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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This remarkable chapter is divided about equally between the reaffirmation of the covenant for the benefit of Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15), and the announcement of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).

As Payne pointed out, there are a number of dramatic contrasts visible in this chapter and the next, (Genesis 19), the two in fact being a unit and reaching a climax in the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.

(1) “The long-awaited birth of Isaac, an event so full of joy and hope, stands in parallel and contrast to the birth, unheralded, unwanted and degrading of the two ancestors of Moab and Ammon.(F1)

(2) It was high noon when God and two angels appeared before Abraham; and it was a terrible night at the time of their arrival in Sodom.

(3) Abraham’s tent was a place of honor and righteousness, but Lot’s house was in the midst of the most lustful and violent wickedness.

(4) Abraham’s most generous and delightful hospitality stands in naked contrast with the most vicious and wicked mistreatment of strangers in Sodom.

(5) There is the contrast between the blessings of God upon the posterity of Abraham and the summary judgment and punishment of the wicked cities, the destruction of which would stand as a type of the eternal judgment throughout the ages.

The visit of the Lord and two angels to Abraham has the side effect of “revealing an additional characteristic of Abraham, in his hospitality.”(F2) Regarding the time when the events of these first fifteen verses took place, it was no doubt not very long after the appearance of the Lord to Abraham in the previous chapter. However, Plaut probably went too far in supposing that Abraham was still “recuperating from his circumcision,” and that God visited him “in order to show the importance of visiting the sick!”(F3) We should study this chapter in the full consciousness that there are mysteries here which lie totally beyond the perimeter of our human understanding.

Before a passage such as this, we must always remain humble and receptive, realizing the limitations of our knowledge but willing to believe all that God reveals to us.(F4)

Verses 1-2

“And Jehovah appeared unto him by the oaks of Mature, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day: and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth.”

Genesis 18:1 is the key to Genesis 18:2. The “three men” were not men at all, but the Lord Himself accompanied by two angels. Nevertheless, they had every appearance of being men and even ate dinner with Abraham, even as our Saviour himself ate with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead (Luke 24:42-43). There is much difference of opinion as to whether or not Abraham might have recognized the Lord, due to his having seen him such a brief time previously; but it would appear that Abraham was not, at first, aware of the heavenly status of his guests. Hebrews 13:2 is apparently a reference to this very event; and there it is stated that the host entertained “angels unaware.” If that is the case, we may not interpret Abraham’s bowing himself to the earth as an act of worship, but as a warm friendly greeting only, after the manner and customs of the times. Scholars differ on this; and Kline thought that Abraham must have recognized the Lord at once, “Otherwise, the mention of Yahweh in Genesis 18:13 would be too abrupt.”(F5) However, that would appear to be the precise reason for Genesis 18:1, which makes the reader at once aware of who “the men” actually are. We cannot believe that Abraham knew it until later. “Apparently, these were: the preincarnate Word, who was with God and who was God (John 1:1), and two angels (Hebrews 13:2).”(F6) Some refer to this as a “theophany.”

Keil noted that, “There was a double purpose in this visit of the Lord to Abraham”;(F7) these were: (1) to strengthen and establish Sarah’s faith that the birth of the promised son would actually occur, and (2) to announce the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There were very strong reasons that underlay that second purpose, as we shall see later. This passage must not be interpreted in the loose sense that, “Yahweh appeared to Abraham by sending three men.”(F8) Genesis 18:1 forbids such a view.

This whole chapter, including these first two verses, is not “from some primitive document,”(F9) but it is Moses’ account of a bona fide event that occurred in the life of Moses’ distinguished ancestor, Abraham.

Verses 3-5

“And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: and I will fetch a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on: forasmuch as ye are come to your servant. And they said, So do as thou hast said.”

