Genesis 18-19: Would You Recognize God if You Saw Him?

The great writer and preacher, AW Tozer, would often mention in his writings and in his sermons this important truth: It is possible to know about God without actually knowing God.  In this text we are given a fair share of unbelief among its sordid tales.  Yet, at the very center of this story which reeks with the stench of immorality is a story of faith and faithfulness.


Abraham Recognized God

In the beginning of chapter 18 we are introduced to a detail in the text that will become exceedingly important throughout the rest of the text.  Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent under the great trees of Mamre, a place that he had staying at since the chapter 13.  While he was there on this very hot day, he looked and saw three men (18:2).  Even though he was looking at three men, he addressed them as “my lord.” It is quite remarkable that Abraham immediately understood the right way to address these three men.  The fact that Abraham addressed the three as my “lord” demonstrates that God Himself was among the men.  In fact, the text clues us into this reality as it states in verse 1, “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” Whenever you see the English text write the word “LORD” in “all caps,” it is an indication that the Hebrew word behind the word LORD is YHWH.  The word YHWH is the divine name for God.  It means “I Am,” and it is the highest of all God’s names.  When Abraham saw the plurality of men, he addressed them simply as Lord, because he recognized that God was among them.  This detail of the text must be kept in mind as we move forward.


Sarah Did Not Appear to Recognize God

While Abraham seemed to recognize the great reality of having the presence of the Almighty God in his midst, it appears that it was lost on everyone else.  While Abraham was speaking to the men over a special meal  that had been prepared God’s honor, he was told by God, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son” (Genesis 18:10).  Yet, it seems that Sarah had begun to lose her faith in the promises of God and had become cynical in her disappointment.


Sarah, probably very intrigued with Abraham’s visitors, found herself a place to sit that was close enough to hear what the they were saying.  When she heard the promise of a son reiterated, she began to laugh quietly to herself. I say quietly, because Abraham could not hear it, and it would be no stretch to say that that God would know her thoughts and actions.  In fact, we get a picture of God’s omniscience in this section as he goes on to ask 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.”  It is great that we serve a gracious God, as he understood the frailty of human understanding.  God did not punish Abraham for what Sarah had done, but Abraham was certainly humiliated with the whole process as the narrative makes obvious (18:15).  The reality, though, is that Abraham may have been a poor example to Sarah to that point and her cynicism may have sprung from his own (Genesis 17:17-18).  So we see here, Abraham had previously laughed at God’s promise and now Sarah has made the same misjudgment.  Yet, God will remind them of their disbelief and his faithfulness as he has decided that they are to give their heir the name Isaac, which means laughter. It seems quite reasonable to surmise from the text that while Abraham immediately recognized the Lord and believed his promise, the same could not be said for his wife.


Yet there was another purpose for this visit and that was for the three visitors check out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the text, we have already been told that these places were exceedingly wicked. Abraham, ever the magnanimous uncle, did what he could to avert the destruction of the city, but even more to avert the destruction of Lot and his family.  As the famous story goes, Abraham with to God and pleaded with him that if there be 50 righteous people in the city to spare it.  As God gave him the answer he had hoped for, he negotiated 40, 30, 20 and finally 10.  If there were ten righteous people in Sodom God would spare the city. 


At the onset of chapter 19, we find an immediate change in the details of the text.  At the beginning of Chapter 18 we find that Abraham has three visitors and at the beginning of 19 we notice that two visitors actually going to Sodom. The question has always been, what has happened to the third visitor. John Sailhamer notes that the easiest explanation for this change is that two of the visitors went to Sodom, as is recorded here, and the other went to Gomorrah. 


Lot Didn’t Recognize the Lord

Just as Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent and bowed with his fact to the ground when the three visitors came to him, so Lot’s actions were nearly identical to Abraham’s.  While Abraham was at the entrance of his tent, Lot was at the entrance of the city of Sodom.  While Abraham bowed low to the ground in the presence of the visitors, so we notice that Lot took the exact same posture.  Yet there is one key difference in all of this that the author wants us to recognize.  While Abraham addressed the men as “Lord” recognizing God’s presence among them, Lot addressed them as “Lords.”  In other words, Lot did not see the presence of the Lord in the visitors midst and therefore did not use the singular.  Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer, brilliantly notes, “The most apparent explanation is that the author wanted us to see that Abraham, who had just entered the covenant, recognized the Lord when he appeared to him, whereas Lot, who then lived in Sodom, did not recognize the Lord.  The lives of these two men continue to offer a contrast.  Abraham Knew God, but Lot did not. 


