A Look Back at the Three “Men” Who Visited Abraham

In Genesis 18, we read that the Lord appeared to Abraham in Mamre, and also, in the same verse, that three “men” visited him.  This has to be one of the most debated scriptural passages of all time.  The big question is whether these three were divine beings (and if one of the three was the Lord, Yahweh), and if so, why are they described in these verses as “men” engaging in very human activities such as washing their feet and eating regular food (Gen. 18:4–8)? This is a very complicated matter, especially because the text is so vague, not providing the details that we would need to sort this out.  In fact, it is really impossible to come to a conclusion based on the biblical text. So why do I bother? Because divine theophanies are a serious matter and a correct understanding (or as close as we can get to it) of these narratives helps us understand the early Israelite beliefs concerning the nature of God.

This is a re-post of one of the most popular blog posts on Heavenly Ascents.  I am resurrecting it because I always like to hear people’s opinions on this topic and how we can best understand it. The solution offered here is definitely speculative, but hopefully something that will make you think — I would love to hear whether you agree or disagree or what your theory is. 

Back to the question of who visited Abraham — we are specifically told in Gen. 18:1 that the Lord (YHWH) appeared to him (Abraham) near the trees/oaks of Mamre.  The Hebrew makes it perfectly clear that Yahweh himself appeared, at least at some point in the story. The Greek translators confirm, albeit somewhat more generically, that it was God (ho theos) that appeared.

This seemingly random appearance of Yahweh to Abraham was not an isolated occurrence. God had appeared to him a number of times previously (see Gen. 12:7; Gen. 17:1–3, 22).  These theophanies are not described in any detail, but relate in a rather nonchalant fashion the idea that Yahweh descended from heaven to speak with Abraham (and then “went up” from him, Gen. 17:22).

So, in chapter 18, we are informed of another appearance of Yahweh to Abraham.  Many commentators make a point to distinguish this appearance from that of chapter 17.  The open (blank) space in the Hebrew text between the two chapters is an indicator that we are starting a new, unrelated narrative.  Some commentators identify this first clause of verse 1 as an introduction to the following chapters, which are characterized by their narrative of divine contact with mortals.  Although this may indicate that we should understand this line apart from the following verses — that perhaps this is just the “heading” and not the actual beginning of the story–we will have to answer more questions before coming to any conclusion.

After these words of introduction, we are told that Abraham, while sitting in his tent, looks up and beheld three “men” approaching. Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek call them “angels” here, but use common words for mortal men.  However, in the next chapter, Gen. 19:1, two of the “men” are called angels (or “messengers”, in both Hebrew and Greek). If two of them leave for Sodom, then apparently the third is left behind. The way the narrative comes to us, the third visitor would seem to be the Lord, who is left by the other two and remains speaking to Abraham in the last part of chapter 18.

Many early Christians believed that this was an appearance of the Son of God with two angels.  Many argued in their apologetics (see, e.g. Justin’s dialogue with Trypho) that this must have been a pre-mortal appearance of Jesus Christ, since they believed that the Father did not visit people in this way.

Augustine expressed the popular belief that the three men were the three persons of the Holy Trinity:

But under the oak at Mamre he saw three men, whom he invited, and hospitably received, and ministered to them as they feasted. Yet Scripture at the beginning of that narrative does not say, three men appeared to him, but, “The Lord appeared to him.” And then, setting forth in due order after what manner the Lord appeared to him, it has added the account of the three men, whom Abraham invites to his hospitality in the plural number, and afterwards speaks to them in the singular number as one; and as one He promises him a son by Sara, viz. the one whom the Scripture calls Lord, as in the beginning of the same narrative, “The Lord,” it says, “appeared to Abraham.” He invites them then, and washes their feet, and leads them forth at their departure, as though they were men; but he speaks as with the Lord God, whether when a son is promised to him, or when the destruction is shown to him that was impending over Sodom.18

