Genesis 18

This verse by verse Bible study on Genesis is an inductive verse by verse study with extensive reflections, teaching points, cross-references, and applications. They are the personal study of notes of a very good doctor friend of mine. His native tongue is Mandarin, but his English is amazing as you will see below. It is refreshing to take a look at this important book of Genesis through the eyes of a believer from another culture. Without further adieu: The Scribblings According to David.

Genesis 18 Inductive Bible Study

An Unlikely Man of Faith (VII)

Outline

vv.1-15 Abraham’s Big-hearted Hospitality.

vv.16-33 Abraham’s Brave-hearted Intercession.

Textual Summary

Abraham showed lavish hospitality to three men, who were in fact heavenly beings, among whom was the Lord Himself. When they were about to leave, the Lord made known to Abraham His plan to judge Sodom. Abraham then dauntlessly pleaded for the city for the sake of the righteous.

Interpretative Challenges

How long had passed since Gen. XVII?
When God appeared to Abraham, gave him promise that a child be born through Sarah as well as instructions concerning circumcision, he was 99 years old (Gen. 17:24). When Isaac was born, Abraham was 100 years old (Gen. 21:5). Taking these two facts together, it is clear that God’s appearing to Abraham again in Gen. XVIII and assuring him that a child be born to him through Sarah this time next year (Gen. 18:10) should not be any longer than three months since His last appearing in the previous chapter. There was some Jewish tradition that says it was three days after Abraham performed circumcision on himself and all the males in his household, but that was merely unsubstantiated speculation without any spiritual relevance to us today.

In what forms do angels normally appear?
Angels in the Bible normally appear in male forms, contrary to common misunderstandings in secular culture. For a topical study of Angels, please refer to the extensive entry quoted from the Lexham Bible Dictionary, attached at the end of the study note (really, really extensive, for crying out loud!!!).

Did Abraham know that the three men were in fact angels?
It is perhaps reasonable to assume Abraham did not at first recognize that the three men were superhuman beings. However, the fact that Abraham addressed one of the three as “my lord” (Hebrew adonai) in v.3 and later used the same title to address God in his intercession (v.27) suggests that he at least understood well the identity of the leader of the three men before he bowed to the ground. In other words, somewhere between seeing the three men and paying homage to them, Abraham recognized the Lord Himself was among them.

What’s so special about the fact that Abraham “ran” (v.2)?
In the Middle East, noble men would wear long robes in their daily living. Thus they normally don’t run; they glide. And in order to run, they have to grab the robe and hold it midair, exposing their legs. Doing so brings no small dishonor (In contrast, the long robe they wear has a name that indicates “that which brings me honor”). The way Abraham responded to the visitors was indeed unconventional: to show respect and hospitality to the three men, he didn’t care about his image or honor. The fact that Abraham “bowed himself to the earth” before the three men (v.2) also suggests that he regarded the visitors significantly higher than himself.

The interesting truth is, in Jesus’ parable in Lk. XV, when the Father saw the prodigal son returns, He also did the unconventional: He ran to embrace him. In fact, that was immensely humiliating: the Father was running towards a son who wished He was dead, asked for his portion of inheritance and spent it in wild living! But that is how God responds to a penitent sinner: He humiliates Himself to receive us, as long as we repent. Why? Because there is no greater joy for God than this. Even as Christ says is, “… there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7)

If Abraham’s running shows man’s rightful response of humble adoration towards God, then the Father’s running in Jesus’ parable shows God’s loving response of gracious adoption of us.

Why did Sarah laugh (v.12)?
Not unlike his husband’s response in the previous chapter, Sarah laughed in disbelief when she heard that God would grant her a baby in the womb. “Sarah was past childbearing” (v.11) is rendered “The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” in ESV, which speaks of the menstrual cycle of a woman. Sarah, in her 90s, had long past reproductive age. That’s why, as MacArthur put it, “She was not thinking of divine miracle but of divine providence working only the normal course of life”.