“I pray thee, my Lord, … thy servant … your servant” This language is extravagant by our standards today, but here it was the Oriental’s way of displaying every courtesy and honor to strangers. There is no indication, as yet, that Abraham recognized the exalted character of his guests. Note that he considered them to be in need of “strengthening,” etc., which he could hardly have done had he known their real identity. “Thus his spontaneous hospitality to seemingly ordinary human beings is all the more impressive.”(F10)

“A little water … a morsel of bread” The host, in such words, minimizes the contribution that he is prepared to make for their comfort and well being, as if he had said, “Well, you are welcome to what little we have!” The feast which, a little later, he laid out before them emphasizes the humility and self-effacement of the patriarch.

“Strengthen your heart” This is not the center of the circulatory system. “The context shows that Abraham was speaking of “the result of eating a meal.”(F11)

Verses 6-8

“And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf, tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.”

This, of course, is a summary. Nothing is said of the cooking of the meat or other preparations that were made. This resume emphasizes the speed with which such an excellent dinner was prepared and served. In this connection, it is good to remember that Abraham and Sarah had many servants, perhaps the total number running into the hundreds. Thus, when it is said that Sarah was told to take meal, knead it, and make cakes, there is no suggestion here that she did not have servants ready to carry out her wishes at once. Note that, although Abraham gave the calf to “a servant” to dress, it is later said that Abraham dressed it. The use of the word “servant” here refutes the allegation that “the boy here was Ishmael.”(F12)

Plaut, evidently a Jewish scholar, raises the question, “Why did Abraham serve milk and meat at the same time?”(F13) (It was not kosher!) But God evidently did not notice the slip, or, if He did, he paid no attention to it! Many of the questions people raise concerning such a revelation as this are truly amazing.

Speiser observed that “the three measures of fine meal” were equal to about thirteen quarts, over three gallons! And that the “butter,” also rendered “curds” was a type of yogurt.(F14)

Verses 9-10

“And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him.”

Up to this point, the identity of Abraham’s guests could have been unknown, but, with this interchange, both Sarah, and certainly Abraham, knew the supernatural nature of their guests. It had been only a short while since the name had been given to Sarah, yet “He” knew it; also “He” knew of their desire for a son, and apparently also, that God had promised that Sarah would be the mother. Therefore, we are unwilling to excuse Sarah’s unbelieving laughter, a little later, on the basis that: “For all Sarah knew, the promise of a child was merely a gesture made by meddlesome travelers; her impetuous reaction was one of derision.”(F15) Nevertheless, we cannot fault Sarah as being faithless, for the writer of Hebrews declared that, “By faith, even Sarah herself, received power to conceive a seed when she was past age” (Hebrews 11:11). Whatever Sarah’s initial impression might have been, she was promptly to receive concrete and convincing evidence that God Himself was their guest.

“And they said unto him … And he said, I will certainly return” In the first clause, what the principal one of the guests said was attributed to all three, but in the next verse, the pre-eminence of the chief personage is made clear.

“In the tent door … behind him (the Lord)” Sarah was eavesdropping, the privilege of good wives in all generations! Little could she have anticipated that she would be exposed.

Verses 11-12

“And Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

From the human standpoint, it was impossible for a woman long after the onset of menopause to give birth to a child, and Sarah’s derisive laughter seemed to her to be the most appropriate response to what the stranger had said. As yet, it was not fully evident to her that God Himself was behind the promise. To her credit, in time, she believed and was empowered by The Highest to conceive and bear Isaac, appropriately enough called “laughter.” Willis noted that, “The Hebrew word [~titschaq] is very similar to the word Isaac, [~Yitschaq]”;(F16) and that is why the meaning of the name Isaac is usually given as “laughter.” He was, by his very name, a perpetual reminder to both Abraham and Sarah that, in a genuine sense, he was a supernatural gift from God, called forever afterward, “the son of promise.”

Verses 13-15

“And Jehovah said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is anything too hard for Jehovah? At the set time, I will return unto thee when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.”

One may well sympathize with Sarah, for it is very hard to be questioned and condemned concerning what one was thinking or saying in his own heart, yet that is exactly what happened to her. Her untruthful response was sternly reprimanded in its emphatic denial by Jehovah.

