The first issue is how to interpret Abraham’s hospitality. The main concern is to decide whether Abraham’s act of hospitality towards the three men is an act of charity aimed at earning some reward or merely an act of worship. From the era of the early church down to recent days, most scholars (cf. Ambrose, Augustine; Oden 2002:62-64; Calvin 1992:468; Hamilton 1995:9; Simpson 1978:616-617; Ross 1988:338; Wenham 1994:45) praise Abraham’s hospitality as the proof that he showed charity to earn some reward.
Many of them interpret Abraham’s hospitality to the three visitors according to the interpretative perspective of Hebrews 13: 2 in the New Testament (cf. Hamilton 1995:9; Oden 2002:64; Wenham 1994:45; Gunkel 1997:192; Jarick 2000:86). According to such interpretation, scholars assume that Abraham could not immediately recognize the deity of the visitors. Therefore, Abraham’s exceedingly great hospitality is interpreted as the exemplary manner of saints that is worthy to be rewarded. So the birth of Isaac is interpreted as a reward (cf. Oden 2002:64; Wenham 1994:45; Gunkel 1997:192; Jarick 2000:86).
However, this simple retributive interpretation is clearly in conflict with the other main elements of the narrative. In the dialogue of Genesis 18:9-15, Abraham receives a word of reconfirmation about the promised son as he had received repeatedly before, showing God’s covenantal faithfulness (Gn 12:2-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:4-5; 17:1-21). The retributive interpretation focusing only on the act of hospitality breaks the thematic flow of the whole Abraham narrative. Hospitable treatment of visitors is a general practice among nomadic tribes, and it is even today still taken for granted (cf. Westermann 1985:276). The word of Hebrews 13:2, which is spoken for the purpose of exhortation to practice hospitality for the church members who are in need, has been used as key to interpret the Hebron narrative. A meritorious view on Abraham’s hospitality, however, is questionable.
For, scholars’ attention seems to be focused on a lesser important aspect out of many significant theological themes found in the narrative only by using an un-proper interpretative key word. Therefore, re-evaluation on the use of Hebrews 13:2 needs to be done in this thesis. Practical understanding of the Near Eastern cultures’ custom to welcome visitors also needs to be considered. This writer feels a strong need to find out the author’s own interpretative perspective as expressed in the text itself in Genesis 18:1-15 as well as in the larger context of the narrative. This is one of the most obvious research gaps addressed in this thesis.
Abraham’s Recognition of the Deity: The First Moment or Later Moment?
The second issue is to decide exactly when Abraham first recognized the divinity of his visitors. Those scholars who praise Abraham’s act of hospitality as a meritorious work presume that the Lord disguised his identity so that Abraham was not able to recognize his divinity from the beginning. They assert that God only begins to reveal himself in verse 9 or 10: “Where is your wife Sarah?” or “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son” (cf. Calvin 1992:472; Simpson 1978:619; Speiser 1964:130; Skinner 1980:301). Thus, the way of understanding Abraham’s hospitality is closely related to the moment of his recognition of the divinity of the three men.
Some Early Church Fathers (Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian and Caesarius of Arles; Oden 2002:61-64; Keil 1996:146) rather praise Abraham’s pure heart and his discerning insight as a prophet, which enabled him to recognize the deity of the three men from the first moment that Abraham encountered them (Gn 18:2). Practically, for nomadic tribes discerning a stranger’s purpose for his visit is a matter of life and death (cf. Gn 32:6-7; 34:25-29; Ex 17: 8-15). Abraham had been very vigilant for himself and for his group’s safety whenever he encountered new groups of peoples. He even was afraid of being killed by other peoples (cf. Gen 12: 10-20, 20:1-18).
Therefore, this work assumes that Abraham had to welcome his visitors after his watchful and attentive discerning act. Consequently, Abraham’s hospitable manner may be interpreted as an act of worship rather than one doing charity. The author introduces Abraham as a prophet through the quotation of the Lord’s saying (Gn 18:17). Abraham had been depicted as a privileged prophet since he has been called by the Lord (Gn 12:1; 15:1; 20:7; cf. Calvin 1992:478; Von Rad 1972:183).
The interpretative perspective of Abraham narrative is closely related with the moment of recognition of the deity of the three men. Most important task for this thesis is to clarify whether Abraham recognized the deity from the first encounter with his visitors or only in the course of the conversation (cf. Gunkel 1997:198). Therefore, the view of Abraham’s later recognition of deity needs to be re-evaluated through an extensive exegetical endeavor. Research about the moment of Abraham’s recognition of the deity of the three men is therefore another research gap to be filled in this thesis.