The Men of Sodom didn’t Recognize the Lord

The men of Sodom had only one thing on their minds. They were bent on perversion and upon bring shameful abuse of the men who came to their city gate that evening.  Lot knew their ways and offered immediate hospitality to the visitors who had planned on sleeping out in the city square.  Word had gotten around town and just after dinner, the men of Sodom, young and old, surrounded the house in order to violate the visitors. Who can hardly imagine having the Holy God in their midst and have such things on their mind. The one who would have their eternal destinies in his hands was now being attacked by a perverted gang.  While Lot was terrified at what may have happened and had offered his daughters for the men’s protection, perhaps he did so knowing full well that they would have no interest given their brand of immorality.  At any rate, it seems like a strange compromise to make and why he would not have been willing to fight to his own death before allowing such a terrible thing to take place is beyond me. 


Lot’s Sons-in Law Didn’t Recognize the Lord

God warned Lot that he was to get his family out of the city as it was about to be destroyed in God’s wrath.  Lot then went to the men who were engaged to be married to his daughters and warned them of the impending destruction.  When they heard Lot’s warning, one can imagine that they laughed at Lot as they thought as they considered the notion of God’s judgment on the city a big joke (Genesis 19:14).  Once again, we have the third instance of where someone did not believe the sure promise of God.


In the last section we read that God said to Sarah that nothing is impossible with God and dispelling perverted men was no problem at all.  As we note from the text, as dawn approached, God blinded the people and Lot and his family walked by them unscathed.   Still after all of these events, Lot still did not recognize that God was in his midst, yet did understand that these men possessed great power as he requested that he be able to settle in another small city called Zoar.  God decided to not only allow Lot to settle there but to also spare the city from its own devastation.


In this text, we have been given an important lesson what it means to have a relationship with God.  Sarah as well as Lot and his family knew about God.  Both of them lived and traveled with Abraham after God asked him to take the step of faith and follow him.  All of them had been taught of the character of God, yet in spite of this, it seems that none of them recognized his presence when God was among them (cf, repetition “lords” in 19:18).


This lesson must not be lost on us.  While it is so important to gain knowledge of God, it is also critical that we develop our relationship with Him as well.  We will recognize God when he shows Himself to us when we have stepped out in faith and trusted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  After we make this decision to follow him, it is critical that we walk with him daily and commune with Him through prayer and meditating on the Scriptures.  It is critical that we develop Christ likeness as we forgive those who have hurt us and pray for enemies as Abraham did.  It is critical that we learn to step out in faith and trust God to meet the deepest needs of our lives, whether those be material or relational.  God became very visible to Abraham after he surrendered completely and understood and embraced the answer to the question that the Lord asked Sarah, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14; NIV).  

If you were to see God, would you recognize Him? 



6 Responses to “Genesis 18-19: Would You Recognize God if You Saw Him?”

  1. Derek Taylor Says:

    I’m a little confused about what is happening with the Lord and the angels in these chapters – or at least I am after reading this commentary. The version I am reading (ESV) seems to indicate that in Chapter 18, God (as pre-incarnate Christ?) appears with 2 angels accompanying Him. At the beginning of chapter 19, only the 2 angels are mentioned in the visit to Sodom. It seems like God delegated the angels to visit Lot? Isn’t this why Lot didn’t recognize the Lord?

  2. Bruce Smith Says:

    Derek, you make a very good point and it is the same issue that most of us deal with in this passage. What happened to the other messenger/visitor. There are a number of views on this particular issue but the defining verses for the direction I went was in verses 22 and 33 of chapter 18. “The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord . . . when the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.”