“And Jehovah said” At this point, there could have been no doubt of the identity of the speaker. Only God can address the secret thoughts of the heart, and He did so in this question as to why Sarah laughed. Note the explanation of Sarah’s falsehood here. She was afraid to tell the truth, but her fears could not hide it from the Lord.

“Is anything too hard for Jehovah?” What a magnificent thought this is. As Morris wrote: “Verse 14 is one of the mountain-peak verses of the Bible. `Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ To ask this question is to answer it. `With God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26). He who created all things surely controls all things. He who enacted the laws of nature can change them if he wills.”(F17)

This concludes the first half of the chapter, the remainder being devoted to the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and with related events. As to the purpose of this episode, the big thing in it was apparently the strengthening of Sarah’s faith and her enlistment as an enthusiastic partner in the achievement of God’s purpose. Another very important purpose was that of revealing in advance to Abraham the impending fate of the grossly wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. We shall discuss the reasons why God evidently acted to give that revelation under Genesis 18:17-18.

Verses 16-18


“And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. And Jehovah said, Shall I hide from Abraham that which I do; seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”

“Rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom” This indicated the direction that they intended to go; and the mention of Sodom shows that they were engaged on a mission to that place as well as to Abraham at Mamre (Hebron) where, at the moment, they had just eaten with Abraham. There is a possibility that they might have been able to see Sodom from this place.

If they could see Sodom from the road, then they must have walked about three miles east of the terebinths of Mamre at Hebron, where the hills of Hebron overlook the Dead Sea and the adjoining region.(F18)

The rationale behind God’s action in revealing before it happened the fate of the doomed cities is here visible. It was important that the human race should understand the ultimate penalty and punishment to be executed upon vile and presumptuous wickedness. The terrible destruction that came to Sodom and Gomorrah would, in time, be deserved by the Chosen Nation, of which Abraham was the patriarch; and it was extremely important that the Jews should understand the basic connection between rebellious wickedness and divine punishment, a lesson which, sadly, they never heeded; but the recurrence of just such a judgment occurred again, and again, in their history. First, Samaria fell, then Jerusalem, with captivity following for each of the sinful kingdoms; and then once more, when, after the final rejection and murder of the Messiah himself, God wiped Jerusalem off the face of the earth. Now that judgmental destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman armies was pinpointed by Jesus Christ himself as a type of the end of the world and the final judgment (Matthew 24, etc.), and since the destruction of these wicked Dead Sea cities was doubtless a type of the final overthrow of Jerusalem, we are justified in beholding in all such judgments, recurring again, and again throughout history, types in miniature, for the final Assize and overthrow of wickedness at the end of human probation. The teaching of the Minor Prophets confirms and strengthens this view. Therefore, God’s revelation to Abraham recorded here was designed to serve as a warning of the ultimate fate that shall befall all unrighteousness.

Verse 19

“For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Jehovah may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.”

We consider this one of the most important verses in the Bible, because it reveals a key reason why Abraham was chosen to be the head of the select people chosen to perpetuate the name and worship of God upon earth, at the time when the advancing twilight of paganism was descending upon mankind, and which would soon reach the blackness of midnight. That reason was the ability of Abraham to “command his children after him.” Some of the more recent versions obscure this; and the version we are using is not too clear. Note:

“For I know him, that he will command his children after him” (KJV).

“For I know him that he will command his children, and his household …” (Douay).

“I have chosen him that he may charge his children, and his household” (RSV).

“I have chosen him in order that he may command his sons and his descendants” (the Good News Bible).

