That time when Abraham and God ate a non-kosher lunch

Genesis 18, James Tabor writes, “has to be one of the most mysterious chapters in the entire Hebrew Bible.”

I remember this story, but I don’t remember it standing out as particularly mysterious. If you’d asked me to list a bunch of weird or mysterious passages from the Hebrew Bible, this wouldn’t have been on my list.

Until now. Because Tabor wins me over here with his discussion of the baffling strangeness of this chapter, “An Eating, Drinking, Walking, Talking ‘Jehovah.’

Abraham encounters three men (Heb. אנשים) whom he hosts as honored visitors in good Middle Eastern style, washing their feet, giving them rest and shade, and fixing them a meal (meat and dairy combined – which I will ignore for now!).

That’s something I missed in all the times I’ve read this passage, but there it is, clear as day:

Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Cheeseburgers, basically. Or maybe a cheesesteak. Delicious, but definitely not kosher.

That’s a bit startling, even though it shouldn’t be. The rules about kosher foods are part of the laws of Moses, and those laws wouldn’t be written until many generations after Abraham. So Abraham, Isaac and Jacob couldn’t have kept kosher. Nor would they have kept the Sabbath or any of the other holy days.

That’s easy to forget when reading the stories in the Bible that are set before the time of Moses — especially since the writers of those stories sometimes forgot this themselves. The song “All You Zombies” used to bug me when the verse about Noah and his family includes the line “They were the Israelites.” No, they were not. But eventually I decided to cut the Hooters some slack, because the writers of Genesis themselves were a bit mixed up on that point — referring to the “clean” and “unclean” animals Noah saved in his ark.

Still, though, considering how much weight the latter books of the Pentateuch put on maintaining dietary purity, it’s a bit jarring to be reminded that Abraham liked cheeseburgers so much that he served them to his honored guests.

And those guests — three angels, I was always taught, even though the passage itself doesn’t explicitly say that — also didn’t seem at all concerned about eating meat and dairy together. The angels themselves were unclean.

But Tabor says it’s wrong to regard these three men who visited Abraham as angels. What the text actually says, he argues, is far stranger than that:

They are further identified as “messengers” (Heb. מלאכים), sometimes poorly translated as “angels,” two of which then proceed on to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to investigate their wickedness and deliver Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from the impending destruction (Genesis 19).

The fascinating thing about this whole scene is that one of these three men is clearly identified as YHVH (Heb. יהוה Yahweh or Jehovah) and he begins to speak back and forth directly with Abraham following the meal, promising to return to Abraham and Sarah the following year and resulting in Sarah – now well past menopause at age 90 – becoming pregnant with Isaac.

I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I find Tabor’s case compelling. It gives a new perspective on the second half of Genesis 18, in which Abraham pleads with God, negotiating for mercy on behalf of Sodom. As many times as I’d read that story, I hadn’t included Abraham’s three visitors in my mental image of that negotiation. R. Crumb’s illustration of that scene was more accurate — more faithful to the text — than the misapprehension I’d maintained despite multiple readings:

This is why I like biblioblogs, commentaries, Bible study groups and book clubs in general. We start to see a lot more when we read with more than one set of eyes.


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  • Victor

    (((Her name is Miriam)))
    One of my best friend died of a brain tumor at a young age. I saw him go true all kinds of test after the doctors removed “IT”. Anyway, back then my faith was kind of sleeping cause I basically thought that God would do what he would do and just left “IT” at that and my friend died three years later of that brain tumor.
    What I’m trying to say ReverendRef is to keep asking for God’s help cause it can’t hurt. Right Friends? :)
    God Bless Miriam

  • Persia

    Yeah, composites are probably the best theory. (Which still means they existed…sort of.)

  • Ross Thompson

    Everything is weird, when seen from the outside. Buying someone a present because they managed to go a whole year without dying, for example. If you’re not part of the culture that does that, it’s weird, almost by definition.

  • Ross Thompson

    Angels do not eat in the human sense

    [citation needed]

  • Ross Thompson

    Eh, it’s like claiming that there was once a rich guy named Bruce who stopped a mugging, and therefore Batman is totally a real historical character, and isn’t that easier than thinking that Bob Kane somehow “made up” the whole thing like he was some kind of Imagination Wizard?

  • Hugh Dingwall

    Have you read Karel Capek’s version of that story in his Apcoryphal Tales collection? If you can track it down, I think you might well dig it.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Late to the thread, but I’m praying for them.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Very excellent. Thanks!

  • auroramere

    But I love this story so much. It’s the first one I tell non-Jews who are curious about Judaism. Humans are beings who can bargain with G-d to try to spare a city. And Jonah not long after that, for the symmetry. It’s also a human thing to be pissed off at a city’s being spared if it might make you look bad. G-d lets Jonah off with a sunburn and, “You realize you’re being a selfish jerk, right?”

  • LoneWolf343

    Well, what else can we expect from Crumb?

  • ReverendRef

    There’s also a story that two of the men, who were Gabriel and Michael,
    accompanied Abraham to Sodom, Gabriel to destroy the city and Michael to
    rescue Lot.

    That seems backwards. I was taught, and always thought, that Michael was the warrior angel and Gabriel was the (for lack of a better term) messenger angel. It was Gabriel who announced to Mary that she was pregnant. And in icons, Michael is identified by hir sword and Gabriel by hir trumpet.

  • ReverendRef

    It’s never too late for prayers. Thank you.

    Depending on how things went, she may be close to being out of surgery by now. It was estimated at 3 hours minimum, 6 hours on the long end.

    So now I’m simply waiting …. like everyone else.

  • Tehanu

    Oh … yeah, I guess not. Sorry, I was just zipping along, not as careful a reader as I should’ve been.

  • everstar

    Oh gosh, that’s so awful and scary. Hoping for the best and wishing them and you energy and strength at this time.

  • Lorehead

    For an Orthodox Jew, that would be Baba Mezi’a 86b. (“’And ate’ — can you really think so! — But say, appeared to eat and drink.”)

  • Lorehead

    Well, this is a Jewish rather than a Christian legend, but that also describes their roles in Daniel. In Enoch, Gabriel destroys the evil bastard giants, but by tricking them into fighting each other.

  • Randy Owens

    At least in KJV, kid*, not calf. I’d expect that distinction to have been maintained, considering how much more common goats were there & then compared to 17th century England.

    *I’ll head off the obvious jokes by clarifying “young goat”, not “child”.

  • pinksponge

    Good thoughts and good hope to you and your parishioners, ReverendRef, from a Portland mostly-lurker.

  • aunursa

    There is turkey bacon.
    (Which, admittedly, isn’t as good as real bacon.)

  • aunursa

    Note that any minyan must include at least ten Jews.

  • Lorehead

    Oh yes, ten Jewish men, or in the Conservative movement, ten Jewish adults. But, if memory serves, this passage was the reason why ten.

  • Turcano

    They do sell “kosher bacon” that’s pretty much sliced beef plate. I’ve never tried it, but it sound like it would make a pretty good samgyeopsal.

  • DrPlacebo

    I have a Jewish friend who keeps kosher EXCEPT for bacon. And he’s obsessed with bacon to the point of keeping a bottle of Bakon Vodka around and owning a bacon-scented aftershave. Make of that what you will.