Abraham’s tent was located by the big trees of Mamre (the “oak of Mamre” [LXX]) at Hebron, situated about 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem and at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level. During the hottest part of the day, people usually did not work nor travel. Yet it was then, while Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent, that YHWH (his representative angel) appeared to him. As Abraham looked up, he saw three men coming toward him and he quickly left his tent to meet them, respectfully bowing down before them. He requested that they not pass him by but consent to have their feet washed and to rest under the nearby tree. Meanwhile he would get a “little bread” for them to “refresh [their] heart” or to provide them with food to renew their strength. In view of their having traveled during the heat of the day, Abraham must have concluded that it was urgent for them to carry out their purpose. Therefore, he did not offer lodging to them but told them that they could be on their way after they had eaten the food he would provide. (8:1-5)
Abraham hastened to the tent of Sarah, requesting that she hurry to make cakes or loaves from “three seahs” (c. 20 dry quarts; c. 22 liters) of flour. Like her husband, Sarah would have been eager to extend hospitality and would have been pleased to carry out his request. Abraham hurried to his herd and selected a choice calf, which he gave to a servant who quickly followed through on the necessary preparations to have the meat ready to be served. After preparations for the meal were completed, Abraham took curds, milk, and the roasted meat and set it before the three men. While they ate, he stood by them under the tree, ready to serve them. (18:6-8) The Jewish historian Josephus appears not to have believed that angels could eat food, for he wrote (Antiquities, I, xi, 2) that “they made a show of eating.”
In response to the question where Sarah was, Abraham replied, “Look, in the tent.” Apparently YHWH’s angel then told him that, upon his return in the following year, Sarah would have a son. From her location at the tent entrance behind the angel, Sarah had listened to his words. According to Targum Jonathan, Ishmael stood behind her. That she would give birth to a son seemed impossible to Sarah. Both she and her husband were old, and she had ceased to have her periods. Therefore, Sarah laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old, will I [enjoy] the pleasure [of having a son], and my lord [being] old [besides]?” Sarah’s referring to Abraham as her “lord” when speaking to herself indicates that it was customary for her to show the highest regard for him. (18:9-12; 1 Peter 3:6)
YHWH’s angel was fully aware that Sarah had laughed to herself and, therefore, asked why she had done so regarding the prospect of bearing a child in her old age. Focusing on developments that were beyond human possibility, the angel continued, “Is anything too hard for YHWH?” He then repeated the promise that Sarah would have a son at the time of his return. Out of fear, Sarah denied having laughed, but the angel again stated that she did so. (18:13-15) The Jerusalem Targum quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not; yet in truth you did laugh.”
The three angels departed, looking down in the direction of the city of Sodom, and Abraham accompanied them. At the time, he did not know the reason the angels were heading for Sodom. The angel of YHWH is represented as asking himself whether the matter should continue to be concealed from Abraham. Continuing to hide from Abraham what was about to happen did not harmonize with YHWH’s purpose regarding him. Abraham was to have many descendants that would become a great nation, and “in him all the nations of the earth” would “bless themselves.” He was entrusted with the responsibility to instruct his sons and his entire household to observe the “way of YHWH” or the course of life that was upright and just. By pursuing that “way,” the descendants of Abraham would experience the blessings inherit in the divine promise that had been made to him. (18:16-19)
At this point, YHWH (his representative angel) revealed that there had been a great outcry against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their very grave sin. In view of this outcry, YHWH determined to “go down” to investigate the basis for it. (18:20, 21)
Whereas two angels then headed for Sodom, YHWH (the third angel or YHWH’s direct representative) remained with Abraham. Believing in YHWH’s justice, Abraham asked, “Will you indeed destroy the righteous and the wicked?” He then questioned whether YHWH would destroy the city if there were fifty righteous inhabitants and expressed his confidence that it would be inconceivable for him, as the “judge of all the earth,” to slay the righteous along with the wicked. Abraham was assured that Sodom would be spared for the sake of fifty righteous persons. Humbly referring to himself as being but “dust and ashes” and therefore too lowly even to say more, Abraham asked whether Sodom would be spared if there were forty-five righteous ones or just forty righteous ones. He pleaded that God not be angry with him for continuing to speak. Abraham asked whether Sodom would be spared if there were thirty righteous ones or just twenty righteous ones. Again he pleaded for God not to be angry with him and asked whether the city would be spared if there were ten righteous ones. In each case, the answer was that Sodom would be spared for the sake of the righteous ones found in the city. Abraham stopped asking after he had limited the number to ten righteous persons. (18:22-32)
After YHWH (his representative angel) finished speaking with Abraham, he departed. Abraham then returned to his own place. (18:33)
According to Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum, there were three angels because a ministering angel could only be sent for one purpose. One of the angels was to inform Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah, the other angel was to recue Lot, and the third angel was to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim.
Josephus wrote (Antiquities, I, xi, 2) that, after Sarah laughed, the three men identified themselves as angels and that one of them had been sent to inform Abraham and Sarah about the child and the other two regarding the overthrow of Sodom.
In his letter to the Galatians (3:18), the apostle Paul applied the words found in Genesis 12:3 and 18:18. For people of the nations to be blessed “in Abraham” would require that they come to be persons whom God views as approved, righteous, or upright. Being holy or pure, the Almighty could never bestow his favor on those who are unclean or defiled in his sight. On the basis of their faith in Abraham’s descendant Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins made possible through his sacrificial death, people of the nations are reckoned as righteous. As Paul wrote (Galatians 3:7), the real children of Abraham are such “out of faith” or on the basis of their faith. Therefore, besides being blessed “in” Abraham through his descendant Jesus Christ, people of the nations could also be said to be blessed “in” Abraham because of belonging to him. He is their spiritual forefather or ancestor. As his spiritual children, they share in his blessing.
In verse 19, the phrase “for I have known him” appears to indicate that YHWH had a relationship with Abraham as his friend. The Septuagint rendering conveys a different thought. It indicates that God knew that Abraham would instruct his sons and his household and that they would do what was right and just.