Sarah’s reaction was that of incredulity, mirroring Abraham’s laugher in Gen. 17:17. But it wasn’t definitive. When confronted, Sarah finally understood the omnipotence of God (“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” v.14) by understanding the omniscience of God (“No, but you did laugh”, v.15). And she was conceived as promised. In Hebrews, Sarah was commended for her faith: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” (Heb. 11:11)

Does God really need to go on a fact-finding mission?
When in Gen. 18:20, the Scripture reads, “And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’”, it almost appeared as if the situation of Sodom somehow skipped God’s attention until someone cried out to Him and that He had to personally make some investigations Himself. Historically, one line of heresy, namely open theism, teaches exactly that: God is infinitely wise, but He really does not know about everything; thus He is always reacting to various situations in the world. According to open theism, God’s Providence is flexible and the future of history is not single, fixed and trajectory, but rather, a plurality of branching opportunities (thus the term “open”).

What is God like in terms of His knowledge of everything? Let’s turn to the Bible.

In Isa. 46:9-10, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’” The One and Only God of the universe had already “[declared] the end from the beginning”, and His purpose shall be established for the sake of His good pleasure. In other words, much more than knowing everything, God has already declared everything. He is not limited to space and time, as are finite human beings like us. For the record, He created space and time. From this verse, not only do we see God’sOmniscience and Omnipotence, but we also see His absolute Sovereignty.

The prophet Jeremiah also wrote, “‘Am I a God who is near,’ declares the Lord, ‘and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?’ declares the Lord.” (Jer. 23:23-24) To put it in another way, can someone find a place where he can hide from God? Of course, to ask the question is to answer it.

Perhaps the focal point of the whole debate on the knowledge of God, within the circle of believers, most white-hotly converges on Rom. 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” Apparently, the foreknowledge of God in this verse is intricately linked to our understanding of the doctrine of salvation. A comprehensive thesis on the subject of soteriology is beyond the scope of my current study. In brief, some believers suggested that God’s foreknowledge means He has already known (“foreknowledge” in the sense of knowing in advance) who will choose to believe Him, and subsequently predestined them to salvation. In other words, God’s election becomes conditional, based on the free-willed reception (or rejection) of the individual.

So, is God’s election conditional, based on our responses? In fact, the key to the understanding of God’s foreknowledge is exegetical, hinging on a proper semantic understanding of the word “know” or “knowledge” of a person (P.S. I have written an essay titled On Knowing on this subject in my previous study of Gen. VI). Without belaboring the point, “knowing” a person in both OT and NT context is a euphemism for having a relationship that involves physical intimacy (e.g. between husband and wife, cf. Gen. 4:1, 17; or homosexual/heterosexual rape, cf. Gen. 19:4, 8). The spiritual extrapolation, then, refers to worship, either of the true God or false gods. Idolatry in the OT was often compared to spiritual adultery by the prophets. And in the NT, the most famous verse about such knowing is perhaps Jn. 17:3, in which Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Emphasis mine). When Christ speaks of knowing God and Himself, He is de facto using an analogy of sex – an intimacy like that between a husband and a wife. To put it in another way, true faith is an intimate relationship with God, not just an intellectual accumulation of theological knowledge. In light of this understanding, coming back to Rom. 8:29, the foreknowledge of God, then, is not a statistical analysis performed in advance (of all those who would, by their own will, “believe”), but an intimate relationship predetermined in advance (of all those who, as Rom. 8:30 puts it, will be called, justified, and ultimately glorified). And therefore, God’s election becomes unconditional– it is not based on any merit in and of men themselves, but solely God’s sovereign choice. Faith, indeed, is a gift from God.

Does God really need to go on a fact-finding mission? Definitely not. He is an all-knowing and all-powerful God. The way Gen. 18:20 was phrased is more for our benefit – a literary illustration of the divine using human terms.

Is it fair for the righteous to suffer with the wicked?
No, it’s not. Some may say, in a world so contaminated by sin, life is seldom fair. But life being unfair in our eyes does not mean God has ever been unjust. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” cried Abraham (Gen. 18:25), appealing to the righteousness of God. When the fire and brimstone fell from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah, it was an absolutely just judgment. The conversation between Abraham and God indicated that the wicked city would have been spared, had there been as few as 10 righteous men living in it.

