Abraham and the Three Angels


“Abraham Serving the Three Angels” by Rembrandt, oil on canvas, 1646. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Abram went forth with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, following his Lord’s command, into the land of Canaan. He was 75 years old. Abram’s wife was barren, therefore Lot was to Abraham as if he were the son of the old chieftain. There was a famine on the land, and for a time Abram dwelt in Egypt and became rich. Returning from Egypt, Abram and Lot separated: Abram raised his tent in the plain of Mamre in Hebron; Lot went to dwell on the plain of Jordan, next to the city of Sodom.

When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to him and ratified their covenant, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and that of his wife to Sarah.

In the desert, during the worst time of the day, heat seeps through your pores, dries up the organs of the body and distempers the rational mind creating a blur of vision, which gives way to mirages. Abraham sat in front of his tent’s door and the Lord appeared to him in the form of Three Angels (or rather God accompanied by Two Angels). Abraham welcomed them (as Joseph and Mary would welcome the Wise Men to the manger), and they prophesied that even in her old age, Sarah would bear a son by the name of Isaac.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had been ordained, because their sin was grievous. In the wake of the Angels on their way to Sodom, the Lord spoke out loud: “Should I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?” (KJ, Gen 18:17)

The New Latin American Bible, translated under the winds of Latin American Liberation Theology, annotates this passage as follows:

Just like the friendship that exists among men, friendship with God means sharing everything. God teaches us how to think like him and act with him, and invites petitions from us.[1]

What we witness is actually the opposite: Abraham persuades his God to think like him.


Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) by Miguel Cabrera, oil on canvas, circa 1750. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz believed that the passage in Genesis between Abraham and the Three Angels, when arguing about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (KJ, Gen 18: 17-33), was constructed based on geometrical lines, reflecting divine musical patterns:

If one is not an expert in music, how do we understand those musical intervals and their beauty that abound in many passages, especially in those petitions Abraham made to God on behalf of the cities, asking if he would spare them if there were fifty just men in them? [2]







In this passage, Abraham transforms his god rhetorically (as he will do in the later story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac), moving God from his purpose and policy of destroying the ancient cities, to a commitment to save them if only 10 righteous men are found in their midst. This conversation between God and Abraham is characterized in scripture as “communing with Abraham” (KJ, Gen 18: 17 and 33).

Abraham’s arguments haunt us to this day:

  1. Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
  2. Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
  3. That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Abraham and the Three Angels (Gen. 18:1-16) by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

From here on the story moves with the swiftness of the tragic classical unity of time. Two Angels (by this time their number has decreased) entered Sodom at sundown. At night, in Lot’s house, they were surrounded by the denizens of Sodom, who were dispersed in a blinding flash of light. The Angels warned Lot to leave the city with his sons and daughters. Abraham woke up early in the morning, looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and saw the smoke of the country and the plain go up “as the smoke of a furnace” (KJ, Gen 19:28). Then Lot entered the smaller city of Zoar with his daughters in the light of morning.

Jorge Luis Borges believed that “words began as magic” and that poetry brought words back to their magical origin.[3] The presence of the Angel is always a sign of magic. The Angel is the symbol of that human experience of enlightenment that Aristotle characterized as anagnorisis and that Ancient Greeks crystallized in the shape and figure of the god Apollo. Angel symbolizes the experience of a new awareness, which brings about a reversal of fortunes or peripeteia.

We learn from the story of Abraham that the presence of Angels invites, compels a conversation with the innermost self. The Lord condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but prevented his Angels from destroying them until Lot escaped to Zoar: “Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything till thou be come thither” (KJ, Gen 19:22). Abraham changed his God; his Angels followed the new order Abraham established:

When God destroyed the cities of the plain, … God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt. (KJ, Gen 19:29).

From then on, God’s policy of destruction was clear: “God does not forget even one of his sons.”[4] Thus Jesus Christ reminded his disciples:

Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; [but] the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all (KJ, Luke: 28-29).

Our reigning dynasty of clowns would do well to heed the moral of the story: it is not the presence of the wicked what brings the wrath of God upon cities; it is rather the absence of the righteous.


[1] Ramón Ricciardi and Bernardo Hurault, eds. La Nueva Biblia Latinoamericana (Madrid: Ediciones Paulinas, 1974), note on p. 36.

[2] Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Answer by the poet to the most illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz,” trans. By William Little (1691), http://dept.sfcollege.edu/hfl/hum2461/pdfs/sjicanswer.pdf

[3] Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 92.

[4] Ricciardi, note on p. 36.


“The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by Pieter Schoubroeck, oil on panel. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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