I read more of John Van Seter’s Abraham in History and Tradition. I hope to finish the book today or tomorrow. It has a lot of his (and others’) ideas about the layers within the text, and that’s not always easy for me to follow.
What caught my eye yersterday was something he said about Genesis 18, in which three visitors come to Abraham. He notes that 18:1-5 alternates between the singular and the plural when it talks about Abraham’s visitors, and that some have suggested an interesting solution: the “original story had to do with the appearance of three deities, traveling incognito, to an elderly couple who offer them hospitality and are rewarded for it. This story was then presumably reworked by the Yahwist under the influence of monotheism to make it appear that the three really represent one deity” (202). For this view, Van Seters cites such luminaries as Gunkel and Von Rad.
Van Seters doesn’t care for dividing Genesis 18 according to the singular and plural references to the three visitors. He thinks that such an approach has taken liberties with the text, and that the division does not reveal “clearly structured, self-contained units.” The unity of the story is disrupted, as when the Documentary Hypothesis applies its knife to the Pentateuch.
I’m not in the mood right now to read the text in Hebrew to see the singular and plural references, nor do I have the time this morning to do so. I will say that I recall a medieval Jewish commentator who said that Abraham primarily talks to one of the three visitors because he was the head of the group, so addressing the one was the same as addressing the three. That’s why Abraham alternates between talking to one of the visitors and talking to all three of them. Another Jewish interpretation (if I understood it correctly) actually distinguishes God’s visit to Abraham in v 1 from the three men’s visit later in the chapter. In this interpretation, the three men are angels who speak for God, so they’re not God himself. The rabbis and the medieval commentators had to contend with the Christian Trinity, for which Christians deemed Genesis 18 a strong proof-text.
When I was at Harvard, I had to read the Sodom and Gomorrah story for my Hebrew class. My instructor asked me to explain Genesis 19:24, which states that the “LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (NRSV). Why did this verse have two LORDs? My response was, “Well, from a Christian perspective, it could be talking about the Trinity.” Church fathers used this verse to argue that there was more than one LORD, meaning Jesus was God along with the Father. And I wanted to boldly uphold Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, which I considered a bastion of liberalism and heathenism. So I responded as I did.
At first, I heard snickers from the class. Then, the instructor replied that the verse could be emphatic: it really wanted to stress that the LORD sent down fire and brimstone out of heaven! That’s a rule in biblical study: You have to read the text in light of its historical context, not in light of later Christian doctrines. The former approach assumes that the text is the product of human authors, who didn’t know about the Trinity, since the concept was developed centuries later; the latter treats it as the product of a divine author, who was aware of the truth of Christianity even when Genesis was written. This is my summary of the ideological battles behind textual interpretation, but I realize that the situation is a little more complex than that. After all, Van Seters refers to Gunkel and Von Rad, who were Christians and historical-critics at the same time. Somehow, they managed to read Genesis 18 in light of the Trinity within the rules of historical-criticism!
In the course of the discussion, a student from Episcopal Divinity offered thoughts that buttressed my point. In Genesis 19:13, the two men say that they are about to destroy the city. The text seems to alternate between the two men destroying the city and the LORD doing so. Were the two men the LORD? They left behind the third messenger in Genesis 18, and he was probably the LORD because he negotiated with Abraham over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Genesis 19:24 says that the LORD rained fire from the LORD out of heaven, are there three LORDs: two on earth and one in heaven? The one in heaven would’ve been the one who’d just negotiated with Abraham in Genesis 18.
Nowadays, I don’t like to read the Hebrew Bible in light of Christianity, but I must admit that it’s tempting to do so when I look at Genesis 18-19! I wonder how historical-critics approach these chapters. Do they say that angels speak for God in the Hebrew Bible, so, when angels do something, that’s the same as God doing it? But then many Christians would say that the Angel of the Hebrew Bible was actually Jesus Christ!