God’s righteousness is perfect righteousness; so is His justice. But that is a difficult concept to grasp by our fallen reason, because we tend to view God’s righteousness and justice from our jaded understanding of the term. On the one hand, as R. C. Sproul wrote in his masterpiece The Holiness of God, “God does not always act with justice. Sometimes He acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.” On the other hand, people either don’t understand or don’t accept that one sin, committed at one time, by one single individual, is enough for God to initiate His holy wrath of divine judgment. We are so accustomed to committing a sin and then get away with it (from which we have been shown divine mercy) that when one day God decided to stop showing mercy, we would accuse Him of being unjust.

To take a step further, this is a question related to suffering, and thus can be transformed into one of the most difficult theological subjects calledtheodicy, which means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil” [1], or, put it in a simple way, “a defense of God’s stated character in the Bible against the charge that He should not permit bad things to happen” [2]. The subject of theodicy is beyond the scope of my current study, but Christians should always remember what Isaiah says in Isa. 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” as well as what Paul says in Rom. 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

Rick Holland, in his brilliant essay Sorrow, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, wrote, “Heaven is the time and place where all believers will enjoy the absence of all evil and suffering and the presence of unmitigated joy. The problem of evil is the cry of the soul for that experience. It is placing upon this world expectations that can only be met in heaven. Considering our unworthiness in light of the infinite tributaries of God’s goodness, sovereignty, wisdom, grace, and mercy can reset the troubled heart with the power of perspective.”

Lessons and Reflections

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.
When the author of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2), he was clearly referring to Abraham’s hospitality towards the three men.

Abraham “ran from the tent door … and bowed himself to the earth”, then “hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare …’” and “also ran to the herd, … and [the servant] hurried to prepare it”, and when everything was ready and served, “he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.” Merely looking at those verbs gives us an idea of what kind of hospitality Abraham had shown. The content of the feast also made a point. Though he said “a little water” and “a piece of bread” be brought to the three visitors, he actually ordered three seah of fine flour to bake bread, with curds and milk and a choice calf!

In ancient times, when travel was difficult and dangerous, being ready to host and care for visitors is among the highest virtues in the secular culture. In fact, hospitality is also a biblical virtue. Besides Heb. 13:2, the command to be hospitable is brought up multiple times in Scripture: Rom. 12:13, 1 Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:8, 1 Pet. 4:9.

Going back to Heb. 13:2, in light of the context in which Hebrews was penned, the persecuted Christians in the early church had valid concerns over putting up for an unknown guest to stay overnight. However, still, they were encouraged to show hospitality to strangers no matter what. “[Having] entertained angels unaware” should not be understood as the ultimate motivation for the believer to be hospitable, but, as John MacArthur puts it, should be taken as “to reveal that one never knows how far-reaching an act of kindness might be.” Besides Abraham and Sarah, Gideon (Jdg. 6:11-24) and Manoah (Jdg. 13:6-20) in the Old Testament encountered angels in a similar way.

Sarah exemplifies the submission of a godly wife.
The apostle Peter wrote in his epistles, “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” (1 Pet. 3:5-6)

The passage is about believing wives winning their unsaved husbands to Christ, which is in a bigger context of believers maintaining God-honoring testimonies in the four major social arenas – the society (1 Pet. 2:13-17), the workplace (1 Pet. 2:18-25), the family (1 Pet. 3:1-7) and the church (1 Pet. 3:8-9) in order to, positively, advance the Gospel (1 Pet. 2:9) and, negatively, to silent the critics (1 Pet. 2:12,15).

In the 1 Pet. 3:1-6 passage, wives were exhorted to be submissive (v.1,5,6), chaste (v.2), respectful (v.2), modest (v.3-4), conscientious (v.6) andconfident (v.6). As the chapter begins, speaking of wives being submissive to their own husbands, the apostle Peter wrote, “In the same way”, signifying the submission in the family should pattern after the submission of a citizen to the state (1 Pet. 2:13) and an employee to the employer (1 Pet. 2:18). And in vv.5-6, Sara was singled out as the prototype of an exemplary wife, as she “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (v.6). Peter states that believing wives who would follow Sarah’s example of submission and modesty “have become her children” (v.6), in the same sense that all believers have by faith become the children of Abraham.