Interestingly, despite Joseph Smith’s apparent belief to the contrary, we also find this assumption expressed by some LDS Church leaders.  For example, Brigham Young stated, using the Lord’s visit to Abraham as an example of the corporeality of God:

He conversed with His children, as in the case of Moses at the fiery bush, and with Abraham on the plains of Mamre. He also ate and drank with Abraham and others. That is the God the “Mormons” believe in, but their very religious Christian brethren do not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is the God the Bible sets forth, as an organized corporeal being.1

More recently, Elder Mark E. Peterson, in his commentary on the three visitors at Mamre in Abraham: Friend of God, has no qualms about identifying the three men as the Lord and two angels.

The difficulty, then, is in determining how these three, if they were the Lord (Jesus/Jehovah) and his angels, could sit with Abraham and participate in physical activities, such as eating. The principal theory that I have seen among Christians is the idea that when a spirit personage (who is normally invisible) becomes visible, he necessarily takes on material qualities in order to do so.  Although only temporarily, the heavenly being would then have a “physical” body and would be able to perform “physical” actions. This temporary transformation from spiritual to physical, according to this theory, is also displayed at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit becomes a dove (literally). This is the most common explanation that I have seen for these difficult passages in the Bible that portray heavenly beings as being able to manipulate material objects and the like.

Despite the above quotations from Brigham Young and Mark E. Peterson, this explanation doesn’t generally sit well with the LDS understanding of the nature of spiritual beings. The best known treatment of the corporeality of angelic beings is D&C 129:

1 THERE are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—

2 For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

3 Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.

4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.

5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.

6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—

7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.

8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.

9 These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.

Now there are a number of complex issues presented here which are difficult to interpret — for example, why exactly would it be a deception for a righteous spirit to try to give you his hand to shake? Likewise, if the devil knows he is only a spirit, why would he be silly enough to give his hand to you to shake? Why wouldn’t he just refuse to move like the righteous angel? It seems to me that that would be a better deception!  Anyways, the point is that Joseph Smith taught that angels can have physical bodies, but only when they are resurrected (in this case their physical nature would be permanent, not temporary). The key example is that of the resurrected Christ when he differentiates between himself and spirits by explaining that a spirit would not have a physical body as he does (Luke 24:39). The resurrected Jesus, a divine being, could touch and be touched, eat and drink, etc.

So from this we can understand that, in the LDS perspective as well, angels can often be depicted as performing physical acts.  The only catch here is that Joseph Smith was describing the nature of angels as resurrected beings — a quality that they could have only after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was the “firstfruits of the resurrection” (1 Cor. 15:20). The angels depicted in Genesis 18 and 19, then, according to this perspective, could not have been resurrected beings and could not, therefore, have resurrected, physical bodies.

A popular opinion among LDS is that the three men were angels, but in the sense of messengers of God, and that they were mortal messengers, not divine.  This idea is expressed well here:

Who then were Abraham’s three visitors at his encampment? They are not designated by name, but it is apparent that they were messengers sent by the Lord. I venture to express an opinion—an inference only for which I am personally and alone responsible—that the probabilities point to the great high priest, Melchizedek, and two associates who may have stood with him in the capacity of counselors.

The three beings in question were in all probability not “angels” but righteous men. The Hebrew says that three men, instead of three angels, visited Abraham. As for the title, Lords, it comes from adhon meaning Lord, a title of honor for men. The word Yhwh or Jehovah, which is often translated Lord (God) is not used to designate the three messengers.

The “Inspired Scriptures” states that “three men” visited Abraham and that he addressed them as “my brethren.” The Prophet Joseph undoubtedly wrote angel in the text with the meaning of messenger in mind; since angel in the English, Greek, or Hebrew means messenger. Especially is this true in this instance. The idea of mortal messengers is further substantiated in Genesis 18:23. (Inspired Revision.)

And the angels which were holy men, and were sent forth after the order of God, [meaning the "Holy Priesthood, after the order of God"] turned their faces from thence and went toward Sodom.

If one substitutes the word messenger for angel in the Inspired Scriptures, he will find the principal difficulty in use of the names cleared up.

It is, therefore, highly probable that the three men who came to Abraham and partook of his hospitality were three servants of God to whom he revealed his will concerning the people. Furthermore, it is possible that this was Melchizedek who was called the great “high priest” because he presided over the Holy Priesthood as President of the Church in that day.2

Here we have the idea that the angels (at least two of the three men) were mortals, priesthood bearers who wielded the power and authority of God.  The suggestion that the messengers were Melchizedek and his two councilors is an attractive proposition.  That Melchizedek and fellow priests could have been recognized as representatives of Yahweh and also as angels is supported by recent research of scholars such as Margaret Barker, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, James Davila, C.T.R. Hayward, and others.  It is well established that the high priest (king) in ancient Israelite religion was seen as representing Yahweh in the rituals of the temple and that the other priests were understood to be angels performing the heavenly liturgy.

The other important point brought out by the inspired revisions of Joseph Smith, as discussed above, is the idea that angels (as the men are called in Gen. 19:1) were messengers, and that “holy men” could be “angels” just as divine beings could be.  The Hebrew for messenger, malakh (which is rendered in Greek aggelos and is the basis for our word “angel”) could be used for both mortal and heavenly messengers.3

The argument that the men who visited Abraham were important humans of a priestly status sent by God is not a weak one. It would explain how they could be seen as participating in physical acts in chapter 18 and in the very “human” sequences of chapter 19.  It would also explain why they are referred to as “men” (although divine angels are also sometimes referred to as “men”).

But wasn’t one of them the Lord Yahweh? From Gen. 18:1 and later on in that chapter, it clearly states that Yahweh is talking to Abraham.  While this very well could have been Melchizedek or another representative of Yahweh authorized to speak in his name, we would have to be reading something into the text that isn’t there in order to interpret it in that way.  One possible interpretation is to say that Yahweh did visit Abraham at this time, but that he was not one of the three men — he was either speaking from heaven, or his visit to Abraham is not to be associated with the visit of the three men at all (perhaps it took place after the men left). Although the English translation of Gen. 18:3 seems to indicate that Abraham is addressing the three men (or at least one of them) as “my Lord,” the Hebrew does not use the name of God (YHWH), which is standardly rendered as “LORD” in our scriptures, but uses adonai, which, although it is often used to refer to God, can almost as often be found in the Bible used as a term of respect for a human being.  The Joseph Smith Translation amends “my Lord” to “my brethren.” Furthermore, the JST seems to consider all three visitors to be “messengers,” as we see in the revision of Gen. 19:1 (“three angels” instead of “two angels”). Therefore, Abraham’s conversation with the Lord about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah at the end of chapter 18 would seem to indicate that the Lord is appearing to Abraham here separately, apart from the three messengers.

Before concluding, I would offer one more possible explanation (without necessarily endorsing it as the correct one).  There may be a middle argument that we can fit in between the uncomfortable discrepancy between the popular LDS idea that these were mortal messengers and the traditional Christian position that they were heavenly angels.   We are taught that a number of mortal men had been “translated,” as were Elijah and Moses, long before the time of Abraham. “Translation” consists of an intermediate stage between mortal life and full resurrection — in effect, a change is made to the individual so that the physical body is preserved and his life prolonged, so that he may continue serving the Lord long after he naturally should have died. Translated beings, although they are not resurrected yet, still possess a physical body.  From the teachings of Joseph Smith we are informed that not only Enoch, but his whole city were translated.  It may even be possible to derive, from the JST of Genesis 14 the idea that Melchizedek and his followers, by virtue of the Priesthood, had also (at some point) been translated:

32 And men having this faith, coming up unto this [priesthood] order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven.

33 And now, Melchizedek was a priest of this order; therefore he obtained peace in Salem, and was called the Prince of peace.

