Genesis 18
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chs. 18, 19. The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (J)

Genesis 18:1-15.  Visit of three Angels to Abraham, and the promise of a son to Sarah.

16–33.  Colloquy of Jehovah with Abraham; Jehovah’s purpose to overthrow Sodom and Gomorrah and the intercession of Abraham.

Genesis 19:1-23.  Visit of two Angels to Lot in Sodom, and the escape of Lot to Zoar.

24–28.  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the Plain.

30–38.  The origin of the Moabites and Ammonites.

With the exception of Genesis 19:29, which is from P, the whole of this remarkable section is from J. Few passages in the O.T. narrative can rival it in simplicity, vividness, and grace of style.

The interposition of this section tends to heighten the expectancy with which the reader awaits the fulfilment of the promise; and to augment the impression of the Divine favour and esteem in which the patriarch is held.

And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
1–15. Visit of three Angels to Abraham, and the Promise of a Son to Sarah (J)

1. the Lord appeared] The personal Theophany of Jehovah (cf. Genesis 16:13) was evidently at first not recognized by Abraham.

the oaks of Mamre] Better, as R.V. marg., terebinths. See note on Genesis 13:18. Mamre is here the name of a place, not of a chieftain (Genesis 14:24).

in the heat of the day] i.e. at noontide, as in 2 Samuel 4:5. Cf. 1 Samuel 11:9, “by the time the sun is hot”; Nehemiah 7:3. For “the cool of the day,” see Genesis 3:8.

And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
2. lo, three men] The sudden appearance of the three men before the tent is especially recorded. Their approach had not been observed. As in the case of Genesis 32:24, Joshua 5:13, Jdg 13:10-11, the angelic visitants are not distinguishable from ordinary men.

bowed himself to the earth] Cf. Genesis 19:1, Genesis 23:7, Genesis 33:3, Genesis 42:6; the regular gesture of salutation towards those of higher rank.

And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant:
3. My lord] R.V. marg. O Lord. The Heb. word so rendered has received three different translations.

(1) “O Lord,” as in Genesis 18:27; Genesis 18:30-32, Adonâi, addressed to God. So the Massoretic Heb. text, adding the word “holy,” as a note, to safeguard the meaning and the pronunciation.

(2) “my lords,” adonâi, as if Abraham addressed his three visitors together: compare the plural in Genesis 18:4-5.

(3) “my lord” (with change of vocalization), adônî (cf. Genesis 23:6; Genesis 23:11). The sing. is used in Genesis 18:3 (“thy servant”). This third rendering seems the most probable: (a) there is no sign of Abraham’s recognizing the real character of the strangers; (b) it would seem probable that he instinctively recognized one of them as the superior in position, though he does not perceive in him the manifestation of Jehovah until after Genesis 18:15.

Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:
4. wash your feet] Abraham’s offer of hospitable welcome is said to be a faithful representation of the reception of a traveller by an Eastern sheikh. Here we have its various aspects of (1) the courteous greeting; (2) the feet washing; (3) the repast and personal attendance by the host; (4) the escort on the road at departure.

The washing of the feet is necessary for comfort as well as cleanliness in the East where sandals are worn. Cf. Genesis 19:2, Genesis 24:32, Genesis 43:24; Luke 7:44; John 13:14.

rest yourselves under the tree] Abraham invites them to recline in the shade, while the meal is made ready. It does not necessarily indicate the posture at the meal. Judging from 1 Samuel 9:22; 1 Samuel 20:5, 1 Kings 13:20, a sitting posture was usual among the Israelites. Probably we should understand that, in this scene, as in Genesis 27:19, Jdg 19:6, those who ate were seated on the ground, the food being placed in front of them.