That the first two of the above versions contradict the other two is obvious, and we do not hesitate to register a preference for the first two. Although we are not familiar with the textual arguments leading to the change in the later versions, it is a safe conjecture that the prevailing reasons were theological; and that is exactly the basis of the reasons for rejecting such changes. God did not choose Abraham so that he might (maybe) command his children after him, but because he knew that he “would be able to do it.” That is an ability sadly lacking among the Gentiles even yet, and, sadly enough, lacking in the vast majority of mankind. That God had correctly evaluated this particular ability of Abraham is seen in the cohesiveness and perpetuity of Jewish traditions, even yet, through the instrument of the Jewish family. All people should thank God for this ability of Abraham, for he had the power to perpetuate the name and worship of Almighty God upon the earth through the long, long midnight of Gentile paganism.

Verses 20-21

“Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come up unto me; and if not, I will know.”

The amazing anthropomorphism here represents God as having heard a very damaging report of the wickedness of the doomed cities, and as making a personal trip down to them in order to have the facts first hand. The justice and fairness of any authority making such an investigation before the execution of drastic penalties is indicated here, reflecting a revelation concerning the justice and fairness of God Himself. Of course, God’s omniscience enables Him to know all things instantly; but this language accommodates itself to the behavior and customs of men.

Verse 22

“And the men turned from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before Jehovah.”

This introduces the great Intercessory Scene in which Abraham pleaded for God to spare the execution of the wicked cities. Note that the two angels are sent on their way to Sodom, but that Jehovah himself remained and heeded the plea of Abraham. The reception that the angels received in Sodom is recorded in the next chapter. The great intercession that Abraham made, and which is next recorded, is, “the sublimest act of human intercession, of which Scripture preserves a record.”(F19)

Verses 23-25


“And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are within? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

“Wilt thou consume and not spare … ?” The Genesis account does not mention God’s consuming the city prior to this time; but inherent in this question of Abraham is the proof that God indeed had revealed to Abraham his purpose of utterly destroying the wicked cities.

“Shall not the Judge of all earth do right … ?” That the chief dignitary of the “three men” was indeed God is further proved by this. Also, inherent in this question is the conviction of Abraham that the person whom he addressed was “The Judge of all the earth.” Also, it was the fundamental conviction of Abraham that he was a just and merciful God. Such basic understanding of the nature of the Heavenly Father is a prerequisite of all truly holy religion; and it was the lack of this that resulted in the man of Jesus’ parable being cast into the outer darkness (Matthew 25:24; Matthew 25:30). One may wonder about Abraham’s motivation for what he undertook here; but we cannot speak with any certainty. It could have been concern for the safety of his kinsman Lot, then living in Sodom; or it could have been his concern for the whole city, which he himself had so wonderously blessed by his rescue of their king and many of his people, and all their wealth, from the recent disaster of their defeat and capture; or it might have been a combination of these and other things that prompted Abraham to plead their cause before the Judge of all the earth.

Verses 26-32

“And Jehovah said, If I in Sodom find fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sake. And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes: peradventure there shall lack five for the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for the lack of five? And he said, I will not destroy it, if I find there are forty and five. And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for the forty’s sake. And he said, O let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak; peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken it upon me to speak unto the Lord: peradventure there shall be twenty there. And he said I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake. And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”

One may only wonder as to why Abraham stopped there. It is possible that he thought, perhaps, that the city would be spared, based upon the assumption which he could have made that surely there are actually ten righteous people in the whole city of Sodom. Lot and members of his family might have been sufficient to make up such a total in the eyes of Abraham. In any case, we do know.

Perhaps this episode is where the expression, “Jew him down” originated, indicating the offering of less and less money on a projected purchase.

“Who am but dust and ashes … have taken it upon me to speak unto the Lord … Oh let not the Lord be angry … etc.” Such expressions show the fear and trepidation with which Abraham pleaded with the Lord. It is as beautiful and impressive an intercession as ever came from the heart and lips of a man.

Verse 33

“And Jehovah went his way, as soon as he had left off communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.”

One deduction that must be made from this passage is that Sodom did not have ten righteous people in it; for God judged them and destroyed the city the very night following this intercession. The next chapter will begin with the experience of the two angels who had proceeded on to Sodom with a view to spending the night there.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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