The biblical role of husband and wife, which popular culture finds so obsolete and offensive, is the beyond the scope of this study. One more interesting footnote of the 1 Pet. 3:1-7 passage: “Peter here directs six verses to wives’ submission to husbands and one to husbands’ serving the needs of wives, a division that may at first glance seem out of balance. But in Peter’s day when a wife became a Christian, the potential for difficulty was much greater than it was if the husband first became a believer. In that society when women, who were viewed as inferior to men, became Christians without their husbands also becoming saved, the likelihood of his being embarrassed and shamed by what was viewed as an act of defiance by his wife, was predictable, as was the conflict subsequently generated.”

Abraham prayed boldly and dauntlessly.
After a fascinating divine soliloquy, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do …”, the Lord decided to make known to Abraham what He was about to do with Sodom and Gomorrah. The significance for this unusual disclosure is at least two-fold: On the one hand, it indicates the covenantal closeness between God and Abraham. As v.19 says, “For I have chosen him”, the word for “chosen” should be better translated “known”, which unmistakably speaks of an intimate relationship (cf. Amo. 3:2). On the other hand, as MacArthur put it, the revelation “underscored his special role in the plan and the certain outcome of His covenant with Abraham”. The NIV Study Bible elaborated on this point,

Abraham was God’s friend. And because he was now God’s covenant friend, God convened His heavenly council at Abraham’s tent. There He announced His purpose for Abraham and for the wicked of the plain – redemption and judgment. He thus even gave Abraham opportunity to speak in His court and to intercede for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. Accordingly, Abraham was later called a prophet (Gen. 20:7). Here, in Abraham, is exemplified the great privilege of God’s covenant people throughout the ages: God has revealed His purposes to them and allows their voice to be heard (in intercession) in the court of heaven itself.

In other words, when Abraham was praying for God to overrule His intention to bring judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, God was using him to fulfill his duty as a prophet, ministering to men via intercession. Yet he acted more like a friend of God, with incredible audacity seen only between friends known for years. Though not specifically mentioned, we could reasonably speculate that Abraham might have his nephew in mind. Besides, the people of Sodom were delivered by Abraham during the civil war recorded in Gen. XIV, it could also have been a merciful heart shown to those whom he had saved once. But his concern is for both God and men. In fact, the pattern of his petitionary prayer was exemplary: first, he affirmed God’s attribute: His Power and His Justice (vv.23,25), then he moved on to a dauntless intercession for God’s mercy to spare the righteous minority from the imminent judgment (vv.26-32).

4. A bird’s-eye view of salvation is contained in Gen. 18:19.

Gen. 18:19 reads, “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” Here we have a 30,000-feet overview of the operation of redeeming grace.

“For I have chosen him” speaks of the initiation of salvation. Salvation begins by God’s election. As Paul wrote in Rom. 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” In Eph. 1:4, Paul also wrote, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” (Emphasis mine) And in 2 Tim. 1:9, again, Paul emphasized the same glorious truth, “[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” (Emphasis mine) In summary, God had sovereignly predestined an intimate relationship in eternity past according to His good purposes and grace.

“… so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” speaks of theeffect of salvation. Salvation is evidenced by the obedience of the faithful. The apostle John wrote in 1 Jn. 2:3-6, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” And even though salvation is by grace through faith, not based on our good works, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, emphasis mine), yet good works is a necessary manifestation of saving faith, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis mine). In other words, saving faith is never a result of good works; saving faith will never fail to produce good works. Obedience to God is the effect of salvation.

“… so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” speaks of the culmination of salvation. Salvation is an already-but-not-yet reality. The full realization is yet in the future. Paul wrote in Ephesians, “… having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13-14, Emphasis mine). The indwelling Spirit is only a pledge of what is to come, of which Paul wrote In another place: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23, Emphasis mine). Our incorruptible inheritance, i.e. the promised full redemption of our soul and body, is yet to be fulfilled; that is the culmination of salvation. All believers are looking forward to that day when we are transported in glory to meet with the Lord, and to be with Him and reign with Him, forever and ever.

Personal Applications

Show hospitality as often and as much as possible.
Contemplate on the righteousness of God.
Pray boldly for big things as Abraham did.

Reference

1. New American Oxford Dictionary.

2. Rick Holland. Sorrow, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Excerpt from <Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong>, collectively by John MacArthur and the Leadership at Grace Community Church

Study Genesis 19

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