To Be a Servant - Genesis 18:1-8, 16

Hospitality was understood in the ancient world as a basic test of justice. How one treated those who did not belong to society was often viewed as a test of character and an opportunity to judge one's personal worth. For the Greeks, there were stories of Zeus disguising himself while requesting shelter and food from the unsuspecting. For the Babylonians, this was no less a standard to which the high and mighty were to be held. Ugarit had its own myths in this regard, as Job presents a defense of his own character in regard to how he dealt with the poor and foreigners who approached his table.

The world over, people like to pat themselves on the back in defining themselves as being very hospitable. While we rarely measure up to the standards we set for ourselves, there is something in being hospitable to strangers that simply strikes a chord with our sense of character and morality. In the case of Abraham in Genesis 18, however, there is more to this passage than simply a sense of hospitality. If this is a test of character, he passes the test with flying colors.

The narrator tells us Yahweh appeared to Abraham while he sat at the opening of his tent in the shelter of a grove of trees. Abraham was not aware this was God at the time, so we can read this text as a character test. The first question being how he responded to foreigners, unknown travelers who arrive before him. As is normal in Hebrew texts like this one, there is some seemingly confusing language in regard to just how far away these men are and details regarding their number, but as we see Abraham's action, we understand that these travelers are some distance away from him. Looking up, he sees them and determines that he must run out to meet them.

Abraham rushes out and places himself in the role of a servant, bowing before their feet. From that position, he offers himself as their servant. The narrator shifts the verbs and pronouns a little to stress that we are to understand that Yahweh is present in the coming of these men. To Abraham, however, they simply reply in acceptance of his ministrations and service to meet their needs.

We could get into some of the cultural niceties, understatements of his offer, and such, but what matters more is that he allowed their presence and need to interrupt his routines such that he focused his attention upon them in their need.

Travelers in this context were vulnerable. They could not rely on the nearest Interstate Exit signs or cell phone applications to advise them where to find water and food. They could not count on being safe from a resident population among whom they traveled. They could not trust in their security or being able to find a welcome. While hospitality was understood as a test of character, that did not mean there was an expectation of hospitality that could be counted upon. That could only be assured once an invitation had been made to enter the hospitality and protection of another.

Abraham made that invitation. He went out of his way to offer it. He called these strangers into the circle of his tents and under the protection of the band who followed him as clan leader. Then he brought them back to his tent to make good on his offer of sustenance and refreshment.

He sent Sarai to baking bread, reportedly giving her some twenty quarts worth of flour for baking. He sent servants to kill and prepare a calf to serve his guests. He had yogurt and milk brought to the travelers, along with the bread and meat provided. This was feast food. This was abundant provision for a crowd. While the three men who had entered his protection were most likely simply the leaders of a larger band, the food he presents them was a feast for a hundred men. It was more than enough, and it was intended to be so.

This was an act of hospitality. This was a character test. It was also a demonstration on the part of Abraham of what it means to be a servant.

Abraham did not know whom he was serving as he made this offer and presentation of hospitality. As far as he knew, these were unknown strangers, immigrants from some other land. They were of some importance, as they traveled with some kind of retinue. That meant that as he offered of his hospitality he was opening himself to an expensive venture.

He promised water, the washing of their feet, and rest in the shade. What he offered, however, went far beyond that meager promise. While the washing of one's feet was a demeaning and menial task, he presented these strangers with so much more than he promised. He presented them with the very best at his disposal. He spread before them a feast, engaging the service of others under his influence.

While Abraham was a man of importance, he abased himself to meet the needs of these men he did not know and would likely never again encounter. We are told in other passages that at least 318 men of fighting age were under his care and authority.

These men posed no particular threat to him, though they could easily be a drain on his resources. They could have caused various problems for him. Instead of focusing on himself and what he might lose, however, Abraham focused on their needs and how he might do more than the minimum to grant them a greater sense of security and well-being.

Once they were served, however, he did not sit down. Instead, he continued to place himself at their service, standing to pay better attention and anticipate any needs that might arise. He took his service and hospitality seriously, keeping his focus on those he served, rather than looking to his own interests and concerns.

In the course of events, the men eventually prepared to leave. Abraham did more than let them go, releasing them from his hospitality. He set out with them on their journey, extending the reach of his care and protection as they started out on their way forward. It is only after they had returned well on their way that Abraham finally left them to go their way. It is at this point that we find Yahweh entering the story in a way that Abraham could understand and appreciate. The men went on their way toward Sodom, and God remained behind with Abraham to share with Abraham what Yahweh was planning to accomplish next.

Like the myths from Ugarit, Babylon, and Greece, Yahweh allowed Abraham to understand that the hospitality he had offered had been presented to and accepted by God. Abraham's service to these men he did not know and never again expected to encounter was service rendered to God. Abraham's selflessness in service, his personal sacrifice, and his dedication to care for people who were not part of his retinue were actions accepted by and rewarded by the very God he was learning to serve.

Abraham passed this character test, because he placed himself willingly in the role of a servant. He placed the resources at his disposal at the disposition of the vulnerable before him, and thus at God's service. This is our example of faith. This is part of why Jesus calls Abraham the father of faith. It is a real-world application of God's instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Servanthood is not optional. It is a test of character and faith. Without it, we cannot be God's servants living by faith.

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin 


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