In Horto Fragranti: Genesis 18

The title of this and future meditations on Scripture, In Horto Fragranti, means “in the fragrant garden” and refers to John of Damascus’s description of the Bible as a fragrant garden in which are the fountains of life.

In Genesis 18, Moses describes a meeting at the oaks of Mamre. Three “angels,” one of them the concealed Lord, pass near where Abraham, a wealthy nomadic chieftain, has pitched his tents. Abraham looks up and sees three travelers caught in the heat of the day, and urges them to partake of his hospitality before continuing on their way. They agree.

Abraham was recently circumcised in covenant with God. Thus Abraham legally and sacramentally committed himself and his descendants to God; he was reborn under a new name which God gave him, as God had given Adam his name. Now Abraham was consecrated as the father of many nations, biologically the father of Israel through Isaac, and spiritually the father of the Church through Christ. God has already made the shepherd-prince great promises.

Now the cosmic sovereign orchestrates a more intimate encounter than has yet taken place between himself and his new vassal. Food is of no material use to spiritual beings, let alone the transcendent Creator; yet the Lord consents to share bread, curds, milk, and the meat of a calf, and also to have his feet washed. (Years later, Christ returns the favor.)

The Lord has only two things to tell Abraham. The first repeats the promise of a son, a natural son by Sarah, out of the barrenness of age. The conception of Ishmael has been forgiven, even blessed, but Ishmael will not father the chosen nation.

This promise was already given to Abraham, a few months earlier at most, when he was circumcised. So why the special visit to tell Abraham what he already knows? Perhaps this reiteration was for Sarah’s sake. Immediately prior, the lead angel asks where Sarah is, and is told she is nearby; Sarah laughs when she overhears the promise, as Abraham laughed in Genesis 17, which perhaps means she was ignorant of the promise before.

Yet there seems to be something more significant about this special visit. The sharing of the meal may have legal or covenantal significance; perhaps the Lord also wished to simply show Abraham honor and confirm the promise. There are also hints of a deeper purpose in the Lord’s statement that Sarah will bear a son: “I will surely return to you,” literally, “according to the living time.”

The meaning of this last phrase is ambiguous; it is often translated as “at this time next year” or “when the season comes around.” This phrasing is one of many curious aspects about this passage, along with shifting pronouns when referencing the angelic visitors. The only other place this phrase appears in the Old Testament is in 2 Kings 4, when Elisha prophesies that the barren Shunammite will bear a son “according to the living time.” The Shunammite’s son is later resurrected by Elisha and is also a symbolic Israel-figure. Taken literally, “the living time” or “the time of life,” as the moment of the Lord’s return, may be a double reference. It acknowledges, most immediately, that it is only by direct divine action that Sarah will conceive. Yet it may also point to the Christ, of whom Isaac is a type, most memorably on Mount Moriah. Sarah did indeed give birth in the next year; but the time was also coming, which this birth would prefigure and precipitate, for the birth of Christ, in whom the Lord is truly and perfectly come to Israel.

A typological understanding of the birth of Isaac is as old as the Apostles. St. Paul states in his letter to the Galatians that Sarah allegorically represents the new covenant, and her child is the child of promise, which is the Church, the true heir, the true Israel, the “Jerusalem above,” opposed to the child of flesh (Ishmael) who remains in bondage. This interpretation (Hagar is additionally accounted for as representing “Mount Sinai in Arabia”) may seem bizarre, until one recognizes the typology in play here.

When Abraham is promised Isaac, he is not merely promised a biological father of the national community Israel; he is promised a messiah, through whom he will be father of many nations in the Church, which is freed from the law of the flesh. Hagar, then, is truly the mother of those who remain in bondage to the law, for she conceived by Abraham, not within the covenant, but within slavery. Isaac, born from a “dead” womb, was nevertheless conceived for the redemption and freedom of the world, for the New Jerusalem. Although it is not my intention to pursue Paul’s theology of Israel here, it is clear that Paul finds this story illustrative of the work of Christ: the coming of a new kingdom by the work of God, a new flowering within barrenness, which is the very freedom of Heaven. Isaac is the personification of this kingdom come, Ishmael the failed attempt to build the kingdom in the flesh.

The second thing the Lord has come to tell Abraham is that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham’s nephew Lot currently lives, is imminent. In this episode, we also have several strong examples of anthropomorphism: the divine guest appears to debate with himself in front of Abraham whether or not to tell Abraham about the coming judgment. Then he declares that he will go to Sodom and see whether the people deserve their reputation for vice and rapaciousness. Of course, God has already made up his mind about telling Abraham, and has already set upon destroying Sodom: the Lord remains behind; it is the two angels who go, to rescue Lot, leaving the Lord to negotiate with his vassal. These negotiations are memorable, as Abraham is given leave, as a friend, to counsel the all-knowing God.

