Leaving the Tent

“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

As opening lines go, this one is among my favorites. It’s memorable and slightly unsettling, like George Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” with the charming, folksy quality of the opening line in Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window, which begins, “Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree.”

Yahweh’s visit to Abraham occurs right on the heels of the establishment of the covenant of circumcision. Yahweh summons Abraham from his home and sets him and his promised offspring apart from all the other nations of the earth.

In light of Abraham's chosenness and special status, Yahweh’s visit in the guise of the three strangers could be a test: Will Abraham welcome the strangers, or will he send them on their way? Will he use the recently established covenant as a trump card, or as an invitation to those outside to receive blessing?

If this is indeed a test, Abraham passes with flying colors. Twice Abraham runs, first to greet the strangers, then to retrieve a calf and have a meal prepared. Considering Abraham’s age, along with the great lengths to which he goes to provide hospitality to the visitors in the sweltering heat, one might conclude that Abraham has an instinctual bent toward welcoming strangers.

Perhaps Abraham’s motivation to leave the tent to welcome the visitors comes from his own experience as a stranger. Here he is, approaching the seated visitors, the call of Yahweh echoing in his ear as he strains under the weight of the water basin, eyes scanning from stranger to stranger.
Go from your country. Go from your kindred. Go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Seen from this perspective, the test is not only whether Abraham, having been set apart, will welcome others, but also whether he will allow his own experience of being a stranger to shape his response to these visitors.

As a stranger himself, Abraham is well equipped to welcome the one who needs welcoming. Knowing the experience of being the one being welcomed, with all of its attendant vulnerability, sharpens his eye to see those in need of being welcomed.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria hints at this idea with his interpretation of the passage:

 “‘Under the tree of Mamre,’ the text says. Mamre in our language is translated ‘vision’ or ‘sharpness of sight.’ Do you see what kind of place it is where the Lord can have a meal? Abraham's vision and sharpness of sight pleased the Lord. For he was pure in heart so that he could see God. In such a place, therefore, and in such a heart the Lord can have a meal” (Homilies on Genesis 4.3).

What’s more, the test involves not just one, but three strangers. Many in the Christian tradition have seized upon this detail to suggest that the three travelers represent the three persons of the Trinity.

Take, for example, fifteenth century Russian painter Andrei Rublev. An icon he created portrays the scene in such a way that it is known interchangeably as “The Trinity” and “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The icon depicts the strangers as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, allowing the icon's viewer to behold the scene from the perspective of the humble host, standing at attention, perhaps even beckoned to abandon pretense and join in on the feast.

Long before the passage presented Christian interpreters with a conundrum about how to conceive of the identity of the three strangers, the visiting trio described therein presented Abraham with a logistical challenge. How could he, an elderly man who was likely beginning to tire, effectively welcome them by himself? Alone, Abraham may have been able to provide for a single guest, but three? Of all the compelling arguments that it is the triune God who visits Abraham, perhaps the most overlooked is the fact that they overwhelm Abraham’s ability to receive them on his own, confounding as their presence always is.

Abraham must recruit his wife, Sarah, along with an unnamed servant, to help prepare the meal, and so one invitation leads to another. Author Jean Vanier comments on the necessity of community for increasing the scope and depth of hospitality:

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”

Abraham’s decision to leave the tent is informative for contemporary Christian readers not only because of what he does in welcoming the strangers, but also for why and how he does it. Abraham leaves the tent not out of a sense of obligation to yet-unuttered command to love the stranger, and we’re given no indication that Abraham knows of the visitors’ divine identity. Nor does he leave the tent because it’s particularly convenient for him.

Instead, this one who had left home and family to pursue a promise offers a preemptive welcome to fellow travelers, enlisting others to join the welcoming committee. Among the first and most mysterious instances of foreshadowing of Trinity and the broken and shared bread of the Eucharist, this scene offers a corrective to self-reliance in the form of a reciprocal summons to the table.

But what does any attempt to put language to the mystery of this story do that isn’t already accomplished by a silent moment of meditation upon Rublev’s icon? After all theological parsing and piecing-together, there remains an opening line that enflames the imagination, the stranger outside the tent, awaiting our response.