CONTEXT: God? Anthropomorphic? The J writer frequently has Yahh or his angel speaking openly to a person, in contrast with E for whom divine contact is via visions and dreams. This chapter resemble Greek myths, particularly those of Zeus and Hermes walking the earth incognito, like mortals, and revealing themselves. (Ovid: Baucis and Philamon, Jupiter and Atlantiades.) In that literature, the omniscient narrator lets the reader know that gods are coming. The first clause of v. 1 is a title, that sounds very like a P style editorial addition announcing that Yahh is a character in the story to follow. The Genesis author, I think, left us, along with Avraham, to figure out that one of the three men is Yahh and the other two turn out to be angels.*
Verse 22 contains a tikun sofrim, a “correction by scribes,” generally referred to as “scribal emendation.”  This is indicated in the Masorah, marginal notes left by the Masoretes, the “traditionalists,” who in the 5th to 10th centuries standardized scripture texts and added the punctuation and cantillation marks.  There are but 3 in Torah and 18 in all of Tanach (Hebrew acronym for Bible: Torah+N’vi’im, “prophets”+K’tuvim, “writings”– Psalms, etc).  “Avraham still stood before Yahh,” is the way the Masoretic text reads, followed by most translations. An early Midrash collection (rabbinic comments and expansions of Torah, dating from 2nd century) notes that this verse is a tikun sofrim, commenting that it would be a disrespectful image to have God standing there waiting for a person. The scribe was empowered to change the way the story is written. Note that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the second century BCE) accepts the emendation. The Targum (Aramaic translation of the first century) has Avraham “still serving with prayer before Yahh,” carrying the spirit of the emendation a step further. This translation reverts to the presumed original telling.
GLOSSARY: Seah is a measure of flour or grain. Could be by weight, but my guess is that it is a dry measure similar to our 1 cup. Three of these would be about right to make pitah for three guests with perhaps leftovers to take with them.
Chalilah is a negative interjection that deserves to be left in Hebrew because it has no parallel in English.  The usual translations, “God forbid” or “far be it from me” are inadequate and unjustified by the etymology.  The root is chalal, חלל, meaning “profane, desecrate” with the addition of hey, ה, at the end, indicating direction.  “To the profane” would be a literal translation, approximating the English usage, “to hell with it.” (A medieval Latin expression ad profanum is a literal translation but the Vulgate Latin reads absit a te, “far be it from you.”) In modern Hebrew the expression chas v’chalilah adds a word for “pity” strengthening the idiom and further eluding English translation.
“Lift” (or “raise”) nasa/נשא is one of those flexible Hebrew words with literal and figurative meanings. In v. 26 it is generally–and correctly–rendered “forgive.” This translation leaves it to the reader to interpret the vivid verb.

Genesis 18:1-15
He was sitting in the opening of the tent at the heat of day and 2he lifted his eyes and saw: there were three men standing near him. From the tent opening he saw and ran to meet them and bowed to the ground: 3“My lords, if I have found favor in your eyes, please don’t pass by your servant. 4Be there taken a little water: bathe your feet. Lean back under the tree. 5I’ll get a piece of bread: sustain your heart. Afterwards you could pass. Surely, for this you have passed near your servant.”
            They said: “Do so, as you have spoken.”
            6Avraham rushed to the tent, to Sarah: “Rush three seahs of flour, fine flour. Knead it and make disks.” 
            7Avraham ran to the cattle and took a tender and good young calf and gave it to the lad and he rushed to make it. 8He took curd and milk and the calf that he had made and gave it before them. He was standing by them under the tree as they ate.
            9They said to him: “Where is Sarah your woman?”
            “There, in the tent,” he said.
            10One of them said: “I will again return to you at about the term of life, and there will be a son to your woman Sarah.”
            Sarah heard from the opening of the tent that was behind him. 11Avraham and Sarah were old, coming along in days. The way of women had ceased for Sarah. 12She laughed inwardly: “Now that I’m worn out I’m going to have pleasure? And milord an old man!
            13Yahh said to Avraham: “Why did Sarah laugh just now? As if to say, ‘Shall I really, actually give birth? I, having grown old?’ 14Is a thing too miraculous for Yahh? At the season, in a term of life, I will return to you, and for Sarah, a son.”
            15“I didn’t laugh,” Sarah lied, for she was afraid.
            “No,” said Yahh, “you did laugh.”