And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.
5. a morsel of bread] Cf. Jdg 19:5. With true Oriental subservience of speech Abraham gives this description of the generous entertainment which he intends to provide. For this modesty of speech as a formula of courtesy, cf. Genesis 13:9, Genesis 23:11; 2 Samuel 24:22-23.

comfort ye your heart] As in Jdg 19:5; Jdg 19:8; lit. “support your heart,” Lat. confortate cor vestrum. The English word “comfort,” derived from the Lat., originally had the meaning of “strengthen.” The Heb. word here used is found in Psalm 104:15, “bread that strengthened man’s heart.”

forasmuch as] Marg. for therefore: cf. Genesis 19:8, Genesis 33:10 (J). Abraham graciously assumes that the strangers have only honoured him with a visit, in order to allow him to provide for their refreshment and entertainment on their journey.

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.
6. into the tent unto Sarah] Sarah does not appear before the strangers. She is occupied with the baking. Abraham and his servant are responsible for the selection and killing of a calf, the cooking of the meat, and the procuring of butter and milk from the herd. A meal in which meat is provided is a rarity in a Bedouin’s life, and is the sign of the offering of hospitality.

three measures of fine meal] A “measure” is a seah, or one-third of an ephah. The amount, therefore, represented by three seahs was one ephah. It is the same quantity mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 13:33, “the kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal.” The seah contained nearly a peck and a half.

fine meal] Two words are here used, ḳemaḥ and sôleth, meaning “meal,” “fine flour.”

cakes] These would be baked on flat hot stones placed in the clay oven, or in the hot ashes which were sometimes heaped up over them; hence LXX ἐγκρυφίαι, Lat. panes subcinericii. Cf. 1 Kings 19:6.

And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.
7. fetched a calf] We must remember that meat is rarely eaten by the tent-dwelling nomads. The killing of an animal for a repast indicated a desire to do special honour to a guest.

And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.
8. butter, and milk] Butter (ḥem’ah, LXX βούτυρον) is not what we should call butter, but rather “curds,” mentioned here and Jdg 5:25, as a cool and refreshing delicacy to be offered to a guest. It is called in the East leben. It is probably this which we find so often mentioned with honey, e.g. 2 Samuel 17:29; Isaiah 7:22. The milk (ḥâlâb) would be the fresh milk of sheep or goats.

they did eat] The manifestation of the Deity is here, as in Genesis 19:3, associated with a meal. Cf. Exodus 24:11; Jdg 6:19-20. God’s Presence may bless the simplest duties of home life.

And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.
9. Sarah thy wife] The knowledge of his wife’s name must have caused Abraham surprise, and gives perhaps the first indication of his guests’ real character.

And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.
10. I will certainly] A first hint of Divine knowledge of the parents’ grief over their childlessness.

when the season cometh round] R. V. marg. Heb. liveth, or, reviveth. A strange phrase, probably meaning “at this time a year hence,” as in Genesis 17:21. Cf. 2 Kings 4:16-17, LXX κατὰ τὸν καιρὸν τοῦτον εἰς ὥρας, Lat. tempore isto, vita comite. Skinner conjectures, with a slight alteration of the vowel points, “according to the time of a pregnant woman,” on the ground that the Heb. word for “liveth” means in modern Heb. “a woman in child-birth.”

Sarah … in the tent door] Sarah was not visible, but the conversation of the men under the tree was easily audible to her at the tent opening.

heard] Better, “was listening,” which reproduces the Heb. participle.

which was behind him] Probably the LXX preserves the right reading, “and she was behind it,” i.e. the door.

Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.
11. well stricken in age] An Old English expression for well-advanced in years: cf. “… his noble queen Well struck in years” (Shakespeare, Rich. III, i. 1). Heb. “entered into days,” LXX προβεβηκότες, Lat. provectae aetatis. Cf. Luke 1:7; Hebrews 11:11-12.

Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?
12. Sarah laughed within herself] This is the laughter, according to J, which furnished a reason for the name “Isaac”; and on that account it is here emphasized. See, for the reason in P, Genesis 17:17.

waxed old] The word in the original is forcible, and is used elsewhere for worn-out raiment, e.g. “shall wax old like a garment,” Psalm 102:26.

And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?
13. Wherefore did Sarah laugh?] The Divine nature of Abraham’s guest is shewn in His knowledge of Sarah’s thought, cf. Genesis 17:19. Here, for the first time, Abraham’s Visitant is identified with Jehovah.

Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.
14. too hard for the Lord] Lit., as marg, wonderful. The LXX rendering μὴ ἀδυνατεῖ παρὰ τῷ θεῷ ῥῆμα finds an echo in St Luke 1:37. Compare Jeremiah 32:17, “Ah! Lord God! behold, thou hast made, the heaven and the earth by thy great power …: there is nothing too hard for thee.”

He who thus speaks of Jehovah, is Himself Jehovah. Cf. Genesis 16:11, Genesis 19:13.

Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.
15. I laughed not] Sarah apparently emerges, in confusion and fear, to deny the guest’s statement. This occasions the fourth repetition of the word “laugh” in these four verses, by the short reply, “Nay, but thou didst laugh.”

And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.
16–33. Colloquy of Jehovah with Abraham, &c. (J.)

16. looked toward Sodom] The idea is that of directing the gaze from an eminence. A view of the Dead Sea is to be obtained from the hills in the neighbourhood of Hebron: cf. Genesis 19:28. The LXX and Lat. add “and Gomorrah” after “Sodom.”

to bring them on the way] See note on Genesis 12:20.

And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do;
17. And the Lord said] i.e. within Himself: cf. Genesis 20:11, “I thought,” lit. “I said.”

Shall I hide from Abraham] With the thought of this verse, cf. Amos 3:6-7, “shall evil befall a city, and the Lord hath not done it? Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Here Jehovah purposes to reveal His intention to Abraham on account of his position as one who was in covenant relation, and the recipient of the promise (Genesis 18:18).’

Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
18. blessed in him] See note on Genesis 12:3.

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.
19. I have known him] See Amos 3:2. Personal knowledge is the basis of confidence and love; the choice of Abraham is no arbitrary election, but the result of knowledge.

to the end that, &c.] The purpose for which God has known and sought out Abraham is here epitomized; (1) that, through the obedience of him and his folk, a true righteousness, according to “the way of the Lord,” may be propagated; (2) that the Divine fulfilment of the promise may be carried out unhindered. Family life is the sphere of chosen service.

For the picture here given of a righteous and godly life, cf. Genesis 17:1.

And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
20. Because … because] Better, as marg., Verily … verily.

the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah] See Genesis 19:13. (1) Either, this is the complaint concerning Sodom and Gomorrah going up to Heaven. The genitive “of” is then objective, like “the report of Tyre” (Isaiah 23:5), “the spoil of thine enemies” (Deuteronomy 20:14). (2) Or, it is the cry by the cities, which are personified, and which make their loud complaint against the inhabitants. The genitive then is subjective. See Genesis 4:10.

their sin is very grievous] Cf. Genesis 13:13; Ezekiel 16:49-50.

I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
21. I will go down] Cf. Genesis 11:5; Genesis 11:7. The Dead Sea lies in a deep depression to which there would be a continuous descent from Hebron; so that the words may be also understood quite literally. The strong anthropomorphism is in the character of J.

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.
22. And the men turned] There is nothing definitely to shew that all three Angels are not here intended. But, as the passage stands, Jehovah here separates Himself from the two Angels mentioned in Genesis 19:1.

Abraham stood yet] Standing is the posture of prayer and intercession. The dialogue (1) emphasizes Abraham’s intimacy with Jehovah, (2) heightens expectation of the catastrophe.

The Massoretic note on this verse suggests that the original reading ran “and Jehovah stood yet before Abraham,” and that this was altered for reverential reasons. The alteration was included in the list of the so-called Tikkun Sopherim, or “Corrections of the Scribes.” The versions, however, shew no uncertainty as to the reading. Targum of Onkelos has “And Abraham still ministered in prayer before the Lord.”

And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
23. Abraham drew near] Abraham’s intercession comes as a reply to Jehovah’s statement in Genesis 18:20-21, from which the doom of the cities might be inferred. It forms one of the most striking and pathetic passages in the book. It expresses the generous instincts of the patriarch’s nature. Nothing can exceed the dignified simplicity and deference in the utterance of his submissive expostulation. What adds to the effect, is that the servant of Jehovah, the nomad sheikh, pleads on behalf of the people of the Plain, dwellers in cities, sunk in iniquity. His concern for Lot, doubtless, forms the motive of the intercession, though Lot’s name and relationship are not put forward in extenuation of the plea. The great principle on which it rests is that the action of God cannot be arbitrary; and that Jehovah will not act as the heathen gods, but only in accordance with the perfect standard of justice. The virtues of mercy and forgiveness, which operate in the human heart, are assumed to be proportionately more potent in the counsels of Jehovah. If this abstract reasoning holds good, the safety of Lot and his family may be left securely in the hands of perfect justice.

consume] A word for utter destruction, as in Genesis 19:15; Genesis 19:17.

the righteous with the wicked] Cf. especially the similar passage in Jeremiah 5:1, “run ye too and fro through the streets of Jerusalem … if ye can find a man, if there be any that doeth justly, that seeketh truth; and I will pardon her.”

Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
24. spare the place] The word in the Heb. means literally “and take away for the place,” i.e. its guilt, and so “forgive,” as in Numbers 14:19.

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
25. That be far from thee] An exclamation of deprecation, like “God forbid,” or the Lat. nefas tibi sit. LXX μηδαμῶς, Lat. absit a te. Cf. chap. Genesis 20:4, “Lord, wilt thou slay even a righteous nation?”

that so the righteous should be as the wicked] This was one of the great problems of religious thought in ancient Israel. The Book of Job is devoted to the consideration of this mystery of human life. Under a Divine Government of the Universe, should the innocent be consumed in the same overthrow as the evil-doer? If the Israelite’s sense of justice rebelled against the notion that suffering always implied sin, conversely it cherished the hope that the suffering of the innocent might vicariously be for the good of the community.

the Judge of all the earth] A very remarkable declaration that Jehovah is supreme throughout the world. Whether or not the writer admitted the existence of other gods in other lands, he here asserts the complete sovereignty of Jehovah: cf. Genesis 6:1 ff., Genesis 8:21-22, Genesis 11:1-9. This is not monotheism, but it is the stage next before it. The “Judge” of a Semitic people was ruler, judge, and advocate. God does not judge after the sight of the eyes, or the hearing of the ears, but righteous judgement. Cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 11:3.

do right] Lit. “do judgement.” The Judge (shôphêt) will do judgement (mishpât). This is the foundation of a moral belief.

“Righteousness is one, whether in God or in man. It would be wrong in a human judge or ruler to condemn the righteous with the wicked, or destroy them indiscriminately … The fact that God is God does not withdraw Him and His actions from the sphere of moral judgement. Nothing would be right in God because He is God, which would not be right in Him were He man” (Davidson, Theology of O.T. p. 130). This is one great contrast between the Christian and the Mahommedan view of God.

And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:
27. dust and ashes] Two alliterative words in the Heb. (âphar va-êpher) which defy reproduction in English: cf. Genesis 1:2, Genesis 4:14. For the dust of man’s frame, cf. Genesis 2:7, Genesis 3:19. See a similar use of the phrase in Job 30:19; Job 42:6.

Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.
And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake.
And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there.
And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake.
And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.
And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
33. communing with] i.e. “speaking to,” as in Genesis 18:27; Genesis 18:29; Genesis 18:31.

unto his place] i.e. “the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), from which Abraham had gone forth to escort the Angels (Genesis 18:16). In the expression “the Lord went his way” (Heb. “went”) the writer leaves us uninformed as to the manner of Jehovah’s separation from Abraham. There is no mention of “Sodom,” as the place to which he “went,” is in Genesis 18:22.

For other instances in which human intercession is raised to avert Divine anger, and is the means of forgiveness, cf. Exodus 32:9-14; Numbers 14:15-20; Amos 7:4-6. In all these cases, he that intercedes seeks, on the one hand, to enter into the mind of God in His holiness and in His mercy; and then, on the other, to be the spokesman and representative of the community whose sin he confesses, and in whose behalf he entreats forgiveness and deliverance.

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