    So we notice here that two went to Sodom and the LORD departed from Abraham. OT scholar asked the question, why only two in Sodom? His answer to that question is that the third went to the city of Gomorrah. He makes the argument that the text states that both cities will be visited, “Then the LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is 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.” Sailhamer argues that the text itself makes the case that both cities will be visited and the two witnesses only go to Sodom which the text telescopes. So he argues further that the visit to Gomorrah was unstated but understood given that text informs us of the LORD’s intent in this matter. This view was new to me, but given the context it would only make sense the this was probably the case since a visit to both cities was clearly a stated objective of the mission.

    Dr. Sailhamer has another unique view on this text that you sort alluded to in your comments. Was one of the members of the group the pre-incarnate Christ? The view that you allude to is the view that I have always taken from this passage as you have. Sailhamer argues that the three celestial visitors actually carried with them the presence of God rather so that when Abraham was among them he recognized YHWH in their midst. Sailhamer argues his case this way:

    “In 18:21 the reader has been informed that the Lord was on his way to Sodom; thus when the two angels/men arrived, the most likely inference is that they represented the Lord’s visit. That such is the case is later confirmed with the narrative. As the narrative progresses, Lot comes to the point of recognizing his visitors as emissaries of the Lord. This can be seen in the fact that the last time he addresses these same two angels/men, in 19:19 Lot stated his requests to them in the same words as Abraham (in 18:3b) had addressed his three visitors: compare Lot’s words in 19:19 — ‘[If] your servant has found favor in your eyes’ — with those of Abraham in 18:3b – “If I have found favor in your eyes. The interchange between the singular and plural verbs and pronouns in v.3 (where that singular is used) and vv. 4ff (where the plural is used) appears to be one of the ways that the author attempted to clarify a crucial point in the narrative, namely, the nature of the divine-human relationship. The biblical God is one who makes himself known intimately and concretely to his covenant people. He can make himself known through “speaking”, ‘in a vision’ through his ‘angel’ who speaks for him. He can even appear to individuals, as in 12:7; 17:1; and 18:1. Those narratives that speak of God’s making himself known through words, visions, and angels would not be expected to pose a difficulty to the reader of the Pentateuch who was familiar with the strict prohibition against the presentation of God in any physical form in passages such as Deuteronomy 4:15. But passages where it is expressly stated that God ‘appeared’ to someone (12:7;17:1; 18:1) would naturally raise difficult questions. How is it that God can ‘appear’ and yet his form not be seen (Deut 4:15)? How can God ‘appear’ and yet say ‘my face must not be seen’ (Exodus 33:23)? Such questions appear to lie behind the apparent unevenness of the narrative in chapter 18″ (Genesis; Expositors Bible Commentary; 144-145).

    My initial reading was similar to yours, but it appears that Sailhamer has made a strong argument to look at this a little differently. I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks for writing.

  3. Ian Says:

    I’ve always been under the impression that one of the three who appeared to Abraham was the pre-incarnate Christ as well…

    I would hope that I would recognize God if I saw Him. If, as in this text, He chose to hide Himself in the form of a human I may not know. If He was in His full glory He would be unmistakeable.

    At times I have wondered if I would have seen Jesus for Who He really was. I suppose the answer hinges on if He chose to reveal Himself to me. In this sense it is exactly the same today in the hearts of individuals. No one recognizes Jesus of Nazereth as God incarnate on his own without the work of the Spirit, or so my Reformed worldview would seem to argue. 🙂

    -Your nephew

  4. Bruce Smith Says:

    Hey Ian, it is really nice to hear from you. I think that the great encouragement here is that if you know God, like Abraham, you would recognize Him. If you only know about him like Lot, then you wouldn’t. God is unmistakable to those who know Him. Thanks for reading. I am so happy that you are walking with Christ!!

  5. Derek Taylor Says:

    This does make a lot more sense now that I’ve read his explanation a couple times. It also causes me to think of Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Daniel, Paul and others who had visions or contact with angels that had been sent by God. None of them were ever the same after their encounters. It is quite amazing to think of how one glimpse or foreshadowing of what it is like to be in the presence of God gave them such a passion for God. I think this is part of why it is so important for us to encounter God constantly through the Word and through prayer- it changes everything about us- it causes the world’s pleasures to become dim and the desire for more of Him to increase.

  6. Bruce Smith Says:

    Amen Derek . . . I don’t think that it could be said any better.

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