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?