Abraham and the Angels
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
One must repeatedly revisit Torah portions to uncover God’s numerous lessons. What catches our attention during our first few reads of a given area, often obscures other questions and insights. However, if we follow the halacha of reading each weekly portion twice yearly, and we are fortunate, new questions arise leading to new discoveries. I will address this account of Abraham and the angels, following God’s words that all prophets excluding Moses received prophecy only while unconscious.
Three angels visit Abraham. We read five times how fast Abraham “ran” and “hurried” to prepare a meal for these guests, described as men. What is God’s intent in, 1) giving a vision to Abraham that highlights Abraham’s kindness to people, and 2) repeating the haste in which Abraham served them? Since God ultimately discusses Sodom with Abraham, of what purpose is this vision of the three men?
Only one angel appears required for this vision, since only its news of Isaac’s forthcoming birth was announced. The other two angels were silent the entire visit and could have initially “arrived” at Sodom. The Rabbis teach that the other two angels had the respective missions of destroying Sodom and saving Lote. Thus, there was no need for them to accompany the angel assigned with the mission of the birth announcement. What then was the purpose of the two other angels visiting Abraham?
One angel asked Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?” We would assume this was intended to call her to share the news. But this did not occur. As Abraham responded, “She is in the tent”, the angel then announced to Abraham alone the news of Isaac. Why then did the angel inquire of Sarah’s whereabouts? It appears inconsequential. The Torah then tells us that Sarah “in fact” heard, as she was behind the angels. She denied her ability to become pregnant at ninety years old. God then ridicules Sarah addressing Abraham, “Is anything impossible for God?” As Abraham was alone in communion with God, what purpose was served by God including Sarah’s words in this created vision? (Although this was Abraham’s vision, God accurately depicts Sarah’s true feelings, which no doubt, Abraham discussed with Sarah in his waking state subsequent to this prophecy. For she too would be instrumental in transmitting God’s justice. Alternatively, Sarah might have very well participated in this prophecy; similar to when God gave a joint prophecy to Miriam, Aaron and Moses [Num. 12:4].)
This is followed by the angels “gazing at Sodom”, but not yet leaving. Their departure is suddenly delayed, and interrupted by God’s following consideration:
“Shall I keep hidden from Abraham what I plan to do? And Abraham will surely become a great, mighty nation, and all nations of the land will be blessed due to him. For he is beloved on account that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will guard the path of God, performing charity and justice, so that God will bring upon Abraham what He has spoken. And God said [to Abraham], ‘The cry of Sodom and Amora is great and their sin is greatly heavy. I will descend and see if in accordance with their cry that comes to Me I will annihilate them; and if not, I know’(Gen. 18:17-21).”
Following God’s words, we read in the very next verse (ibid. 18:22) that the angels departed for Sodom. Again, the angels gazing towards Sodom should be immediately followed by their leaving. What is the meaning behind God’s words above interrupting the angels’ departure? And what is God’s message here?
Abraham’s Concern for Man
Why the emphasis of Abraham “running” and “hurrying” the meal preparations? Abraham was experiencing a vision, and to him, he was relating to men, not angels, as the verses state. Abraham had a keen sense of kindness, and wished to give honor to his fellow man. One can serve others, but if he runs to serve them, this expresses the height of honoring others, as we see regarding Rivka “running” to draw water for Eliezer’s camels (Gen. 24:20). One feels more appreciated when another person runs to assist them, and does not merely walk. Abraham desired to make the three men feel most appreciated. Abraham prized human dignity. Typically, a leader seeks honor. But the perfected leader views all others as equals, and even forgoes personal rights and feelings to accommodate others. But why was this part of the vision God created? How is this related to Abraham learning God’s justice?
Men such as Abraham, who are genuinely concerned for his fellow, and who teach others God’s ways of “charity and justice” (Gen. 18:19) will be the recipient of greater knowledge in this area. God therefore teaches Abraham not only His ways, but also, that man (Abraham) earns this knowledge due to his acts of kindness to his fellow. Thus, Abraham sees himself showing kindness to the three men, and this is followed by God’s dialogue on Sodom’s justice. God says in other words, “Abraham, due to your kindness, justice and concern for mankind, I am revealing greater knowledge with you on how My true kindness and justice operate.”
