Genesis 18:1 says “the Lord” turned up at Abraham’s tent door. The next verse says “three men” turned up. When two of these “men” left (18:22), they’re described as “angels” (19:1). Who are these three figures? Men or angels? Perhaps all three are angels, with one of them speaking on God’s behalf? Or is one of these three men/angels actually YHWH in disguise? Read the commentaries on the Bible, and you’ll find a confusing array of opinions over how to understand this narrative.
The ancient Israelite community who told this story did not consider it cryptic. It was straightforward for them, so if we have trouble understanding it, we’re not hearing it as they did. If we had their perspective, the meaning would be obvious. Our problem is that we think of God as a spiritual entity only, not as a ruler. We’re missing the kingdom angle.
YHWH is the sovereign. He has just signed a legal commitment to give Abraham two things: descendants and a land. The descendants and land will be the nation under YHWH’s rule. In this context it is not at all strange that YHWH would drop in to visit the person he has chosen as the head (source) of his nation. YHWH naturally visits his representative when he’s in the area.
Of course, the king never travels alone, always with attendants. That’s still true of heads of state today. Flanked by two attendants, King YHWH turned up at Abraham’s tent door. That shouldn’t be surprising: YHWH has already “appeared” to Abraham (12:7; 17:1) and that language persists in the story (e.g. 24:16; 26:2, 24).
Once you see that this as King YHWH visiting his viceroy, you can enjoy how the story works. Imagine you’ve just been given a charge over part of the British Empire, and Queen Elizabeth arrives! Unannounced! With her attendants! What would you do? Probably something like what Abraham does.
Abraham greets the king, bows to the ground, presses him to stay, and offers to prepare light refreshments (“a morsel of bread”)(18:2-5). When the sovereign agrees, Abraham rushes out to instruct Sarah and the staff to prepare a feast fit for a king (18:6-8)! Can you relate?
After enjoying their hospitality, the sovereign offers a gift. It’s the one thing they desperately need in order to fulfil his commission: an heir. Sarah hears from the other side of the tent door, and chuckles (18:10). She’s past menopause (18:11). The king challenges her incredulity (18:13). Her spontaneous laugh revealed that she doesn’t think the king can do what he said (18:14). It might be the most embarrassing moment of her life.
People still struggle to believe that our sovereign will deliver what he promised. Like Sarah, we wonder why he’s taking so long. We see suffering and injustice and violence, and it doesn’t look anything like the beautifully ordered world God spoke of in Genesis 1. He designed us to be agents of his loving care, but that’s not what humanity is doing. So how does our sovereign ever regain control and subdue evil? Given that he’s not the kind of ruler who forces himself on people, how will it ever happen?
Play the story forward almost 2000 years from Abraham and Sarah. Our sovereign steps into his dangerous world as a man, to confront evil and restore his reign. He was—quite literally—crucified! Another 2000 years later, and we still see his enemies killing and making war in defiance of his authority. As a means of regaining power over the earth, the cross looks foolish. We announce that God raised Jesus up and make him ruler and king (Lord and Christ) over creation, but that message still sounds laughable to many. Like Sarah, some find his methods too slow.
Sarah tries to escape her fear by denying she laughed at the king. He doesn’t let her off the hook: “No, but you did laugh” (18:15). He has to confront her disbelief if she is to know that nothing the king promises will be too difficult for him to deliver (18:14). She needs that hope: next year that hope will bring her real laughter (the meaning of Isaac).
Our sovereign’s declaration is not vacuous. It doesn’t bounce back from a formless void like an ineffective echo. The word he spoke at creation—his declaration of an ordered world flourishing under his blessing and management—will be fruitful. He will accomplish in the end what he declared in the beginning.
At the appointed time, true joy—laughter—will come to Abraham and Sarah. The royal son will be born. The king’s plans will succeed. He has decreed it. Nothing is too hard for him.
What others are saying
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 471:
We must be cautious that as we accept by faith that nothing is too hard for God, we do not begin to dictate to him which hard thing he must do. He tends to have things in mind that go far beyond what we are able to ask or even think.
Isaiah. Isaiah 55:10–13 (NIV):
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.”
J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 175:
In the present, as the church lives between the times, those being renewed in the imago Dei are called to instantiate an embodied culture or social reality alternative to the violent and deathly formations and practices that dominate the world. By this conformity to Christ—the paradigm image of God—the church manifests God’s rule and participates in God’s mission to flood the world with the divine presence. In its concrete communal life the church as the body of Christ is called to witness to the promised future of a new heaven and a new earth …
Read Genesis 18:1-15.