The Trinity in Genesis 18-19?

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!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to The Trinity in Genesis 18-19?

  1. Justin Honse says:

    Good posting. I am Christian but have been heavily studying the book of Genesis from a more Jewish perspective over the past year. From what I gather of the rabbis circa 1000-1100 AD, the general thought is that either A) there are three angels AND God, or B) three angels, one of which represents God. I too try to read this in historical context without forcing the Christian view on it.

    That said I do not believe this is mean to be a picture of the trinity, though that doesn’t make the trinity any less true. I say this because the general opinion of the rabbis seems to be that these angels (just the word for messengers of God) each have a specific task, as seems to be scriptural. One is there to notify Abraham and Sarah of the birth of Isaac (just as Gabriel gave the news of Jesus’ birth), one is to bring destruction upon Sodom and the surrounding cities, and the third is to rescue Lot and his family, or some combination thereof. I am actually about to write on this very topic soon in my commentary project located here if you care to check it out as I would value your feedback:

    Thanks again for an insightful post!


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Justin! Your blog quotes Jewish sources like Rashi. That’s cool! I like to read different interpretations of Scripture in my weekly quiet time, and I look at (among others) Rashi and the Jewish Encyclopedia.


  3. Justin Honse says:

    James, if you like such sources, some great resources I use constantly are The Stone Edition Chumash, and The Torah: A Modern commentary by Plaut. They each quote multiple Rabbi’s like Rashi and Ramban and Ibn Ezra, and Plaut’s also has an “Essays” and a “Gleanings” section with even more thoughts at the end of each Parsha/Torah portion. I own 5-6 Jewish commentaries, each with their own unique translation, and they are all pretty awesome for studying the Old Testament from a Jewish perspective. If I had to recommend only one I would go with Plaut.


  4. Justin Honse says:

    Oh, and another great resource is Maimonides “Guide for the Perplexed” which really delves into the meanings of words in the original Hebrew. You need to use the index in the back to navigate by topic though.


  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, Justin! I studied Maimonides in a few classes, but I haven’t read all of the Guide to the Perplexed.


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