom in chapter 19).

    It is curious to me that I agree and disagree with JFS on this: Yahweh was not one of the (original) “three” (two) men, but where does he get Heavenly Father? I thought we took “Jehovah” of the OT to be the pre-existent form of Jesus. It is a curiously anti-anthropomorphic move, and one that is solved, by the way, by a separation of the narratives, which he seems to want to do, as you rightly point out. But I guess he’s working with the body/premortal spirit framework (made more problematic by Ether, of course). It would be good to do a post on this about the willingness, for example, to break v. 1 off from the rest of the chapter, even inserting some kind of transition, but the unwillingness to see these as separate episodes, or to posit sources. Scriptural “literalists” are often willing to go to some pretty great (non-literal) lengths to preserve the “literal” understanding of the text.

    The problem you raise of the Lord saying “Shall I hide…?” is solved by the idea that it’s an aside, spoken to himself. Especially since in the previous verse Abraham went with the men to set them on their way.

    The problem with Adonay is that the suffix (-ay) is plural. Most of the time, when it’s plural like that, it’s a reference to God or a divine figure. It’s clear in v. 3 that he’s using the plural (“of majesty”) but speaking to one person, since the singular suffix is used on “eyes” (if I have found grace in your (m.sg.) eyes). So it appears that he’s speaking to the Lord. I’m not sure where you’re getting your distinction between the two kinds of adonay–they are both used mostly to refer to a divine being. BDB says that they were probably all originally adonay (patakh) but that there is a suggestion that adonay (qametz) is an Aramaic formation. Adoni is used to refer almost exclusively to human subjects, such as in verse 12 of this same chapter (Sarah referring to Abraham). (Contrast bi adonay of Exod 4:10,13; Josh 7:8 etc., where it refers exclusively to God, with bi adoni of Gen 43:20; 44:18, etc., where it refers exclusively to humans).

    Finally, while Hebrew was indeed for the most part written without vowels (the Massoretic text that we use now is a millennia-old, basically consonantal manuscript with seventh-tenth century (a.d.) scribal pointings to indicate the vowels), this is used far too often in the Church to posit scribal variation and error. True, the Massoretes got it wrong sometimes, often because Hebrew had changed in the course of the millennium it took them to get the texts. Mostly, though, these “errors” are insignificant and certainly not the result of manipulation (I know that’s not what you’re saying, but I’m on a bit of a soapbox about this.) In this case, there’s absolutely no evidence that “additions” were made by the scribes (they pointed the text they received, keeping–almost to a fault–the consonantal text intact.) The problem in v. 3 is not a linguistic problem at all when the two narratives are unraveled.

    • Jupiterschild, I’m just now reading this, here a year later, and your comments are so helpful. Thank you! I will hereby stick to Greek and Latin until I can get some better Hebrew training.

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