This is, all told, one of the places in the Old Testament where God appears most human. Torah author Moses would have his own encounters with the Lord, in the burning bush and in the “dazzling darkness” of Sinai (to use Gregory of Nyssa’s term), among others. Compared to his own, and to the earlier appearance to Abram in smoke and fire, this particular theophany to Abraham is not especially dramatic. The encounter most resembling Abraham’s is recorded in Exodus 24, when Moses and the priests and elders of Israel eat and drink with a divine being under whose feet is a shining pavement like the sky. When the Lord comes to Abraham at Mamre, however, it is as a weary traveler, an unspectacular guest, who shares a meal and leaves a promise. This eating, drinking, conversing, negotiating divinity is God at his most tangible, God sharing human weakness.

This moment, this simple meal, is of powerful symbolic importance in redemption history. On a cosmic level, the Lord will indeed come and share a meal again, as he promised. The Logos of God descends into time and creation and shares the meal of the covenant, which is not the meat of a calf and the milk of a goat, but his own flesh and blood. God has begun the work of total recreation and healing from sin. There are signs of the beginning of this great work almost immediately. A few chapters over, Abraham heals Gerar by his intercession. Even Sodom will be restored, the prophet Ezekiel promises.

To understand the full significance of this event, we must look forward to Christ. But we must also look back to Genesis 1. In recent years several scholars (notably John Walton of Wheaton) have written about the implicitly liturgical composition of Genesis 1-3. The language used by Moses in the Genesis 1 “creation” narrative carefully parallels that he used later to describe the establishment of the tabernacle. Walton proposed that the Genesis 1 account is best understood as a poetic description of God building himself a temple out of the cosmos.

From chaos and darkness, God called forth light on the first day. On subsequent days he separated sea from sky and land from sea, and dressed the earth in vegetation. Then he populated his temple, first with lights in the heavens to govern the cosmic liturgical cycle, then with creatures of the sea and sky and creatures of the land, and finally with man, the race of the priesthood, whom he placed in the Garden of Eden, the world’s holy of holies. On the seventh day, God rests from his work by inhabiting his temple with the weight of his presence.

Extrapolating from Walton, the true rest and cosmic indwelling that takes place on the Sabbath is completed in the divinizing incarnation of Christ. N. T. Wright has explained the tremendous significance of Christ’s assumption of temple imagery for his own body. The Temple was the central incarnational symbol in Judaism. Many aspiring messiahs spoke of defeating a great enemy and rebuilding the Temple; but Christ’s promise to rebuild the Temple he declared fulfilled in his resurrection. Subsequently, all flesh that partook of Christ—the whole Church—has been declared by Paul both the body and the temple of Christ. We comprise together the temple of the Holy Spirit; we are also the priests, by whom creation is sanctified and offered back to God in the cosmic liturgy.

In Genesis 18, Christ had not yet come, nor Moses, and there was neither yet established a temple of the Jews nor the temple of the Church. Yet Moses describes an instance of symbolic and actual “indwelling,” as the Lord, escorted by angels, finds Abraham by Mamre. Here God inhabits his temple of the cosmos, breaking the bread of reconciliation with his wayward human priests—individually, the father of all priests—and promising a final reconstitution. For the Christian, this passage at every point can be read prophetically. It is about covenant and blessing and cursing, yes, but it is also about the Lord made manifest, the Lord entering creation. We know the three angels were not actually the Holy Trinity in flesh, but many Christians have held this to be an early picture or representation of the Trinity—hence Andrei Rublev’s famous icon. Today, Christian pilgrims can visit an ancient tree near Mamre that has been venerated since before Constantine as the place of the theophany.

Icon of Christ as High Priest at the Eucharist

Creation belongs ultimately to the Triune God, and man only inhabits it at God’s good pleasure. Yet God, the Maker, descends to partake of man’s hospitality. God, the eternal source of life and being, is eternally and unchangeably love. This love cannot but reach out to his creation, always seeking to fill it with himself. Creation was made to be divinized, to participate in the divine life. These are the last days, as the saints intercede for a world dying apart from its true source. Yet this is also the “time of life,” when God indwells his creation through us in Christ. Let us always remember to live as priests of this age of Christ’s reign, dedicated to glorifying him in our souls and bodies.

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