Genesis 18:16-33
            16The men rose from there and looked down at the face of S’dom, Avraham walking with them to send them off. 17Yahh said, “Should I cover what I am doing from Avraham? 18Avraham will come to be a great and vast nation. All the nations of the earth will be blessed in him. 19I have known him, that he will command his sons and his house after him. They will keep the way of Yahh doing justice and righteousness, for Yahh’s bringing upon Avraham all that he spoke for him.”
            20So Yahh said to Avraham: “The cry of S’dom and Amorah is so great and their sin so very heavy 21that I must go down and see. Is it entirely like their cry that has reached that they have done? And if not, I shall know.” 22The men turned from there and went towards S’dom.
            Yahh still stood before Avraham. 23Avraham approached and said: “Would you really sweep away just with wicked? 24Perhaps there are fifty just ones within the city. Would you really sweep the place away rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty just ones in its midst? 25Chalilah for you from doing such a thing as this, to kill just together with wicked. Should the just be as the wicked?  Chalilah for you. The judge of all the earth should not do right?”
            26“If,” said Yahh, “I find in S’dom fifty just ones within the city, I shall lift the whole place on their account.”
            27“See, please,” Avraham replied, “I have initiated speaking with my Lord, and I being dust and ash. 28Perhaps the fifty just ones will lack five? Would you destroy the whole city for five?”
            “I shall not destroy if I find there forty-five.”
            29Avraham continued to speak to him: “Perhaps forty will be found there?”
            “I shall not do it on account of the forty.”
            30“Please,” said Avraham, “let it not anger my Lord and I’ll speak. Perhaps thirty will be found there?”
            “I shall not do it if I find there thirty.”
            31“See please, I have initiated speaking with my Lord. Perhaps twenty will be found there?”
            “I shall not destroy on account of the twenty.”
            32“Let it not anger my Lord and I shall speak but once more.  Perhaps ten will be found there?”
            “I shall not destroy on account of the ten.”
            33Yahh went when He had finished speaking to Avraham. Avraham returned to his place.

*A hint that God is there and that Avraham suspected as much is supplied by the Masoretes. The word adon, אדון, “lord, sir,” occurs three times in this chapter, each time with first person singular possessive suffix signifying “my.” Sarah, chuckling to herself about her hundred year old husband, refers to him as “milord,” a lighter, gently humorous translation to fit her feelings. Avraham, on first seeing the three strangers addresses them in fully formal diction: “My lords.”  The grammatical form for plural noun with singular possessive suffix would be h³b«s£t, adonai, as it appears in the next chapter where Lot address the two strangers he meets on the street in S’dom (19:2). But in verse 3 of our chapter, the Masoretes chose the form: h²b«s£t, with the long “ah” vowel kamats instead of the short patach. They introduced the long form for emphasis when they intended the word to refer to God, and they pointed the tetragrammaton YHVH  with the vowels of h²b«s£t to indicate that that is the accepted vocalization of that otherwise not-to-be-spoken name. At verse 27, well into his conversation with Yahh, Avraham addresses him as “my Lord,” by which we understand that Avraham realized his interlocutor was the deity. But in verse 3 Avraham simply greets 3 men. A further hint is visible in the Hebrew which uses second person singular forms, and to careful readers of the King James Version: Avraham opens by addressing a single person and then proceeds to address all three, “thy,” singular, “your,” plural. (3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.  4 Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.)

© Rabbi David L. Kline  

No comments: