If you've been watching carefully over the last few chapters of Genesis, you've probably noticed two different storylines leading up to Genesis chapter 18.
The first involved God's promise to give Abraham a son. This promise was mentioned in chapters 13, 15, and 17. The second storyline involved the great wickedness of the people who lived in two towns named Sodom and Gomorrah. That was spoken of in Genesis chapter 13:13. Now even though these two "trains" have been traveling down two very different sets of tracks, we'll find that they will both begin to arrive at their destination here in Genesis chapter eighteen.
"The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground" (Genesis 18:1-2).
Remember that Abraham was leader of his group, so his tent was probably larger, more noticeable, and set apart from everyone else's. So when Abraham looked up and saw these men, he knew that they must have come specifically looking for him.
Now it's important to recognize that whenever you see the word "LORD" in capital letters (as we see in the Genesis 18:1 passage quoted above), it always refers to the self-existent, eternal, and all powerful God. However, this brings up a question for many people because the Bible also tells us that no one has seen God at any time (see 1 John 4:12). So how can Genesis 18:1 specifically tell us that, "The LORD appeared to Abraham..." when no one has ever seen God at any time?
Well, many scholar-types believe that this verse is an example of a Christophany, or pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus. This term "pre-incarnate" is used to refer to Jesus' existence before He was born as a human being. So while no one has seen God at any time, this conflict disappears if we understand one of these three "men" to be Jesus (who is God- see Titus 2:13) appearing in human form in Genesis 18.
But who are these other two men? Well, if you read ahead a little, you'll find that the next chapter will identify these other "men" as angels. So it appears that Abraham received a visit from three very important guests- Jesus, and two angelic beings as well. This explains why Abraham responded to their visit the way he did- and we'll look at that response next.
"Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground" (Genesis 18:2).
This verse doesn't tell us how Abraham knew that these men were more than they appeared, but the fact that he showed such great respect to these visitors tells us that he knew that they were no ordinary human beings.
For example, anyone visiting Abraham's camp was expected to show respect to him, not the other way around. Yet we're told that when Abraham saw these men, "...he ran to meet them, and he bowed with his face touching the ground" (GW). But Abraham's demonstration of respect didn't stop there...
"He said, 'If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way--now that you have come to your servant.'"
"'Very well,' they answered, 'do as you say.'"
"So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. 'Quick,' he said, 'get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.' Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree" (Genesis 18:3-8).
So Abraham showed more than just courtesy and hospitality to these visitors. First, he arranged for Sarah to provide them with some fresh baked bread. Then he personally picked out the main course for their meal and arranged to have it butchered and prepared. Finally, Abraham served as their personal waiter by bringing them some curds (a type of yogurt) and milk.
We should also notice that Abraham arranged to have his visitors' feet washed as well. This would have been a welcome courtesy for anyone who wore sandals in the hot, dusty climate of that area. While Abraham could have assigned these responsibilities to someone else, he took it upon himself to personally oversee everything that was involved in ministering to his guests.
However, Abraham's visitors didn't just stop by to enjoy a nice meal and some hospitality. The real purpose of their visit is about to be revealed.
"'Where is your wife Sarah?' they asked him. 'There, in the tent,' he said. Then the LORD said, 'I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.'
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing" (Genesis 18:9-11).
Think about what this promise meant for Abraham and Sarah. You see, the opportunity to actually have a child of their own was something that Abraham and Sarah really, really wanted. Think of all the time that they spent patiently waiting for God to come through on this promise. Think of the pain they must have felt as they spent years watching other people have children of their own- something that they desperately wanted, but didn't have. Think about what it was like for Abraham to spend all of those years with a name that meant "father of many" while he and his wife remained childless.
And now God says, "OK, I'm going to give you a son around this time next year." So what was Sarah's reaction after waiting so long to hear this announcement? Well, here's how Sarah responded...
"So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?'" (Genesis 18:12).
Notice that this passage tells us that Sarah "...laughed to herself." In other words, Sarah laughed silently as she thought about what God said. Sarah must have believed that that no one else could hear her- or so she thought...
"Then the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.' Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, 'I did not laugh.' But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh'" (Genesis 18:13-15)
It seems that people can often get away with saying one thing, but thinking something totally different. While it may be possible to fool other people in this way, we can never fool God because He knows what our thoughts are. God always knows about our real feelings- and He knew exactly what Sarah was thinking even when she thought that no one else could hear her.
"Then the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'" (Genesis 18:13)
It's interesting that God questioned Abraham about something that his wife Sarah did. Even though Sarah wasn't even a part of this conversation, God still asked Abraham about why she laughed at the promise He had made. You would think that God would go directly to the place where Sarah was listening to this conversation and ask her about it personally. But that didn't happen- God instead asked Abraham to explain his wife's behavior.
This should serve as a good reminder for every guy who is involved in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship today. For example, if God were to question you about your girlfriend, how would you respond? Would you be uncomfortable with any questions about her actions or your relationship with her?
Could you honestly say that the person that you are dating is really concerned with living the kind of lifestyle that honors and respects God? Or if God were to question you about your girlfriend in the same way that He questioned Abraham about his wife, would you be able to say that you are setting the right kind of example in that relationship?
Remember to ask God to help you make the right choices in a dating relationship and to help you take the lead in maintaining a male/female relationship that honors God. If you do that, you'll never have to worry about the answers you'll have to give when God calls you to account.
So in response to His own question, God repeated His promise to Abraham along with an important reminder...
"Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son" (Genesis 18:14).
In other words, God reminded Sarah and Abraham that He is able to accomplish anything that's possible. But Sarah chose to respond like many people do when they're caught unexpectedly- she decided to lie...
"Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, 'I did not laugh.' But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh'" (Genesis 18:15).
It's possible to fool other people like your friends, parents, teachers, or church leaders- but you can't fool God anytime. It's always better to be completely honest with God because He already knows the truth about the way you really feel- and He will call you to account for it if you're not being honest with Him, just like He did with Sarah.
"When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way" (Genesis 18:16).
As mentioned earlier, the "men" spoken of here represent the LORD God (which may also refer to an appearance of Jesus before His human birth) and two angels (who will be identified in the next chapter). These individuals were referred to as "men" because that's the way that they appeared to Abraham.
So after finishing their meal, these mysterious visitors started to leave and Abraham decided to go along with them to escort them on their way. But Abraham is about to find out that his visitors haven't quite finished their visit yet...
"Then the LORD said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him'" (Genesis 18:17-19).
In saying, "Shall I keep back from Abraham what I'm about to do?" (MSG), it's clear that God had decided to share some "off the record" type of information with Abraham. Now God didn't have to say anything to Abraham about these plans if He didn't want to- but He did want to. God wanted to speak with Abraham, share some information with him, and talk with him privately about what He was planning to do.
This one small act tells us a lot about God's relationship with Abraham. You see, most people usually won't share private information with strangers or other people they don't really know or trust. But the fact that God was willing to take Abraham into His confidence tells us that God recognized Abraham as someone who could be trusted with the information that He was about to share.
So there's a lot more behind these verses than just the fact that God was preparing to tell Abraham about His plans. They tell us that God saw Abraham as a friend who could be trusted with confidential information. The New Testament book of James talks more about this when it says that, "'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend" (James 2:23).
The message for us today is that you never know what kind of information God might be willing to share with you as a friend if you have the same kind of faith and belief in Him that Abraham did.
So here is the advance information that God had for Abraham...
"Then the LORD said, 'The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know'" (Genesis 18:20-21).
You may remember that we were already told about the bad situation in Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 13:12-13). Now God has decided to organize and conduct a legal proceeding concerning these cities, just as we might do in a court of law today.
Like many legal cases today, this proceeding in Genesis 18:20-21 will start with the investigation of a complaint: "There are terrible accusations against Sodom and Gomorrah, and their sin is very great. I must go down to find out whether or not the accusations which I have heard are true" (GNB).
While there are some similarities between this inquiry and the type of official investigation that we might see today, one big difference is that this complaint is not going to be investigated by a police officer, constable, or detective- God Himself is going to personally look into this situation.
Now someone might read this and say, "Wait a minute- doesn't God already know all the facts? If God is all-knowing then why would He need to go to Sodom and Gomorrah to find out what's going on?" Well, the answer to this question has to do with the fact that there is a difference between doing something and needing to do something.
First, we can say that God didn't have to visit Sodom and Gomorrah to learn what was going on because God is omniscient (pronounced "om-nis-shint"). This is just another way of saying that God knows everything (see Psalm 139:1-10 and Hebrews 4:13). Because of this, we can say that God definitely had all the facts about what was happening in these cities before this investigation ever started.
So why did God bother to arrange this trip to check everything out? Well, God didn't need to go to Sodom and Gomorrah, but making an investigation there would clearly demonstrate that He definitely had all the evidence about what was happening. This visit was not for God's benefit in obtaining some information that He didn't already have- it was for our benefit in demonstrating that He is totally just and fair (Deuteronomy 32:4) in gathering all the facts.
Genesis 18:22 then goes on to say, "The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD." This tells us that the investigation had now officially started. But before these two special agents begin their inquiry, Abraham has something to ask God first.
"Then Abraham approached him and said: 'Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?'" (Genesis 18:23-25).
Abraham's response to this investigation tells us some important things. First, it implies that Abraham knew some things about God's character. It also implies that he knew some things about what life was like in Sodom and Gomorrah.
You see, Abraham apparently knew enough about God and enough about Sodom and Gomorrah to predict that something bad was going to happen once God's investigation was complete. Abraham must have put these two things together and said to himself, "God is going to check out Sodom and Gomorrah- and when He gets there, I know what He's going to find. When God is finished checking things out, He is going to execute a sentence against them. Those people are as good as dead."
If that's the case, then why would Abraham question God on behalf of these very wicked people? Well, we'll find out in the next chapter that Abraham's nephew Lot lived in that area, and Abraham certainly didn't want him to be a part of anything bad that was going to happen. We can also say that since Abraham had already rescued these people once before (see Genesis chapter 14 for that story), he probably didn't want to see something terrible happen to them.
Finally, even though these were seriously bad people, Abraham must have felt that every human life was valuable and didn't want to see these people suffer a death sentence. The Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel talks about this when it tells us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Abraham apparently felt the same way.
So Abraham knew that God had certain principles- and one of those principles is that He will not punish people for things that they didn't do. That principle is established in the Biblical book of the prophet Malachi where we read about how God makes a "...distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not." (Malachi 3:18). So Abraham asked God to act in a way that was consistent with His principles and His character.
So God listened to Abraham's proposal and then made a response of His own- and we'll check out that response next.
"The LORD said, 'If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.' Then Abraham spoke up again: 'Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?'
'If I find forty-five there,' he said, 'I will not destroy it.' Once again he spoke to him, 'What if only forty are found there?' He said, 'For the sake of forty, I will not do it.'" (Genesis 18:26-29).
You would think that God might become irritated with Abraham over these questions, but that didn't happen. Remember that God takes no pleasure in the death of wicked people (see Ezekiel 33:11) and since Abraham had already established that God would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked, it was now just a matter of negotiating the numbers...
"Then he said, 'May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?' He answered, 'I will not do it if I find thirty there.' Abraham said, 'Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?' He said, 'For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.'
Then he said, 'May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?' He answered, 'For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.' When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home" (Genesis 18:30-33).
If there were ten righteous people living in Sodom -just ten- the whole city would have been spared. This tells us that we should not underestimate the impact that a God-honoring life can have in the lives of others.
For example, let's say that you are a Christian who seeks to honor God in the things that you say and do. How do you know that your friends haven't been rescued from something really bad because of your Godly influence? How do you know that God hasn't spared someone specifically because you prayed for that person? If there were ten people with that kind of attitude in Sodom, things would have turned out a lot differently.
But why did Abraham stop counting at ten righteous people? Why didn't he keep counting all the way down to one? Well, Abraham must have thought that there had to be at least ten righteous people in Sodom because his nephew Lot and the other members of his family were living there as we'll see next. Abraham may have stopped at ten because he felt confident that these people were enough to save the city.
The next chapter will tell us if he was right.