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B'resheet/Genesis 18:2 And he lifted his eyes and he saw; and behold! three men standing before him.
The identity of these three visitors has long been a subject for disagreement between the Jewish and Christian commentators. The question asked is: didHaShem Himself appear in physical form to Avraham? At stake is whether G-d has ever or can take on human bodily form; whether He has a body and, therefore, whether Yeshua's identity as the Son of G-d - actually G-d within human flesh - is credible. The Jewish tradition encapsulated this in the third of Maimonides' principles of faith: "I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is not physical, that no physical attributes can apply to Him, and that there is nothing whatsoever to compare to Him."1 Although this appears to run counter to the many anthropomorphisms found in the Hebrew Bible and has been contested by rabbis both contemporary to the Rambam and in the centuries since he wrote it, the statement has become a part of the standard rubric of orthodox faith.
Nahum Sarna, commenting on the text alone, says: "There seems to be nothing superhuman about their appearance. Avraham perceives them to be human, as do the people of Sodom (19:5). They are repeatedly designated 'men', although they are also called 'angels'. Their arrival as a group of three is without analogy in the Bible. Chapter 19:1 mentions 'the two angels', which suggests that the third was manifestly different. Indeed, Avraham speaks to, and is in turn addressed by, one of them directly (vv. 4, 10). Perhaps the other two are his attendants."
The early rabbinic commentary B'resheet Rabbah (c. 350-400 CE) comments, "He [Abraham] complained: 'Before I was circumcised travellers used to visit me; now that I am circumcised, perhaps they will no longer visit me?' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: 'Before this, uncircumcised mortals visited you; but now I and My retinue will appear to you.' Thus it is written, 'And he lifted up his eyes and looked'; he saw the Shechinah and saw the angels." Another two hundred years later, however, the Sages of the Talmud recorded that "[Abraham] himself went out, and saw the Holy One, blessed be He, standing at the door; and so he says, 'do not go on past your servant' (18:3, JPS), but then it is written, 'And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him, and when he saw them, he ran to meet them'".Rashi doesn't even consider the possibility of one of the three being G-d; he tells us that G-d "brought angels to him in the form of men: one to bring tidings to Sarah, one to overturn Sodom and one to heal Avraham. For one angel does not perform two missions."
TheRashbam appears to be conflicted. Saying first, "And the L-rd appeared to him - how? Through the arrival of three angels in the guise of men" and then referring to "the L-rd" who spoke to Abraham in verse 13, "Then the L-RD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying, "Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?" Is anything too wondrous for the L-RD? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son'" (JPS), who he refers to as "the most important member" of the group, he then says that "the allusion to the 'L-rd' in: 'is anything too hard for the L-rd' must be the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself." The Rashbam shows similar conflict when commenting upon the destruction of Sodom: the 'angel' urges Lot, "Hurry, flee there, for I cannot do anything until you arrive there" (B'resheet 19:22, JPS) then the text continues: "the L-RD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulphurous fire from the L-RD out of heaven" (v 24, JPS). In spite of the tetragrammaton being used in both clauses, the Rashbam says, "The L-d rained down - the angel Gabriel; from the L-rd - the actual Divine Presence."
The Sforno, commenting after some centuries of Christian thought, tries to make a clear distinction between the divine appearance explicitly described "And the L-rd appeared to him in the plains of Mamre" (18:1) in the previous verse by suggesting that the word implies that the three men were "turning towards him, as though waiting to speak with him when he would be available, following the glorious vision." He then cites two other uses of the same construction: "Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants" (B'resheet 45:1, JPS) and "Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" (Shemot 18:14, JPS) to say, "Whoever waits in the presence of another to speak to him is referred to" in this way. The Sforno wants to prove that the three "men" are completely different from HaShem, who appeared in a vision.
The English translations don't help us see what the underlying Hebrew text itself might be saying. In the following verse, while the standard Jewish translation into English says: "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant" (JPS), with the first word plural and implying that the other words match, a standard Christian translation says: "O L-rd, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant" (ESV). The Hebrew text confirms that the pronouns 'you' and 'your' are singular, as is the verb 'do not go on past'; Avraham is talking to one person, not the group of three. Moreover, Sarna points out that "the opening vocative 'My L-rd' is in the plural - , Adonai - with a long final vowel, the use of which is otherwise reserved for G-d." The text seems fairly clear who Avraham thought he was talking to!
The argument is important because it affects our recognition of Yeshua. Rav Sha'ul understood the quality of Yeshua's nature and marvelled that "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: [Yeshua] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16, ESV). It was and is possible for G-d to inhabit a human body. The writer to the Hebrews adds, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same things" (Hebrews 2:14, ESV), so that He might fully identify with our condition and rescue us from our sin and broken relationship with G-d. Peter explains "For the Messiah himself died for sins, once and for all, a righteous person on behalf of unrighteous people, so that He might bring you to G-d. He was put to death in the flesh but brought to life by the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18, CJB). This is such a fundamental issue that John holds it up as a cardinal point of faith: "By this you know the Spirit of G-d: every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Messiah has come in the flesh is from G-d, and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from G-d" (1 John 4:2-3).
Only a life that was completely free from sin and committed to serving G-d, yet lived by a man - echoing Rav Sha'ul's comments about the first and second Adam - could provide the means for the atonement that secures our ransom from the penalty of sin and death, restoration of relationship with G-d and the eternal life that G-d desires to share with us. Yeshua was that man, that unique man, G-d incarnate; by His life in the flesh, death as a man and resurrection from the dead He made the way for us to know G-d fully, in Him.
1. - Translation from Authorised Daily Prayer Book, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, HarperCollins 2006, 0-00-720091-9, page 164
Further Study: Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:47-49
Application: We cannot compromise on who Yeshua is or deny G-d's complete sovereignty over both His creation and Himself. Without needless arguing, we must firmly and gracefully defend our faith against all attacks - even those from within the Jewish tradition.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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