34 And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world;

Joseph Smith taught that these translated beings were often called to be “ministering angels”:

Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but this is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead.4

If we take these ideas into account, then it is possible that Abraham’s visitors could have been translated beings serving as angels of God.  If I understand the nature of translated beings correctly, they would have had the normal appearance of men and have been able to perform physical activities such as those described in these chapters, but also would have been recognized as angels sent by God.  If Melchizedek and some of his fellows had already been translated by this time, then it is certainly plausible that they could have been the highly honored visitors that Abraham so graciously welcomed to his tent.  Whether or not they possessed the glorious appearance of angels, Abraham would have recognized Melchizedek immediately, as we know from Genesis 14 that the two had met previously.

While, again, this is just speculation, I believe that this makes more logical and theological sense than trying to explain how spiritual beings simply “materialize” when they come into the mortal realm.  Perhaps when you believe in creation ex-nihilo, materializing and subsequently de-materializing is not such an odd concept to accept, but that is not the LDS understanding of the nature of matter and of the way spiritual beings interact with the material world.

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  1. A DISCOURSE DELIVERED BY PRESIDENT B. YOUNG, IN THE TABERNACLE, GREAT SALT LAKE CITY, JULY 24, 1853. Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, 238. Accessed online at  http://en.fairmormon.org/Journal_of_Discourses/1/35 []
  2. Oscar W. McConkie, Angels []
  3. Under “Angels” in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, we read: The most common of these functional terms is maLāk, “messenger, envoy.” It is from the translation of maLāk in the LXX (Gk aggelos) that the English word “angel” derives. As terms denoting functions, both aggelos and maLāk can refer equally to human or angelic beings. Consequently, there are occasionally passages in which it remains disputed whether the reference is to a heavenly being or a human one (see Judg 2:1; Mal 3:1). It was only with the Vulgate that a systematic distinction was made between angelic emissaries (Lat angelus) and human ones (Lat nuntius). Freedman, D. N. (1996). The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday. []
  4. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 170 []
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5 Comments

  1. Posted June 10, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    One of the most remarkable things to me, with the idea of redaction by Jewish believers in mind, is that Abraham served them milk and curds with their meat. This idea seems like it would be anathema to those who follow dietary restrictions. As for the three beings, I am not LDS but also take a different view than mainline Christianity on these three beings. I follow a Divine Council worldview and see them as two followers of YHWH.
    I know that LDS believe that YHWH is Christ and follow that there was a visible and an invisible YHWH throughout the OT. It’s not really important who exactly they are to me.

    • David Larsen
      Posted June 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      This was before Moses, so it was okay! :)
      Divine Council? That is a good take — and nice alternative to the Trinity view.
      If you see it as a manifestation of the Divine Council, where do the “two followers of YHWH” come in? Are they members of the council?
      David

      • Posted June 10, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        I realize that this was before Moses. My interest is in how later redactors and editors of the OT thought about this since eating the two together would have been possibly disgusting (in the same way eating a dog or horse is disgusting to me).
        I see the angels as members of this council, leaving me with no problem that they are. I don’t have any reason to believe that people (untranslated people) were with YHWH. I think it is better to see the as angels or translated persons.

        • David Larsen
          Posted June 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for your thoughts on this, William.
          I was joking about the before Moses thing. I am sure later redactors would have had problems with that idea.
          I like your thoughts on the divine council for this passage.
          Thanks!

  2. JohnM
    Posted June 20, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    David Larsen: //”This temporary transformation from spiritual to physical, according to this theory, is also displayed at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit becomes a dove (literally)”//

    I commented on this on the older post, but thought I would add it here as perhaps more relevant to the present discussion.

    According to Joseph Smith (TPJS, pp.275-276), the Holy Ghost did not appear in the literal form of a dove, but in the “sign of the dove” — a sign which Satan could not/was not allowed to duplicate as a sign vouchsafed to John the Baptist as a testimony of its authenticity.

    The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove. The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage. It does not confine itself to the form of the dove, but in signof the dove. The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence.

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