By welcoming strangers, was Abraham ‘entertaining angels’?

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Who are they, these three strangers who appear unexpectedly at Abraham’s tent?

Nomads tend to be extremely hospitable, since they see so few other human beings in the barren stretches of the desert. Strangers can report news of the outside world. They can bring a moment of welcome change in the monotony of everyday life. 

Abraham does not know the identity of his visitors. But that does not matter. He treats them like royalty. He bows to the ground to greet them. He brings water to bathe their feet. He calls himself their servant. 

He offers them food. Even though Abraham calls it “a little food,” it is a lavish banquet. He has a huge amount of bread made from a bushel of flour, enough to feed an army. He orders a whole steer to be roasted. This abundance of food reflects the hospitality of the desert dweller. 

In his eagerness to welcome his guests, “Abraham hastened into the tent” to give instructions to his wife Sarah. 

“He ran to the herd” to pick out a steer to slaughter. The speed in which he acts underlines the urgency of his tasks. 

Who are these three visitors? They do not identify themselves. But Sunday’s first reading, Gn 18: 1-10a, informs us that “the Lordappeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre (a tree near the town of Hebron) as he sat in the entrance of his tent.” 

Is one of these three actually God, while the other two are companion angels? With a view toward the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, are they the three persons of the Holy Trinity? 

Or, are all three of the visitors angels acting on behalf of the one God? Is the one God acting by means of these three visitors?

Even though Abraham does not know who these three visitors are, they seem to know who he is. They possess special knowledge. 

Even though Abraham has not introduced his wife Sarah to them, they already know her name. She is not eating with them, since women did not eat with the men. Even more impressive than their knowing her name, they predict that she will bear a son within a year. The visitors’ supernatural knowledge attests to their heavenly origin. 

By welcoming these three strangers, Abraham is welcoming God into his midst . . . and perhaps an angel or two, as well. 

It is as the New Testament admonishes: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels (Heb 13:2).

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