Angels are not omniscient; they are God’s metaphysical agents to perform events on Earth. As King David said, “He makes His angels winds; His ministers [He makes as] blazing flames (Psalms 104:4).” Each angel controls a particular sphere within natural law, and nothing outside that law. As Rashi taught, “…one angel does not perform two missions (Gen. 18:2).” We also read, “And the angel of God that went before the Jewish camp traveled, and it went behind them; and the pillar of cloud that went before them traveled and stood behind them (Exod. 14:19).” There is no redundancy. This verse teaches a fundamental: there are two entities: 1) the metaphysical angel, and 2) the physical entity (here, a cloud) over which God places the angel as a supervisor. God controls nature through an angel, charging the angel over a specific sphere of nature; here, the specific task of repositioning the cloud to protect the Jews from the approaching Egyptian army. Thus, angels themselves are not physical, but they control physical phenomena. This explains why this verse describes the angel traveling, and then again, the cloud traveling. We are taught that the angel controls the cloud. And angels only control the sphere of laws determined by God. Thus, the angel did not know where Sarah was and needed to ask, since this knowledge was outside its specific sphere of control. Yet, the angel somehow knew Sarah’s name. This I believe further proves that this story was a vision. For if it were a literal event and these three were men and not angels, they could not know Sarah’s name.
The angel did not intend to share the birth announcement with Sarah. It is my opinion that it was ascertaining that Sarah was not in earshot of this announcement. The angel’s inquiry “Where is Sarah your wife?” is understood as ensuring she did not hear the birth announcement. Why? I believe this teaches another lesson about God’s justice. For it was Abraham who taught monotheism and God’s justice to his children and mankind (Gen. 18:18). Therefore, the news of Isaac’s birth — the son who would continue Abraham’s legacy — related primarily to Abraham, and not Sarah.
This entire vision dealt with God’s justice. Justice is not merely the destruction of evildoers. A primary aspect of God’s justice is educating man about His ways. Therefore, the two other angels, although silent the entire time, came along with the announcing angel to convey a relationship between all three angels. Isaac’s birth was vital to continue Abraham’s teachings, and the destruction of Sodom and Lote’s salvation comprise important lessons on God’s justice, the very substance of Abraham’s teachings. Thus, all three angels’ missions related to Abraham, and therefore were all part of this vision.
The Interruption: God’s Dialogue with Abraham
God’s will is to teach man. The angels were about to leave to Sodom, but not quite yet. First, God shares with Abraham a clue to greater knowledge of God’s justice. This knowledge would have been “hidden” from mankind — “Hamichaseh ani may’Avraham?” (Gen. 18:17) — had God not suggested to Abraham that although exceedingly great in sin, Sodom might be spared if certain conditions were met. God knew there were not 10 righteous people, and therefore the angels proceeded to destroy Sodom, prior to Abraham’s dialogue with God. But the message of the angels not departing to Sodom until God commenced a dialogue with Abraham indicates that the angel’s mission of destruction played a great role in Abraham’s knowledge of God’s justice. So we can read the verses as follows: God is about to destroy Sodom (the angels gaze at Sodom) but God first shares knowledge of His justice before doing so. Once this dialogue ensues, the destruction can take place, and Abraham will attain greater knowledge. Again, God’s dialogue is inserted between the angels’ gaze towards Sodom and their departure for Sodom, conveying a relationship between Sodom’s destruction and Abraham learning God’s justice.
What purpose did Sarah serve in this vision? The Torah makes it clear that Sarah viewed natural law as absolute, “After I have aged, will I truly give birth?” (Gen. 18:14) Thus, God’s response, “Is anything too wondrous for God?” (Gen. 18:14) The lesson to Abraham by God’s inclusion of this scenario within the vision is this: knowledge of God’s justice must include the idea that God’s justice is absolute. Nothing—not even nature—overrides God’s justice. This is expressed throughout Torah in the many miracles God performed to benefit righteous people. As God was teaching Abraham new insights into His justice, this lesson was of critical value.
God gives Abraham a vision intended to further educate him on His ways, and for him to teach his son Isaac and the world. But God only does so, since Abraham was perfected in his concern for man. Abraham is taught through the vision that this concern is what earned him new insights from God. The other two angels visiting Abraham, and the interruption of the angels’ departure by God’s dialogue, teaches that man’s knowledge of God’s justice is a primary purpose in His meting out of justice. Thus, the angels did not leave to destroy Sodom until Abraham was engaged in learning a new insight into God’s justice in this destruction. Abraham also learns that God’s justice is absolute, expressed in God’s rebuke of Sarah.
 “…If there will be prophets of God; in a vision to him I will make Myself known; in a dream I will speak to him. Not so is it with My servant Moses; in all My house he is trusted. Face to face I speak with him and in vision and not with riddles; and the form of God he beholds... (Num. 12:6-8).”
 I say “arrived”, but in no manner do I suggest that angels are an earthly phenomenon. Rather, as I elaborated within this essay, that the two other angels could have “addressed” God’s will for Sodom without connection with the announcing angel. (Simialrly, the angels of God addressed God’s will that the pillar of cloud relocate behind the Jews. But angels are not on Earth; only the cloud is. See Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, book II, end of chapter 6.)